Barry Bergdoll reviews Tony Vidler's The Canon of the New

Paradoxically, the modern movement, with its professed desire to liberate itself from the baggage of tradition, had a historical mission at its core.  Anyone who came of age as an architect or art historian reading the pages of Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture, or Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design, or Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s International Style, cannot have escaped the missionary tone of these genealogical accounts of the modern movement.  It is precisely the issue of “what kind of work does or should architectural history perform for architecture, and especially for contemporary architecture” that motivates Cooper Union Architecture School dean Anthony Vidler in Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism.

Vidler turns to a second generation of apostles who built upon and further honed the idea of instrumentalized history with immediate prescription for practice.  Alongside it went the quest to embed the avant-garde in longer historical narratives.  Emil Kaufmann, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham, and Manfredo Tafuri are each the subject of a chapter, as the meta-narrative takes us from the immediate postwar—when the modern movement began a complex self-critique —to the mid-1970s, when Tafuri refined operative historical writing as ideological critique. A lynchpin of the disparate voices scrutinized is the reaction to the sense of a new “historicism,” or the return to referentiality, as well as modernism’s excavation of its own past in the late 1950s and 1960s.  This vibrant debate—in which the central issue of autonomy of form was at stake—has been largely forgotten until this strategic revisiting. Vidler’s problem is itself one of periodization, for he is interested to know if his protagonists constitute merely a second generation of modernist historians or harbingers of postmodernism. As Vidler explains in a challenge only partially fulfilled by his own readings of his predecessors: “I ask the more general question of whether the continued reliance on history by architects in the second half of the twentieth century should be seen as the apparently new phase commonly called ‘postmodernism’—or whether modernism as a whole, and from the outset, harbored its own spatio-entropic critique in what has become known since the 1860s as posthistoire thought, a sense of stasis and ending that matched the neo-finalism of post-Darwinist biology.”

Vidler’s is an erudite and complexly layered work of intellectual history. At the same time, it is a position paper on the place of architectural history in current practice, even if that position has none of the polemical clarity we associate with the modern movement. He is unapologetically autobiographical. Having begun writing in the late 1960s with pathbreaking work on the architecture of the French Enlightenment, Vidler looks back over the decades of his own intellectual formation to take on figures with and against whom he formulated his project as an historian/theorist. If in his early scholarship Vidler took on Emil Kaufmann’s rigorous formalist analysis (notably in his 1933 Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier) of the radical work of Etienne Louis Boullée and especially Claude Nicolas Ledoux to offer a more finely textured reading of those architects works in social, political, and intellectual context (inspired in part by the politically engaged work of Tafuri), now the dialogue between historians takes place at a level of historical method rather than subjects.  He first encountered Kaufmann, at Cambridge with Rowe, at the same time as Eisenman was beginning  there his career in teaching.  Vidler and Eisenman were trained in Rowe’s infectious method of reading historical architecture as though it were current projects pinned up for a crit.  By the 1970s, teaching at Princeton, Vidler was swept up in the first wave of American enthusiasm for the critique of ideology embodied in the theoretical practice of Tafrui.

In Histories of the Immediate Present, Kaufmann—implicitly critiqued in Vidler’s work on Ledoux —is reappraised as the key figure in the instrumental use of Kant’s notion of aesthetic autonomy, a stratagem that was robust in the face of the claims of National Socialism (and here the unadvertised subsection on Hans Sedlmayr is one of the strongest foils for the argument, much as the pages on Rudolph Wittkower are key to the chapter on Rowe), even as Vidler defines a longer historical position in face of the current debate on architectural autonomy. Vidler’s is not a work of historical detachment offered with hindsight, but rather a reappraisal and reengagement, indeed a manifesto for engagement and for history’s relationship to the stakes of the current horizons and perils of practice. Any implications this might have for the current wave of form for form’s sake in digital practices is left, largely, for Eisenman to evoke in his provocative forward.

Even readers who are not versed in the writings of Kaufmann, Rowe, Banham, or Tafuri are offered a whole new context for reading the texts by Vidler’s glosses. He deftly juggles a variety of tasks: providing cogent summaries on some of the seminal books of modern architectural history, situating the main protagonists against a larger horizon of the evolution of art history as a discipline and against the stakes of architectural practice, and sketching in not only their investment in then-current practice but their impact in practice that immediately followed.  Since this key assertion that “interpretive history alone is constructive history” is the vital claim of Vidler’s book, one wishes more extensive exercises in relating histories to then current practice, as well as a more pointed stance on current architectural practice.  Adept in intertextual analysis, Vidler is at his most inventive when he turns to buildings, all too rarely for the central thesis of the book.  The reading of Johnson’s Glass House, with its eclectic range of references and strategies as the embodiment of Kaufmann’s formalism, is necessary but not sufficient.  The conclusion of the Rowe chapter with a gloss on James Stirling as a “modernist mannerist” (rather than a nascent postmodernist) is insightful and promising for a much needed re-evaluation of a figure too often forgotten by the current generation.  This section is all the more enlightening for its unexpectedness, since at this point the more obvious move would have been to trace a genealogical descent from Rowe to Eisenman, and his application of the technique of cross-fertilization of readings of canonical buildings from different time frames.  Banham is read predictably against the Archigram group he championed with much of the blind enthusiasm his doctoral advisor Pevsner, and later Giedion, celebrated Gropius.  And the chapter on Tafuri places the Italian philosopher/historian in relation to his architectural milieu in an entirely discursive way, suggesting that the transfer of a method of reading buildings and ideologies did not supply an obvious platform for design strategies.

I confess to being somewhat disappointed that in conclusion to this brilliant work of historiography, Vidler does not himself turn to any current architectural practices per se. Rather like Tom Stoppard, who in the final scene of Arcadia allows the two time periods he has been juxtaposing throughout the play to intertwine in complex but dialectically unresolved ways on stage, Vidler sketches in conclusion both a developed position in intellectual history and a less clearly stated position on current practice. For architecture, he seems to argue that working on an autonomous architectural language or a radical rewriting of program are the two possible positions. The parallel work of history, then, is to open up, in a way that returns to the underpinnings of earlier modernist history in the philosophy of history, a type of history that can unveil the very nature of modernity itself.  He seems ultimately to suggest that both the future of architecture and architectural history, on the other side not only of post-modernism, but also of Deconstruction, is to embrace a Habermasian idea of modernity as an unfinished project, but a project now that might achieve new mechanisms of self-consciousness in its dedication to ongoing “reevaluation and innovation… experiment and internal investigation.” As an invitation the book is a very welcome one.

Barry Bergdoll is the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art.

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