Tuesday, March 18, 2008

History #10, Architecture #25

But my quarrel does not lie with this isolated article by Collins. Coming directly after my return from the [Society of Architectural Historians] Baltimore Convention, it intensified a sense of dismay and protest that had accumulated during the sessions of the historians. They have succeeded in perverting the meaning of "scholarship" to a point where it indicates the exact opposite of its original function. This function was to rise by intense studies and creative contemplation to an all-inclusive knowledge of a particular field of human endeavor. What we got in Baltimore, with the exception of papers read by Horn and Millon, were minute details—proven or conjectural—bearing no relationship whatsoever to the building as a body-space-structure-context totality. It might be perfectly all right for the art iconographers to hold an International Conference to decide in how many cases the Virgin carries the Christ Child on her left biceps, and in how many cases on the right; or why one putti in an inhabited frieze swings its little foot upward while the other does it downward. Architecture is a matrix of life and not a piece of carrion to be dissected into narrower and narrower strips of dead tissue. A recent reviewer in the London Times Book Section spoke contemptuously of American scholarship as "the battle of the typewriters" which I would modify into an endurance test of "Sitzfleisch" (posterior muscle strength).

It is the tragedy of architectural historians that they try to compensate for a rampant inferiority complex vis-a-vis the older "science" of fine arts theory by aping its method, ignorant of the fact that architectural history developed and must bejudged by totally different methods and standards.

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, letter to Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, in response to Peter Collins' December 1962 article, "The Origins of Graph Paper as an Influence on Architectural Design" (February 3, 1962)

[postscript: "Footnotes on request"]