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History + Theory + Criticism + Implementation



There is a difference between a course titled “The History of Architecture” and another called “Architectural History.” The first is fundamentally a sequence of styles and their characteristics, the details that help us differentiate one style from another. The other is holistic — including social-economic, political, technological and æsthetic perspectives — and uses architecture as a window into the past. This is the course I’d prefer to take and the one I try to teach.

Examining the history of any field or discipline involves four points of view on a spectrum from objective to subjective.  And each of those vantage points consists of a series of questions. History, for example, is at the extreme objective end of that spectrum and entails the questions What? Where? When? and Who? Consider the Sagrada Familia as an example:

  • Its full official title is Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família—the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family—usually shortened to Sagrada Familia.
  • It is located in the Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona, capital of the Spanish Autonomous Region of Catalunya.
  • It was begun in 1882 and remains incomplete today, with a goal of completion by 2026.
  • The original architect was Francisco Paula de Villar who resigned in 1883 and was replaced by Antoni Gaudí, who remained its architect until his death in 1926.

Most of these statements are factual and unlikely to find disagreement. They are objectively true.

Theory is centered on the question Why? Why, as a late 19th century foundation, does its plan so closely resemble the ground plans of so many French Gothic cathedrals of the years 1150-1350? Why, then, do its columns lean so precariously from the perpendicular, unlike its French Gothic precedents? Why do its decorative elements range so widely in style, from Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau and even Cubism? To answer those questions, given that Gaudí is long dead, we might consult several sources that yield conflicting ideas and interpretations. There are certainly “answers” I prefer, but I’m also open to new perspectives and willing to change my mind. Suffice to say, Theory is measurably less objective than History.

Criticism takes us one more step toward the subjective and asks a single question: How well did Gaudí satisfy his client’s needs? How successful is the Sagrada Familia as an expression of Roman Catholic theology? Then (1885) or now (2016)? The critical evaluation of Gaudí’s design will differ with each of our individual perspectives. To what extent can the Sagrada Familia be used to understand its time and place?

Implementation brings us to complete subjectivity: Based on your evaluation of the Sagrada Familia and all its fame and flaws, How would you have done it? What would you as a designer do to improve upon Gaudí’s evolving solution to the problem presented to him? How would you “complete” a building left unfinished at his death in 1926, for which Gaudí’s intentions may be insufficiently documented? What compromises, if any, would you accept to complete the building by the 2026 centennial of the architect’s death?

A course that raises at least some of these questions and offers strategies for answering them is my goal. One of these years, I might actually succeed.

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