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What’s in a name?


At the beginning of each semester in the architectural history sequence I teach, students are reminded of the difference in meaning between “architectural history” and “the history of architecture”. One of them is the sequence of styles, along with names, dates, and locations; more or less objective stuff with little difference of opinion. The other is history, generally, seen through the lens of architecture. Option #2 is my preferred point of view — though you’ll have to inquire from students whether I’m achieving that worthy goal.

Over many years I’ve drawn a conclusion that I’m ill-equipped for my assigned job. My degrees were intended to bring me into the architectural profession; mine was a standard professional education for the 1960s and resulted in a BArch, a rare breed these days. Yet my principle task is exposing students to the history of the profession they hope to join, and the role that buildings have played as material culture in the course of history. It probably goes without saying that I have no academic preparation for that teaching assignment. I am, as they say, neither fish nor fowl and would not be considered in a faculty search today. And so it was with mixed feelings that I ordered a copy of the 2019 book The Architecture of Art History, the consequence of a 2015 conference session. Any discussion of the relationship between architectural and art history was bound to disconcert me.

Co-authors Mark Crinson and Richard J. Williams have done an admirable job discussing the evolution of this relationship — though I’m barely forty pages into it. Yet one of their examples confuses me. Allow me to quote from the first page of Chapter 2, “The Architectural Unconscious”. Referencing a 1985 book by Michael Braxandall, Patterns of Intention,

“…[T]here occurs a juxtaposition [of two images] which may be just a fortuitous result of the alchemy of book design. Knowing the author’s delight in such effects, however, it is almost certainly intentional. In one image, a photograph, we see the Forth Bridge from the height of one of its piers; its tubular steel columns and latticework seem both to recede sharply and be flattened by the symmetry of the image, only the cotton wool smoke of a train alerts us to the vertiginous plunge below. On the facing page, the painted women of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon stare fixedly back at us, not symmetrical quite, but spread across the image and mingled a coruscating surface of drapes and jagged planes.

The Forth Bridge is an engineering wonder of the late 19th century, a bridge spanning the Firth of Forth, a body of water in Scotland not far from Edinburgh. The Picasso you can probably imagine. At any rate the upthrust arms and elbows of the women are organized in variously sized triangles and rhomboids. [I’ll add the illustration as soon as soon as I can get to a scanner.] “Do the women bridge the distance? Does the bridge stare back at us?”

Yes, the counterpoint of these two images (both in black-and-white, by the way) is interesting and might be an argument for the link between these two historical fields: they are at once “both comparison and face-off, an assertion of similarity and a negation of it.” They reference a similar comparison/contrast in a book by Siegfried Giedion of another Picasso painting and a photograph of the corner of the Bauhaus building of 1925. The meaning of these two examples will, I’m sure, make sense in the fullness of time. But one thing concerns me.

The photograph (Figure 2.1) was taken by one of the authors. On the right is Picasso, reduced to black and white, perhaps to emphasize geometry over color; on the left, the Forth Bridge in Scotland. And their discussion contrasts daubs of paint on canvas with an assemblage of “of purposeful metal”, a comparison I find interesting and, perhaps, useful in my teaching. But there are two issues: First (leaving aside the rendering of the painting in B&W, their caption includes the name Picasso and the title and date of the work. The caption within the illustration—which appears in the Baxandall book—also credits the Museum of Modern Art, where the painting can be found. Presented to us is the flat black-and-white image of a flat colorful painting by a world-renowned artist. The authors’ caption also names the bridge, its engineer Benjamin Baker, and date of execution. The caption within the illustration, however, states “Forth Bridge, view S from top of N pier.”

What troubles me is simply this: The painting is a planar work of art defined spatially by its frame. And it is being compared to a planar photograph [uncredited here but perhaps elsewhere in the book] of a fragment of the Forth Bridge. We are shown a flat image of a flat painting in its entirety; whereas, it is paired with a flat image of a flat photograph strategically composed for optimum comparison with the painting. It is not the Baker bridge that is compared to Picasso’s vision, it is a two-dimensional shard of a three dimensional object that must be encountered through space, time, and circumstance. One is the full monty, while the other is a glimpse, a vignette. And that glimpse ought be considered as such and credited here with the photographer’s name whose vision has been useful in this context. We are not dealing with a comparison between art and architecture (or engineering). Rather, we are comparing one form of art (a painting) with another form of art (a photograph). I fail to understand their argument.

I shall discuss this with my shrink next Tuesday.


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