I post these curious semantic wanderings only in response to a great discussion that Kazys Varnelis initiated weeks back. This discussion, which was in itself a response to historian Mark Jarzombek's so-called "Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto", remains with very few comments. And this is a shame because Kazys put forth a brilliant question:
What of history? ... [W]hy is it that historians have ceded their need to understand the contemporary world to other disciplines? Where is the historiographic innovation needed to understand the contemporary? When will we begin the work on the theories of history necessary for understanding our world.I offer a slightly different take on the question, and I hope that this gloss will help stimulate more discussion about this particular issue. When Kazys asserts that historians "ceded their need" to analyze to other disciplines, one must remember that he is first and foremost talking about architecture historians. With this in mind, I wonder if one reason for this is that, perhaps, architecture historians have guarded the objects of their own study -- buildings and cities -- too closely. It is, of course, more complex than this. After all, historians like Jarzombek continuously raise the importance of critical historiography. Others have pointed to architecture history as a curious amalgam of three separate, yet interdependent realms: theory, material culture, and "straight up architecture history."
But back to architecture history's "object" and "objective." A holistic approach to Kazys' comments would certainly involve looking at architecture's object status a little differently. Instead of looking at architecture and urbanism as the subject of myriad monographs and biographies, perhaps it is best to operationalize buildings and cities ... to use architecture to make bigger, more important claims about our world, our societies, our histories. These are the types of scholarship that I admire. And though it is true that examples of such scholarship sometimes occurs outside the ambit of architecture history and theory, there are plenty of texts (and upcoming dissertations ) that deploy this instrumentalist approach.
But I also see another more latent problem with the practice of architecture history, one that Kazys does not allude to (at least not to my knowledge). The discipline of architecture history and theory -- as one distinct from art history -- is a relatively new field. The original intent of these programs was to train architects to teach history at architecture schools. In many ways, this is still the objective. Take a look at the various catalogs for top-flight Ph.D programs, and you will encounter the proviso that "candidates should possess a master of architecture degree or its equivalent."
I'll put myself out on the line and say outright that this model is broken. The majority of applicants to Ph.D programs in architecture are not architects. In fact, one soon-to-be finished Ph.D candidate remarked to me that during the time that he worked on admissions, only a small number of the total applicant pool under consideration had an M.Arch or B.Arch degree. Applicant pools feature a interesting swath of interests: from art history, urban planning, anthropology, literary theory, computer science, and even law.
A distinction between "those with architecture backgrounds" and "those without" will forever be made within schools whose charge is to train architecture historians. This only harms the practice of architecture history ... for if our discipline is to acquire meaning in this world, it must exist beyond design studios and juries. And for this to happen, the expertise of those outside the realm of architecture is necessary.
I note that this is a different situation from what Kazys paints, that of architecture "ceding" its interests to other disciplines. To avoid what Raymond Williams famously referred to as a "problem of perspective", I think that we have to articulate this notion of "ceding" a little differently. In other words, architecture history must not "cede" its interests. Rather, it has to "embrace" these other interests and incorporate them into its own methodologies.
Whether one chooses to frame this "embrace" under the banners of "interdisciplinariness" or under the rubric of hot-off-the press historiographic "transnational approaches", it is important to note that, at the very least, these methods and aspirations offer something that architecture history sorely lacks: dialogue. This is what I think Kazys worries about ... and it is something we all should worry about as well.