Saturday, April 19, 2008

What is Your Object?

What is your object? This is a question that historians will ask those who are being trained as historians. If not a tricky question, then it is one that does play on semantic subtleties. So if an architecture historian is asked, "What is your object?", wouldn't it be plausible to equate that question with "What is your objective?" In other words, "What is your project?"

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.


reversealchemy said...

Just a few thoughts, because I keep wondering about this: It's interesting that your year in the PhD program seems to have a much larger issue with the architecture background vs non-architecture background distinction. I wonder why that is. To what extent does an MED count as an architecture background? Isn't it a bit more gray than it is made out to be? I completely agree with you that it is not so helpful to make such broad brush distinctions on such a regular basis. It doesn't seem like something that would be fruitful for us 'architects' to bring up more often, it's just falsely divisive in most instances, as you seem to be suggesting. Sure there are areas like formal analysis or structural analysis that are harder without design training. But for sure, you have skills that you've learned in your past education and employ to great effect in your historical work.

But the value in keeping htc attached to the design studio--in my opinion--is that the attachment can keep htc relevant to today and operative. I know I myself use my encounters with studio and design to re-orient my historical and theoretical thinking. True, if the studios are not relevant to today nor operative this doesn't work. But in my ideal world, that is what would happen.

I do think the major difference between those with architecture design backgrounds and those without is the job market when you leave the PhD program.

enrique said...

Good point(s). While I do agree with the general premise that htc programs stay relevant by aligning themselves to design programs, I wonder how successful this alignment has been? Maybe some type of study is in order, one that looks at recent Ph.D recipients and looks closely at what they do. Do they teach studio? Seminars? I know candidates from my program who have done both as soon as they've entered the post-general, post-dissertation proposal, ABD phase. I, however, can't say if these people are doing any type of substantive research. I assume they are.

But back to your response, I think you have made some compelling observations about keeping htc work both in the studio and in the outside world. Thanks again for your insight.

Kazys Varnelis said...

Hi Enrique,

Thanks for the really thoughtful post.

Some comments...

1) I was and was not talking about architecture history. Your points are all well-taken and everything I said can be applied to architecture, but in general I am seeing a broad-based lack of historical understanding of our culture. Heck, I see a broad-based lack of any understanding of our culture, but being a historian it seems to me that historians have, in particular, abdicated their responsibility in favor of increasingly safe, carefully circumscribed positions.

2) The question of the relationship of the Ph.D. to the architecture degree is a tough one. Do you have to be a creative writer to be a literary theorist? For all that the profession gives you, doesn't being trained in it not also result in a narrowing of perspective? My sense is that the requirement is twofold: first, it is meant to solidify the break from architecture history's troubled lineage in art history; second, it is meant to ensure that students will be able to get jobs and serve the profession. I always wonder why the history of architecture and urbanism—something so crucial to human existence—isn't part of any liberal arts education. If it were, then our problem would be solved. But that, alas, is not to be.

I would advocate anthropologists in architecture history programs. I would advocate anthropologists in history programs so long as they are reflexive in their methods.

I am concerned that historians and architecture historians, have given up on the contemporary. Bravo to the anthropologists for realizing that the contemporary world around them (as opposed to a "primitive", which is akin to a temporal distance, although the situation is more complex) is an appropriate object.

3) What, if any, history out there is compelling today? I am pained by absence here.