Before Theory

“Questions of method are at the center of all research.” –Henri Focillon, 1938

We are launching a collaborative research project on the history of architectural history in America between 1918 and 1964, a period when architectural historians enjoyed extraordinary freedoms of interpretation and methodology. During these formative decades, art historians, archaeologists and cultural historians worked aggressively to construct, from sources extrinsic to the conventions of their field, a method for research that would resolve long-standing theoretical difficulties. Time and again the most adventurous of these scholars turned to architecture, in their efforts to chart a more relevant and progressive intellectual course for themselves as historians.

Recent literature has located the origins of contemporary architectural scholarship in the late 1960s, when the influence of “theory” began to be felt across American academia. To complete the picture, we are interested in detecting how the trademarks of our field—interdisciplinarity, concern with “method,” and engagement with social, economic and political issues—were prepared by architectural historians earlier in the 20th Century. Before theory, we contend, there were many experiments in method.

We are not after new genealogies, or more monographs. We are interested in how architectural history was formed by new actors, evolving in new settings, against new pressures: erudite émigrés fleeing the violence of mid-century Europe; native connoisseurs building museum collections and academic departments; expatriate archaeologists heading post-colonial institutes; architect-historians balancing practice and writing; historians of technology and American culture; operative critics seeking the roots of modernism; and others.

In our first workshop, which will be hosted by the Aggregate collaborative in September 2013, we hope to identify some of the themes that sustained this heterogeneous interest in architecture. These might include: a) the question of style as an organizing principle in aesthetics; b) the problem of technique as a design and/or scholarly apparatus; c) the impact of geography on architectural cultures; d) the rise of modernism as a foil for history-writing; e) the American exception as a tacit explanatory trope. We are also interested in identifying how, long before the “theory moment,” distinct intellectual traditions filtered into architectural history—from psychoanalysis to Gestalt psychology, Bergsonism to structuralism, Marxism to pragmatism, and many others.

This project is in the early stages of brainstorming as we establish a dialogue among ourselves and with interested scholars. We anticipate a phase of intensive archival discovery will follow before written texts can be produced and published.