When we speak of architecture history—or the history of just about every other cultural field—we usually mean the history of architecture in Europe and the United States, with a few examples thrown in from South and Central America, Asia and, very occasionally, Africa. I think this is true for much of the world outside of the “West,” even if an architecture history course in Mexico might include a good number of local buildings and design work, or a course in Beijing would highlight that country’s heritage. Our history is biased and dominated by educational models, traditions, and textbooks produced, usually in English, in the U.S. and Europe.
That era is coming to an end, however, a fact that was accentuated by the announcement that my alma mater, Yale University, is dropping its introductory course in art history, replacing it with an array of offerings that highlight the arts of different cultures. I learned the basics of what I thought was the full history of art and architecture from Vincent Scully in his introductory courses, and his passionate sweep through those centuries-long narratives was a major reason why I went into the field. The breadth and beauty of the work he presented with such verve and precision convinced me that the careful study of art and architecture were the best ways to understand human endeavors.
Now I realize the limits of what Scully and so many others taught. Five years ago, I started teaching my own survey of architecture history to our graduate students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin. I used A History of Architecture by Spiro Kostof (a pupil of Scully’s who later became a professor of architectural history at Berkeley) and Richard Ingersoll. After Kostof’s death in 1991, Ingersoll broadened the survey, although its focus remains Western and his language has none of the persuasive and evocative qualities Kostof was able to muster. Still, the book is the best survey I have found.
In starting to teach such a survey course for the first time in 30 years, I realized how limited my own knowledge was. My first priority was to learn more about the civilizations that we have so often ignored in architecture history, namely those that arose in China, the Indian subcontinent, and other parts of Asia. I found excellent resources such as Nancy Steinhardt’s survey of Chinese architecture, and made trips to central monuments of China when I was there on business. However, my bias and understanding remain Western. I have made inroads in increasing my knowledge of the architecture history of other parts of the world, beyond reading more surveys and a few specialized studies, but it’s not enough.
Every civilization differs in its notions of space and history, let alone construction and aesthetics, in ways that force us to reconstruct our methods of judgment. The idea of the progression of styles, for instance, is, as we have long known, very much rooted in the arts of Europe. That also means that the focus on the authentic object or monument is not so clear in cultures that commit themselves to continually rebuilding as part of what they value in architecture: In several Indian empires, it was the act of building, not the building itself, that held ritual and commemorative significance.
It may seem like a small challenge to study, say, the emphasis on horizontal instead of vertical extension in Chinese architecture, as well as the development of a module system that extended from the design of a wood bracket to the composition of a complete building. However, when you have to understand, articulate, trace, and show examples of radically different modes of appearance in different architecture cultures, the sheer amount of information threatens to overwhelm you and, more importantly, your students.
On top of this, the shared knowledge of Western culture itself has eroded. When graduate students have never heard of Versailles and maybe not even Louis XIV, knowledge that I took for granted 30 years ago, it means you have to add background information to what you cover in any survey. On the other hand, the change in knowledge culture and technology mean that if you mention Versailles, chances are that before you move to the next slide most of your students will have searched for and found the necessary information.
The obvious answer to these issues is to abandon the notion of both the historical progression and the spatial sweep that a true survey class would necessitate. This is an approach that many architectural historians have taken at Harvard, for instance. It means also piecing together background material and images from a variety of sources, and treating your classes—and, by extension, the history of art and architecture—more like a collage than a hierarchical and focused body of knowledge.
If I were to teach a survey course again (the School of Architecture at Taliesin is closing in May), that is the approach I would take. I welcome the thematic approach’s relationship not only to our current modes of knowledge acquisition and thinking, but also to our realization of the breadth and complexity of our culture. Finally, I also believe it provides a necessary background for a way of understanding contemporary architecture and practice (which has always been the main reason for history’s place in architecture schools’ curricula)—an understanding that can liberate us from the focus on the new and the monumental, the big and the original, and the political, social, and economic status quo. This is a necessary enterprise not only as we contemplate architecture’s past, but also its future.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.