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11 November 2010

Absence of the Past

Thirty years ago I visited the Venice Biennale while a student with the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Studies Program. That was the year of the first architecture biennale, with the theme The Presence of the Past. Next week I will be speaking at the Constructed Environment conference in Venice, my talk being “The Absence of the Past: Whither History Thirty Years After The Presence of the Past.” For all of post-Modernism’s obvious faults, it did mark a time when the past, or history, was relevant and even essential to architectural discourse, but not so today. Indeed, even classical and traditional architects are suspicious of history (and historians), which has relegated historical knowledge to a remote corner of contemporary discourse. I will be advocating the value of history—as a critical component of the “inevitable” project, as a source of poetics, as intellectual raw material generally—for both architectural design and the architect’s capacity to offer historical insights (as in my reconstruction of Alvise Cornaro’s Teatro for Venice, shown here). Much of the poverty of architectural discourse today, among Modernists and Classicists, is due to an almost complete avoidance of historical reference. History is a Muse, but she is also a ruthless judge. If we want things to get better, if we want to measure up to the past, we need to know much more about it.
If only historians weren't so bent on rendering their research trendy (enough with all the references to "self-fashioning"!), and had abandoned any sense of the narrative trajectory of their writing, they might make a more appealing case for their relevance. See an earlier post for the value of venerable historical writing.