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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poverty of architectural discourse today, among Modernists and Classicists, is due to an almost complete avoidance of historical reference.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.


  1. Excellent points! The more one learns about the history of architecture, the more one can effectively critique their own work. The boldness of classicism is that whenever it is practiced, it can be measured up against all of the classical works of the past.

    Wonderful project as well!

  2. David,
    I am reading this post many months later, so first I'd like to congratulate you on your lecture and I hope it was a success.
    Your observations are very appropriate to the title of this blog, the idea of emulation to the point of surpassing. I often feel that the Classical architecture discourse is more concerned with topics of a mundane nature, like tectonics and order, rather than history, and poetry. The result is correct and polite buildings lacking in invention. As contemporary Classicists we should strive to stand on the shoulders of the giants that preceded us, and we will never do so until we fully understand our millennial past.