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Dwelling and time

Trevor Garnham boldly attempts to rehabilitate the notion of meaning in his study of the role of history in architecture, writes Edwin Heathcote

Architectural history is sometimes in fashion, sometimes out. At the moment, I think, it is out. When I was studying – and taught by Trevor Garnham at Kingston Poly (now University) during the era of high Postmodernism – it was very much in. Architectural students now seem to have little interest in history and the inspiration that was once found in books and subsequently magazines is now found in instant internet images. We now consume images at a rate unthinkable even a couple of decades ago, but they are images entirely devoid of context.

Garnham takes the title of his new book Architecture Re-Assembled, the Use (and Abuse) of History, from Nietzsche, who, in his essay ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’ seemed to advocate the necessity of our forgetting of the burden of history so as to get on with our lives unhindered – but was actually saying something more subtle – that, in Garnham’s words ‘we do need history, but only if it is considered in the right spirit.’

‘History,’ Garnham writes, ‘might be thought of as akin to memory. To be human is to be poised between memory and anticipation.’

Architecture Re-Assembled is a thoughtful cruise through the way in which architects since the Renaissance have used the history of architecture for their own purposes. It is not a book on how historic elements of architecture have been re-used but on the role historiography has played in the manner in which contemporary architecture is justified. The author points to the approximate simultaneity of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725), often referred to as the first history – or, rather, philosophy – of history, and Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurff einer Historischen Architektur (1721), arguing that before this an architectural treatise was effectively little more than a prescriptive text on how to use the elements derived from Vitruvius. After this date, he writes, ‘Time and change became central and man became historical man.’ The Enlightenment subsequently presented a challenge to Vitruvian authority and was followed by a 19th century which became bound up in the past, in the historicism from which Nietzsche attempted to escape through the creation of what Garnham calls ‘a history beyond history’, and what Nietzsche termed ‘eternal recurrence’, something more akin to a cycle than the familiar linear history.

It is a thoughtful cruise through the way in which architects have used the history of architecture for their own purposes

Ultimately, of course, what all this leads to is Modernism, the movement to end all history. Garnham shows how the proselytisers of the Modernist myth (most notably Pevsner and Giedeon) defined the new movement against history and, instead of illustrating a continuity of history as it develops, worked backwards to find (often spurious) ‘pioneers’ who could have been said retrospectively to have prefigured some of the concerns of Modernism. This is history as written by the victors. The story ultimately takes us to the rediscovery of history and the humanities in the 1960s with Rossi and Venturi, as well as the rise of a phenomenological approach. 

Although the ostensible subject is history, the underlying theme (and, the reader infers, Garnham’s real purpose) is meaning. The author is particularly in thrall to a Heideggerian analysis of architecture as the coincidence between dwelling and being, a fundamental expression of our being-in-the-world. He relates this back to Greece. The Greek goddess Mnemosyne, whose name means ‘memory’ was born to the earth goddess Gaia and the god of the sky, Ouranous.  Mnemosyne, Garnham reminds us, was the mother of the muses and was married to Zeus, the ultimate sky god. Thus the original arts were inspired by a memory of earth and sky – the context in which Heidegger believed it should still be seen. Garnham contrasts this solid existence between earth and sky with the ‘fragmentation and flux of the digital world’. He also argues against form-making for form-making’s sake. ‘Nietzsche,’ he writes, ‘was against unbridled originality. “Most original thoughts are foolishness”.’ The great, mad, moustachioed philosopher also wrote of the ‘fairground garishness of the modern world’, a view Garnham implicitly shares. 

Garnham is attempting to rehabilitate an idea of meaning in contemporary architecture

Most of the themes covered here are notably out of fashion. The schools which attempted to attribute meaning through a collective subconscious, to read architecture as an expression of being, have been tainted either indirectly or directly through associations with Nazis, Fascists and assorted right-wing and nationalist headbangers. Nietzsche and Heidegger, alongside Mircea Eliade, Christian Norberg-Schultz and others who have espoused these readings, did themselves and their reputations few favours during or after their lives through unsavoury associations or through being picked up by others who used and abused their ideas.  Garnham is attempting to rehabilitate an idea of meaning in contemporary architecture and his analysis of the work of architects from Boullée through Loos, Le Corbusier, Asplund and up to Rossi and Zumthor is astute and convincing. ‘History,’ he writes, ‘helps to give us insights into the essential nature of humanity.’ This is a humane, readable and philosophically literate book which entirely avoids the usual barely-readable academic jargon and over-familiar quotes which have for so long defined the dense confluence of architecture and philosophy. I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Edwin Heathcote is architecture and design critic of the Financial Times

Architecture Re-Assembled, the Use (and Abuse) of History, by Trevor Garnham, Routledge, 228pp, £29.95

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