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Pevsner, Hitchcock and Giedion

Gervork Hartoonian’s study of the inner life of architecture’s greatest historians relies on theory rather than facts - which is a problem, writes Stephen Games

Gevork Hartoonian’s idea of writing about the mental life of the architectural historian seems like a good one. Based on a seminar he taught at the University of Sydney in 2002, he focuses on three writers whose work is seen as constituting the literary canon of early modern architecture - Pevsner, Hitchcock and Giedion - and tries to show that, despite each historian writing before academic self-consciousness took off, their thinking reveals embryonic signs of the main themes in structuralist theory, on which he elaborates separately.

For anyone who has grown up with these writers, the idea that any of them shows the least trace of structuralist thinking is not immediately obvious. All three began as art historians, which means that their interests were forged in the crucible of style, period, and zeitgeist, as he points out.

To make his case, Hartoonian has to peel away what they thought they were saying and reveal what they didn’t know they meant. He attempts to show that the giants of Modernism had involuntarily been speaking Postmodernism all their life.

Hartoonian presents Pevsner as seeing modern architecture as the extension of pure German rationalism, Hitchcock as originating a new tradition that posits American Modernism as resolving the problems of European Romanticism, and Giedion as seeking a new critical approach that treats modernity as a force in its own right.

To illustrate these thoughts, he draws attention to the special interest that Pevsner took in Gropius, Hitchcock in H.H. Richardson, and Giedion in Le Corbusier. Beyond that, he wishes the reader to be aware of these historians’ relationship with such theoretical tropes as periodisation, closure, historicism, disintegration and autonomy.

This is all very well in theory, but Hartooninan makes so many other points, and delivers them in such an anti-hierarchical, anti-linear way, that it’s never possible to say which of his insights counts for more and which for less. In charting the evolution of his historians’ mental life, he doesn’t clearly distinguish between observations of the moment and summations of entire careers. Then again, the big abstractions that he deals with defy explanation for anyone who isn’t already familiar with then. In the case of autonomy, his best advice is to refer the reader to three other texts, in particular to Histories of the Immediate Present, where Anthony Vidler offers one line of explanation and expects everything else to be inferred from the examples that follow.

All this is disappointing. For one thing, Pevsner, Hitchcock and Giedion are not novice skiers on the nursery slopes of someone else’s mountain (the someone elses being Marx, Walter Benjamin, Foucault, and Kenneth Frampton). They have perfectly good mountains of their own. In addition, the theoretising of their writings, however brilliant, is an artifice that says more about Hartoonian than anything else. As he stresses: ‘I am not a conventional historian trying to trace facts.’ Which is precisely the problem.

There’s also a double standard. Since Hartoonian is committed to contemporary theory, he needs to deconstruct his Post-Structuralist heroes in the same way that he deconstructs his three canonic ones, but he doesn’t. He examines them in a materialist way, to the extent that the book starts to resemble a DIY handbook. This is implicit throughout the writing, where he expands on Walter Benjamin’s vision of history, say, or Foucault’s discourse on genealogy, but it becomes explicit towards the end, when he spells out what today’s historians should be doing.

Why should he not? Because it’s one of his themes, conveyed in a quotation from Giedion, who got it from Wölfflin (Giedion’s PhD supervisor at Munich), who got it from Kant, that to be a historian means looking at objects that, above all else, reflect the mind of the looker. If that’s true, and if relativism, psychology and other intellectual advances of our late-capitalist world mean that certainty and objectivity are dead, he should be showing that it’s impossible to say anything - or rather, impossible to say nothing - rather than that Frampton and Company say things better.

In other words, in a book about the need for self-consciousness, Hartoonian is unselfconscious about his own triumphalism. That’s the main worry here. Smaller worries include the awful proof-reading, the unnatural language, the odd mannerisms (especially his disorientating habit of pairing points that don’t relate to each other), and an uncertainty about when to use the word ‘the’, which appears when it’s not needed and disappears when it is, not least in five references to Pevsner’s first book, the title of which is not Pioneers of Modern Movement.

Stephen Games is author of Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art

The Mental Life of the Architectural Historian, by Gevork Hartoonian, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, 214 pages, £39.99

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