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Siegfried Giedion gave my generation a place in history

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Joesph Rwkwert on Space, Time and Architecture, a masterful history of the modern urge

When I first heard of it, Siegfried Giedion’s 1941 book Space, Time and Architecture was hard to come by and very expensive, like nylon stockings. And like them, it had to be imported from America in U-boat running ships. Before Giedion, we had to make do with our own cosy version of modernity with the help of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936), which ominously began, ‘A stodgy and complacent optimism…’

Not that I want to denigrate Pevsner - he has fine monuments in his work as founding editor of the Buildings of England and the Pelican History of Art series. But as for his pioneers, they ran from Morris to Gropius in a straight-ish line, which only got a bit knotty as his book expanded, edition after edition. Against that, Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture offered a global, heady and compelling vision of modernity, showing how the great 19th-century engineers and builders almost instinctively created the daring, novel forms whose expressive potential they could not appreciate, and so could not realise. These remained in the collective unconscious of building until artists from the Cubists onward showed us how to give them formal value.

Now, 70 years after the original volume was published, Harvard University Press has reprinted Space, Time and Architecture in the edition that Giedion sent to press shortly before he died in 1968. It’s 450 pages longer than the first one, not because he changed his mind, but because he was always aware of what was happening and took up several causes in its revisions. Giedion loved Alvar Aalto (who doesn’t?) and was enthusiastic about Jtzon, too. He was also unrepentant about his omissions: Erich Mendelsohn, never mentioned in the earlier editions, appears later only as a fellow competitor for Geneva’s ill-fated League of Nations building of 1926. Any number of books - good, bad and indifferent - have been published since Space, Time and Architecture, and cover much the same period. Inevitably, Giedion’s critics have gone on and on about his unscholarly side-taking, so why do I - and Harvard - find myself going back to that old (and some think discredited) oversize tome, now in its fifth edition, but sixteenth printing?

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