Giedion’s account of the third space conception transformed the way many people viewed modern architecture and had a profound influence on younger architects. It would be difficult to demonstrate any comparable influence of the later books on the approach to the art and architecture of the past. Since there has been a shift away from formalism to a variety of contextual studies, Giedion’s approach seems old-fashioned. There has been an even greater movement away from what can only be called his “moral” approach (“moral” not in the sense of simple right and wrong but in the sense of establishing the meaning of human life in the context of world history). Art as symbol, in this sense, is no longer a concern for historians or critics. Therefore, this highly distinctive approach remains unfulfilled, whatever respect the books have earned.
Giedion is, perhaps, the last of the great “critical historians of art,” to use Michael Podro’s words. Heinrich Wolfflin, whose formalist principles dominated art history for the first third of the twentieth century, was Giedion’s teacher. His stronger affiliations, however, were with Alois Riegl, whose almost unreadable books profoundly revolutionized thinking about the history of art by establishing the importance of all made forms—not simply the great monuments—in studying the historical development of artistic styles. In this, Giedion has been a faithful follower, since, in all of his works, he...
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