Space, Time, and Architecture Essay - Critical Essays

Sigfried Giedion


Unlike Sigfried Giedion’s earlier books, Space, Time, and Architecture is directed to a general audience as well as to students of architectural history, and it retains the flavor of the series of popular illustrated lectures from which it arose. It is a highly diverse book both in style and in content, and can be seen as several books in one. On a very human level, it is a professor’s tour of his favorite topics and an overview of his professional experiences, which Giedion is concerned to reveal as having both emotional and intellectual aspects. On the academic level, Space, Time, and Architecture is a survey of what the author calls “the modern movement in architecture” as exemplified by the works of Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), known universally as Le Corbusier. Finally, on the level of personal belief, the book is more than indirectly an invocation of Giedion’s idea of a just society and of the culture that might support such a society.

Space, Time, and Architecture is divided into nine major parts, which are given topical titles though their contents are, to an extent, recognizably a chronology of architectural history since the Renaissance. The book, however, does have some pronounced structural peculiarities. In places, the passage from one section to another seems to reflect the change of pace of the skilled lecturer, but in others the break between one topic and the next is mechanical, occasionally even tangential. Giedion’s margin notes are a convenience, but they are an uncertain guide to the text. Similarly, the illustrations are in a continually changing relationship to the text, sometimes giving essential data to support an analysis and at other times providing imaginative diversions or unexpected analogies.

These observations about the visual and textual presentation of Space, Time, and Architecture might easily be taken to suggest that the book is imperfectly organized, but in fact the book’s structure is an ingenious and almost certainly intentional homologue to its content. Giedion’s central argument in the book is that architecture has evolved, by an inevitable (though not foreseeable) sequence of developments, to a particular constellation of properties which can be referred to as “space-time.” In Part 1 he refers to a book, Space and Time (1908), by the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, in which the author states that “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” This new conception of space and time, which was an aspect of the revision of Newtonian physics carried out by Albert Einstein and others during the same era, in Giedion’s view was allied with the work of the artists known as the cubists. This group, represented by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, sought a new kind of representation in painting and sculpture in which objects were shown simultaneously from many points of view, interpenetrating one another in a complex, fluidly structured continuum. Giedion’s thesis is that the work of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and others is the natural expression of the same concept in architecture, slightly delayed historically by virtue of the inertia of the “academic,” or official, architectural attitudes of the nineteenth century. In this “modernist” spirit, Space, Time, and Architecture—to the extent allowed by the largely rational conventions of scholarly publication—has a many-faceted personality which encourages the reader to share the author’s own “space-time” perception and historical experience, rather than merely to receive a report of his conclusions.

In order to justify the inevitability of the forms of modern architecture as they were developed by Le Corbusier, Gropius, and others, Giedion pursues historical examples of architecture and urban planning beginning with the Renaissance and extending through the Baroque period into the nineteenth century. In his discussion titled “Our Architectural Inheritance,” he reveals his indebtedness to two early figures in the study of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the art historian Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945), with whom Giedion studied in Munich, and the nineteenth century Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818-1897), who in turn had been Wolfflin’s teacher at the University of Basel. The legacy of these scholars was, in Giedion’s words, an approach to cultural history which sought “to grasp the spirit of an epoch” and to develop observations about art and history with the broadest possible significance. Giedion, like Wolfflin, is aware of the need for incisive analyses upon which to base generalizations, but in Space, Time, and Architecture he is rarely as systematic as his predecessors, preferring to let enthusiasm for his subject provide the momentum for his arguments. Throughout the book there is an oscillation between descriptive documentation of architectural monuments and earnest interpretations of their significance; though Giedion is an expert guide to a remarkable variety of structures and is never lacking for...

(The entire section is 2145 words.)