Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

These two books were published as separate works, not as volumes 1 and 2. They are, nevertheless, two halves of a single study. Sigfried Giedion’s last work (the manuscript was delivered to the publisher the day before he died), Architektur und das Phanomen des Wandels: Die drei Raumkonzeptionen in der Architektur (1969; Architecture and the Phenomenon of Transition: The Three Space Conceptions in Architecture, 1971), completes the argument made in The Beginnings of Architecture. His earlier and most famous work, Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (1941), is also an integral part of the same argument. To understand Giedion’s achievement, it is necessary to consider all four books as a unit.

Giedion had already established a firm reputation in Europe as a critic, historian, and theorist of modern architecture when Space, Time, and Architecture was first published in English, although he wrote it in his native German and had it translated for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1938-1939. It appears commonly on lists of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

Thus, when Giedion suddenly produced two massive volumes devoted to prehistoric art and ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian architecture, the astonishment of many scholars was great. The books demonstrated a full command of the subjects and a deep personal familiarity with all the monuments and objects discussed. Still, scholars asked themselves, what did this ancient art have to do with modern architecture?

Many readers did not take seriously (or notice) Giedion’s stated purpose of writing The Eternal Present. To understand that purpose, it is necessary to establish the nature of the books. Clearly, the only categories under which a librarian could possibly file these volumes are “art history” and “architectural history.” The greater part of the books is given over to a direct or indirect account of works of art. The works are beautifully illustrated with photographs and color reproductions, and there is a vast store of information about them.

Yet in no traditional or conventional sense do these volumes constitute art history. They are better described as a history of the human spirit, of artistic...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Canady, John. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXIX (December 2, 1963), p. 76.

Kostof, Spiro. “Architecture, You and Him: The Mark of Sigfried Giedion,” in Daedalus. CV (Winter, 1976), pp. 189-204.

Kubler, George. Review in The Yale Review. LII (March, 1963), p. 445.

Podro, Michael. The Critical Historians of Art, 1982.

Prufer, Olaf H. “Symbols by Default,” in Art News. LXII (October, 1963), pp. 44, 51-52.