Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951

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.

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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 ideas. Giedion has a few simple principles. He lays them out clearly at the beginning of Space, Time, and Architecture and continues to discuss them up to the end of his last book. (Strictly speaking, he covers only that portion of history beginning in the caves of France and the ancient Near East and extending to twentieth century Europe and America; he excludes the great Asiatic and pre-Columbian American cultures, but his principles could be applied equally well to those and to the African cultures, no doubt with his enthusiastic approval.)

Giedion assumes that human nature and the human situation are everywhere the same. There are always the fundamental problems of reconciling the inner world and the outer world and coping with change. The symbol is the profound and essential instrument for expressing these eternal problems under the specific conditions of a people’s geographical and chronological situation. Of all the symbols which civilizations employ, the most important concern the conception of space.

According to Giedion, there are three great periods of “space conceptions,” preceded by a formative period and interspersed with transitional periods. The Beginnings of Art considers the space conception of prehistory as seen in the paintings and sculptures of prehistoric people, largely in the cave art of Western Europe but touching on many other cultures as well. The Beginnings of Architecture describes the first great space conception as seen in the buildings of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Greece is part of the first great space conception but is not treated until the first chapter of Architecture and the Phenomena of Transition, which discusses a transitional period evidenced in Malta and then proceeds to the second space conception in Rome (his primary concern in this book, although the second space conception continues through medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture as he summarizes them in the last chapter). Space, Time, and Architecture considers the transitional period of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries and then the third space conception in the art and architecture of the great modern masters.

Giedion’s manner of organizing his books is perfectly clear to those who grasp his basic principles but confusing to anyone else. He carefully outlines each book in the table of contents and adheres to the outline, using bold-faced captions throughout the book. He summarizes often.

The two volumes of The Eternal Present consist of simple declarative sentences—flat, unqualified statements. Paragraphs are often self-contained units. The books read as though they were written on separate pieces of paper which were subsequently arranged in the proper order with their necessary headings and subheadings; in fact, according to his assistant, that is exactly the way Giedion composed the books. While his audience for the lectures from which the books originated was university-based, there is little in The Eternal Present that is too technical for the intelligent reader.

Yet the format of these volumes does not result in a normal, linear argument. Paragraphs are grouped into sections dealing with a single topic. An adjacent paragraph may focus on an apparently unrelated topic, sometimes with historical material at a considerable distance in space and time, sometimes with theoretical problems posed. Summary paragraphs, stating his conclusions or reiterating some basic principle, are composed of the same brief declarative sentences. (Since no distinction is made between these fundamentally important statements and the surrounding descriptive material, readers might benefit from a short guide to the books that would designate the crucial passages.) The two books should be seen as parts of a mosaic; each paragraph fits into a unit, each unit into a larger whole.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

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.

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