Sigfried Giedion Biography


At his death in 1968, Sigfried Giedion (GEE-dee-awn) had earned an international reputation as the principal historian of twentieth century architecture and its Baroque antecedents. He was also widely recognized as a leading advocate of architecture’s modern movement: combinations of emotion, art, and novel technology embodied in the plans and constructions of Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tony Garnier, Robert Maillart, Alvar Aalto, Charles Èdouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Mïes van der Rohe, Jørn Utzon, José Serts, Kenzo Tange, and Fumihiko Maki. Moreover, Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture, a highly literate, philosophically informed, and beautifully illustrated survey of major architectural developments from their seventeenth century Baroque heritage to the mid-twentieth century, provided a generation of architects with a singularly clear explanation of those elements that distinguished modern architecture.

Born into an upper-middle-class Swiss family in 1888, Giedion initially studied in Vienna to become an engineer. Distressed by the unimaginative traditionalism of his profession, however, he undertook studies with the distinguished Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. Wölfflin, who taught at major Swiss and German universities from 1893 until 1934, gained renown for his aesthetic system, which was summarized in his acclaimed Kunstgeschichtliche grundbegriffe (1915; Principles of Art History, 1932). Wölfflin’s distinction lay in his integration of the late nineteenth century’s new psychological insights with cultural history in order to understand better the nature of the creative process. It was this complex process evident in the relations between art, architecture, and culture that engaged Wölfflin’s friend Giedion for the remainder of his life.

As a historian, Giedion considered dominant developments in architecture to be accurate revelations of the character of an age and indicators of change and continuity. Realizing that the seventeenth century’s cosmological approach to knowledge was no longer valid in the increasingly specialized and scientific twentieth century, he therefore sought connections between the sciences and the arts in the “unintended parallelism” in their methods. In turn, such parallelisms, he believed, illuminated broad cultural patterns and—when scientific and artistic methods of thinking and feeling closely coincided—determined the cultural unity or equilibrium of an epoch. Aware of early twentieth century advances in the sciences, Giedion also understood the new perceptions of time and space embodied in the painting and sculpture of cubists, futurists, and other abstract artists. Giedion therefore was well equipped to explore the unconscious connections linking modern...

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Columbia University School of Architecture. Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture: Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mïes van der Rohe, Wright. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970. Concentrates on a more personalized evaluation of twentieth century architects.

Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History, 3d ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992. An architectural specialist, Frampton provides fresh insights on, among other things, the International Style’s deficiencies in the realm of public buildings and monuments.

Georgiadis, Sokratis. Siegfried Giedion: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993. Provides criticism, history, and interpretation of Giedion’s life and works.

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. A renowned authority on early Victorian, German renaissance, International Style, and Latin American architecture, Hitchcock contributes both substance and interpretation not available elsewhere in this eminently readable work.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Setting and Rituals. 1985. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Brilliant and superbly illustrated; a critical approach to the meaning of modern architecture, particularly the “International Style” that Giedion advocated.