Sigfried Giedion Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 Realizing that the seventeenth century’s cosmological approach to knowledge was no longer valid in the increasingly specialized and scientific twentieth century, he therefore sought connections between the sciences and the arts in the “unintended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 science and modern art.

In accord with his precept as a historian that “the observer must be in the center of the picture,” Giedion in his thirties enjoyed personal and professional relationships with two of the twentieth century’s most influential architects: the German Walter Gropius and the Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier. Gropius was a founder-director of the Bauhaus, an experimental school of art and architecture (1919-1933) that strove to unite art with industrialized society. A revolutionary influence on twentieth century art and architecture, the Bauhaus included among its students and associates such eminent painters as László Moly-Nagy, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky and, in addition to Gropius, such later distinguished architects as Marcel Breuer and Mïes van der Rohe. Giedion was likewise a friend of Le Corbusier, arguably the most influential of twentieth century architects as well as an artist. It was Giedion’s belief in the seminal importance of Le Corbusier’s and Gropius’s ideas that encouraged him to take a leading role in the founding of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in 1928. CIAM assembled the talents of avant-garde architects from...

(The entire section is 1,316 words.)