Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2145
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 interesting observations about them, the lack of a consistent method of relating observations to hypotheses makes Space, Time, and Architecture more stimulating than conclusive.
Giedion’s review of the changing space conceptions of painting and architecture parallels Wolfflin’s argument in Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1915; Principles of Art History, 1929?) that the signal contribution of Renaissance art to Western culture was the development of linear perspective, which was later transformed into the flexible and dynamic sense of space characteristic of Baroque art. The quintessential Baroque architectural monument, in Giedion’s view, is the undulating wall of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, in Rome, by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Noting that Burckhardt had “angrily observed that the facade . . . looked like something that had been dried in an oven,” Giedion takes a radically different view of it, praising the “progression and regression of the wall through the hollowing-out of niches and the building up of contradistinguished parts” which results in “a real molding of space, a swelling and receding that causes the light to leap over the front of the church.” Formal innovations such as Borromini’s treatment of this wall and its associated interior spaces belong, in Giedion’s analysis, to a special category of historical processes which he calls “constituent facts.” These are the “genuinely new trends” which produce a “new tradition”; it is the duty of the historian to distinguish these “constituent facts” from “transitory facts,” the “short-lived novelties” out of which period styles in art are fashioned.
Giedion’s overview of the central concerns of art and architecture since the Renaissance begins with the concept of linear perspective and its implication of the primacy of the independent, static, and isolated vision of the individual; it then moves to the paired concepts of the undulating wall and “flexible ground plan,” which embodied the complex dynamism of developed urban society. The next step in this process of cultural evolution, according to the author, is the Industrial Revolution, which introduced a crisis in the collective spirit of European civilization. In the Baroque period, he states, new scientific discoveries had “immediately found their counterparts in the realm of feeling and were translated into artistic terms,” but in the nineteenth century the paths of science and the arts diverged, and “the connection between methods of thinking and methods of feeling was broken.” This isolation of two mutually dependent modes of human experience, Giedion believes, is a phenomenon peculiar to the nineteenth century, and the solution to the problem, in his view, is in large part the obligation of architecture, the branch of the fine arts most closely allied to mathematics and physics, and the one most capable of bridging the gap between machine-age production and the emotional requirement of art.
Nineteenth century architecture was largely a failure both in its design and in its social function, according to Giedion, because it failed to embrace the Industrial Revolution either in technique or in spirit. Innovative building technologies were extensively researched and were imaginatively employed in isolated projects, but they were seldom assimilated into major, officially prestigious building programs until the last decades of the century. Of principal interest to the author are the development of cast-iron columns and steel frames and the subsequent use of “ferroconcrete,” or the steel-reinforced concrete framework. These innovations permitted great flexibility in the scale and design of structures ranging from warehouses to residences and bridges.
Giedion describes how the aesthetic potentialities of modern materials gained increasing professional and popular notice in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889, is the author’s favorite example of an important structure both loved and scorned from its conception. By the turn of the century, a growing body of adventurous buildings in Europe and America had begun to define a distinct modern direction in architecture. In Giedion’s analysis, the aesthetic renewal which cubism contributed to European architecture was at last manifested in the years just after World War I, when the social situation in Germany, in particular, created opportunities for fresh thinking about the role of the artist in society. The example of Gropius, the architect-director of the Bauhaus, a new design school begun in Weimar, Germany, in 1926, is the author’s primary point of reference in ideological and aesthetic matters, and he follows Gropius’ teaching and practice of architecture through the 1930’s and beyond, when he became one of the most influential architects in America.
In the central section, titled “Space-Time in Art, Architecture, and Construction,” which makes up nearly a quarter of the earlier editions of Space, Time, and Architecture, two other architects are prominently featured: the French-Swiss painter-architect Le Corbusier and the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Of the two, it is clear that Le Corbusier is the more compelling figure for Giedion, though his appraisal of Aalto is more warmhearted. Le Corbusier was an entrant in a 1927 competition for the design of the League of Nations building in Geneva, which resulted in a somewhat scandalous victory for reactionary taste when many modern plans were passed over for a conventional design in an academic mode. Giedion himself was an onlooker in this episode, and his activity as an activist in architectural circles dates from it.
There may be substance to the criticism that Space, Time, and Architecture presents a somewhat mechanistic and teleological view of the origins of modern architecture. In discussing Le Corbusier’s work, for example, Giedion says little about the man himself—a problem the author seems to have tried to address in the fifth edition of the book, where he adds some details about Jeanneret’s youth taken from the architect’s own writings. Giedion gives ample evidence, however, of the influence of personal factors in other architects’ production. His treatment of Aalto’s work, for example, characterizes it as arising from an interest in human beings as well as from an attachment to the landscape of his native Finland. Giedion sees Aalto as an intuitive architect who brings “the organic and the irrational” to consciousness from “primitive” sources, but he also praises Aalto’s ability to unite industrial standardization—as in his successful work with wooden furniture—with strong individual expression.
The illustrations in Space, Time, and Architecture are a significant part of the book’s value. In addition to reproductions of plans and diagrams, there are hundreds of photographs, generally of very high informational content. More important, many of the photographs are excellent interpretations of the buildings they picture; collectively they suggest how photographic communication strongly influences both intellectual and emotional responses to architecture. Giedion’s use of photographs of Aalto’s architecture appeals to intuition, as does the work itself. The author pairs a picture of Aalto’s 1939 World’s Fair Pavilion with an aerial photograph of Finnish lakes and forests; in ground plan, the undulating shape of the pavilion’s wall closely resembles the lake shore. Many of the photographs in the book are Giedion’s own, and are of professional caliber.
Having extensively reviewed the architecture pertinent to his “space-time” thesis, Giedion turns to the topic of city planning. Earlier sections of Space, Time, and Architecture provide a series of observations about large-scale planning in connection with major building projects in the Renaissance and Baroque periods; the last three parts of the book are mostly devoted to explaining the increasing social and aesthetic significance of urban design. The most interesting part of Giedion’s discussion of the history of urban planning is undoubtedly his account of the career of Baron Eugene Hausmann, who was responsible for carrying out the transformation of Paris in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. What follows the discussion of Hausmann, however, should be read more cautiously, particularly the passages concerning automobile parkways. The author is aware of the abstract beauty of early examples, such as the 1939 Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, but from the perspective of the early 1940’s he could not have forecast the destructive impact of cars upon American cities and landscapes.
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