Giedion and America: Repositioning the History of Modern Architecture
gta Verlag, October 2018
Hardcover | 7 x 9-3/4 inches | 400 pages | 200 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-3856763770 | $85.00
Paradoxically, Swiss art historian and architecture critic Sigfried Giedion (1888–1968) would only consolidate his reputation as one of the most influential architectural historians of the twentieth century far from his homeland, in America. In his study of Giedion’s life and work Reto Geiser foregrounds the formative character of Giedion’s extended stays in the United States and their role as an inspiring laboratory to propel his scholarship. By challenging the presentation of a continuous line of developments, and revealing the ruptures and contradictions within Giedion’s work, Geiser questions a heroic account of modern architecture, turning instead to the less ideological and frequently overlooked facets of Giedion’s oeuvre. The book argues that, although Giedion’s position in
two cultural spheres created discontinuities in his work, it also facilitated a mutual exchange between the architectural impresario and his North American peers and thereby helped to shape the development and reception of the modern project on either side of the Atlantic.
Sigfried Giedion is best known to architects for Space, Time and Architecture, which was first published in 1941 and revised as late as 1967, one year before the Swiss historian died. The book, still in print, sees Giedion tracing historical developments in architecture, technology, science and planning toward a new “space-time” conception of then-contemporary architecture. It was a book I read in college in the mid-1990s for a modern architectural history class, but by then the book was, not surprisingly, a dated, historical artifact rather than a text of ongoing relevance. Regardless, I really enjoyed reading it and still have a copy of the fourth edition, from 1962. The first page inside the book, even before the title page, simply says, “The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1938-1939.” As part of the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry, the Swiss art historian gave six lectures on architecture at Harvard University. A couple curious things arise from this simple fact: Giedion crafted the book in the United States and he did it outside of a school of architecture. Reto Geiser, an associate professor at Rice University, hones in on Giedion’s years in America to examine how his work was influenced by the place but also had an impact on educators there and back home.
As a fan of Giedion’s class and of architectural history in general, I find Geiser’s book fascinating — and beautiful: it is carefully designed, illustrated, and bound, and is printed on a really nice lightweight paper. It is an extremely deep dive into a person and time (1930s to 1960s) courtesy of what must have been years spent by the author in the archives of Harvard GSD, ETH Zurich, and other institutions with materials related to Giedion. Geiser’s accounts of the Swiss historian’s trips to and from America (he did not stay permanently in the US, unlike Walter Gropius and others at the time) vividly capture the relationships and events that led to Space, Time and Architecture, as well as the later Mechanization Takes Command and The Eternal Present. He presents the bad with the good: the friction and the uneasy academic relationships alongside the trips and other experiences that were integral parts of Giedion’s output. Geiser acknowledges the importance roles of the women in Giedion’s life, particularly Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, who worked with Giedion for twenty years, and his wife, Carola Giedion-Welcker, a capable art historian in her own right. Ultimately Geiser finds the secret to Giedion in “in between” conditions that structure the book — In Between Languages, In Between Approaches, In Between Academies, In Between Disciplines — situations that were born from his trans-Atlantic trips before and after World War II.
Reto Geiser is a designer and scholar of modern architecture with a focus on the intersections between architecture, pedagogy, and media. He is the Gus Wortham Assistant Professor at the Rice University School of Architecture where he teaches history, theory, and design.