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Society of Architectural Historians, Plenary Session

Buffalo, NY
April 11th, 2013

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here, in this great building in this great city, with its extraordinary stock of remarkable architecture and strong neighborhoods. As many of you know, Buffalo has been doing extraordinary things with its architectural inventory.  The Darwin Martin House has been given what is in many ways the most sophisticated restoration of any Wright house anywhere, and certainly the most ambitious, given that it has involved the restoration not only of the main house, but of the parcel of land on which it sat, which over the years had been severely compromised. And the new visitors’ pavilion by Toshiko Mori is particularly welcome as an antidote to all of the faux-Wright that we see so often. This is a restoration devoted not only to the particulars of Wright’s design, but to the creativity of his spirit, which is supported, paradoxically, by doing something that is not literally like Wright’s architecture at all, but is immensely sympathetic to it.

I suppose that where Wright is concerned Buffalo could do no less, given that it will forever be in the process of repenting from one of the great architectural sins of all time, which is allowing the Larkin Building to be demolished in 1950, an act that has to be considered the worst loss of a Wright building other than the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It is to Buffalo as the loss of Pennsylvania Station is to New York. But whether motivated by a desire for repentance or just by commitment and zeal, Buffalo has been devoted to its heritage in the last decade as never before. There are few more appropriate places for the SAH to meet.

I’ve started off with a mention of Buffalo’s legacy not to delay getting to my subject, which is the role architectural historians can and should play today in the public realm, but for exactly the opposite reason, because Buffalo’s legacy is the point. By that I mean that Buffalo’s generous and growing commitment to its great works of architecture is as good a demonstration as we could ask for of the correctness, the wisdom, and I might also say the urgency, of architectural historians playing a public role. The great H.H. Richardson complex here in Buffalo, whose preservation was in doubt until not that long ago, was not saved because real estate developers were at the forefront of those who recognized its value. It was not saved because politicians initially thought that saving it was the way to get votes. It was not saved because bankers saw gold in Richardson’s great, brooding facades and Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape. Ultimately all these things had to happen, of course—the developers and the politicians and the bankers had to get on board—but architectural historians understood the value of these buildings before anyone else did, and ultimately, it was the ability to convince those who controlled the levers of finance and political power to see these buildings as those of us in this room see them—as magnificent structures that needed to be saved not just as artifacts, but as living presences in the Buffalo of the twenty-first century—that made the current plans for that extraordinary complex possible.

And so, too, with the Darwin Martin House, where the decision to commission a young architect to do the visitors’ pavilion and to steer away from the imitation Wright that so many places would be likely to do was an event that indicated an enormously sophisticated understanding of architectural history: a recognition, we might say, of the subtle but powerful connection between architectural history and the living city of today. It underscores the sense of Buffalo as a place where the expertise of architectural historians has real currency, and the potential to influence the future of the community for the better. The broader recognition by Buffalo that its architectural heritage is a key asset of the city is a way in which architectural history is demonstrating its civic value, we might say.

Now, I don’t say that to suggest that it is in historic preservation alone that the purpose of a public role for the architectural historian lies, or even that preservation is necessarily the chief purpose, though as we see today in many places far beyond Buffalo, it is unquestionably an urgent one. But let me take a step back here and talk about this question of public engagement in somewhat broader terms.

My colleague at the New School, the architect David Lewis, has spoken of the university as having three distinct, but deeply connected and interdependent, roles: first, to create knowledge, which we generally call research; second, to disseminate knowledge, which we call teaching; and third, to engage knowledge, which I would call advocacy, though David Lewis used a much stronger term for engaging knowledge, which was to agitate.

I like this formulation very much, maybe partly because it has a certain parallel to the Vitruvian tripartite definition of architecture. As with “commodity, firmness and delight,” the important thing here isn’t identifying these things themselves, since they are common knowledge—it is linking the three of them together, and saying that all three are necessary. In other words, as it is necessary for a building to be useful and to be well constructed and to have aesthetic value, it is necessary for the academy to view itself as a place that creates knowledge and disseminates it and turns it to some broader civic purpose.

When the Society of Architectural Historians was founded, I think it’s fair to say that the first two premises—that the academy exists to create knowledge and to disseminate it—was pretty much all that was envisioned. To the extent that the academic stool was thought to have three legs, so to speak, the last one, the leg of advocacy, was clearly less important than the first two, and to some it was even suspect—not a partner of the others, or even an enhancement of them, but potentially a compromise of the other two, and to some scholars it was even a downright liability. It was not the role of the academy to step into the civic realm, in other words, but to keep itself at a remove. The presumption was that the knowledge we develop through our research has no clear and direct civic usefulness—nor should it, other than the obvious virtue of a better educated citizenry, of course, which even the most traditional historian would concede has meaning and value to society. But the idea that an architectural historian’s knowledge might translate directly into action in the civic realm—that was certainly not the general view of the academy in 1940, the year SAH was founded.

Organizations like the Society of Architectural Historians generally have two purposes: what we might call the inward one, which is to share knowledge among the members, reinforcing professional ties and learning from one another; and then the outward one, which is to spread knowledge beyond the profession, and do things, usually through the collective strength of the organization as a whole, that will enable action that is presumably in the public benefit. I think it’s fair to say that the SAH has excelled in the former, in the inward-looking portion of its mission, and for a long time did not so much fail in the outward portion as pretty much avoid it entirely. Now, of course, things are very different; we are long past the time when civic engagement is considered suspect, and the official policy of the SAH is to now to encourage public outreach, and also to welcome people with a serious interest in architectural history whether or not they are professionally trained architectural historians. The various public outreach initiatives that have begun over the last generation are all to the good; I take that as a given. What I want to do tonight is to underscore their importance, and urge that the SAH see all of these recent initiatives as merely a beginning.

Now I should say here, since I’ve used the term collective strength, that I’m not talking solely about collective action. I’ll come back to this in a minute or two, because I do think there is incredible value in what SAH does as an organization in terms of public outreach—there is prestige in its name, as well as strength in numbers, and so there is much to be gained from putting the name of the Society before the public by all of the public outreach initiatives, as well as by having the SAH speak out on important architectural, planning and preservation issues, which it has also begun to do, but could do in a more active way. But first I want to talk for a moment about something other than the Society of Architectural Historians as a collective body, and think about ways that all of us as individuals can give the profession of architectural history a greater role in the civic discourse.

I had the privilege of studying with, and working with, two architectural historians whose entire careers, we might say, were a demonstration of the potential of the architectural historian as an individual to play a significant role in the public realm: Vincent Scully and Ada Louise Huxtable. Scully, of course, was within the academy; Huxtable outside of it. I had the honor of writing an obituary tribute to her for the next issue of the Journal, and at one point in the piece I observed that she, probably more than anyone else in our time, demonstrated the potential of a trained architectural historian to do serious and meaningful work outside of the academy—first at the Museum of Modern Art, later as a writer and then, of course, as the critic of The New York Times, where her influence was legendary, and I think it’s fair to say that her impact on the architectural discourse was enormous. The combination of her knowledge and judgment and the reach of The New York Times turned out to have a profound effect.

But Scully is in some ways a more intriguing example, because he was so much closer to a traditional academic, and the center of his professional life was always his teaching and his research. But some of my most vivid memories of him are of times when he demonstrated his commitment to the principles of architecture and planning that he was teaching us about by showing how they applied in the ongoing struggle over urban renewal in his home city of New Haven. Scully was a passionate advocate for neighborhoods there, a crusader against the flawed notion in the 1960’s that suburbanizing the city would save it. He lectured about it, he testified at public hearings and public meetings. His role as an advocate—or maybe I might even say, using David Lewis’s term, an agitator—did not compromise his role as an academic: quite the contrary. Everything he said and did was consistent with his academic work, and could be described as taking his ideas out of the classroom and into the civic realm—broadening their impact without compromising them.

I have a particularly strong memory of being in his undergraduate class in 1970, the year of Yale’s famous demonstrations against the Black Panther trial—now that is ancient history, I know, but suffice it to say that American campuses were in a state of outright rebellion in that year for many reasons, though primarily because of opposition to the Vietnam War, and many schools were shut down entirely. Yale responded to the crisis by temporarily “suspending normal academic expectations”—now there is a brilliantly crafted phrase for you, making it clear that the university was not giving in to certain forces by closing, nor ignoring them by trying to push ahead and pretending they didn’t exist.

Most professors interpreted “suspending normal academic expectations” as cancelling their classes and pushing back deadlines on papers. Not Scully, who held his class—but changed the topic to a new lecture that he prepared just in the preceding couple of days, on the connections between architecture and justice, and on the ways in which architecture could and could not contribute to a just and equitable society. He began by saying that this was no time for the academy to shut itself down—but that it was absolutely a time for the academy to shift direction, at least for a little while, and think about how its knowledge might be put to use to benefit a society that, at that moment, was in a crisis.

That was forty-three years ago, and those words—the academy should not stand aside, but should try to see how academic knowledge might contribute to the solutions we needed at that moment—have remained with me ever since.

I don’t want this talk to be mainly about Vincent Scully, but I do want to quote three words of his that are especially relevant to our subject tonight. In the afterword to a second edition of his 1969 book American Architecture and Urbanism, its entire text an implicit statement of belief that the architecture historian has a public role, Scully defined art history, and by implication architectural history, as “conservative, experimental, and ethical.”  It is a remarkable trio of words, not least because it seems, at first hearing, almost contradictory. How can something be conservative and experimental? But think about it for a moment, and ponder the exquisite balance of ideas and principles inherent in it. Architectural history must be conservative, since understanding and honoring the great work of the past is central to its very reason for being; at the same time it should be determinedly experimental, since one of the greatest gifts honoring the past can give us is to help us to unleash the highest and best new ideas in the present. And it must be profoundly ethical, since surely the noblest mission of architectural history is to encourage the building of community, and hence, of civilization.

If some of my sense of what an architectural historian should do was shaped by Vincent Scully and Ada Louise Huxtable, I have to say that I was also influenced by someone I met only once, long after the peak of his career, and that was Lewis Mumford. Mumford remains the model, in many ways, of the socially engaged architectural historian. He was, of course, a cultural historian and architecture critic more than an architectural historian as we would most often define it, but the lines between these related professions have never been absolute, nor should they be, and Mumford’s attempts to tie architectural history to sociology, literature, and the history of technology, if at times forced and even, insofar as his views of science and technology are concerned, from time to time oddly congruent with critics on the right despite his own left-leaning political inclinations—nevertheless, he was for a long time certainly architectural history’s most prominent public intellectual. And his public role was very often that of the activist, not just the scholar reaching out to make connections between his field and related disciplines. Mumford took an active role in the formation of the Regional Plan Association in New York, and in the creation of Sunnyside Village in Queens, Clarence Stein’s masterpiece of urban housing, where Mumford and his family lived for many years.  And I suppose if we are going to talk about Mumford we should also talk about the urban historian and critic who was in many ways his antithesis, Jane Jacobs. Despite their vast philosophical differences, not to mention generational differences—Mumford was almost a full generation older than Jacobs—they shared a belief in the civic role, in the idea that a scholar had a responsibility in some ways to use his scholarship to enhance his role as a citizen, indeed to be an activist or even, to use that word once again, an agitator. For all their differences, both Mumford and Jacobs believed that it was not enough to be a good scholar and a good citizen; it was essential to connect your knowledge about cities and buildings and society to your own role as a citizen, which is another way of saying that they both believed that a scholar who is not an activist to some extent is failing to make the best use of his or her scholarship.

Now, that is all well and good when your field is the contemporary city, as Jacobs’s was, or when you viewed your historical research as a form of underpinning for your observations about contemporary architecture and urbanism, as Mumford did. In all of his work Mumford, perhaps more than any other architectural historian, embraced Van Wyck Brooks’s concept of the “usable past,” the notion that we look to the past in the hope that understanding of it will shed light on the challenges of the present. But what of the scholar whose field has no direct and obvious connection with the issues we struggle with in the present? There are two things to say here. One is that nothing I have been saying should be taken as an argument with formalist criticism; while Mumford, to stay with him for a moment, of course represented a distinctly non-formalist way of looking at architectural history, that hardly makes formalism inconsistent with the view that the profession of architectural history can benefit from greater public engagement.  No period of the past, and no way of looking at the past, is without lessons for the present, though some may be more direct and obvious than others. But it is also true that any trained architectural historian, whatever his or her specialty and whatever his or her academic approach, surely has much more general knowledge to contribute to the public discourse than someone from outside the profession, even when the subject is outside his or her field of specialization. In other words, an expert on Romanesque churches may be in a far better position to speak of the merits of a nineteen-sixties vernacular gas station than someone without training in architectural history.

This notion brings us back, in a way, to the whole question of collective engagement, and whether the SAH as an organization should be actively speaking for the profession of architectural historians as a whole, and taking positions that represent every member, whether or not he or she has any academic specialization in a particular issue, or any other reason to be involved in it. I think the SAH can and must do this if it is to have meaning and impact in the coming decades. This is not to say that the SAH must stick its head into every controversy, since a lot of this is not about controversy; engagement is more than just taking a position on a difficult issue, although that is surely part of it. But engagement is also simple advocacy for better architecture. It is advocacy for better architectural education. It is advocacy for better introductory education about architecture for children—better introductory education about architecture for children? How about any architectural education for children—and it is important that the voice of the SAH be heard as we struggle with every aspect of the challenge of determining what kind of built environment we are going to have in this country, not to mention in the rest of the world, over the next generation.

This is something the SAH has done very hesitantly, if at all, as we’ve said. Historic preservation is perhaps where the voice of the SAH is most likely to be heard, and that is fine, because the connection is easy and logical between the expertise of architectural historians and the challenges of preservation.  But it need not be limited to preservation, by any means. The built environment is in a crisis, in this country and everywhere now: a crisis of sustainability, a crisis of resources, a crisis of design. The challenges we face in the built environment today mirror the challenges we face as a society. Architectural historians know more than anyone else about how people have struggled with these challenges before, and how they have tried to meet them. To share that knowledge with the broader world of the twenty-first century—that should be the goal of the Society of Architectural Historians, and what will assure that the SAH, strong as it is as it approaches its seventy-fifth anniversary, will be even stronger still when it reaches its hundredth, and an even more vital part of our culture.

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