For an undue long period of time, I was used to accepting and throwing out the expression “history and theory” as if it were one integral idea instead of two individual concepts. Gladly I figured this out before it’s too late.
Peter Collins pointed out in his classic, possibly underrated, book Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture that during the second half of the 19th c. when Revivalism reached its maturity, a dilemma revealed itself to architects: what is the distinction between architectural history and architectural theory? I’d like to quote Collins directly here for his answer: ...that the theory of architecture is concerned with everything pertaining to the way people actually build in the present, whereas the history of architecture is concerned with the way people used to build in the past. (page 141)
This is pretty self-explanatory that I don’t need to further discuss it. It is intriguing, however, to ask ourselves why didn’t this become a problem until then? Again Collins provided a lucid and reasonable answer – because in the past people had always been seeking solutions to contemporary building tasks from the pool of historical styles, be it Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival or even Oriental. Essentially history and theory was one thing that together served the purpose of constructing. When Revivalism reached and passed its maturity, the demand for a new architecture that was completely dependent from the reins of historical styles grew stronger than ever, therefore ticking off the discussion on history and theory.
Maybe it is because that I’ve never really had proper academic training in art history, or maybe things just occur to me slower than warranted..It was actually during my reading Collins’ book that I realized how integral art/architectural history is to history in general. It sounded stupid, but hit me like a lighting. Let’s take Romanticism for example, this was roughly in line with the aftermath of the French Revolution when people seeked pleasure from a more distant past than their own. Parallel study of social and political history, economy, religious history, philosophical ideals, fine arts, architecture, and possibly other branches of humanities will tremendously boost the understanding of human history and why things happened. The pieces of knowledge used to be sporadic dots floating in my memory, and it was not until that I lined them up together in one time frame that the dots started to connect to each other, almost like a tree growing its branches. This is when memory becomes ideas. Unfortunately we don’t have such academic training in architectural history. We don’t spend much time on architectural history anyways because like Collins said, this is dealing with the past, not present. But preservation is another different story, and this kind of thinking is critical yet missing. I shall note, however, that it is much easier to examine the culture in which we grew up, simply because we are familiar about all these aspects – we might even be part of them. When examining foreign cultures however, the links become much weaker and invisible, and demands much more devoted time.
Lastly, as a post-MOMA syndrome, I was wondering how critics and historians write contemporary history on art. Do they? Because history and theory are so close to each other in this case that they might just merge into one from time to time. The other problem of course is that we don’t have enough room to look back and find a more complete and less biased image of history.