“All art was once contemporary” 

Interview with Barry Bergdoll for the Slovenian Cultural Magazine PRAZNINE, 2015.

  1. You are a professor of history and theory of architecture and a curator in the field of architecture. How would you define architecture? What is architecture? 

That is a very hard question. What is the relationship of architecture to building? I would simply define architecture as the shaping of space. The philosophical question doesn’t need to be the conscious shaping of space. As people who want extend architecture beyond architecture or vernacular structures would say, anything that shapes space either real or imaginary is architecture. That’s a broad enough definition that I suppose is serviceable. 

  1. Architecture is something that shapes space then. But as an activity, is architecture something more linked to art or to a technique for you? What is its core? 

Right. That is one of the oldest questions in architectural theory: is architecture an art or a science? Architecture is something that sits between the two, and always partakes of the potential for both. 

  1. But for you personally, what is architecture? What inspires you to work in the field of architecture? Is it more because it is an art, or more a science? 

For me science and engineering are the means and possibility of architecture, rather than necessarily the ends of architecture.  But I suppose, if the core of this question is: why I became so personally passionate about architecture, even if I am not trained as an architect, but I have always been involved in architecture, for me it extends beyond the individual buildings. This is why it’s so nice to be in Ljubljana, because for me architecture is how every component of architecture works together over time to create places and spaces that we want to be in and that are memorable somehow.  That changes the very conditions of our life, not simply physical, but psychic. It is a very different thing if we had this interview in this room or if would have this interview in the departure lounge of an airport. 

  1. Was architecture in the 19th century in a crisis and why?

I don’t know if I would generalize and say the entire 19th century is a period of crisis, but it was certainly a century characterized by the oft-held sense that there is a crisis, and this over and over again. So, I suppose you can ask the question philosophically: is the discussion of a crisis a crisis or an ethos of art? Crisis is a recurrent theme in the 19th century. If you define crisis simply as an awareness that things must change, is certainly the first time I believe in modern history where there is a widespread belief of that things are changing so rapidly and with so many unknown factors that what the future will bring and what one should became really big questions and can bring the anxieties. We could look into that in last night’s lecture, because I think this relationship with history is also very much about an awareness of rapid change, rapid social change, rapid technological change, unprecedented growth of cities in front of people’s eyes.  The Nineteenth century is the first time you find the comment of the Parisians who say that if they go away from their city for 2 weeks, they will come back and won’t recognise it. This is where the idea arises that your daily environment is in mutation.  All of that it certainly sense as a challenge. I suppose in certain people minds a crisis is a sense of the inability to control change.  

  1. Nietzsche wrote that the 19th century was an era of historical illness. How would you apply this notion to architecture? 

In the 19th century or in architecture in general? 

  1. He said this about the 19th century in general, thinking of all arts. 

He said it when he was relatively young, so it is actually the young Nietzsche, probably in the 1860s or 1870s, when the 19th century was far from finished. He is referring to the burden of history and does connect to the question of hidden historical awareness of so many thinkers, so many artists in the 19th century.  This is the impulse to define it as a burden. I think that we in retrospect can see, what it was he was reacting to, what it was for him to cope with, this idea of understanding the history of change.  Suddenly Nietzsche finds this historical awareness as a prelude, as a burden to reflect on what would it mean to unburden yourself from this great historical sense. It is interesting that you choose it, because I think it is a text that is not so often cited by people who are interested in 20th century theories of the avant-gardes; and it breaks with history.  It might be one of the earliest texts to declare this is as it stands. One must always ask the question; how can you not be obliged to not remember so much? (Laugh

  1. But do you think that when he wrote it, he was thinking about architecture too? 

I don’t think he was thinking of architecture specifically, rather of something much larger, a general cultural condition. I don’t think that this historical conciseness I am talking about is unique to architecture, is something that is general. 

  1. Which were the main challenges for the architecture of the 19th century? Which are its main theoretical paradigms? 

Again, these are vast questions. I suppose to a certain extent, one can object that this is the century of enormous diversity. But certainly, the main one – I feel I am repeating myself – is the rapid technological change, the rapid growth of cities, the fact that cities are being catapulted to a whole new scale, of a whole new scale of population, the territory they organize, of a time frame of them. The technological shift in the time frame changes, the perception of being able to understand the structure of the historical path, daily activities accelerate to a such an incredible rate. So one of the main challenges of architecture of the 19th century was to how to build for a sense of something that is changing. Part of this obsession would still be to build an architecture of permanence.  And the architecture of the 19th century is partly a reaction to the notion that permanence has become a challenge as everything is changing all the time. 

  1. Yesterday you talked about a year that is crucial for this architecture. Does this year also combine one of the main theoretical points or the main shifts in this architecture? 

Last night I was talking about the year 1828, because of these two debates, which made it quite clear that there was a sense of a generational shift, something we very much associate with late romanticism. This definition of a generation, as that which is somehow opposed to the generation of their parents, is a very modern concept, which is really born then. 

For me the moment of 1828 sets up themes and problematic for architectural practice, to share with other domains of human activities for sure, those are going to be predominant as themes in the next half of century. It is a little artificial to pick one year, but you can find in 1828 a crystallization of what is happening. I use the term “historicism” to get away from revivalism and particularly to get away from eclecticism, as if there is no unity to the philosophical underpinnings of the architectural debate. I think it is absolutely the contrary. Much has to do with this notion that history is not a collection of individual facts or antiquarian knowledge, but that history is a process. There is an aspiration to  found history as a scientific discipline, based on laws, on laws that are known and can be tested against evidence and that there are scientific, laws, then, that can be extrapolated into the future as well as it can be seen into the past. This is that hinge between the understanding of the past and trying to guide changes as they are coming in ever more changing world is for me the quarks of the historicist problem. Historicism is really about the theory of change more then it is a theory of the historical past.  

  1.  If we put this in the context of architecture, how is this notion seen in architecture of this time? Or maybe, who are the main players of this architecture? 

There were many main players, but I think the form it took is the notion that building’s forms or the language of architecture needs to evolve. You know the 20th century paradigm that says “We are going to start ex-novo from nothing”, but there is a sense that you need to understand the diversity of the historical path not in order to reproduced it, but to work within, to begin change, to adapt new programs – as architects are asked to build buildings that were never built before – for programs and for requirements that are often relatively new. The classic example is the train station. These buildings employ materials that are relatively new, most famously iron, but there are also other industrially produces materials. How are we going to build buildings if the materials are shaped in a factory rather than if they were shaped by the workers under your supervision? The whole conditions and the paradigms under which buildings are made are changing as well. All of that is something that became absolutely subconsciously clear people around 1828. (Laugh). 

  1. Yesterday you talked about the fact that the term avant-garde was coined in 19th century. Do you think that this reflects the Zeitgeist of the 19th century, that we don’t usually see it today or understand it in this kind of way? Usually we see the 19th century, especially in architecture, a period as “something else” before modernism. You are proposing a different approach to the 19th century. Usually architectural history is proposing a different reading. 

I am not the only person who is trying to re-evaluate the 19th century, there is a whole generation of scholars  who have done that, I am only one of the hundreds. I am not the only pioneer or the voice in the wilderness. I build on the work of many other people, who tried to see the 19th century as a dynamic period of invention, rather than in a certain sense of what Nietzsche begun to define it, as a period, burden by history. 

It is not as though when the word avant-garde is coined that it becomes as common-parlance, it is used in a very limited circle, initially as a theory and a concept. Many years ago, when I was working on the relationship between architecture and utopian socialism in the 1820s, which is the context out where this re-definition of the avant-garde occurs, I remember being so excited of finding the term avant-garde being refereed to. What we’re thinking to as romantic literature that for me was just of opening up of a different way of thinking of what was at stake at that moment culturally and professionally. I suppose in opening the lecture last night, as this is something I have been writing for a very long time, but I still use it as a kind of rhetorical gesture to try to shock people in their thinking of the 19th century. As they have been limiting their ability to understand it as a dynamic moment of invention. If we can get beyond the inherited 20th or now 21st century prejudice, that if an architect was working with the imaginary of the previously centuries architecture, he also inherited the conservative practice. 

The avant-garde is already a missionary stand. But my missionary stand is how to bring back to life the intellectual adventure, the stakes, the question, the challenges of this architecture, which is so frequently seen as non-reflective, non-theoretic, non-creative.  I want to bring back the questions of the period that generated this architecture, and make it sound as we are dealing with intellectually challenging and exiting people in 1828. 

If I have a mantra, it is a work of art by an Italian artist, I can’t remember the name of artist, who created a neon sign today just above the portico in Schinkel’s Museum in Berlin. It simply says in neon letters: All art was once contemporary. Ever since I saw this work of art, I fell that this is the mission of the art historian: he or she has to make sure that all art remains always contemporary. 

Looking at 19th century so called revivalist architecture, we have to be able to recreate the sense of the problem that the artist was facing. That this problem can be alive and perceived. 

  1. One of the most “popular” icon of the 19th century architecture is the Opera House in Paris. How do you read this building? What is its main message? 

It is a very interesting building to think about. It might be one of the great populist buildings ever created. Although much of the 20th century it was hated by architects, it has always been loved by the general public. It is a very interesting building to study the discrepancy between the taste of professional architects and the taste of the general public. If you actually read Garnier’s writing, where he writes about the building, he is also a very rare architect, whose architectural theory and architectural design were absolutely the same. His architectural theory consists of describing his design of the Opera House and why he made it the way he did. He is completely blunt about the fact that he wants to create basically a pleasure palace. He wants to create a world of magic and of illusion. For Garnier this would be the very conditions if we are going to the opera. I think it would be fascinating if students could compare Garnier’s Opera House with Cedric Price Fun Palace of the 1960’s as architectures that are primary conceive not to be something serious or moral, but the creation of the frame for pleasure as a social interaction. 

This is one aspect. Another part of its message is that it is an incredibly urban and urbane architecture. It is about staging culture in the city, the place for opera in the city. Even if as a building it looks like it all un-serious, when you start to contemplate it and think about it as a central building, you can see that it thinks about representation. What does architecture represent? Does it represent a social activity? But is a social activity that what the Opera is, people representing one to another?  

If you remember one of my answers last nights, which was about Goethe, you can see a certain parallelism with Garnier.  Garnier could not be aware of Goethe’s writing one hundred years earlier, but this notion of creating a place, which is really where people come together and pay a social ritual and how they interact, it is very similar. If you take the whole building and extract it’s place in the city from it and how it sits in the avenue and organizes the whole part of Paris. (…) Even people who claim to dislike it in the 20th century, because it was too ornamental and too burden with history, actually have to admire it, because they have to realize it is a brilliant piece of special planning. 

  1. You think Le Corbusier did that as well? 

Yes, I think he did actually, I think he had a love-hate relationship with it. 

  1. What exactly is the notion of architectural romanticism? 

That is a tough question, because even at the time when certain people began to describe themselves as romantics in architecture, they would be linked it to the subconsciously notion of romanticism in literature and music, in visual arts is much earlier, so it is rather late that certain architect begin to say that their think represents some romanticism in architecture. Happily they are not immediately understood, so they need to explain themselves. So we do have people’s definitions of what they thought it would mean to be a romantic in architecture. I think the key to it is – this is what it connects to my interest in historicism or in the historical thinking in architecture – the key to it is the notion that there is no architectural universal, they aren’t no architectural truth, there are relative truth, things are relative to their time and their place. I would say that the key feature of architectural romanticism is the notion that architecture is made for a specific time and a specific place and is not universally applicable everywhere. I think then this is why then romanticism lends itself, for better or worse, so predictable into the discussion of the 19th century, particularly to the great problem of national identity in 19th century Europe, ironically enough also in 21th century Europe, this notion of relative knowledge and of specific architecture of specific places. 

  1. You presented at your lecture 3 different architects, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Heinrich Hübsch and Henri Labroust. For you, which are their main inprint in architecture? 

I would say that most people wouldn’t expect to hear the name Heinrich Hübsch on the same level as Schinkel and Labroust, as he is not as famous and so well remembered as an architect. Perhaps his contribution was much more about his writing and his teaching at that time then the buildings he left behind. 

Both Schinkel and Labroust are interesting, because they are figures who were incredibly admired at their time and are among the rare 19th century architects that have not fallen out of favour. They remain reference points even in the early 20th century main figures like as Mies van der Rohe, who was a great admirer of Schinkel and learnt a great deal from Schinkel’s architecture. Le Corbusier was a great admirer of Labrouste. So they are fascinating figures. They somehow survived the general demised or the fall from favour of the 20th century architecture. They are interestingly seen as prophet of modernism, which is a whole another notion of why someone becomes a prophet of a later period, but I think their main imprint is that they left behind buildings that are such brilliant solutions to new programs and the way they work urbanisticly, that people have continually went back and studied their buildings, as they were an inspiration for them. 

  1. How does the architecture of the 19th century influence or create the space of today in Europe? 

I think certainly in Europe the vast majority of cities are presentably a 19th century fabric. If Ljubljana is a Roman city, which is buried somewhere, there may be a Medieval city and also all other time periods have left their imprint and traces, but the extraordinary explosion of cities and their interconnection with railway networks is largely a creation of the 19th century. Europe is still living in a territory of 19th century and in an urbanism of 19th century, which is proven itself to be enormously resilient to bombs, to Second World War developments. The 19th century city has been discovered in various moments as not only a product of industrial revolution, but something that has a certain value of use, of how to make a city as a functioning space. At least since the 1960s there have been periods of re-discovery of 19th century urbanism. So as much as people are not interested necessarily in the individual buildings, the idea, the fabric of the 19th century city as it is somehow an inherited city that works both on the scale of the pedestrian on the street, but also on the scale of a society with increasing vehicles.  Particularly in Europe and even if there have been an incredible decline in the scholar’s studies of the 19th century, you are all living in the 19th century, because this century really defined the modern city. 

  1. You are a curator at MOMA. What is your usual working day like? 

Now that I’ve stepped down from being head of the department and have been working only as curator half-time and have returned to the university, I am very much thinking about of what did I do there in this past 7 years at the museum  – as what one leaves behind. When you are working day to day in a museum, you are very conscious of what the exhibitions are, the programs, the things you prepare for the public like a calendar, but of course those are all temporary events. The biggest part of my daily work at MOMA has been not so much the creation of these exhibitions, but taking care of the collection, deciding of what to put in a collection,  how to acquire it, how to take care of it? In that sense, that you will leave behind the material, that other people will work with it. And you are also taking materials from curators, architects, designers of all sorts and taking it into the care of the museum. So you are physically working as a historian, preserving things for the future, because you think they have one meaning. But the interesting thing is that you are taking care of them so that other people can interpret them or use them later. I suppose if a hundred yours from now anyone bothers to say what I have done in the Museum of modern art, I think it would include also the things I have put into the collection – for instance I am the first person to put 2 kitchens in the collection of MOMA, a Frankfurt kitchen and a kitchen from the Unite d’habitation. 

  1. Looking back at the architecture of the 19th and 20th century, what do you think are the main messages we should learn in dealing with the future? 

I was hoping we won’t have time for it, as it is so difficult. (laugh). 

I suppose I can give you some version of my fascination with that statement “all art was once contemporary”. Since I also teach, I am always fascinated when students say that “this is brand new and have never happened before”. My immediate instinct is to try to find some examples of how it has happened before, not because I want to challenge all claims of novelty or not because I think that if it already have been done we should go back and do it exactly as somebody did it before, but I do think that historical past is an open book of challenges and responses. When you are faced with a challenge, it is very interesting to think that other people have faced it before. Not because you are going to immediately find a solution, but because you will have a lot of company in thinking about what you are trying to do. The great advantage of knowing history is knowing that there are certain challenges and problems that reoccur, they take different forms in the present and in the future, but they have happened before. It is like having a conversation with lots of people. 

Just as in my own work: I think every art or architectural exhibition is a brand new problem, but this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t think about how other people have try to solve it in the past. 

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