Modernity and the uses of history
Understanding classical architecture from Bötticher to Warburg
Pages 12

If one of the defining characteristics of modernity is the sense of an irrevocable

separation between the present and the past, it is no longer evident why the past

should be studied. In architectural history this breach became manifest in the

last two decades of the nineteenth century when architects gave up looking to

the styles of the past as models for a contemporary style that would accommo-

date the demands of their age and express its spirit. Instead they turned their

energies to developing a truly modern style that would be free of the formal

vocabularies of the past. In the study of architectural history and theory this

change of attitude towards the past resulted in a transformation of the aims of

writing architectural history or studying the theory of historical styles, particu-

larly of classical architecture. History and theory were no longer the storehouse

whose riches the architect could use to develop a style that would be both histor-

ically correct and an expression of the age. The aim and legitimation of their

existence was no longer to be the foundation for present-day practice. In the

case of the neogothic this led to an increasingly antiquarian approach once the

gothic revival had ended, in the sense that the past was studied only for the sake

of the increase of historical knowledge, and without consideration for the use of

that knowledge except for conservation purposes. What happened to the study

of the history and theory of classical architecture is the subject of this essay. It

offers a reading of the three main theorists of classical art and architecture in the

nineteenth century – Bötticher, Semper and Warburg – not to demonstrate the

increasing irrelevance of their attempts to grasp the principles behind classical

design, but to show how their emphasis on design was overtaken by a project

that can best be termed hermeneutic: understanding the significance of classical

art for the present day as a cultural phenomenon. The nineteenth century saw both the establishment of architectural

history as an academic discipline – Alois Hirt was appointed the first professor of architecture at the newly founded University of Berlin in 1809 – and a transformation of the relationship between the theory and history of classical architecture and its practice. Before the birth of modern classical archaeology in the 1750s the remains of Greek and Roman architecture had been studied mainly to establish firm principles of classical design. From the measuring excursions of Alberti, Brunelleschi and Palladio, through Antoine Desgodet’s measuring and drawing of Roman buildings to solve the contradictions found in the treatises and former reconstructions, to the measuring, surveying, drawing and reconstructions by students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts who had won a Prix de Rome, historical investigation had been inseparable from design. In the nineteenth century that connection was significantly loosened, if not severed. The main point of historical investigation was no longer to illustrate, explain and support Vitruvian theory; it also became an academic subject in its own right, closely linked to archaeology and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, such as linguistics and anthropology.