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Proceedings of the panel “Still on the Margin: Reflections on the Perspective of the Canon in Architectural History” (1st Conference of the European Architectural History Network, Guimaraes, Portugal, 17-20 June 2010)

Still on the margin

Reflections on the persistence of the canon in architectural history
Joe Nasr et Mercedes Volait

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  • 1 These critiques are at the heart of a collection of essays edited by Joe Nasr and Mercedes (...)
  • 2 This is the perspective pursued by the network “European Architecture beyond Europ (...)

1For a number of years now, scholars have been challenging past paradigms in architectural history. These critiques have come from multiple angles. Studies of the processes of producing and consuming the built environment have been accused of failing to consider the complex web of power relationships between the multitude of actors involved and the full range of local stakeholders, including those who are assumed to be weak or powerless. In their understanding of how cities and their buildings come to be,1 researchers of the city-building process now sleuth out the myriad forms of linkages and vectors of influence and transformation nested into such processes. As a result of this shift, a number of publications in architectural or urban history have examined a broader range of actors (clients, craftsmen, artists, “city fathers”, etc.). The roles of local actors have not only been considered, but even formed the main object of research. Hence, alternate histories of the process of designing the built environment, based on considerations of many different stakeholders, structures and vectors in it, are becoming more common.2

  • 3 These short papers were all prepared for the 1st Conference of the European Archit (...)

2Yet a shift in the historiographical paradigm related to the built environment has not quite happened. The “canon” in architectural history has barely budged. Attention has been given to a large range of (professional) figures involved in the design realm in the 20th century, and yet, the same “big names” and “grand designs” are generally featured in textbooks, syllabi and encyclopedias. Although the tenets of architectural history have long been challenged and a substantial body of literature has been produced, the impacts on academic curricula, mainstream knowledge, publishing agendas, preservation policies and the like have been minimal. The purpose of this collection of “position statements”3 is thus to share ideas and experiences and to stimulate discussion on the still marginal place of non-canonical architectural histories (including those of colonial architecture, non-Western traditions, and alternative understandings of modernity) in the spheres of teaching, researching, publishing, preserving, etc.

3The papers were written by European and North American scholars, based on their individual experiences, so as to offer a dialogue from across the Atlantic. A series of lenses were adopted, reflecting a range of questions, including:

  • Why adaptations in the teaching of architectural history to address past critiques, whether through reinvented textbooks (as Komisar shows, based on her experience teaching architectural history survey courses) or restructured syllabi (as Aktüre demonstrates in the case of Turkey), have encountered such difficulties.
  • Why architectural historians specialized in non-Western traditions based in architecture, art history or other departments remain on the fringe within academe, whether in architecture or art history departments.
  • Why encyclopedic histories of architecture have not managed to encompass the full breadth of geographies and contexts (Rosso highlights the “tremendous difficulties implicit in such monumental and ambitious enterprises” even when revisionist and alternative histories are sought).
  • 4 See Émilie d’Orgeix’s piece in this collection.

4This collection intends to tackle the strength and persistence of the canon as a general phenomenon, and its ability to exclude from common knowledge large segments of architectural activity, for a number of reasons that require further enquiry and that the contributions here start mapping. One aim was to reflect on the gap between, on the one hand, colonial architecture and the large body of literature produced in the past two decades on “other modernisms”—the very title of the 2006 Docomomo International conference in Ankara—4 and on the other hand, the minimal impact such knowledge has had on the architectural field.

  • 5 Jean-Lucien Bonillo and Gérard Monnier (eds.), La Méditerranée de Le Corbusier : actes du (...)
  • 6 See for instance: Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural (...)
  • 7 Although Le Corbusier’s self-construction of his myth still awaits critical resear (...)

5An obvious example of the endurance of the canon is the over-emphasis on the plan Obus that Le Corbusier drafted for Algiers in 1932.5 To this day, it remains almost the sole reference that students in architecture can associate with Modernism in North Africa, despite the flow of publications on Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis, etc. since the 1990s.6 Le Corbusier represents an exemplary instance of the making and endurance of the canon. In our era of branding and “star-chitecture”, picking a single individual—who indeed worked during his lifetime on ensuring his own posterity—7 then adding substantial archives, serious institutional support and know-how, and ambitious publications and exhibits, can all contribute (as it did in this case) to the creation of a “product” that is likely to stay in the architectural Top 10 for many years to come. More discreet architectural works, or more modest figures, are clearly at a disadvantage at this game.

6Other factors also sustain a restrictive canon. Stereotypes can help guide us through uncharted territories, serving as efficient tools to reduce complexity. However, oversimplifications and lapidary statements also tend to rule out all the entanglements and interconnections across nations and cultures that have produced a good deal of architecture over the centuries. In other words, they blind us to significant parts of our built environment.

  • 8 Maristella Casciato, “Authorship and heritage issues,” in Maristella Casciato and Émilie d’Orgeix (...)
  • 9 Fabienne Chevallier, “Aimer Le Havre, une révolution culturelle ?”, in L'Architect (...)
  • 10 Barron Stofik, Saving South Beach, Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2005 (Flo (...)
  • 11 Mercedes Volait, “La ‘Belle Époque’ : registres, rhétoriques et ressorts d’une invention p (...)

7Discussing the canon and its persistence involves dealing with the issue of “authorship” in architecture, a whole topic in its own right.8 It touches upon the importance of “wording” and of “storytelling” in architectural narratives. Both have proven to be effective means for admission to the canon. The ability to spin a yarn about a building or about a city will often validate the subject as a piece of heritage.9 Scrivano focuses on one dominant approach in this regard, the narrative of the individual in architectural authorship. Similarly, labelling has an important role in the formation of canons, as Depelchin shows in his discussion of the terminology of orientalism. The invention of “Tropical Deco” to designate Miami architecture of the 1920s–1940s was influential in getting such architecture on the canon map;10 the same can be said of “Belle Epoque” architecture in Cairo.11

  • 12

8Materiality might be back, as many architectural historians have advocated. Yet architecture is not only about stones and concrete, light and space. It is indeed also about the words used to describe, interpret, and finally codify it. It is worth keeping in mind the distinction made by Lipstadt between the (elitist) canon and the (popular) icon—12 and moreover the interrelations between them. Questioning the reciprocal impact of icons and the canon might stimulate the debate. The Lipstadt model reminds us that societies and representations are complex systems, whether one wishes or not to engage with complexity.

9One can contend that by now, moral prerogatives exist to ensure that the canon is significantly expanded, at least. An argument could even be made for the demolition of all canons, for the avoidance of any canonical approaches. In a sense, canon building can be seen as an inherently Western exercise, serving to reinforce existing knowledge (and consequently power) structures. Whether it is seen as an intentionally exclusionary process or an inherent result of longstanding practices, the construction and reproduction of any canon can be seen in this light as intrinsically inimical to social justice, ecological balance, and other progressive goals.

10On the other hand, some see limitations to revisionism in architectural histories—and consequently to any radical move away from established canons. Breitschmid argues for the maintenance of canons on three main grounds. First, he points out that the canon reinforces architecture’s autonomy as a discipline, because buildings that are part of the canon are evaluated through an architectural lens. Second, he asserts that canonical buildings exist because they exemplify our dreams and ambitions more precisely than other buildings. Third, he maintains that the canon is actually more flexible than is commonly supposed: any study thereof demonstrates a sequence of perpetual change.

11Whether the canon has intrinsic value or is intrinsically questionable, this collection of papers shows that it will not disappear any time soon. In fact, it seems to resist the many changes that have been called for over the years. Whatever one may think of the appropriateness or value of the current canon, it is based on a set of choices and historical events that led to its construction over time. Any canon is an assemblage of choices. It is a body of knowledge about a discipline founded on an iterative process of selection, of buildings, designers, types, eras, etc. The canon reflects an attitude at a moment in time, in a particular place. Selection is an inevitable task—but in a way, an impossible one too. For one, a canon relies too much on accidents of history, place, power, connections, and so on, for it to claim to be above question.

12Moreover, to avoid arbitrariness and bias, a selection process ought to be based on clearly defined and appropriate criteria. However, such criteria are rarely explicit or evident. One could argue for some sensible selection criteria, such as innovation—yet even innovation is open to question. How should it be judged? In terms of the intrinsic innovativeness of a new technique? In terms of the exceptional quality of the innovations an architect has demonstrated? Or in terms of the impact of a building that was at the cutting edge at the time of its creation? Alternative criteria could be as sensible—but as challenging—to use, such as the thorny question of the “quality” of architecture. Other criteria may be applied for purposes that transcend architecture itself, such as political agendas and expressions of power.

13Another way that one could seek to understand the nature of the canon is to focus on its boundaries. If the canon encompasses a set of cases, including some and excluding others, and some of these cases can be found at the core while others lie at its margins, a better understanding of the canon may be gained from examining the edges. Analysis of its boundaries—their shifting and stability—can provide some traction when dealing with the canon and its dynamic nature.

14Ultimately, a fundamental flaw of most of the canon in architectural history is the fact that it fails to mirror the built reality. How can the ideal be brought in line with the real? Van Impe maintains that the creation of a spectrum of architectural archives is the solution. In d’Orgeix’s opinion, a spectrum of modernisms should be documented. Darin suggests teaching about a spectrum of buildings. As for Maniaque, the canon will reflect built reality when a larger spectrum of architects on the margins of their era is represented.

15Another approach to understanding the canon is to try to grasp its relation to practice. If teaching or otherwise sharing knowledge about a field is ultimately about providing elements of discourse for a profession, the usefulness of the canon—its function—depends on its ability to support the formation of such a discourse. Yet many architects lack a shared discourse, despite the longstanding existence of canon(s). Maudlin argues that precisely because of the tenets that underlie the canon, it can be used effectively in classrooms where future practitioners are being trained, to develop critical thinking about the canonical phenomenon itself, as an aid in the instruction on how to question values and assumptions.

16Confronting the stability of the canon can be essential for the field of architectural history itself, as it seeks to maintain its relevance to the professionals of the built and unbuilt environments. In these days, when students and professionals alike focus their attention on questions of sustainability, social justice, city-building, metropolization, and other global concerns and processes, new priorities (and along with these, new star players) are emerging. These new priorities may be forming new canons of the present, but they have generally not intersected much (if at all) with the established canons of the past. In this sense, the lack of adaptation of the architectural canon may undermine the usefulness of knowledge of architecture’s origins and evolution. Existing and new practitioners may turn to alternative sources of knowledge that are more relevant. The persistence of the canon could deprive those seeking to learn about architecture of important knowledge. Such an effect would ultimately doom the canonical approach to oblivion.

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1 These critiques are at the heart of a collection of essays edited by Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait (eds.), Urbanism—Imported or Exported? Native Aspirations and Foreign Plans, Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2003. Nasr and Volait also edited this collection of papers, building on the reflections and studies that followed the book’s publication.

2 This is the perspective pursued by the network “European Architecture beyond Europe: Sharing Research and Knowledge on Dissemination Processes, Historical Data and Material Legacy (19th–20th centuries),” chaired by Mercedes Volait and funded by the COST program for 2010–2014 ( Docomomo has also sought to push such a perspective, organizing in 2002 its 7th International Conference on the topic of “The Reception of the Modern Movement”.

3 These short papers were all prepared for the 1st Conference of the European Architectural History Network, held in Guimarães, Portugal in summer 2010 (17-20 June 2010). They were commissioned explicitly as position statements, asking each contributor to take a stand in relation to the question of the architectural canon. Part of this introductory piece is based on the abstract for the roundtable where most of these pieces were presented.

4 See Émilie d’Orgeix’s piece in this collection.

5 Jean-Lucien Bonillo and Gérard Monnier (eds.), La Méditerranée de Le Corbusier : actes du colloque international « Le Corbusier et la Méditerranée », réuni à Marseille, les 24, 25 et 26 septembre 1987, dans le cadre des manifestations du Centenaire de la naissance de Le Corbusier, Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'université de Provence, 1991; Jean-Lucien Bonillo (ed.), Le Corbusier, visions d'Alger, Paris: Fondation Le Corbusier, Éditions de La Villette, 2012 (Rencontres de la Fondation Le Corbusier).

6 See for instance: Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures, New York, NY: Monacelli Press, 2003; Jean-Louis Cohen, Nabila Oulebsir and Youcef Kanoun (eds.), Alger, Paysage urbain et architecture, 1800–2000, Exhibition Catalogue (Paris, Palais de la Porte Dorée, 25 june–14 september 2003), Besançon: Les éditions de l’Imprimeur, 2003 (Tranches de ville); Juliette Hueber and Claudine Piaton (eds.), Tunis—architectures, 1860–1960, Arles: Honoré Clair, Tunis: Elyzad, 2011.

7 Although Le Corbusier’s self-construction of his myth still awaits critical research, it is known that he worked as early as 1963 at registering his works as historical buildings and that he was the first architect to do so; Bernard Toulier, “Mille Monuments du xxe siècle : histoire et bilan d’une protection,” in Bernard Toulier (ed.), Mille monuments du xxe siècle en France : le patrimoine protégé au titre des monuments historiques, Paris: Éditions du patrimoine, 1997 (Indicateurs du patrimoine), p. 17-18.

8 Maristella Casciato, “Authorship and heritage issues,” in Maristella Casciato and Émilie d’Orgeix (eds.), Modern architectures: the rise of a heritage, Wavre: Mardaga, p. 43-60.

9 Fabienne Chevallier, “Aimer Le Havre, une révolution culturelle ?”, in L'Architecture comme fait culturel aujourd'hui. Actes du séminaire national. Institut national d'histoire de l'art. 7 et 8 avril 2005, Paris: Direction générale de l’enseignement scolaire, Versailles: Centre régional de documentation pédagogique, 2006 (Les Actes de la DESCO), p. 93-102. URL: Accessed 15 January 2012.

10 Barron Stofik, Saving South Beach, Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2005 (Florida history and culture series).

11 Mercedes Volait, “La ‘Belle Époque’ : registres, rhétoriques et ressorts d’une invention patrimoniale,” Égypte/Monde arabe, no. 5–6, Troisième série, 2009, Pratiques du patrimoine en Égypte et au Soudan. URL: Accessed 15 January 2012.




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The Arch, the canon, and Bourdieu,” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 14, Summer 2001, p. 4-15.Haut de page

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Joe Nasr et Mercedes Volait, « Still on the margin », ABE Journal [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 02 février 2012, consulté le 19 mars 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.304

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Joe Nasr

Associate, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada InVisu (CNRS/INHA), Paris, France

Mercedes Volait

Senior Researcher, InVisu (CNRS/INHA), Paris, France

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