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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)
Reasons for the persistence of the canon

The Persistent Success of Biography

Architecture as a Narrative of the Individual
Paolo Scrivano

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Index by keyword :

architectural history, biography

Indice de palabras clave :

biografía, historia de la arquitectura

Schlagwortindex :

Architekturgeschichte, Biografie

Periodo :

siglo XX, siglo XXI
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Texto completo

  • 1 Caroline Maniaque, Le Corbusier et les maisons Jaoul : projets et fabrique, Paris: Picard, (...)

1As a genre of architectural history, the architect biography seems to be on the wane. In the past two decades, the monographic approach to the discipline has been cross-examined by written works that tackle the subject from different angles: from the point of view of the client, the builder, or—though to a lesser extent—the user. An entire body of books and articles have tried to analyze the interaction between specific architectural cultures and their social and economic contexts; a growing number of studies and essays have looked at the role played by technicians and contractors in the design and construction processes. More and more authors have sought to explain how projects came about following fortuitous encounters between investors, designers, and actual builders. Without these studies, we would not know how important the client André Jaoul and the master stonemason Salvatore Bertocchi were in bringing about the Maisons Jaoul; the builder and real estate developer Erwin Wolfson and the structural engineer James Ruderman in materializing the Pan Am Building; and the public official Robert Moses in changing the face of New York during the 1950s and 1960s.1

2Despite this fresh breath of novelty, however, significant segments of the discourse in architectural history still remain centered on the figure of the individual designer as a solitary mind behind the project, exemplified by the archaic image of the traditional firm being composed only of “an architect and his dog.” Although this attitude fails to reflect the complexity of architectural phenomena, denying the role played by other social actors, it continues to characterize the production of scholarly works and instruction in faculties of architecture and departments of art history.

3One explanation for the persistence of this tendency is certainly the fact that monographs of architects are deeply rooted in the history of the discipline. By looking at the designer as a single “inventor”, historians of architecture reference their own disciplinary tradition. Architectural history originated from art history: from art history it adopted the biographical approach as its essential tool for investigation. There is no need to go back to Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori to find proof of this peculiar cultural trait. It is evident in examples ranging from the book collections printed between the 1910s and the 1930s by the German publisher Ernst Wasmuth to the self-promoting volumes dedicated to contemporary designers so common today. Monographs appear to be the dominant medium for the dissemination of architectural information in the 20th and 21st centuries. Architects, for their part, have capitalized on these intellectual practices. The emphasis on the individual role of the designer in the project’s conception and execution has helped reinforce cultural identity and consolidate professional legitimacy. This is hardly surprising: in competition since the 19th century with other specialists (such as the engineer), the modern architect has struggled to find a raison d’être that was both internally reassuring and externally convincing. The astonishing thing is the permanence in the contemporary world of a narrative that emphasizes individual contributions, thereby distorting the reality of architecture as both a building process and a media phenomenon.

  • 2 Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1967; Udo Hesse (...)
  • 3 Daniel Libeskind and Sarah Crichton, Breaking Ground: An Immigrant’s Journey from Poland t (...)

4What explains the enduring success of biographical approaches in architectural history and, in general, in architectural writing? The extreme personalization that seems to characterize today’s discourses in mass media, popular culture, and even politics is undoubtedly a factor. Perhaps because life in modern societies is presented as an “immense accumulation of spectacles”—to quote Guy Debord—, readers curious about the transformations taking place in a major European capital might find a volume that displays the photographic portraits of the architects “who have played a major role in shaping the new face of Berlin” interesting.2 Personal life has been confused with design practice to such a degree that a (semi-)autobiography of Daniel Libeskind insists on describing the time the architect spent in his mother’s corset shop as an influence upon the formation of his poetics.3

5Other causes can be found in the dynamics of the publishing industry as well as in the prevailing practices in education and academia. Publishers have customarily been reluctant to abandon well-established “products” such as monographs or biographical dictionaries to break new ground with other approaches that might be less marketable. As a matter of fact, the cause and effect of this phenomenon could be mutually reinforcing, creating a vicious circle. The range of monographs on offer might result from a specific demand from the readership; at the same time, it may trigger this demand because of its self-fostering presence and a lack of alternatives. Educators have neither the will nor the power to oppose these forces. Whether the persisting success of the individual’s life story is culturally and scientifically worthwhile is an entirely different issue. The question that remains unanswered, though, is whether the time-honored genre of architectural biography is completely inappropriate to looking at architecture today or, if it is reconsidered and adapted, might enjoy a new life.

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1 Caroline Maniaque, Le Corbusier et les maisons Jaoul : projets et fabrique, Paris: Picard, 2005 (Librairie de l’architecture et de la ville); Meredith L. Clausen, The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005; Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson (eds.), Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2007.

2 Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1967; Udo Hesse and Andreas Krase, Berlin – Architekten – Portraits: Fotografien von Udo Hesse, Tübingen: Wasmuth, 2000.

3 Daniel Libeskind and Sarah Crichton, Breaking Ground: An Immigrant’s Journey from Poland to Ground Zero, New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2005. See also: Filippo De Pieri, “Libeskind in pantofole,” Il Giornale dell’Architettura, no. 27, March 2005, p. 32.

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Para citar este artículo

Referencia electrónica

Paolo Scrivano, « The Persistent Success of Biography », ABE Journal [En línea], 1 | 2012, Publicado el 02 febrero 2012, consultado el 06 diciembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.308

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Paolo Scrivano

Professor, Boston University, Boston, USA

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Derechos de autor

Licence Creative Commons
La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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