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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)
Transcending the canon

Possessing Architecture with Words and Letters

Docomomo International’s “Other Modernisms” experiment as a means of broadening the canon
Mettre en mots l’architecture : comment Docomomo International a généralisé le canon architectural avec « Autres modernismes »
Émilie d’Orgeix

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1This article describes a survey Docomomo developed as a research tool for the International Register’s project on modern architecture. The survey was designed as an alternative method of enriching both the register and the way we think and write about modern architecture. Instead of being based on fiches and building types, the survey focuses on key concepts and textual analysis.

2The goal of the project was to renew the methods of classification by building types and dates. In spite of the multiplicity of data and references provided, the resulting catalogue seemed monotonous and limited, whereas it ought to be an exciting intellectual journey. The register is almost twenty years old. Nevertheless, it seemed incomplete: a dull, dry rendering of the lively articulations and interrelations of modern design worldwide. It was not easy to create an international inventory of 20th-century buildings and sites, based on the work of chapters scattered around the world, instructed to select only five buildings per year. When they were not reinterpreting the classical register of heritage values of time, authenticity, uniqueness, and significance, many correspondents were tempted to create their own iconic landmark by selecting buildings that fell into one of two categories: (1) imported architecture and (2) modern regionalism. These national selections, small as they were, did provide interesting information about buildings and sites that were usually poorly documented. By the end of the 1990s, however, the procedure needed to be reinvented and renewed. An innovative scheme would reorganize the intellectual relationships and ramifications between buildings and sites rather than relying on historical frameworks. Furthermore, the typo-morphological classification system was inappropriate to the small number of buildings selected by each country.

3To solve the problem, Docomomo International engaged in a far-reaching experiment aimed at listing heritage according to broad key notions or concepts, instead of building types, dates, and styles. At the 10th international Docomomo conference in Ankara, Turkey, in 2006, the correspondents agreed to focus on the concept of “otherness” in modern architecture for the creation of the international register. This option, involving balancing the techniques of interpretative vision against those of formal analysis, seemed likely to open up the discourse to views and concepts, instead of limiting it to the buildings themselves. In many ways, the effort resembled the national listing campaign led by English Heritage in the late 1990s, entitled of “The Spirit of Optimism.” The idea “Other Modernisms,” as the call for papers emphasized, was to engage correspondents in the creation of a register based on their own interpretation of the theme, instead of a vision of modern architecture deriving from the two perspectives mentioned earlier, esthetic or technical variations on classical themes, or as mainstream expressions endowed with regional features. The new postulate led to many fruitful exchanges challenging the concept that the modern movement in architecture had originated in Europe and America and progressively invaded other countries. Docomomo’s large geographic representation helped show that many national modern expressions had not yet gained their place in international historiographies. This blindness was due in part to the narrowness of the Western definition of modernity, but even more to the lack of studies and inventories available on territories outside the West.

4One significant issue was the need to redefine the canonical expression of modern architecture. A wide range of its adaptations and variations still considered as being “other” and therefore outside the iconic inventory deserve reconsideration. Denmark, for example, chose to focus on late 1960s architecture and “Futurist Funkiness” as expressions of otherness. The Abstracta bus shelter, designed in 1962 by Poul Cadovius, a self-taught architect and a leading innovator at the time, is a giant, mushroom-like fiberglass bubble. This simple invention, with all of its imaginative appeal and geometric simplicity, is an example of a lesser known structure that is a remarkable expression, in its own right, of modern technology and modern design, made for a modern way of life. Japan included in its selection the Chochiku-kyo Villa—“Villa of the Sound of the Breeze in a Bamboo Grove”—built by the architect Koji Fujii in 1928. Its modernity was embodied by the integration of technical alterations to the ventilation systems (such as the induction of vertical air flow by stack effect, cross ventilation under the floor, dividing of air space in the wall, and ventilating through an air stack) while respecting the forms of traditional architecture. Scotland selected an architect, Basil Spence, emblematic of “The Otherness of Tradition”—another example of the amplitude offered by Docomomo’s innovative approach to the survey. Basil Spence, one of Scotland’s foremost 20th-century architects, regarded himself as both a “modern” designer and an upholder of “tradition.” He forcibly argued that to be modern was, in fact, to participate in the true tradition of architecture. His work illustrates a variety of hybrid “modern traditional” responses to social, physical, and national contexts, and to the condition of modernity. For example, he designed a private mansion that is an assemblage of parts from various Scottish houses, subtly challenged by large window apertures and a modern inner distribution, with large rooms on the ground floor.

5Overall, basing the international selection on a concept rather than on fiches and building types proved to be much more productive. Requiring an explanatory text for each selection was especially relevant. Correspondents had to go beyond the traditional description of architectural solutions and their formal diversity within a same typology. They had to identify the concept behind the selection. As a result, the survey repaired the broken link between the practice of inventories and the language of architectural history, revitalizing the dry, repetitive building descriptions usually found in lists and inventories. By integrating the description of “works into words” within the description of “concepts into words,” the Register Project reached a different level of analysis, more interpretative and inevitably more subjective, but much richer and more fruitful as a means of discussing the individual and collective spirit of the modern movement. Well thought-out writing is the utmost asset of such an ambition, the understanding of architecture being intimately embedded within words. Even when they are collected on an international scale, photographs and fiches are still inanimate tools. Their lives depend on the scholar’s ability to transform them into words. As Goethe claimed, “A scholar can be seen as a poet, and even more, as a talented poet… He sees with his eyes, he seizes ineffable works of art with his spirit but, nevertheless, he also needs to possess them with words and letters.”

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Émilie d’Orgeix, « Possessing Architecture with Words and Letters »ABE Journal [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 27 février 2012, consulté le 06 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Émilie d’Orgeix

Scientific advisor, INHA, Paris, France

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