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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

For a History of Building

The Contribution of Typological History to the General History of the Twentieth Century
Pour une histoire du patrimoine bâti : l’apport de la typologie à l’histoire générale du vingtième siècle
Michaël Darin

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

typologie, histoire de l’architecture

Index by keyword:

typology, architectural history

Indice de palabras clave:

tipología, historia de la arquitectura


Typologie, Architekturgeschichte

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1The history of 20th-century architecture is usually constructed from a small number of architects and buildings: very few, compared to the total architectural production in the last hundred years—the hundreds of thousands of architects at work and the millions of buildings erected all around the world. Many architects and historians feel that quantity does not merit attention. For them, architecture is an artistic activity, and therefore only masterpieces matter. In other fields of artistic endeavor, like poetry, hundreds of thousands of poems are written in every decade, and only a handful survive. However, ordinary buildings are not the equivalent of obscure poetry books, condemned to be pulped or at best buried in library vaults. Regardless of artistic quality, all buildings have their place in the sun. We live in them; they make up our towns and our territories.

2So anyone who wants to understand his or her environment must take account of (artistically) insignificant buildings. This is especially true in an architecture school. Confining one’s interest to unusual architecture alone undermines the very idea of the architect’s profession. This is not to say that we should ignore exceptional buildings. The essence is to combine the small number of the select with the anonymous majority.

3Typological history can help us in this endeavor. Studies focusing on the history of schools, motels, or shopping centers insist on the complexity of any architectural work. Constructing a building depends not only on the architect’s talent, but on a web-like social context that sets the boundaries upon what an individual can and cannot do at a particular historic moment. These boundaries fluctuate, since they reflect the dynamic interaction between a host of agents with different interests or desires and disparate resources (technical, financial, legislative, administrative, etc.), which vary over time. After reading a typological study, on theaters or airports for instance, we suddenly see details we would not have noticed before. The specimen becomes part of a species.

4These studies show that each architect has some room for personal action: general trends do not preclude a range of variations born of the ingenuity (or incompetence) exhibited by individual architects in their work. Still, some architects have more impact than others, insofar as certain aspects of their buildings become models for other architects. Indeed, in typological history, there are always architects who, though outside the elite of their profession, strongly influence the development of a type. For example, an architect named Cordier, who designed five schools in Paris in the late 19th century, inspired many architects building schools in that city. Another example: even the briefest history of shopping centers highlights Victor Gruen’s buildings, because they became models for others to copy.

5Note that typological history does not rule out the appearance of big names, either. For example, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building is the archetype of those high-rise office blocks, designed as metal-and-glass boxes sitting on a plaza. In the history of airports, Dulles Airport in Washington, dc, designed by Eero Saarinen, inspired airport terminals worldwide for generations. Finally, Le Corbusier can be seen as the sire of all dwellings with double-height living rooms.

6Often it is difficult to know the origins of typological conventions. They develop in such a loose way that it is as if they were self-generating. For example, for decades, the layout of high-rise office blocks was based on a T-shaped office design: two offices on the outer wall linked to the corridor by the secretaries’ office. It was only when air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting became widespread that this layout disappeared, replaced by thicker platforms surrounding a nucleus always essentially consisting of elevators and toilets. Most builders follow professional habits without knowing their source: concrete pylons were and are erected virtually everywhere in the world by builders who have never even heard of Le Corbusier.

7Famous architects also follow social conventions without questioning them. Even the most eccentric individual is incapable of challenging everything that surrounds him. This is why it is important to understand the typological conventions that set the context even for famous designs, too often isolated from ordinary production. Without this context, the masterpieces may be poorly understood. Take the villas of Palladio, particularly their central component, a sort of large reception room leading to less grandiose rooms. When we compare this room to the different porteghi (long reception rooms resembling enormous corridors in both shape and function) and their position in 13th-century Venetian palaces, it is easier to understand both Palladio’s geometric innovations and his contemporaries’ willingness to live in such spaces.

8When we follow a typological map through the history of 20th-century architecture, we discover a landscape quite different from the one we have come to know through a history that has its roots in Vasari’s approach. Two factors explain this shift. Firstly, the buildings of famous 20th-century architects are often—deliberately—abnormal, since they are meant to satisfy the need for distinction, the hunger for (mainly formal) innovation. Secondly, these exceptional buildings represent a small number of types. They are primarily houses (in fact the subcategory of so-called “architect-designed houses”), office buildings, or museums (especially towards the end of the century). However, although the hit parade—the list of buildings most cited in books of general history of the period—stands at the margins of typological history, the two types of history meet. Certain architectural masterpieces play a key role in the evolution of a type, and even the most unusual designs bow to typological convention in some respect. These combinations may form one of the focuses of a history of buildings that would help release prestigious architecture from its artistic gated community.

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Référence électronique

Michaël Darin, « For a History of Building »ABE Journal [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 02 février 2012, consulté le 01 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Michaël Darin

Professor, École nationale supérieure d’architecture, Strasbourg, France

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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