Wednesday, 18 September 2013

History Today (The Prologue)

We have a tendency to keep history at arms length. Perhaps we are preoccupied, certainly easily distracted, and possibly distrustful. We may even be nervous. Today’s most capable critics, those adept on television (take Jonathan Meades or Matthew Collings) have developed quirky, edgy, personas as they swoop down on the historically tasty. This makes them entertaining and this makes good television; the media is the message, and no doubt tomorrow’s critics will pod cast at will and shift the message some more. We should certainly acknowledge that they are not talking about history in the way EH Gombrich, AJP Taylor, or Kenneth Clark would have half a century ago, people who did not necessarily understand television at all, and who were still doggedly transferring the book, the lecture theatre, or the radio to the new format. That the medium was the message did not occur to them, it took Elvis to understand that, and shake his hips. So history today is at once massively available to us, and murkily distant, it has being made personal, we pick and choose. Never has the word ‘like’ assumed so much importance, even if we don’t necessarily know why.
Books remain, but scholarship has assumed an ever-weightier mantle. Even the dedicated Marxist scholars have found themselves shoved to the end of the sock, locked in ever closer scrutiny of cause and effect, contemplating more and more about what seems less and less. The superstructure of knowledge demands they do just that, but in doing so, it is not so much ivory towers they isolate themselves within, but more giant cruise ships, great academic edifices like MIT or Yale, with their curious lack of destination and intractable handling.
But even within the pseudo idyll of the academic cruise liner, sometimes the shudder, that congruence of vibrations that periodically racks top to bottom, bow to stern, reminds us that we are in, after all, a delicate (ne creaky) man made structure. Dons, much envied in privilege and lifestyle perhaps, sense something afoot. On smaller vessels such as my own we have felt the tack and turn almost incessantly. 
It is a sense that although the essential elements of architecture might not have changed for three thousand years (it remains the provision of physical and mythical accommodations) that everybody is suddenly obsessed with change, even admitting that change might actually not be for the better, that inspires. As a response, each course I now teach on the history and theory of architecture has become an elaborate road map as to where we are now, because that is precisely what is missing when you pick and mix, when you dive about willy-nilly. Understanding the road map should lead to a better understanding of your next step.
Not so long ago, this enterprise, history such as this, might have been titled ‘A History of Architecture from Ancient Greece to the Present-Day’, with a silent emphasis on the present-day, and it would have invariably tripped up on certain parts for want of enthusiasm or expertise. Certain parts (say, the Normans) happened a long time ago, and were a bit dull, and so on. Authors came over a little patronising in their energy to get to the exciting bit at the end. My apologies to Sigfried Giedion but the cry seemed to go: ‘Look! And here we are now! The climax of it all! A load of tubular steel furniture!’ Imagine that with a thick Swiss accent.
There was, or is (for it necessarily prevails) often an unfortunate sense that modern man is somehow superior. If we didn’t think this the history of the western world might seem a terrible waste of effort. We should understand that there has been progress, but it is not exactly Darwinian, things may have got better, but we are not superior. It has been a struggle not an accident, and our development (such as it is) has to be appreciated to be sustained, or be sustainable.
There is also the equal and opposite tendency to state the opposite; that the men and women of today (and especially it’s youth) are interested in nothing but base-jumping dogs and posting pictures of their lunch-box on Facebook; that this generation will never appreciate DH Lawrence, let alone Le Corbusier, and all we get now, in architecture at least, is funny shaped buildings backed up with fairy tales of justification. This is also a recurrent historical theme. Older generations pour scorn on ‘youth of today’, on the current situation, just as armies are only equipped to fight the last type of war. However, as I discovered myself- when I posted my first dog picture on Facebook, I was no better. When I crossed that Rubicon, I realised the Normans would have loved nothing better than posting their rampart jumping dogs on Facebook too, if only they’d had the apparatus to do so.
So both the silent patronization of the past, and the comfortable contempt for the present, are to be avoided, because history has the capacity to continually amaze us with just how smart people have been whenever and whatever the circumstances over the last three thousand or so years, no-matter that the tools to hand might have been ‘primitive’, or their social order ‘monstrous’. For instance even the Roman poet Lucretius understood that the lowest particle size was atomic, and beyond that there was nothing (that there was something, and then there was nothing) and furthermore that two nothings couldn’t make a something. By understanding this he demolished the supernatural. He said even if you believe in god, magic, or whatever, it simply didn’t exist, it was, indeed, a question of belief. He was the first materialist, and he was Roman, and even he got much of his material from Epicurus.
Meanwhile I can watch one of the worst films currently on rotation on TCM, a truly rotten film called Escape to Athena (1979). It is a most bemusing film in many ways, not least for it’s casting of Roger Moore as a Nazi commandant (personally I cannot imagine anybody less suited to playing a Nazi commandant in 1979 than Roger Moore, unless I consider John Le Mesurier). In the film David Niven plays a prisoner who happens to be an archaeologist and he discovers the ancient remains of the house of an archaeologist! At least somebody in Lew Grade’s rather curious pantheon had his or her historical wits about them. They had realised that it was not just us doing it, they did it too.
In narratives of the type I present, there is always the question of what to include and what not. My response is that the world of things I do not know about should act as a complement to those I do. I’m thinking of a colleague who understands reggae music, ‘it’s just as important what you don’t play’ he says. To use this analogy, my absences, be them Chinese dynasties, Indian civilizations, Babylonian Empires or the architectures of higher beings from outer space; are gaps, not nothings. I believe in them, but they are not there. Keith Richards used open tuning to make those fabulous big one finger major cords come alive for Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar, Jumping Jack Flash, Start Me Up and so on, and he employed lots of delicious gaps. He remains an inspiration.
Above: Woods and Trees (geddit?) Pushkin Strss, Berlin.

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