After Empirical
February 27-28
230 College St. Toronto

Session 5
Saturday February 28, 3:45 PM

The Use and Misuse of History

George Baird - University of Toronto
Eve Blau - Harvard Graduate School of Design
Margaret Crawford - University of California, Berkeley
Kazys Varnelis - Columbia University
+Richard Sommer - moderator - University of Toronto

In the latter half of the twentieth century, a number of influential urbanists and architects used historical models, and the idea of precedent, to challenge the utilitarian basis of functionalist planning. Influenced by a European debate in the 1960’s between advocates of structuralism and phenomenology, Aldo Rossi introduced the idea of the “urban artifact”, recasting the city as a cultural product. In North America, theorists and practitioners investigated historical precedents of various urban fabrics, posing them as an alternative to the putatively a-contextual, object qualities of Modern Architecture. J.L. Sert’s humanism and Colin Rowe’s contextual formalism, both appropriated the spatial and civic qualities of the preindustrial city as a basis for the emergent practice of urban design.

Amidst political and economic transitions in the 1970s, urbanists would also freight history with an ideological purpose. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City (1978) and Rob Krier’s Urban Space (1977) legitimized the use of older models of compact urban form as the counter to a “sprawling” condition they attributed to capitalist urbanization. With a less explicitly political motivation, New Urbanists adopted the gridiron American city of early industrialization, as empirical evidence of good city form that could be transformed and re-applied to reform a dispersed suburbia.

After a lag among the most recent generation, a perhaps new use of history seems to have emerged. The work of architect-educators such as Pier Vittorio Aureli at the AA in London, and Christ and Gantembein at the ETH in Zurich, have reasserted history as field to establish an urban architecture in between political engagement and disciplinary autonomy. In the light of these more recent experiences, this panel will explore history and precedent as source of inspiration and legitimacy to engage, or escape from, the complexity of the contemporary city.