Posted on Spyridon Papapetros (Princeton University) presents “The Prearchitectonic Condition: Modern Architecture and Prehistory”

“Can there be a world without architecture? Is there an “arche” that precedes the appearance of tectonics? Such prearchitectonic condition was envisioned by a number of architectural writers during the late 1940s, when, confronted with the ravages of World-War-II as well as specters of modern architecture’s ending, modernist architectural historians tried to answer these fundamental questions by studying the earliest traces of human creativity in prehistoric art and architecture. During the first decades after the war, historians such as Sigfried Giedion and Bruno Zevi reinterpreted a number of recently discovered prehistoric monuments, yet only to corroborate theoretical principles that were already in use by modernist critics. This presentation focuses on Giedion’s research on prehistory, parts of which date from the 1940s and leading up to his 1957 Mellon lectures on “Constancy and Change in Early Art and Architecture,” as well as the publication of the first volume of The Eternal Present in 1962 titled “The Beginnings of Art.” Emphasis is given on archival documents from Giedion’s visits to prehistoric sites, the early drafts of his manuscripts, and his correspondence with archaeologists and paleoanthropologists, such as Edmund Snow Carpenter, Abbé Lemozi, Abbé Breuil, and André Lehroi Gourhan, who later wrote a rather negative review of Giedion’s book in an anthropological journal. Following Gourhan, Giedion’s greatest strength was also his weakness, namely the quasi-photographic treatment of his material—a type of viewing which could capture surface similarities, but failed to penetrate into the fundamental discontinuities of each layer. Abstraction, transparency, simultaneity and movement were the formal principles detected by Giedion on the rock tracings of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian periods, and visually rhymed by the historian next to the works of modern artists, such as Braque, Harp, and Klee, within a process of reciprocal Gestaltung. A similar form of simultaneity applied to Giedion’s historiographic method: by juxtaposing the fossils of prehistory with the prognostications of post-histoire, Giedion invented a pre/post/erous history—not only a prehistory but also a new history—of modern architecture. The study of prehistoric origins could uncover not only causes of modernity’s present crisis, but also signs of architecture’s futures past.”

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