Universal language of forms

Ed Taverne read the book European Architecture since 1890 by Hans Ibelings. He was impressed by the overview of architecture in Europe offered by Ibelings but questions his view of architectural history.

Architecture is very complex, but this complexity is not reflected in today’s architectural history. (Carlo Olmo)

Now that Auke van der Woud has definitively exposed the architect H.P. Berlage as an innovator of Dutch architecture, I start to hyperventilate lightly each time I come near one of his buildings. That didn’t happen to me recently in the centre of Kiev when I unexpectedly came face to face with the Bessarabs’ka market hall: the stylistic likeness of the Berlage Stock Exchange, but much less ‘dogmatic’ and truly public in the sense of part of the daily life of the city. The Bessarabs’ka is one of the seven big market halls dating from the time that Kiev was the third capital city of the Russian empire. Commissioned by a Russian sugar baron, the building was constructed between 1910 and 1912 by Henrik Gai, an architect from Warsaw. Walking through the building was a real sensation for me, and I wonder just how much that experience was linked to the realisation that, through the architecture, I was connected to the network of European cities.

It is regrettable that Hans Ibelings, is his book on European architecture, never succeeds for a moment in communicating to the reader any identification with or awareness of something as vague as the sense of ‘Europeanness’. True, he has written an impressive overview about architecture in Europe but he offers no answer to the question to what extent those hundreds of often entirely unfamiliar buildings have anything to do with one another. Indeed, Ibelings thinks that, viewed historically, there are no causal connections and if there are any, they are stories dreamt up subsequently by historians.
European Architecture since 1890 is a book that extends the lines first drawn by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Outline of European Architecture (1943). It is a typical overview from an art-historical perspective in which architecture is reduced to styles, movements and players. But whereas that dry-as-dust approach stems in the case of Pevsner from a recognisably Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and sobriety, with Ibelings it is a matter of explicit aversion to a whole generation of critical architectural historians who, since Pevsner, have turned the field of study into a fully fledged historical discipline.

The book consists of four thematically and four chronologically ordered chapters, each of which is lavishly illustrated with a total of 750 images the size of postage stamps. In the first chapters Ibelings shows how, with a purely stylistic approach, you can reveal the connections between architecture on the one hand and the city, the state and society on the other. He is rightly sceptical about this and does not actually come much further than a classification according to types and factors that avoids any further interpretation of architecture as a language. On numerous occasions this results in bizarre generalisations or, as in the examination of similarities and differences between East and West, to gross simplifications: ‘The external differences between architecture and urban development on either side of the Iron Curtain were often not all that great. Notwithstanding the uniqueness of individual works, it can be argued that between 1945 and and 1989 related stylistic developments occurred, usually based on similar ideas about society and the built environment. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to claim that for almost every project on one side of the Iron Curtain, a related, similar or equivalent project can be found on the other side. There is at best one major difference: the circumstances under which the architecture came about.’ But that is precisely what architectural history is about, or at least should be about: an analysis of the social, political and technical context in which architecture as subject and product — in short, as process — functions. Brushing aside crucial themes such as power, professionalisation, decision-making and construction management, to name just a few, makes architectural history an infantile pursuit and reduces Ibelings’s overview to a noncommittal album full of exotic stamps.

As a read, I constantly kept asking myself what the real motive was for writing this book. Midway through the overview, in the chapter on ‘History and historiography’, Ibelings comes out with it. It is the ideal of an architectural history without borders, that of a truly transnational perspective that, liberated from all geographic, political, historical and disciplinary obstacles, reveals: ‘parallel and contradictory developments, contrasts and harmonies, similarities and differences’. And after that he hopes that revealing such ‘parallel connections’ will prompt a closer examination of possible intersections in history. So it’s a brief, on the basis of a sort of Schengen Agreement, set for a new generation of architectural historians after the older ones have been dumped aside as totally blind, limited and biased.

Exactly what such a ‘pan-European’ historiography would look like is the subject of the final four chapters in which the history of ‘the’ European architecture is outlined chronologically (Until 1914/1917-1939/1945-1989/After 1989). It is clear, now that the minefields of theory, analysis, semiotics et cetera are behind us, that Hans Ibelings is on comfortable ground where he can move with much less aggression and less frenetically. These chapters form the real heart of the book and, owing to the wide assortment of familiar and unknown buildings and architects, provide valuable material for ‘another’ history of architecture in Europe from the last two centuries. But that is not the real message of Ibelings’s overview. He wants to show how the historical panorama of two centuries of European architecture is dominated by a search for the contemporary: the irrepressible desire ‘to be modern’. An aspiration that, in contrast to what architectural historians would have us believe, the architects of the Modern Movement did not have a monopoly on, but that ‘led to fascinating results throughout Europe’. Expressionism, Art Deco, Classicism, Functionalism, Monumentalism, Traditionalism or Regionalism, you name it, they all flow together into one big stylistic continuum that ‘can be described as both global and modern’. And it is precisely thanks to laying bare this pan-European kinship of forms that European architecture can at last acquire its rightful position in global architecture.

An appealing idea I think, but I cannot picture it as an historian. If it is ultimately about the positioning of European architecture within a global perspective, then style is an inadequate category. And I would much sooner think of a more precise mapping of the dissemination and materiality of European architecture and of an analysis of the architectural dimension of migration and colonialism, historical processes in which Europe played, and still plays, a crucial role. And such matters are scarcely touched on in this book. Architecture is, despite what Hans Ibelings would have us believe, a complex affair, and the task of architectural history is to explain that complexity. What is more, a stylistic Esperanto is, I fear, of little use.