Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen on Untimely Moderns

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen on Untimely Moderns

This presentation and conversation are excerpted from the transcript of the October 30, 2023, event celebrating the publication of Pelkonen’s book Untimely Moderns: How Twentieth-Century Architecture Reimagined the Past (Yale University Press, 2023).

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen: All my work tends to be a little bit autobiographical; it is my way of processing my experiences and encounters at Yale. I have to admit that it has taken me thirty years to figure this place out. When I first arrived to the Gothic campus and saw that some of the buildings had been built as late as 1932, when Le Corbusier built Villa Savoye, I thought to myself: “What is wrong with the Americans?” Europeans have this image of America being the country of the future—at least that’s how its been portrayed in the histories of modern architecture—so I had no intellectual tools to process this temporal nonsynchronicity at that time. The project started with this confusion and enigma: Why would anyone living in the present be so preoccupied with the past?

Untimely Moderns narrates all these strange temporal constructs that populated American architectural discussion from the late 1920s onward, such as the term new tradition, coined by Henry-Russell Hitchcock in the late 1920s, and appropriated by Sigfried Giedion for his 1941 book Space, Time, and Architecture; the idea of the “presence of the past,” put forward by philosopher Paul Weiss and popularized by Louis Kahn in his writings; and perhaps most importantly, fluid temporal imaginaries like time having a “duration” or “shape,” put forward respectively by two great formalist art historians who form the intellectual spine of my book, namely Henri Focillon and his student George Kubler. This idea of architecture being a medium of time—one that can bend and reshape time, and make time weird—lays at the heart of my story.

The uniquely American discovery of tradition began when young literary critic Van Wyck Brooks wrote a very influential essay called “The Usable Past,” in 1918. He had been a classmate of T. S. Eliot at Harvard, where the two studied with Charles Eliot Norton. Brooks was the first to posit that artists should study past works intentionally for the benefit of their own work. Eliot echoed the thesis in his much cited essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” the following year. It is not that we are reading about the past for its own sake; we are looking for what we can make of it. In his words, “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence.” The idea is to study history operatively as a kind of design aid.

A new way of teaching architectural history to design students converged with this pragmatic idea of making the past “usable.” A key figure in the Yale context was Henri Focillon, a formalist art historian who came from the Sorbonne to Yale in the early thirties. I discovered Focillon when I bought the newly retranslated version of his 1934 book La Vie des Formes (“Life of Forms in Art”) in 1992. In the beginning of the book Focillon writes, “We have no right to confuse the state of the life of forms with the state of social life. …The artist inhabits a country in time that is by no means necessarily the history of its own time.” It follows that the original context that gave birth to a work of art is only tangentially relevant. Artworks continue their lives, as it were, and gain new meanings along the way. Students who are asked to study precedents in the studio should take notice: What counts is our relationship to those things from the past.

George Kubler’s 1962 book, The Shape of Time, was hugely influential and widely read among artists and architecture for that same reason. He introduced the idea that “everything made now is either a replica or variant of something made a little time ago.” When I was teaching a course on Focillon and Kubler with Nicola Suthor in Spring 2017, Kubler’s daughter audited the class. I learned from her not only that Eero Saarinen was Kubler’s classmate at Yale, in the class of 1934, but that they were very good friends and kept in touch in later years. There is a photograph of Saarinen in front of his Gateway Arch with his sketches of various historical arches in the background. He called it “a modern adaptation of a Roman triumphal arch.”

All in all, Untimely Moderns is an intellectual group biography that places debates surrounding modern architecture’s relationship to time and history as part of a larger intellectual conversation that involved not only art historians but also many philosophers. One of them was Paul Weiss, whose lectures were blockbuster events. He was into metaphysics at a time when everybody else was doing analytical philosophy and wrotes articles about topics like “Eternity.” He was a frequent visitor at the architecture school and promoted the idea that architecture was a medium of time. “Architecture,” in his mind, was “determined by the past.” He continued to posit that “almost more than any other enterprise it makes use of the past and tries to achieve a release from it.”

If you’ve ever wondered about the metaphysical bent of Louis Kahn’s writings, it comes from Weiss. Compare, for example, a statement Kahn made in 1972—“What was has always been. What is has always been. What will be has always been”—to a quote from a text Weiss wrote in 1945: “Every existence has a past. All have come to be. Every existence has its effect on future. All make some difference to what will be.” I argue in my book that there was this kind of shared Denkstil, or thinking style, on campus at the time.

Paul Rudolph is one of my very favorite Untimely Moderns. Again, when I first entered his Yale building in late August 1992 I had no intellectual tools to process this weird architecture, but have learned to love it. What’s the point of all these plaster casts on the walls? Rescuing all these old relics from the basement of the Yale Art Gallery was very radical and controversial at the time. Yet Rudolph believed architecture students should be immersed in history while they worked. The building has this wonderful polychromatic time-traveling vibe. I pair him in the book with Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, a self-taught historian and the wife of László Moholy-Nagy. She was amazing! She started to study vernacular architecture way before Bernard Rudofsky, who gets all the credit for promoting nonpedicree architecture. I love her statement, “The purpose of living is strictly nonprogressive,” which counters Modernist ideas like a house should be a machine for living on the basis that basic human needs have stayed the same throughout eons of time.

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to Vincent Scully. I must note that when I first arrived at Yale I could not stand his lectures. I thought the guy was completely nuts. In one of the lectures he drew a parallel between the Vanna Venturi house and a Mayan temple, based on their shared formal motif, the triangle, which he argued made manifest the shared existential strife of their builders. Scully’s contribution was to give formalism this strange psychoanalytical bent. He was, for example, very influenced by Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence (1972) and its central thesis that all the great poets and artists have to wrestle with those before them. Scully’s book The Shingle Style Today: The Historian’s Revenge reads as an homage to Bloom. The fact that by the late twentieth century an architectural historian was one the biggest stars on campus proves my point: modern architecture had become “untimely.”

Alfonse Chiu: I’m curious about how these thinkers you highlighted have taken ideas of time, temporality, and chronology from other cosmological systems—perhaps Indigenous or from East Asian world systems—the kind of intellectual genealogy that goes beyond a very specific Western post-Enlightenment tradition.

ELP: Yes, definitely. While the people I discuss in the book were all educated in the Western intellectual tradition, in fields like art history and philosophy, the obsession with time bears witness to an opening up to other cultures. George Kubler’s and Anni Albers’s studies of Mesoamerican art prove the point.

One of the big questions asked by the art historians I feature in the book was how to teach history to architecture students in a manner that fuels creative imagination, and I often wonder how I can help to bridge the gap between history and design in my own teaching. We conduct precedent studies, but beyond that students seem to be at loss about the value of history.

Anthony Acciavatti: T. S. Eliot started to put footnotes in poems because he was accused of plagiarism. I’m curious about the role of authorship and the way it’s being debated. And then the other question has to do with the canon and its formation. Our sisters and brothers in art history next door have stopped teaching that sequence, as I understand it. So I’m curious if that really is a kind of mistake or more like when David Bowie asked John Lennon what he thought of this work, he said, It’s rock and roll, just with lipstick. So is it really the same thing?

ELP: Throughout the last century there was a big debate about how to absorb history lessons into the creative process. Obviously you shouldn’t copy—that was bad. Scully solved the problem by arguing that the greatest architects process the past subliminally. And that’s why architects need historians: to analyze their historical obsessions. The idea of medium specificity offered another framework. That’s what Anni Albers taught: an artist’s task is to study historical artifacts to learn the basic techniques and, after learning the principal materials and methods, to start playing with them.

Alan Plattus: When I was an undergrad I heard a lecture by Paul Weiss and had much the same reaction you did to Scully: What are these guys talking about? I realized in retrospect was that there was something of a generational divide around 1965, because what history was for Kahn and Weiss was not what history was for Charles Moore or Robert Venturi, who were much more playful, even arbitrary, and certainly in a broader sense, postmodern.

ELP: Yes. Both Venturi and Rudolph started working with images in a manner that allowed them to move very fluidly across time.

Audience Member: Part of the way I’ve been taught that architecture history works is through a linear sense of antithesis. So you have the Renaissance and Mannerism, and you have the Modern and Post-Modern. What are examples of periods where architects realized that all of history was in front of them and usable? Are there examples of architects using these entanglements of history?

ELP: The problem with periodization is that it tends to isolate the high moment of style—the High Renaissance and the High Gothic, for example, yet these were often proceeded by a whole period of trial and error marked by hybridity and impurity.

David Sadighian: Every historical study is in some sense a reflection on the present, and I’m wondering how you found your own position as a fellow time traveler. What contemporary perspectives were brought to bear on this study, specifically working within a moment of the so-called crisis of the humanities?

ELP: A bit of institutional history is relevant in this regard. The midcentury moment I cover in the book is one were the arts occupy center stage in Yale’s humanities-based curricula. I think one of Yale’s greatest presidents was Whitney Griswold. A great patron of architecture, he commissioned the buildings by Kahn and Saarinen. He was the one who came up with the idea of directed studies and saw philosophy as the center around which other disciplines orbit like the stars. I admire the intellectual cross-polination he sponsored. The Perspecta journal was founded in early 1950s as a result of his effort to insert intellectual debate into Yale’s professional schools. I also love the fact that scholars took so many risks in terms of both style and content. Focillon once said that he aimed to write like a poet, while Giedion covered art history from prehistory to the present. It all blended together into a single narrative about what it meant to be human.

Francesco Casetti: I was looking at the image on the cover of your book, which is a good example of the entanglement multitemporalities. We have a building that looks at the past and cars that look to the future, and the tree, which looks to the persistence of nature. These three temporalities, all together in the same image, speak of possible alliances and possible exclusion. For example, the Yale building here shows that in the thirties the University was allied with the cultural past rather than with the present of the cars and trees. So it seems to me that you pose a great question: Which alliances is every building shaping?

ELP: Yale has always put a lot of emphasis on its built environment, with mixed results. The campus is considered part of the education, and those who commissioned the Gothic buildings thought of it as a kind of subliminal machine producing perfect Yalies based on its Anglo-Saxon heritage. The hard-liners used very explicit racist language when noting that Gothic architecture would send a message that the future belongs to White Europeans. It is interesting to consider why contemporary students love the Gothic so much. It may remind them of Hogwarts.