1

Margaret Hedeman & Matt Kristoffersen. Art History Department to scrap survey course. Yale News (January 2020)

2

Interview conducted by Anatxu Zabalbeascoa. Kenneth Frampton: “Los rascacielos no son arquitectura, solo dinero” (“Skyscrapers Aren’t Architecture, They’re Just Money”). Published in El País Semanal (March 2017).

3

Rushdie’s article “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance”, a clear play on the title of the film “The Empire Strikes Back”, gave rise to a book covering the post-colonial debate in the world of literature: Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

On Architecture that is “Too White, Male, and Western”

Image: The Great Mosque of Djenné, in Mali. Image by Ruud Zwart in Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Although the history of architecture is subject to constant revision, new forms of analysis have recently taken on such importance that they are shaking its very foundations.

Not long ago, Yale University announced that one of its art history courses was too “white, male, and western” for its teaching not to be completely reconsidered.1 Controversy, amplified as always by the tabloid media, was soon to follow. The thing is, the signs of the times and, especially, the American university market are now experiencing a period of notable—and highly contagious—schizophrenia. How can art history be taught in a university where at least half of the paying students do not identify with the parameters proposed? And at a deeper level, how can the values of multiculturalism be defended when even the policies of the country embracing such teachings are attempting to set up barriers to avoid the cultural wealth and eclecticism generated by immigration?

Ninety-year-old historian Kenneth Frampton expressed a firm desire to revise his influential work “A Critical History of Modern Architecture” using similar arguments: “In the last revision I do not want to present a Eurocentric world: architecture in China, India or Africa is also part of the planet”.2 Today, however, we need to ask ourselves whether even the term “critical regionalism” itself, to which Frampton owes his success as a historian, is not an intrinsically Eurocentric concept. In other words, could it have been coined by someone with a sense of place or culture alien to the world of western references? And should its discovery therefore be reconsidered or abandoned? The reply to such questions is as pressing as it is problematic. In fact, how can a history of architecture or of art be built up without falling into the assumptions of the western, white, male world if, ultimately, the very concept of art history first appeared precisely in that now sinister world? All these questions have their roots in the never-ending debate over “post-colonialism”. It’s just that the feeling of guilt floating around in that debate is itself eminently “colonial” and represents a real problem that affects our own sense of the past.

It’s not only a strictly post-modern issue (although many post-modern thinkers have addressed it), or even a question of method: it’s also something that’s intrinsic to the western system and mental structure. The Eurocentric bias of architecture that is today so questioned makes it necessary to find “masterpieces” and “creators” outside its own canons. A secondary canon is now a pressing need. But so far in the 21st century, it has been almost impossible to implement such a canon in the teaching of architecture at any school in the world with a minimum of credibility. However many famous figures have appeared in the world of African, Indian, or Chinese architecture, the question of whether past “masterpieces” from those places are worthy of study is full of pitfalls: because the reply would almost certainly involve degrading the typically western, competitive idea of “value” or redefining the very concept of “masterpiece”.

I don’t think there can be any argument about our duty to showcase historically less privileged groups of creators. That’s something that must be done and, in that respect, meticulous attention should be paid to compiling a list of works outside the umbilicocentric spotlight of western academia. But it only seems possible to rectify this flagrant imbalance from the present, looking towards the future.

When we see statues being pulled down all over the place (either literally or figuratively), it cannot be forgotten that such actions today are only possible thanks to the series of events which led to the erection of many of those statues in the first place. This is unsettling and paradoxical because it means not exonerating the past of its responsibilities and yet at the same time not overlooking the fact that that same past can no longer make amends. Perhaps it wouldn’t even know how to.

Today more than ever before, then, the teaching of architecture finds itself in what seems to be a dead end. Perhaps the solution can only come from architecture that truly, intimately represents that secondary canon. As well-known anti-colonialist Salman Rushdie said, “the Empire writes back with a vengeance”.3 In other words, the only architects who seem qualified to provide an answer are those who, through their works, resist and subvert our view of the past. Only someone far removed from the Parthenon or from San Pietro in Montorio can transmute them in the manner Césaire did with Shakespeare’s characters Prospero and Caliban.

The question is whether they will be able do so from outside a space so intrinsically linked to the West as the University.


Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Notas de página
1

Margaret Hedeman & Matt Kristoffersen. Art History Department to scrap survey course. Yale News (January 2020)

2

Interview conducted by Anatxu Zabalbeascoa. Kenneth Frampton: “Los rascacielos no son arquitectura, solo dinero” (“Skyscrapers Aren’t Architecture, They’re Just Money”). Published in El País Semanal (March 2017).

3

Rushdie’s article “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance”, a clear play on the title of the film “The Empire Strikes Back”, gave rise to a book covering the post-colonial debate in the world of literature: Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Autor:
Arquitecto y docente; hace convivir la divulgación y enseñanza de la arquitectura, el trabajo en su oficina y el blog 'Múltiples estrategias de arquitectura'.

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