Should we strive for an awareness of the past or its imitation?

Bauakademie, Berlin, Karl Schinkel, 1836 and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers, 1977

Alex Potts describes Schinkel’s approach to history and interest in the “continued development of mankind” as being reminiscent of Hegel’s. Schinkel believed that “perfection in architecture could not be limited to the particular forms of architecture evolved by one nation but rather that ‘the perfection of architecture as a whole may well be precipitated in the endless succession of time’” (51). According to this understanding of history, therefore, good architecture is necessarily different from its precedents. It engages them by being different. It internalizes history and expresses its respect for history by departing from a tedious repetition of its forms. An imitation, said Schinkel, “marked the end of history, rather than a proper awareness of the historical past” (51). He was more interested in advancing history by “introducing in some way an extra, a new element, into the world” (51).

The Centre Pompidou does this very effectively. It uses new materials and a new language to evoke proportions reminiscent of a Greek temple fa├žade, or perhaps Schinkel’s own Bauakademie. Both buildings are to a certain extent “dishonest” because they use a tectonic language that differs from the materials they employ: the Bauakademie uses masonry in the style of industrial materials, and the Centre Pompidou exaggerates its technological expression.

Supposing we accept Schinkel’s idea of history (which, by the way, is very similar to Venturi’s idea of an awareness of historical context), how far does a building need to go before it has stopped engaging with history, and who decides?

Consider the following building by Zaha Hadid Architects. Does its fragmented interior not evoke Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie? Does the lighting not remind you of Le Corbusier’s Ferminy Church?


Berlin Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun, 1960-63, and Ferminy Church, Le Corbusier, 1971-2006

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