Authors: Sigfried Giedion

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Swiss historian

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Space, Time, and Architecture, 1941, 5th edition, revised and enlarged, 1967

Mechanization Takes Command, 1948

A Decade of Contemporary Architecture, 1937-1947, 1954

Walter Gropius, Work and Teamwork, 1954, reissued 1992

Architecture, You and Me, 1958

The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art, 1962

The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Architecture, 1964

Architecture and the Phenomena of Transition, 1971

Biography

At his death in 1968, Sigfried Giedion (GEE-dee-awn) had earned an international reputation as the principal historian of twentieth century architecture and its Baroque antecedents. He was also widely recognized as a leading advocate of architecture’s modern movement: combinations of emotion, art, and novel technology embodied in the plans and constructions of Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tony Garnier, Robert Maillart, Alvar Aalto, Charles Èdouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Mïes van der Rohe, Jørn Utzon, José Serts, Kenzo Tange, and Fumihiko Maki. Moreover, Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture, a highly literate, philosophically informed, and beautifully illustrated survey of major architectural developments from their seventeenth century Baroque heritage to the mid-twentieth century, provided a generation of architects with a singularly clear explanation of those elements that distinguished modern architecture.{$I[AN]9810001892}{$I[A]Giedion, Sigfried}{$I[geo]SWITZERLAND;Giedion, Sigfried}{$I[tim]1888;Giedion, Sigfried}

Born into an upper-middle-class Swiss family in 1888, Giedion initially studied in Vienna to become an engineer. Distressed by the unimaginative traditionalism of his profession, however, he undertook studies with the distinguished Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. Wölfflin, who taught at major Swiss and German universities from 1893 until 1934, gained renown for his aesthetic system, which was summarized in his acclaimed Kunstgeschichtliche grundbegriffe (1915; Principles of Art History, 1932). Wölfflin’s distinction lay in his integration of the late nineteenth century’s new psychological insights with cultural history in order to understand better the nature of the creative process. It was this complex process evident in the relations between art, architecture, and culture that engaged Wölfflin’s friend Giedion for the remainder of his life.

As a historian, Giedion considered dominant developments in architecture to be accurate revelations of the character of an age and indicators of change and continuity. Realizing that the seventeenth century’s cosmological approach to knowledge was no longer valid in the increasingly specialized and scientific twentieth century, he therefore sought connections between the sciences and the arts in the “unintended parallelism” in their methods. In turn, such parallelisms, he believed, illuminated broad cultural patterns and–when scientific and artistic methods of thinking and feeling closely coincided–determined the cultural unity or equilibrium of an epoch. Aware of early twentieth century advances in the sciences, Giedion also understood the new perceptions of time and space embodied in the painting and sculpture of cubists, futurists, and other abstract artists. Giedion therefore was well equipped to explore the unconscious connections linking modern science and modern art.

In accord with his precept as a historian that “the observer must be in the center of the picture,” Giedion in his thirties enjoyed personal and professional relationships with two of the twentieth century’s most influential architects: the German Walter Gropius and the Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier. Gropius was a founder-director of the Bauhaus, an experimental school of art and architecture (1919-1933) that strove to unite art with industrialized society. A revolutionary influence on twentieth century art and architecture, the Bauhaus included among its students and associates such eminent painters as László Moly-Nagy, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky and, in addition to Gropius, such later distinguished architects as Marcel Breuer and Mïes van der Rohe. Giedion was likewise a friend of Le Corbusier, arguably the most influential of twentieth century architects as well as an artist. It was Giedion’s belief in the seminal importance of Le Corbusier’s and Gropius’s ideas that encouraged him to take a leading role in the founding of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in 1928. CIAM assembled the talents of avant-garde architects from twenty-two countries to proclaim their “right to exist against the antagonist forces of official architectural circles.” For twenty-five years, the CIAM persisted in these pursuits, guided by many of the world’s major creative architects.

During the early 1930’s, Giedion joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and shortly afterward moved to Harvard University as chairman of its graduate school of design. Giedion’s significant publications appeared after he was nearly sixty. Like his mentor, Wölfflin, and the great Swiss historian whom Wölfflin succeeded, Jakob Burckhardt, Giedion wrote only after he had acquired a sweeping overview of his subject. Like Space, Time, and Architecture, Giedion’s other writings stressed a few basic themes relevant to an urban age into which both physics and art had introduced new concepts of space and time. Architecture and urbanism thus were related to the twentieth century’s underlying spatial and artistic visions. Spatial and artistic vision, in turn, bore direct relationships to science and technology, the latter opening a range of fresh structural potentialities: great sculptured roofs and entrances, free-standing staircases, glass walls and corners masking slim structural supports, and natural shapes translated into glass and ferroconcrete. Like Gropius and Le Corbusier, Giedion believed that these relationships should encourage the interpenetration of inner and outer spaces, whether in design of a single domestic structure or in the grand plans for new cities.

Not least, Giedion argued strenuously in behalf of morality in architecture. For him, the nineteenth century had nothing noteworthy to show for its architectural efforts; instead, the century evinced a vapid eclecticism that blighted lives with hideous surroundings. Consequently, the architecture inherited by his generation, in the words of Dutch architect Hendrik Berlage, was “Sham architecture; i.e., imitation; i.e., lying.” Giedion described how the revolt against this lying eclecticism erupted suddenly in the 1890’s, as the artists and architects championing l’art moderne battled to establish a new and honest tradition. Giedion associated this new movement with two guiding principles: the rejection of previous historical styles and the adoption of “fitness for purpose” as a criterion by which to measure a work. More important, however, Giedion traced the origins and strength of the modern movement to the fundamental moral demands that arose in protest against the falsification of forms. What the modern movement deemed “real” was invariably covered up, and the underlying character of the age, as well as its future, thereby lacked true expression. Giedion concentrated on identifying those continuities in art and architecture that distinguished particular eras, avoiding discussions of ephemeral “styles.” This did not mean that he dealt only with large-scale, pathbreaking architecture. On the contrary, he found the meaning of an age as readily apparent in details of “intimate spheres”–kitchens, baths, food products, and other domestic surroundings–as in great buildings or in vast urban plans.

Giedion’s writings eloquently advocate the principles of the revolutionary architecture that came to prominence during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. His critics, accordingly, not only challenged some of his facts but also impugned his objectivity. Notwithstanding, Giedion provided one of the clearest and most engaging analyses of the evolution of modern society viewed through architecture: its urban plans, buildings, bridges, houses, and “intimate spheres.” He accomplished this during a time and in a field in which intelligent syntheses were rare.

BibliographyColumbia University School of Architecture. Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture: Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mïes van der Rohe, Wright. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970. Concentrates on a more personalized evaluation of twentieth century architects.Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History, 3d ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992. An architectural specialist, Frampton provides fresh insights on, among other things, the International Style’s deficiencies in the realm of public buildings and monuments.Georgiadis, Sokratis. Siegfried Giedion: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993. Provides criticism, history, and interpretation of Giedion’s life and works.Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. A renowned authority on early Victorian, German renaissance, International Style, and Latin American architecture, Hitchcock contributes both substance and interpretation not available elsewhere in this eminently readable work.Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Setting and Rituals. 1985. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Brilliant and superbly illustrated; a critical approach to the meaning of modern architecture, particularly the “International Style” that Giedion advocated.
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