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Making history: Origins, Invention, Revision

James S Ackerman’s final book, featuring previously unpublished essays, is testament to why architectural history is a valid subject in its own right

In the acknowledgements to Origins, Invention, Revision, published one month before he died last December, aged 97, James Ackerman pays tribute to his physicians, ‘Drs. Dale Adler and Tammy Hshieh and their staffs, whose expert and devoted care made it possible for me to continue my work in the last few years’. Readers of this book can share his gratitude. All but one of its eight essays date from after his retirement from Harvard in 1990 and four are previously unpublished. Together they show the range of his work – from the Renaissance studies for which he is best known, to engagement with contemporary architecture and his ‘passage to India’ following a trip there with his wife in 2006, the year he turned 87. 

It’s worth dwelling on the reasons and implications of this range, which few architectural historians of later generations would dare, certainly before retirement. It implies liberation from the strictures of academic assessments, with their associated demands for specialisation and extensive footnotes, in favour of more free-flowing writing and choice of subject. But it also speaks of the opportunities and challenges of Ackerman’s own generation, which showed that architecture was worthy of academic study, initially alongside art though increasingly as a specialism in its own right, acknowledging architecture’s complex relationship with politics, society and economics.

#4.03 petronio1005

#4.03 petronio1005

San Petronio, Bologna, from Giangiorgio Zorzi, Le Chiese e i Ponti di Andrea Palladio, 1967 

Following undergraduate studies with Henri Focillon at Yale, Ackerman moved to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University under Richard Krautheimer and Erwin Panofsky. All three were innovators in what might now be called cultural studies, but Krautheimer in particular was a pioneer of architectural and urban history. Ackerman was in at the point where the subject was beginning to take form and so had the chance to help shape it.

His life might have unfolded into a serious but unspectacular academic career but the Second World War intervened. This took him as a non-commissioned officer in cryptanalysis to Italy, where he honed his skills in drawing and watercolour to record buildings of the period he had been studying in New York. The essay ‘The Liberation of Mantua and Other Unintended Consequences of My Military Service during World War II’ and its illustrations tell this story. Living in Milan after the German surrender ‘kindled … my passion for architectural history’ and led to his two important early publications, The Certosa of Pavia and the Renaissance in Milan, and Ars Sine Scientia Nihil Est (art without science is nothing), his seminal analysis of the intellectual conflicts between Gothic and Renaissance approaches to the completion of Milan Cathedral.

If this essay hints at the strange social, psychological and geographical conditions that made a prolegomenon to first encounters with the subject matter of his career, ‘My Passage to India’ is a similarly autobiographical coda. ‘Soon after arrival’, he writes, ‘we visited three temples, and my perspective on Western architecture was transformed.’ What led to this revelation was the sheer exuberance of carving covering every surface, and its emphasis on narrative rather than Western preoccupations with proportion, space, symmetry and axial relationships. 

#4.04 proposal for san petronio (including existing facade) d2009.06228

#4.04 proposal for san petronio (including existing facade) d2009.06228

Palladio’s proposal with existing facade, 1572. Image: Harvard Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, MA

The transformation was a reassessment of how Western architecture tells stories, from architecturally defined decoration to pure architecture, as in Wright’s Unity Temple and Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp. In essence, the European Renaissance made explicit what had been nascent in the Middle Ages – that architecture as expressed by structure dominated in the Western tradition, while in India it was storytelling as manifested in sculpture that came to the fore. ‘“Hot and cold” was my immediate response to the constraints,’ he writes, ‘“My Passage” with its explicit reference to EM Forster’s novel became a more measured study of how some of those contrasts evolved.’

Writing history through autobiography is the privilege of a long and distinguished career and these late essays give context at the top and tail of it. ‘Art and Evolution’, ‘The Photographic Picturesque’ and ‘On the Origins of Art History’ take a more historiographical approach. As each addresses historiography in a different way, together they give a sense of how Ackerman’s view of this aspect of his subject changed during the course of his career – and how he contributed to the increasing acceptance that architectural history is a valid subject in its own right, which happened over more or less the same period. 

Of these, ‘Art and Evolution’ (1965), is the oldest and oddest. It attempts to resurrect and reposition a rather more cogent version of what Geoffrey Scott (in The Architecture of Humanism) had dismissed half a century earlier as ‘the biological fallacy’. He argues that just because 19th-century historians, ‘noticing a parallel to biological evolution … misinterpreted Darwin … does not mean that their attempt was misplaced or doomed from the start …’ Styles, he continues in what now seems a very dated view, are the equivalents of biological phyla, each with their historical development and distributaries. It is quite easy to dismiss any direct relationship between biological and human sciences, but to frame and explain complex emerging concepts in the latter, metaphors borrowed from elsewhere can be very helpful. 

Such arguments belong more to a ‘free association’ school of ideas than to the ever-hardening conventions of academic argument and so can have a valuable role in opening new territory. ‘The Photographic Picturesque’ is more successful in this light because there is an intuitive compatibility between the method and subject of investigation – photography – which recognises the existence of a relationship between technology and contemporary artistic ideas that was historically contingent, best explored through historians’ techniques. Early photographers followed the conventions of picturesque image-making, for instance using foliage to conceal all but a few tempting glimpses of buildings. As its techniques and capabilities improved, photography began to move beyond the conventions of painting and print-making, though its own culture and traditions retained a debt to the past.

#6.05 dharanvihara sri girnar satrunjaya patta. ranakpur, temple 032716

#6.05 dharanvihara sri girnar satrunjaya patta. ranakpur, temple 032716

Broad stele representing peaked roof with traditional Jain shape. Kept above Ackerman’s desk, this image helped him come to his realisation of the difference between Indian and Western architecture, namely that the former privileged narrative over ‘architectural’ expression such as rhythm and structure. Image: American Institute of Indian Studies 

‘The Origins of Architectural Drawing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance’ and ‘The Magnificenza of Palladio’s Late Works and his Legacy Abroad’ are also fruits of conceiving a field in which a specific theme can be studied – as well as the most specific explorations of Renaissance architecture in the book. In the latter, Ackerman draws attention to the different social context of Palladio’s work. In Venice he worked for ‘republican men of affairs committed to the principle of moderation’, while in Vicenza his clients were ‘aristocrats who embraced the display of wealth and privilege’. They embraced the concept of ‘magnificenza’ in different ways: the Venetians as an ethically framed urge to benefit a community, while the Vicentines sought a ‘more triumphal, aristocratic and imperial interpretation … that advertised the rank of the clients and cast aside the demand for modesty and generosity’.

‘The Origins of Architectural Drawing’ explores the broadening intellectual agenda of the Renaissance which saw the emergence of different techniques and artefacts to represent ideas. With paper more freely available and new tools like chalk, drawing took on an increasingly protean role, from the perspectival sketch to orthogonal projection. This in turn both blurred and more sharply defined differences between painting and architecture, and in opening up speculative potential also contributed to the rise of a literary tradition about art which we may call history or criticism.

This theme is also addressed in ‘On the Origins of Art History’ which, for Ackerman, essentially lie in the emergence of this new tradition. Criticism, he argues, is a necessary precursor to historical study in part because it creates the specific terms and intellectual space in which such study can take place. 

So it is refreshing to see a 95 year old writing about Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris in 2014: the essay shows many of the characteristics identified above, in its discussion of photography, drawing and intuitively convincing but historiographically unnerving juxtaposition of images such as paintings by Franz Kline and Emilio Vedova with an artfully chosen architectural detail. Such imaginative leaps may be the privilege of age or experience of forming a new discipline, or a combination of such factors, but they refreshingly challenge the conventions of academic study and remind critics and scholars alike that empathy and an eye, free association and intuition are vital attributes in trying to understand and explain the complexities of architecture.

Origins, Invention, Revision: Studying the History of Art and Architecture

Author: James S Ackerman

Publisher: Yale University Press