Looking at Architectural History today and the Problems of Banister Fletcher’s: A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method

  • Kaustav Ghosh, Architectural Historian and Theorist

Once we start discussing history, in general, we dive into information often neglecting our own histories with history. We have taken for granted that studying history doesn’t encompass our lived experiences with events or objects, rather restricts itself to information pertaining to the period when it is conceived. So, for instance, by the history of World War I, we would normally talk about the course of events that relate directly with the war; not the hours of despair and determination associated with the mugging of information. Such dissociations of history from personal experiences raises one big question— why should history (or the past) matter to us today in any way? History, as a modern-day discipline, has its associations with the vanity of knowledge (a form of intellectual narcissism) instead of being the way of a contextual comprehension. The case is not much different if we narrow our focus to architectural history— students absorbing tons of information out of compulsion to score well in GATE/other competitive tests, or to uphold informative and intellectual narcissism, or maybe with an intense desire to preserve the past with little regard and respect for the present and the future. (Of course, there are exceptions to this reduced generalization, but I am highlighting mainstream thoughts). With the questions regarding the appropriation of history already in place, it is time to investigate the popular source of the discourse of architectural history— Banister Fletcher’s seminal book, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.

A History of Architecture On The Comparative Method – Sir Banister Fletcher (1954)

The framework of the book is based on a “comparative” approach to history— description of architecture in terms of elements, ornaments and dimensions, and inter-stylistic comparison— something which makes history easy to remember through short points, tables and sketches (but makes it difficult to understand the architectural meaning embodied in history that could be contextualized today). Amidst this ideology of easy and simple knowledge-sharing comes the first question— if a civilization, or in other words, a way of life gets reduced to just descriptive and comparative stylistic impressions, how can architecture still be justified as a translation of human rituals, practices and habits into a habitat of psychosomatic health? Has architectural history, or, history in general, always been perceived as the morose, decorative, descriptive narration of a superficial skin? In this regard, I will mention two texts on architectural history belonging to different periods way before the days of Fletcher— Vitruvius’ Ten Books and Palladio’s Four Books. (I have had the privilege of reading an original 12th Century version of Vitruvius’ text which is way different from the English versions we read today. The English versions are translated mostly from Claude Perrault’s modified and manipulated French version. I am also lucky to have read Palladio’s own copy, a vintage 16th Century original. Both copies are owned by the Rare Books and Special Collections of McGill University, Canada.) It is true that these books can be read as stylistic impressions, but such shallow interpretations arise if we don’t pay importance to the accompanying texts that provide detailed narratives of how human life and practices transform into architecture. There is this sense of continuity and bond between the complexity of existential beings and simplicity of structure. Vitruvius and Palladio never celebrate an aspect of comparison, rather provide a detailed and in-depth narrative of every architectural transformation from basic human conditions— sometimes through describing the socio-political and theological aspects human life, sometimes through anecdotes and examples. As faulty as it would be to reduce Palladio’s or Vitruvius’ approach to comparative stylistic descriptions, so would it be to state that Fletcher’s ideology is completely opposite to that of his predecessors. His sketches are accompanied by texts based on the Vitruvian model, even though the nature of the texts is restricted to dimensional and ornamental narratives, which express his intentionality to compare and ignore how the changing human habits with respect to time and space shape architecture.

You must be wondering by now why I am criticizing Fletcher’s comparative approach and calling it problematic. Before I present the details of my argument, I would honestly confess that I particularly enjoyed this comparative method of learning architectural history (compared to studying history in school) because it was very easy for me to absorb a lot of information in a very short period of time; but I always wondered what comes next, as I had no clue how to utilize this knowledge in terms of creating a better world. My perception towards history and architectural history changed after having read Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Other animals, unlike human beings, don’t have the burden of knowing or contemplating the past— a major reason why there is an absence of acute emotions of happiness, despair or anger (I am not claiming that animals don’t have emotions, I am claiming that it is not as acute or impulsive as humans). And for human beings, the knowledge of history or a knowledge of the past is emotional, but a burden because apart from reminiscing or admiring the past, we don’t really know what to do with it. This kind of history is monumental (something that valorizes the greatness of the past and adds nothing to the present), or antiquarian (something that inspires us so much that we tend to preserve the way it is rather than having the intention of generating a new way of life and context), but not critical (something that is not about preserving the past, but deriving a new present from the past). Easy may it seem as a philosophy or theory, but, is difficult to comprehend. An easy text to generate a better understanding of critical history is Louis Kahn’s treatise on Monumentality. Kahn’s text ironically doesn’t uphold the ideals of monumental history but showcases critical history— it doesn’t sound like a stylistic historical treatise at all, rather valorizes how basic principles of sciences and arts learned through history can be derived into the technological genius of today’s structural world. Here, history doesn’t play a part in comparing the past with the past or past with the present but acts as a pre-existing model in shaping today’s world in today’s context by absorbing the past and assimilating the principles into the present. Not a single topic in Fletcher’s book speak about how we can appropriate history, it is more like a mundane museum of curated styles.

However, it would be preposterous to assume that Fletcher is the flagbearer of this curatorial style of narcissistic knowledge. The roots of the problem start with Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s method of architecture pedagogy started at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris around 1795, modelled around a thorough misconception of the ideology of Etienne Boullee. Durand’s reductionist approach to architectural history as stylistic impressions on a grid or Cartesian space is, again, not entirely new; the fundamental principles of this method of education start way back in France with Rene Descartes and Girard Desargues. Descartes philosophy is a bit difficult to comprehend— it is only human thought that adds the basic element of existence to an object, phenomenon or being instead of the true presence or existence— this thought being translated into an imaginary geometric abstract space called the Cartesian space. Desargues demonstrates how an object or being can be represented in Cartesian planes and can be reduced to simple or complex algebraic equations of abstract numbers. The problem with this approach, which we fail to realize even today, is the fact that the object doesn’t retain the characteristics of the object anymore, it becomes just a mere representation on a piece of paper, lifeless and meaningless, the only meaning associated with it are numbers and equations. Fletcher’s book showcases this model in a much subtle way— an architectural period gets translated into some sketches drawn neatly on a geometric grid with dimensions (something that we unfortunately consider fundamental in today’s architecture, as well). What we fail to understand is that the Egyptians, for instance, never conceived the pyramid of Khufu as a 760 ft x 760 ft square plan with 482 ft height; it was envisioned in much more philosophical depth as a mountain of the heaven where the pharaoh would reside after death to signify the grandeur, magnificence, glory, respect and intimidation. Another easy example to understand the seriousness of the problem is to talk about Mt. Everest— our geography books present it as a mountain of height 8848 m. Everest, as 8848 metres, is just a reduced abstract number and image with no comprehension of the vastness, grandness, mystery and wonder it beholds. In a similar way, Fletcher’s book reduces architectural intentionality and significance to insignificant numerical dimensions and morose comparisons.

The international system of standardization established in 1875 (around 20 years before Fletcher’s book) started with a noble purpose of achieving unity and uniformity in working techniques around the world. However, instead of being treated as know-hows to construct a better world to translate the deep human philosophies and practices into reality, replaced the basic working philosophies and principles with abstract dimensions and numbers. When the tool becomes the intention, human creation gets devoid of emotions and turns into a mundane mechanical intervention. Such interventions and representations add to the vanity of knowledge but fails to appropriate context or establish the continuity between the past, present and future. It would be unwise to blame Banister Fletcher as he is appropriate with respect to his time which had already adapted to this problematic system. But there are examples of how architects and historians in recent times have overcome this problem to conceive our world and architecture in a much more simplistic yet meaningful way. One such incidents include a conversation between Kahn and the great architect from Bangladesh, Muzharul Islam— Kahn was once intensely critical about Islam’s drawings for not having any dimension. Islam argued that masons don’t have the knowledge of comprehending what 5000mm means, instead would count bricks from the drawing (which had that amount of accuracy). Here, it is not only about making the task easy for the masons but to valorize the fact how every brick adds meaning to the architecture conceived, how the cultural subtext of involving the maker and the user along with the architect’s philosophy creates a place of psychosomatic health apart from making the process of making meaningful. It has to be understood that this is not merely a process of construction, but a derivation of history from the works of Michelangelo or even Andrea Pozzo. The intentionality of standardization is not a numerical abstract and doesn’t conflict with the intentionality of architectural experience and meaning.

‘The Tree Of Architecture’ – An illustration from ‘A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method’ – Sir Banister Fletcher (1954)

Having established that, rises the question of how we can create an architectural world today where the contexts of equality based on race, language, culture, politics, religion, gender and sexuality find their place. I will not delve into an argument whether contemporary styles valorize the ideals of equality through a sense of uniformity in visual identity or deny the presence of distinct characteristics that highlight unity in diversity. My argument centres round the timeline of racial supremacy in the era of colonies, a period when Fletcher drafts his book. The tree of architecture is an hierarchical representation of power structure in the colonial era where the Euro-American architecture find their way into the top whereas the style of the colonies or unconquered lands are lost midway or don’t even find any mention. Even in the contents and detailed narrative of the book, the Indian, Japanese or Chinese styles are dubbed “others” and “non-historical.” In a parallel argument, if we have granted Fletcher’s book absolute supremacy in terms of showcasing architectural history, we would have never turned to a counterpart by Percy Brown to study Indian architecture. From this major point, it is incredibly obvious that there is an underlying political subtext in Fletcher’s book to deny inclusion to the “subordinate” colonies which are equally rich in architectural history. This problematic power structure is explained in detail in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and can also be studied through the history of Lancasterian schools which have been deeply embodied in the Indian education system even today (for more reference you can watch the documentary Schooling the World, available on YouTube). Even from the philosophy of a moral perspective, it is problematic that we have granted the Fletcherian hegemony a deep access to architectural education in a world of equality. A model of architecture education that showcases the now-obsolete Darwinian model of education is intensely problematic as well.

Which species is more evolved— the monkey or the dog? Is it the monkey because they are supposed to be our ancestors? Is it the dog because they are more in numbers following the ideology of “survival of the fittest?” Contemporary evolutionary science argues that each species has undergone equal evolution into distinct identities following different paths, but there is an underlying complex network of interconnections that we overlook and reduce something deep and complex into meaningless data. Is it justified to say that modern architecture is more evolved than Gothic architecture? The way Reims Cathedral functioned when it was conceived is different from how it functions today— it is the Gothic way that evolved over time and is still Gothic. It is preposterous to compare the Reims Cathedral with Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light, because the cultural subtexts are different and, in each case, intensely significant and contextual in their respective perception. In a world of equality and inclusion, Fletcher’s book, thus, stands out to be intensely outdated and problematic and demands the use of new methods of studying architectural history to generate a much more meaningful world.

Note to Readers:

After reading through the article, if you feel that it is a direct attack on Fletcher and his book, I would advise you to read it again (misreading articles do lead to misunderstanding discourses). Yes, I mention the problems of the book, but these problems are not introduced by Fletcher himself. The problems have their roots in J.N.L. Durand’s school of thought at the Ecole Polytechnique, the political power structure celebrating European supremacy that finds its way into Darwinism or today’s education system, or even, the rise of Cartesian sciences. Fletcher’s book was appropriate at the time when it was drafted— it embodies the late 19th century European society with complete precision. But this 19th century ideology is no longer appropriate in today’s world because we have understood that the nihilistic pragmatism it inculcated tore humanity off from the basic essence of a meaningful world (for more reference you can read Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology). In a world where we have to stay practical yet rise above pragmatism to make our creations more sensible and meaningful in terms of sociology, philosophy, politics, economics and, above all, humanity, we have to look beyond Fletcher’s book (I should, however, emphasize that it is very easy to read and imparts knowledge swiftly and accurately) to locate other texts and generating discourses that are appropriate for the 21st century (some examples could be: Jonathan Coulson, Paul Roberts, and Isabelle Taylor, University Planning and Architecture: The Search for Perfection; Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture; Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture. But it has to be also kept in mind that we are even past the time when these books were drafted.).

There are two different schools of thought I have come across to achieve this appropriation of history— having personal anecdotes from the simplicity of the world around us (a method that I learnt from Prof. Shubhrajit Das), or using a hermeneutic (interpretive) approach on fictional narratives to generate contextual meaning (a far more difficult method that I learnt from Prof. Alberto Perez-Gomez). Building Whilst Valar Morghulis is designed on the premise of both these schools of thought— it is a way of generating a comprehensive, contextual and complex discourse on architectural history by encompassing narratives that are appealing to the growing generations of architecture students. Just as Tagore says— we need to respect the past and also let it go, ’cause it is only the present and the future that bring us new life (strangely enough, Albus Dumbledore resonates something similar, “Don’t pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”).

You can find more details about the perception and adaptation of architectural history into the fictional world of Game of Thrones at Acedge:

‘Building Whilst Valar Morghulis’: Analysing The Architecture of the ‘Game Of Thrones’ Series

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