An intertwined history : the contribution of William J. R. Curtis to the historiography of modern architecture

  • Macarena de la Vega de León

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This dissertation explores the writing of history through the close reading of William J.R. Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900 (1982). Curtis’s book lies in a transitional period in the history of modern architecture: between the establishment of research degrees in North American schools in the 1970s; and the consolidation of the discipline as the subject matter of historiographical research in the 1990s. These developments culminated in 1999 with a major methodological reassessment of the history of modern architecture, its education and its scholarly study in journals such as JSAH and JAE. The study of postcolonial theories in architecture, also at the turn of the century, challenged the previously accepted canon of architectural history by urging the development of a global history of architecture (which remains today undefined). Curtis worked on the first edition as a young researcher in North America in the late 1970s and on the definitive edition of the book in the early 1990s: Modern Architecture Since 1900 is exemplary of, and contemporary to, these developments. By discussing in-depth Curtis’s classificatory strategy, proposed definitions, and position on the main protagonists of modernism, this dissertation is the first-ever mapping of the historicity of the book, of its contribution, and of the experiences which lead to its publication. It proposes a comparative textual analysis of the three editions of the book and the related published research, contextualising it with other contributions at the time. The thesis also draws on direct communication with Curtis in which he shared with the candidate reflections and access to archival material. The argument focusses on two themes which were simultaneously part of architectural debate and introduced in Curtis’s text: regionalism and postmodernism. These notions were, in his narrative, two sides of the same coin. They encompass his methodological approach to the architecture of the late twentieth century, which he critiques based on a criterion of authenticity; a nebulous category which he links to immutable architectural values and on his own first-hand experience around the world. Despite Curtis’s underrepresentation, and sometimes misrepresentation, in subsequent research on global history, this thesis positions him as a ‘pioneer’ in this developing field. He can be understood as the first ‘cartographer’ who tried to map a modern tradition, or traditions, inclusive and aware of the exchanges between the soon to be politically incorrect terms of ‘the West’ and the ‘non-West,’ ‘Third World’ and ‘developing countries.’ Curtis addressed some of the main points in the critique of postcolonial theories in architecture with the first edition of Modern Architecture Since 1900 and added a global approach to the modernist canon in the 1996 edition. His book is closer to the idea of ‘intertwined history’ than subsequent synoptic histories of modern architecture or the more recent global histories of architecture. Central to the contribution of this dissertation is to bring forth the way Curtis’s writing of history intertwines the modern and the global.
    Date of Award2018
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorGevork Hartoonian (Supervisor), Scott Heyes (Supervisor) & John Macarthur (Supervisor)

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