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The Unsung of the Canon: Does a Global Architectural History Need New Landmarks?

Sibel Zandi-Sayek

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  • 1 Global history distinguishes itself from “traditional” world histories, premised on an all-encompas (...)
  • 2 Bruce Mazlish, “Comparing Global History to World History,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary Histor(...)
  • 3 See, for example, Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Wo (...)

1Over the past two decades, global history has grown into an increasingly well-recognized and popular field of study with its own journal, conferences and publications. As revealed in the wide and lively debate in the field, however, what global history precisely entails and how it differs from other innovative approaches (such as “new” world history or transnational history) is far from clear or settled.1 For many scholars, global history is merely a variant of a long tradition of world history. For others, it stands totally at odds with the nationor culture-based approach and comparative focus that underlie much world-historical writing. And still for others, it is a distinctive subfield, inextricably linked to recent debates about globalization and the need for a more historical treatment of processes of globalization.2 Despite the absence of a unified vision or position on how to globalize history or historicize globalization, there is a general consensus that neither an additive approach towards comprehensive geographical coverage nor a single, all-encompassing master narrative are capable of providing a suitable framework for global history. If textbooks are any measure of the field’s basic orientation, recent global history surveys are looking beyond the national or the cultural as logical containers of history and instead structuring their material around encounters, connections, and transactions among seemingly discrete and disparate geographies. Cutting across established boundaries, they prioritize historical forces and phenomena that affect significant parts of the world—be it empire and state formation; contact, trade, and colonization; technology transfer; social and intellectual movements and networks of resistance—to impart a more interconnected view of the world.3

  • 4 For an incisive critical analysis of Kostof’s paradigm-shifting textbook, see Panayiota Pyla, “Hist (...)
  • 5 Don Choi, “Non-Western Architecture and the Roles of the History Survey,” in Judith Bing and Cathri (...)
  • 6 See Gülsüm Baydar Nalbantoğlu, “Toward Postcolonial Openings: Rereading Sir Banister Fletcher’s ‘Hi (...)
  • 7 For a recent critical appraisal, see Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait, “Still on the margin. Reflection (...)

2In architectural history, since at least the publication of Spiro Kostof’s textbook A History of Architecture (1985), the global turn has largely taken the form of an expanded field of vision that has brought into the fold previously marginalized or undervalued buildings and locales.4 Not only the topics researched by architectural historians are more frequently drawn from geographies outside Europe and North America, but also the content taught in surveys and more specialized courses—at least in North American academe—acknowledge, incorporate, and sometimes exclusively focus on non-Western building traditions and practices.5 At the forefront of the critical discourse on how to teach a global history of architecture and foster global competence in the discipline lies the problem of the predominantly Western architectural canon. The rise of post colonial studies has put into question the Western foundations of the architectural canon, sparking wide-ranging debates about the sites and buildings it comprises, the processes underlying its construction, and the structures of class, gender, and racial hierarchies it sustains.6 Warnings have also been sounded about the persistence of the Western canon in the face of major epistemological shifts and the need to radically rethink its scope and rework its boundaries.7 As a result, efforts to create a more inclusive canon, to adopt multiple canons specific to a subfield or culture, or to abandon altogether the canonical paradigm have all garnered abundant discussion and undergone critical scrutiny. The many facets of the debate notwithstanding, this critical discourse has reinforced the assumption that a global view of architecture has to define itself in defiance (or condemnation) of the Western canon, hence casting the canon as a hindrance, if not an outright obstacle, to globalizing architectural history.

3My aim in this essay is not to rehearse these prescient and, by now, well-established arguments. Nor do I intend to argue for entirely abandoning the canon or adding to it landmarks from traditionally excluded geographies. Any canon, after all, improved or augmented, is an exercise in selectivity and necessarily entails mechanisms of exclusion. Rather, I would like to call into question the methodological blind spots and historiographical omissions inherent in canonical thinking, which conceal the global strands already embedded within it, ultimately keeping intact the largely Western narrative spun in standard architectural histories. I contend that even the usual corpus of canonical landmarks has the potential to tell far more compelling stories—stories that foreground the interconnected nature of architectural production and practice, and the flow of knowledge, skills, and resources across regions generally assumed to be unconnected. In other words, what I wish to bring to the fore is the canon’s latent capacity to support a robust global approach, and, in so doing, invite a radical rethinking of what is considered to be relevant to the study of architectural history.

  • 8 Dell Upton, “Starting from Baalbek: Noah, Solomon, Saladin, and the Fluidity of Architectural Histo (...)
  • 9 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford, New York, N (...)

4If writing a global architectural history is “to avoid confining traditions, cultures, or regions within discrete cubbyholes,”8 this demands a fundamental reassessment of what we view as pertinent or extraneous to a historical understanding of architecture. Beyond studying buildings through their established architects, engineers, and patrons, it calls for identifying the broader historical milieu, actions, and networks within which such undertakings were conceived as well as the various actors who animated them. Invoking Bruno Latour’s notion of “a sociology of associations” and his concept of mediators who “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry,”9 I propose restoring into standard accounts the agency of those who acted as interlocutors and clients and the various transactions that helped catalyze disparate associations into networks, without which many of these canonical landmarks would never have seen the light of day.

  • 10 See, for example, Michael Fazio, Marian Moffett and Lawrence Wodehouse, Buildings across Time: An I (...)
  • 11 For a well-documented biography of Paxton see, for example, Kate Colquhoun, The Busiest Man in Engl (...)
  • 12 George F. Chadwick, The Works of Sir Joseph Paxton, 1803-1865, London: Architectural Press, 1961, p (...)

5Let me illustrate this point about the recurrent omissions and silences within the canon through brief examples from a familiar chapter in the history of modern architecture: Victorian-era British engineers’ innovative and wide-ranging contributions to industrialized building production. To begin with, even buildings that are undeniably the product of geographically far reaching collaborations, associations, and networks are, by and large, credited to the trailblazing exploits of a single architect/engineer, firmly anchored in a national territory, and in the case of modernization, within a Western European/North American geography. A case in point is the discrepancy between Sir Joseph Paxton’s canonical representation as the sole author of the Crystal Palace and his wider field of undertakings. The versions of Paxton’s biography that proliferate in modern architecture textbooks usually cast him as a self-educated landscape gardener, who single handedly conceived and implemented the Crystal Palace against nearly impossible conditions.10 What such characterizations grossly overlook are Paxton’s railway ventures and entrepreneurial activities that spanned locations in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and India, not to mention the Americas. Some successful and many others ill-fated, these were, nonetheless, central to Paxton’s ability to move between projects and weave connections and relationships of all kinds, including those that informed the construction of the Crystal Palace.11 George Chadwick, the author of a highly informative biography, indeed recognizes the significance of railways to Paxton’s career, even if he does not fully grasp their globalizing character. “Railways were not only a form of profitable investment for Paxton: they were a thread upon which all kinds of associated development and interests were hung,” Chadwick admits, further remarking that the Great Exhibition of 1851 “would not have been possible without the railways, which not only facilitated the assembly of goods (and. . . the building itself), but brought the people. . . to marvel at the exhibits and the building which contained them.”12

  • 13 On Barlow’s publications, see “An Account of Experiments made in Constantinople on the Drummond’s L (...)
  • 14 Christopher Silver, Renkioi: Brunel’s Forgotten Crimean War Hospital, Sevenoaks: Valonia Press, 200 (...)

6Second, architectural endeavors located outside the canonical terrain of industrial development, regardless of their long-term impact on the careers of canonic actors or their pioneering designs, are often, if not always, edited out. For example, William Henry Barlow, who typically enters the stage of modern architectural history fully-formed as the designer of one of the engineering marvels of the 1860s—the immense single-span train shed at St. Pancras station—in fact, cut his teeth on projects for the Ottoman government as early as the 1830s. His first scholarly publications on lighthouse lenses, which launched his reputation in the world of engineering, were also based on experiments he collaboratively undertook with the Ottoman Armenian physician Boghos (Paul) Zohrab in Constantinople.13 Despite its established interest in biographical details that illuminate the building of great careers, the grand narrative of architectural history has somehow remained oblivious to Barlow’s formative years in this out-of-the-way locale. Similarly, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 1855 experimental, prefabricated, civilian hospital in Renkioi on the Dardanelles, which constitutes a significant milestone in the development of modern hospitals, receives no recognition in the annals of architectural history as a landmark achievement. But on closer inspection, the lasting legacy of Brunel’s hospital in Renkioi—which was built on a pavilion principle at a time when this idea was just emerging and embodied the latest innovations in health care—is evident in subsequent prefabricated wooden army field hospitals built during the American Civil War and again in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.14

7Third, the indispensable contributions of the local associates of canonic figures—industrial partners, financiers, political brokers, or bureaucrats who instigated, led, or facilitated industrial enterprise in the host country—routinely go unheeded. The prominent Ottoman-Armenian industrialist, Ohannes Dadian, for example, is hardly known, except perhaps to area specialists. And yet, he was the driving force behind renowned Scottish engineer Sir William Fairbairn’s large-scale portable buildings and innovative mill-projects, erected in and around Constantinople in the 1840s for Ottoman state factories, some even using the latest steam engines. Simultaneously a contractor, an engineer, a factory manager, and a gifted technical inventor, much like his British counterparts, Dadian had learned engineering hands on, through apprenticeship in various mills. He first met Fairbairn in Constantinople, when the Scottish engineer had been invited to inspect the imperial dockyard and factories, and later contracted him when he visited Europe on a technical mission to study the latest developments in industrial production. Their fruitful collaboration produced not only significant industrial buildings that were included in Fairbairn’s 1863 Treatise on Mills and Millwork—an influential compendium and reference book for engineeringit also earned Dadian recognition by the Royal Scottish Society of Arts to which he was inducted in 1843.

  • 15 R. A. Buchanan, “The Diaspora of British Engineering,” Technology and Culture, vol. 27, no. 3, July (...)

8I am dwelling on these overlooked, or forgotten, deeds and actors not because we need to strive for greater comprehensiveness, or make every detail count; but because these omissions represent archetypal patterns of exclusion that apply to almost any region outside the canonical geography of industrialization. Given the wide reach of what historian of technology R. A. Buchanan calls the “diaspora of British engineering” in the nineteenth century,15 to make my points, I have limited myself to transactions related to Ottoman territories, which, I argue, serve as an instructive case study. Lying outside the default circuit defined by colonial possessions and typically excluded from the canonical terrain of modernization, the Ottoman Empire was, nonetheless, firmly integrated within the expanding network of entrepreneurial associations, serving, as such, as proof of just how extensive the geography of industrial enterprise was. Moreover, acknowledging this broader geography of activity allows us to anchor our canonical landmarks in a far more interdependent and multidirectional world than their current treatment leads us to believe. It prompts us to espouse a process-based view of architecture, the production of which comprises a myriad of ideas and architectural agents ricocheting between places as well as a variety of obstacles and breakthroughs that are multilayered and relational, and not strictly additive.

  • 16 Timothy Mitchell (ed.), Questions of Modernity, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 200 (...)

9Unearthing these networks, interactions, and exchanges as essential dimensions of architectural history by no means negates the power structures and hierarchies between the “West and the non-West,” or the inequalities in know-how and expertise, or the violence that may underpin these transactions. Nor does it discount the embeddedness of architecture in the specifics of place and locality. But it does underline just how much has to be disregarded to retain the dominant narrative, leaving, for example, for far too long, such unquestioned impressions as modernization being a solely western project. As Timothy Mitchell aptly stated in another context, modernization is “a creation not of the West but of an interaction between West and non-West” located “in the reticulations of exchanges and production encircling the world.”16 Further, this approach acknowledges that architecture and, in particular, the landmarks that constitute the canon, also have an important supra-local dimension. As ambitious, capital- and knowledge-intensive structures, they are especially likely to draw on resources, concepts and skills from beyond their territorial confines, inviting explorations of a wider web of actors and transactions. To be sure, the lens of networks and exchanges is especially well suited for the study of nineteenth-century architecture, the production of which involved intensified interactions among spatially dispersed entities and disparate contexts. But it is equally applicable and useful for understanding the multi-nodal and complex exchanges that characterize the canonic corpus—from Persepolis to Hagia Sophia and from medieval cathedrals to English landscape gardens—all of which exploited techniques, materials, and labour often from a far more expansive geography than their location suggests.

10This approach, which itself owes much to insights gained from feminist, subaltern or minority perspectives, may only be one way of grappling with the still elusive concept of the global. It is, nevertheless, one that opens up rich and productive avenues for transcending cultural pigeonholes and exposing the global that already exists in the core canon of architectural history. Perhaps most importantly, such an approach deliberately eschews a view of the canon as a series of self-evident and, to a large extent, self-contained masterworks that reify a linear, post-Enlightenment chronology of Western architectural development, or as a yardstick for determining discrete cultural feats. Rather, it reinvests the canon with a new significance by using it as a method to unpack a potent embodiment of knowledge, technology and resources pertaining to the production of the built environment.

11In the end, rather than condemning the canon for perpetuating a Eurocentric or culture-centric focus in architectural history, we may delve more deeply into it to disentangle the skein of motives and operations, and the wide-ranging strands of ideas and expertise that went into its landmarks. What we may otherwise have discarded may instead offer interesting and capacious ways out of its limitations.

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1 Global history distinguishes itself from “traditional” world histories, premised on an all-encompassing synthesis of the world’s past, often focusing on civilizations, nations, and social history, and written from a perspective of cultural centricity. And yet, it operates with the same border-crossing perspectives of the “new” world history that Jerry H. Bentley defines as dealing with historical processes that cross national or cultural lines and work their effects on a regional, continental or global scale: see Jerry H. Bentley, “A New Forum for Global History,” Journal of World History, vol. 1, no. 1, April 1990, p. iii–v. See also Jerry H. Bentley, “The New World History,” in Lloyd Kramer and Sara Maza (eds.), A Companion to Western Historical Thought, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002 (Blackwell companions to history), p. 393–416; and Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Additionally, while global history and transnational history share an explicit focus on the flows of ideas and exchanges, the latter recognizes the existence of the nation-state, even if to challenge its centrality in historical inquiries, and analyzes movement and border-crossing based on that recognition. See C. A. Bayly, Sven Beckert, Matthew Connelly, Isabel Hofmeyr, Wendy Kozol and Patricia Seed, “AHR Conversation: On Transnational History,” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 5, December 2006, p. 1441–64. URL: http://www.utm.utoronto.ca/~w3his490/AHR-On.Transnational.History.pdf. Accessed 25 January 2015.

2 Bruce Mazlish, “Comparing Global History to World History,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 28, no. 3, January 1998, p. 385–95. See also William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Peer Vries, “Editorial,” Journal of Global History, vol. 1, no. 1, March 2006, p. 1–2; Kenneth Pomeranz, “Histories for a Less National Age,” The American Historical Review, vol. 119, no. 1, February 2014, p. 1–22.

3 See, for example, Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From the Beginnings of Humankind to the Present, [4th Edition], New York, NY; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

4 For an incisive critical analysis of Kostof’s paradigm-shifting textbook, see Panayiota Pyla, “Historicizing Pedagogy: A Critique of Kostof’s A History of Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 52, no. 4, May 1999, p. 216–25.

5 Don Choi, “Non-Western Architecture and the Roles of the History Survey,” in Judith Bing and Cathrine Veikos (eds.), Fresh Air: Proceedings of the 95th ACSA Annual Meeting: Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC: Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, 2007, p. 745–50.

6 See Gülsüm Baydar Nalbantoğlu, “Toward Postcolonial Openings: Rereading Sir Banister Fletcher’s ‘History of Architecture,’” Assemblage, no. 35, April 1998, p. 7–17. Leading scholarly journals in the field have dedicated thematic issues on the topic. See Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 61, nos. 3 & 4, September & December 2002, and vol. 62, no. 1, March 2003; and Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 52, no. 4, 1999. Scholarly journals in related fields have also reserved issues to the topic. See Art History, vol. 54, no. 3, Autumn 1995; Art Bulletin, vol. 78, no. 2, June 1996; and Journal of Design History, vol. 18, no. 3, September 2005.

7 For a recent critical appraisal, see Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait, “Still on the margin. Reflections on the Persistence of the Canon in Architectural History,” ABE Journal, no. 1, 2013. URL: http://dev.abejournal.eu/index.php?id=304. Accessed 25 January 2015.

8 Dell Upton, “Starting from Baalbek: Noah, Solomon, Saladin, and the Fluidity of Architectural History,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 68, no. 4, December 2009, p. 465.

9 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005 (Clarendon lectures in management studies), p. 39.

10 See, for example, Michael Fazio, Marian Moffett and Lawrence Wodehouse, Buildings across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture, Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Education, 2008, p. 419–20.

11 For a well-documented biography of Paxton see, for example, Kate Colquhoun, The Busiest Man in England: The Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect, & Victorian Visionary, Boston, MA: David R. Godine Publisher, 2006.

12 George F. Chadwick, The Works of Sir Joseph Paxton, 1803-1865, London: Architectural Press, 1961, p. 243.

13 On Barlow’s publications, see “An Account of Experiments made in Constantinople on the Drummond’s Light, for the purpose of Lighthouse Illumination in the Black Sea,” The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. 8, London: Richard and John E. Taylor, 1836, p. 238–42. See also “On the Adaptation of different Modes of Illuminating Lighthouses depending on Situation, and the object intended in their Erection,” The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1838, London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Company, 1838, p. 806–10.

14 Christopher Silver, Renkioi: Brunel’s Forgotten Crimean War Hospital, Sevenoaks: Valonia Press, 2007, p. 176.

15 R. A. Buchanan, “The Diaspora of British Engineering,” Technology and Culture, vol. 27, no. 3, July, 1989, p. 501–24.

16 Timothy Mitchell (ed.), Questions of Modernity, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000 (Contradictions of modernity, 11), p. 2.

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Sibel Zandi-Sayek, « The Unsung of the Canon: Does a Global Architectural History Need New Landmarks? », ABE Journal [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2015, consulté le 20 octobre 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/1271 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.1271

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Sibel Zandi-Sayek

Professor, College of William and Mary, Department of Art and Art History, Williamsburg, VA, USA

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