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Proceedings of the panel “Still on the Margin: Reflections on the Perspective of the Canon in Architectural History” (1st Conference of the European Architectural History Network, Guimaraes, Portugal, 17-20 June 2010)
Reasons for the persistence of the canon

In Defense of the Validity of the “Canon” in Architecture

Markus Breitschmid

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1This position paper reflects on the persistence of the “canon” in architectural history, defending it not only with regard to the discourse of architectural history but for all discussion of architecture. Our argument for the canon’s validity is based on three credos: a) the autonomy of the discipline, b) the merging of the excellent and difficult with the popular, and c) the interplay we seek between the fluidity of our appreciation of historical events and the stability of orthodoxy.

2The “canon” buttresses the autonomy of architecture in two ways. For one thing, it structures our thinking about architecture per se. Secondly, it enables us to contemplate architecture autonomously (“architecture through architecture”) instead of reflecting about it as an instrumentalization of an ulterior purpose based mostly on situational and practical expediency, to prove a point for some extra-architectural “special interest.” Furthermore, as a tool for judging architecture, the “canon” exists not only as a list of buildings (presumably masterpieces) but—and perhaps even more importantly—as a “canon of principles,” guidelines for the discussion and analysis of architecture. It is exactly because architecture is an autonomous discipline and not just a facilitating profession that it possesses principles inherent to itself and not borrowed from some other discipline or consideration. For example, the Vitruvian values venustas, firmitas, and utilitas, along with their subsequent interpretations and adaptations, are principles inherent to architecture. Autonomy is crucial. What if the solutions to mathematical equations were evaluated with criteria borrowed from other disciplines? Similarly, it is in the interest of architecture that buildings be evaluated on the basis of rational, “canonized” architectural criteria (building design theory). As a result, architecture is a precisely delineated field that can be researched, classified, and theorized. The fact that architecture can be researched, classified, and theorized independently is exactly what gives it its autonomous status.

3Many so-called “non-canonical” approaches to the study of architecture, opposed to the principle of autonomy, muddy the waters. Confusion arises, due only in part to the lack of a consensus about which buildings need to be studied (obviously, the “list of masterpieces” is continually being rewritten). The source of the problem lies in an effort to evaluate a building by looking at it through an extra-architectural lens. This practice has become more common as a result of the surge of “critical thinking,” associating the word “critical” with fundamental skepticism and disapproval. This is a twofold problem. It is the hallmark of contemporary usage of “critical thinking” to be contextual, interdisciplinary, or even multidisciplinary when, in fact, a judgment on the quality of architecture ought to be autonomous, owing something to the architecture one hopes to gain by evaluating. In that sense, architecture—contrary to the popular opinion wholeheartedly disseminated in architectural academia—is and should remain distinctly non-multidisciplinary. An approach that might be successful for the social sciences is entirely inappropriate for architecture or civil engineering. The concept of a “multidisciplinary building” is just as absurd as the concept of “multidisciplinary calculus.”

4The second, more fundamental, problem with applying a “non-canonical,” “critical thinking” approach is the fact that such approaches lack a means of judging beauty. This particular flaw makes the approach almost useless. In fact, it may even be destructive when we are dealing with ideas that cannot be fully and definitively conceptualized, as is the case with architecture and other disciplines that aim to produce something that exists in the physical-corporeal world. Therefore, the attempt to draft a “canon” that is inherently architectural—autonomous—as an instrument for evaluating architecture is advantageous for the understanding and interpretation of architecture because it makes it possible to spawn new theories for architecture from and through architecture itself. Theories originating with architecture itself have proven much more enduring than those introduced to architecture from outside disciplines.

5Second, a “canon” of important buildings does exist. It is not just a fantasy of doctrinaire-minded historians. There are, in fact, “great buildings,” buildings that are rightfully considered to be “masterpieces.” To deny this is absurd. By opposition, the “non-canonical” approach to building history is an undue particularization based on denying that great architecture is possible. It serves as an attempt to deconstruct our capability to build buildings representing a specific view of our dreams and place in the world, our cosmological Weltanschauung. Thus, to get rid of the canon is an act of so-called political correctness against excellent and difficult architecture. The buildings are eligible for the canon because they exemplify our dreams and ambitions more precisely than other buildings. “Precisely,” in this case in point means that “canonical buildings” delineate limits of architectural qualities. The fact that “canonical buildings” possess central qualities lacking in other buildings is what makes it possible to delineate these limits in the first place. Canonical buildings like the Villa Savoye in Poissy or the Farnsworth House in Plano are difficult to conceptualize and understand, compared to a normal, mass-market house. But the buildings do have extraordinary qualities that deserve recognition. The act of canonization means that these selected buildings will be discussed over and over again. Thus, the canonization of buildings is a useful strategy to disseminate and popularize excellent and difficult ideas about architecture among a larger, less elite group of architects and the lay population. Canonical buildings are necessary and desirable, because they combine the excellent and difficult with the popular.

  • 1 Sigfried Giedion, Space, time and architecture: the growth of a new tradition, Cambridge, MA: Harva (...)

6Third, the canon is more fluid than is commonly assumed. We define the “canon” as a number of extraordinary individual buildings that have been produced over time. Too often, the “canon” is associated with dogmatism and rigidity. Actually, the study of the canon reveals that it is perpetually changing. For example, it changes constantly in the various editions of Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture,1 a treatise referred to as the “Bible of Modern Architecture” and often perceived as the epitome of “orthodoxism.” Whatever Giedion’s particular motives might have been, the successive printings of his book are proof of a sense of historical fluidity in his argument for the growth of a new tradition of architecture. He is continually changing the buildings on his list!

7Like most prejudices, accusations of rigidity with regard to the canon have more to do with inaccurate perceptions and personal feelings than with staying abreast of new developments in the study of architecture and its historiography. Giedion’s book and many other contributions of canonical importance demonstrate that contemporary interpretation of historical events and buildings, like the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, is continually changing . As a matter of fact, latter-day understanding of historical buildings is so fluid that our judgments say more about who we are today than they do about architecture itself. Therefore, the canon is probably flexible enough to allow for the interplay between a relatively stable and sufficient understanding of a building and subsequent interpretations of it. In other words, far from being overly rigid, the canon provides the foundation necessary for expanding the horizons of our vision.

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1 Sigfried Giedion, Space, time and architecture: the growth of a new tradition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1941.

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Markus Breitschmid, « In Defense of the Validity of the “Canon” in Architecture », ABE Journal [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 02 février 2012, consulté le 23 août 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.135

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Markus Breitschmid

Professor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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