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Why we teach the history of design methodologies

ALAN POWERS

Composition with Modena Cemetary (1979) by Aldo Rossi – from the collection of Drawing Matter, with whom the LSA partners
Composition with Modena Cemetary (1979) by Aldo Rossi – from the collection of Drawing Matter, with whom the LSA partners

In 1959, John Summerson referred to ‘the old plod plod from Brunelleschi to Bernini, from Wren to Soane’ of history as taught in schools of architecture. Today, students are engaged in history by their institutions in many ways that have banished such rigidity, while history has been embraced by theory and sometimes smothered in an unequal alliance as pure ideas float free of anchorage in evidence towards self-reference and scholasticism.

In this fragmented state of historical study in architecture schools, the activity of the architect is often lost to view. Taking place during the Proto-Practice Year, the History of Design Methodologies module was suggested by the idea that we have lost all sense of how architects through time have gone about the most crucial part of their work, the conceptualisation of space, construction, ornament, meaning and urban situation. The evidence ranges from the study of buildings for which no documentation exists, but from which a process of design and execution can be extrapolated, through the stages of architectural pedagogy which formalised the language of design still used in part today, to the more recent past when, in the wake of Modernism’s overthrow of the languages of centuries past, different forms of improvisation have taken the place of the old certainties.

While the structural techniques, ideologies and iconographies of past buildings may seem remote and irrelevant, the essential principles and strategies for bringing form out of chaos on which the designs were developed are entirely contemporary in their relevance offering a potentially de-historicised toolkit and a deeper level of connection with architecture as a creative and critical activity and an opportunity to engage with past elements of cities from a position of knowledge and understanding.

The module represents a relatively modest alternative view of the role of history in a Part 2 course, grounded in expert knowledge but applied in the spirit of an open enquiry that aims to help students to situate their own practice both in a historical and contemporary context, including the history of the recent past. The material forms two cycles of six lecture/seminar/visit classes, which will be given in alternate years so that all students experience the full range. As currently structured, these are not divided by chronology, but by questions of their formalist or anti-formalist assumptions.