Exploring the Role of History in Contemporary Architectural Practice

A conference-workshop organized by  Zameer Basrai (SMArchS) and Christian Hedrick (PhD) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event was sponsored by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. Below are excerpts from the event.

View poster and participant bios

Architecture is witness to a myriad of uses of history. For contemporary architects, history can either encumber or validate a project. Whether we accept it as a source for design or not, we must contend with history, either ‘contextually,’ ‘typologically’ or by simply addressing patron demands and other influences originating outside of the profession. The result frequently alludes to a historical context, type or cultural tradition through notions of the ‘local’ or by evoking a historical antecedent. Thus, history plays a role in contemporary design practice whether or not its significance, or even relevance, is appreciated.

It is not enough, however, to simply problematize these issues, but to explore them as potent tools that engage contemporary architectural practice. The relationship of the historian with regard to contemporary design has always been that of critic, and the relationship of practitioner to history has largely been tenuous and fraught with controversy.

The intent of this workshop is to bring together scholars and practitioners of architecture to discuss critical approaches to the role of history within contemporary practice. The situation, we suspect, demands a re-assessment of the theoretical relationship between architect and historian and we suggest that a renewed responsibility toward the discipline and society at large is needed. How can we conceptualize this critical practice?

The workshop panels represent three different aspects of the same problem we are addressing at the workshop.

The first panel is moderated by Nasser Rabbat and is titled ‘New Geographies, New Histories’. Each panelist will speak of their own practices – practices that engage new geographical locations – locations that demand comprehension and inquiry. And we are aware that historical inquiry cannot be divorced from its ideological presuppositions. And yet, the architect must construct his or her ‘historical consciousness’ – one that provides a condition to work with. The questions we raise: Is historical inquiry more acute in newer contexts? How are these new geographies critical of the canon?

The second panel is moderated by Nancy Steiber and is titled ‘Practicing History, Teaching Architecture’. The panelists will address the role of history in design education as well as in their own work – as practitioner or historian. The question is not how the subject of history is taught in architecture school, but how architecture broadly as a discipline is taught. The questions we raise: Does critical history de-stabilize the very certainties that architectural practice is based on? What does contemporary practice have to offer a historian?

The third panel moderated by Hashim Sarkis is titled ‘Critical Translations, Constructing History’. The panel presents three distinct methodological ‘translations’ of history (in a constructive mode) toward the ‘making’ of architecture. In that it provides critical positions on building in ‘historical contexts’ and practicing architecture as a ‘translation’ of history itself (whatever form that might take in the architect’s mind). The questions we raise: What is this construct of ‘history’ in the practicing architect’s mind? How does historical inquiry contribute and facilitate this construct?

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