Colquhoun, Historian and Maker of Its Own Time – By Herman van Bergeijk

Despite its good intentions, the recent issue of Oase on Alan Colquhoun exemplifies a current trend in many schools of architecture of the distortion of history for the sake of direct use, says Herman van Bergeijk.

Recently the journal of architecture Oase published an issue that was dedicated to the work of Alan Colquhoun. It is not often that an architectural magazine pays attention to such a singular topic. Oase is an independent architectural magazine that de facto is strongly linked to the Fa- culty of Architecture in Delft. We can ask ourselves if this issue can be considered a programmatic one.

The position of Colquhoun as an architect, historian, and critic is investigated through a series of articles of several au- thors from different disciplines. Colquhoun has influenced the architectural debate in the last half century, not so much as an architect but as a writer and an academic.

Through Colquhoun one could get an idea of how architectural criticism has changed and how this informed his work as a teacher on various prestigious schools. However, this teaching reputa- tion is hardly regarded in Oase while there his influence was probably mostly felt.

A weakness of this issue of Oase is that the work of Colquhoun is presented in a haphazard way. A general overview of his architectonic and critical production could have provided a better point of departure for the published exer- cises in interpretation. Even if Colquhoun is presented as an architect one does want to know how vast his oeuvre has been. But only some projects are presented in a very brief manner.

The role of Colquhoun as a de- signer remains unclear. Was he more the thinker than the maker? From his intel- lectual production of articles one would think so. The review issue lacks concrete information, although it is obvious that it wants to present him as a thinking archi- tect more than an architectural thinker. There is also no list of his articles and books included in the magazine. One would think that such an apparatus is the first thing that is fundamental in a clear definition of the field in which Col- quhoun operated. They could have esta- blished a firm point of departure for pla- cing the complex figure of Colquhoun and shed light on his contemporaries like Frampton, Joseph Rykwert and others that have so dominated a certain, very limited view of history in which taking a stand was considered more important than collecting and assembling facts.

A glance on such a list would suggest that if we call Colquhoun a historian, he is certainly an historian of a kind that is more interested in intervening in the discussions and using the most contemporary tools than someone who was capable of dissecting historical problems from a more objective conside- ration.

Interest and knowledge were strongly intertwined in his approach, and in that sense he is truly a contempo- rary follower of Habermas, in the same way that Kenneth Frampton belongs to the same kind of ‘historians’ – or Colin Rowe for that matter, even if in Rowe the close hand architectural analysis has al- ways been the spark of his writings. In the footsteps of Rudolf Wittkower, typo- logy became for Colquhoun an important topic — but he gave a more abstract, al- most neoclassical non-iconological me- aning to it. Hence his take on historicity. Sometimes he is more provocative than precise and his discussion on a certain topic remains general, as in the case of the superblock that he considered as ‘a fact of the modern capitalist state … whose presence is rapidly destroying the traditional city’, but he is always in ac- cordance with his time.

It is not a coincidence that such historians were so readily em- braced by architects. They were the spokesmen of a postwar generation who were searching for new approaches to their discipline. The cover photo illustrates this: Colquhoun too wears the LC glasses and shirt current among his contemporary colleagues.

This tradition seems to have come to an end and has been partly incorporated in that which is nowadays presented as architectural theory. But that is only partly true. There is a growing interest in the architecture and the architectural debate in the seventies and eighties. The tradition to which Colquhoun belongs is actualized by many of the authors. That is maybe the most inte- resting aspect of this issue. Through Colquhoun they present and represent themselves and also this School. They want to be seen as representatives of a certain ‘discourse’ that makes it also un- derstandable that their interpretations are triggered through a very limited and partial reading of Colquhoun.

Overall such publication is interesting. It is rare that the work of such a dominant personality not primarily known as an architect is discussed. In the end the vicissitudes of the architect/ critic/historian remain extraordinary peculiar. Is he like the soccer player who comments? Remember that the use and purpose of words and language of the architectural historian and the architect critic is very different. Whereas the one wants to dissect and reconstruct, the other is interested in its present meaning and in his own fascination. Nevertheless, with a little help of their other friends this issue of Oase could have achieved more lasting quality to form a bastion against a further distortion of history for the sake of direct use as is nowadays propagated by the teaching of history in many schools of architecture. The piecemeal treatment of considered crucial and therefor canonic events will beyond any doubt produce a further disintegrated understanding of the complexity of history.

Herman van Bergeijk

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One Response to “Colquhoun, Historian and Maker of Its Own Time – By Herman van Bergeijk”
  1. thanks for beneficial guidelines and basically excellent information

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