Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Josef Frank and the History of Architecture: Gothic and the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti and Albrecht Dürer in Architectural Discourse on Neues Bauen at the Beginning of the 1930s

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Josef Frank and the History of Architecture: Gothic and the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti and Albrecht Dürer in Architectural Discourse on Neues Bauen at the Beginning of the 1930s

Article excerpt

'History exists not to be correctly recognised, but to deliver raw material for scientific and artistic work from which we might gather what we need.'1

Introduction

The reflection on history constitutes one of the central issues in the theoretical work of Josef Frank (1885-1967), one of the most influential figures of Viennese architecture in the interwar period. 'Dissenting voice' in the German discussion on architecture between the end of the 1920s and his emigration in 1935, Frank belonged however to the core institutions of modernism.2 Founding member of the CIAM, leading figure of the Austrian Werkbund, Frank proposed an alternative vision of modernity based on a profound reflection on classical tradition.

Frank's engagement with history starts with his education at the Technische Hochschule in Carl König's milieu and the writing of his doctoral dissertation on Leon Battista Alberti in 1910 - not included in any of the following of Alberti's bibliographies.3

In Frank's theoretical work, a paradigmatic case study for the use of historiographical categories in the discussion of modernity is Architektur als Symbol. Elemente deutschen neuen Bauens (1931). Reviewed as 'less than systematic'4 by contemporaries, as 'unpleasant'5 and 'acid'6 by interpreters, Architektur als Symbol provides one of the most complex analyses of modern architecture ever written. To argue his position, Frank devotes approximately two thirds of the book-length essay7 - an uninterrupted discourse on modernity artificially organised into chapters - to a re-writing of architectural and cultural history. Frank's narration strongly and explicitly moulds the entire historical course in order to assign modern architecture a determined place in it and to argue his critique of Neues Bauen. My contribution focuses essentially on one aspect of Frank's historiographical construction: the opposition of classical tradition and gothic sketched at this point, which proves itself determining for his critique of German functionalism and for the foundation of modern architecture in the context of Frank's entire theoretical production.

The first and most salient aspect in Frank's approach to history is a declared operational use of it, an attitude that is rather common in the theoretical works of architectural modernity.8 In a more circumscribed Viennese context, precedents are also to be found in the closest milieu around Frank. It is in the written work of Oskar Strnad and Oskar Wlach - in particular in the doctoral thesis defended by Oskar Wlach in 1906 about polychrome cladding of Florentine proto-Renaissance - that historical knowledge emerges as an instrument to intervene in contemporary discourse.9 In his 'flowing and clear writing, carried by intelligence and artistic sensitivity',10 Wlach uses principles that he derives from his analysis of Florentine medieval and renaissance incrustation to deliver a sharp critique of the work of the influential Baurath Otto Wagner.11 Frank's position is however decidedly more radical in the entanglement of history and present situation and has probably no parallel in contemporary contributions. 'We no longer want to take the view of the historian who can recognize what is good and bad or what is authentic and what is fraudulent, who understands and forgive all. It is no longer enough [if] we want to give expression to our clear will.'12

It is probably this engagement that leads to an extraordinary superposition of historical past and present. 'Our time is all of history, as it is known to us. This notion alone can be the basis of modern architecture.'13 Moreover, it is historical knowledge - and not scientific, as commonly assumed in the theory of modern movement - that constitutes the distinctive core of modernity. Throughout the entire essay, historical discourse is not separable from comments on the contemporary situation. Continuous temporal shifts are a distinctive mark in the writing. …

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