The Bohemian-born Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, subject of Reto Geiser's Giedion and America, is best known as the author of Space, Time and Architecture, an influential, yet exclusive, account of the history of modern architecture first published in 1941. Trained by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in Munich during the 1920s, Giedion played a key role in the formation of the modern movement, defining and promoting it in dialogue with colleagues such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and László Moholy-Nagy. From 1941 to 1962, his book sold 65,000 copies (86)—far from best-seller counts, but a substantial number for a book on architectural history.
Geiser's important biographical and historiographic study of Giedion is based, in part, on research the author conducted for his 2010 doctoral thesis at ETH Zurich, “Giedion in Between: A Study of Cultural Transfer and Transatlantic Exchange 1938–1968.”1Giedion and America is rigorously researched and carefully documented, drawing on rich archival resources. It departs from the existing literature by focusing on Giedion's midcareer period during the years following World War II, when, as a mature scholar, he traveled to the United States to teach at Harvard and Yale. Geiser's account, with its transcontinental focus, deepens and enlarges upon the existing literature, notably Sokratis Georgiadis's intellectual biography of Giedion (1993).2 Geiser's book also coincides with the publication of another intellectual biography, The Giedion World, by Almut Grunewald, which centers on Giedion and his wife, Carola Giedion-Welcker, an art historian who was influential in her own right.3 Giedion kept copious records of his personal contacts and his research, and his archive, housed at the gta Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture at ETH Zurich, is a treasure trove of handwritten notes, correspondence, photographs, and documents. In curating a graphically rich selection of illustrations, with color images on full-bleed page spreads, Geiser offers an exciting glimpse into the visual character of this extensive archive.
Deftly intertwining biography and historiography, Geiser's book is replete with details that shed light on Giedion's oeuvre, beginning with brief biographies of the protagonists in Giedion's extensive network of colleagues. As secretary-general of CIAM (1928–59), Giedion made many important alliances, and these proved vital to his success in securing teaching positions in the United States. It is well known that Giedion, a Jew, left Switzerland to escape the rising tide of Nazism, but Geiser provides a deeper historical context for Giedion's departure and his years in the United States. In so doing, he offers important insights into Giedion's three most important English-language publications: Space, Time and Architecture (1941), Mechanization Takes Command (1948), and The Eternal Present (volume 1, 1962; volume 2, 1964). These insights are set out in four sections organized around themes corresponding to the two cultural and academic contexts Giedion straddled at midcentury: Europe and the United States. The section titles—“In Between Languages,” “In Between Approaches,” “In Between Academies,” and “In Between Disciplines”—all speak to Geiser's claim that “the four ‘in between’ situations … reflect the ways in which [Giedion] strategically shaped his own approach and position precisely because of his operations at the intersection of different entities and forces” (8).
For example, in the first section, we learn that Giedion barely spoke English when he arrived in the United States in 1938, invited as the Charles Norton Professor in Poetry at Harvard University, beating out the acclaimed novelist Thomas Mann for that honor. Giedion's Norton Lectures were barely intelligible to his audience, not only because of his lack of proficiency in English but also because of his discipline-specific vocabulary and his Wölfflin-inspired presentational manner, which included dialogical images shown in juxtaposition and an emphasis on images over words. The difficulties this presented persisted when the lectures were transcribed and expanded in Space, Time and Architecture. Here we learn that the British urban planner, editor, and educator Jaqueline Tyrwhitt was instrumental in translating Giedion's project for the 1957 A. W. Mellon Lectures, The Eternal Present. As Geiser illuminates, Tyrwhitt effectively synthesized the disparate fragments of Giedion's research into a coherent structure, thereby transcending her role as research assistant and translator and becoming a full collaborator. Giedion's trust in Tyrwhitt was so complete that “she became his exclusive translator of all his later works” (59).
In contrast to the first section, which is more biographical, the second section, “In Between Approaches,” is historiographic in method, delving into nineteenth-century German aesthetics, particularly the idea of “spatial” perception (a variety of Kunstwollen) that animated the modern cultural and technological epoch, manifesting not only in art but also in everyday artifacts.4 Geiser productively distinguishes Giedion's selective history of the modern movement from those of other noted historians of the era, namely, Lewis Mumford and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, then the leading authorities on modern architecture in the United States. The third section, “In Between Academies,” chronicles Giedion's efforts to set up an exchange between American and Swiss students and teachers, his failed attempt to secure a tenured position at ETH Zurich after World War II, his study of prehistory through the lens of modern art, and other related topics.
Whereas the first three sections of Giedion and America focus on a rich tapestry of people, events, and ideas that help to sharpen our understanding of Giedion's work as a whole, the final section, “In Between Disciplines,” examines the impact Giedion's cross-disciplinary research had on others, particularly the Canadian cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan. This is, arguably, the book's most interesting section, and Geiser presents here a surprising and provocative discovery. As he explains, Giedion's thesis of a dominant perception underlying all cultural production provided McLuhan with an epistemological model for his “notion that every medium shapes the perception of the people who use it—summed up most concisely in his iconic phrase ‘the medium is the message’ ” (380). This common understanding of the past's significance for the present (and vice versa) united these two men. Indeed, Giedion's ideas about transdisciplinary research, as Geiser demonstrates, likely influenced McLuhan's proposal, with anthropologist Edmund Snow Carpenter, for what would become “one of the first interdisciplinary research groups in the American academy,” the think tank Explorations, which produced the eponymous journal, founded in Toronto in 1953 (381). Many research centers now champion interdisciplinary collaborative efforts as a means for solving complex problems, and Geiser offers an early historical case study showing the challenges these efforts pose for higher education today. Geiser's book, in short, provides a comprehensive account of the impact of Giedion's thought on American intellectual life, both within the discipline of architectural history and beyond.
Reto Geiser, “Giedion in Between: A Study of Cultural Transfer and Transatlantic Exchange 1938–1968” (PhD diss., ETH Zurich, 2010), https://www.research-collection.ethz.ch/handle/20.500.11850/152519 (accessed 10 July 2020).
Sokratis Georgiadis, Sigfried Giedion: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993).
Almut Grunewald, The Giedion World: Sigfried Giedion and Carola Giedion-Welcker in Dialogue (Zurich: Scheidegger and Spiess, 2019).
It is possibly for this reason that Geiser refers to Giedion as an art historian, rather than an architectural historian. Giedion's first degree was in mechanical engineering.