Tour of architectural history confirms art form's new stature

A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, by Spiro Kostof. New York: Oxford University Press. 788 pp. $45, cloth; $24.95, paper. The publication of Spiro Kostof's ``A History of Architecture'' marks the opening, or rather the confirmation, of a new era in the intellectual life of America and the stature of architecture among the arts. Twenty-three years after the appearance of Horst W. Janson's ``History of Art,'' a textbook that has been the basis for innumerable college and university classes, the history of architecture itself appears to rate a monumental volume.

Oxford University Press has met the need for a lively, fresh presentation of architectural history, a subject that was wiped out of many college and university curricula, or moved from architecture schools to the departments of the history of art, when early European modernism came to America in the 1930s and '40s. The purely functionalist aesthetic of the International Style of the Bauhaus school of architects, such as Walter Gropius, supplanted the traditional styles of the ``failed'' civilizations of Europe that had allowed the world wars to take place. These modernist architects ignored architectural history.

Spiro Kostof's heroic achievement is the assimilation, synthesis, and presentation of historical scholars' work for future architects. He has witnessed and nurtured the growing acceptance of past architecture as editor of and contributor to ``The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession''; as president of the Society of Architectural Historians; and as a teacher of survey courses in architectural history to architects-in-training at the University of California at Berkeley.

Kostof writes with a generous spirit that embraces all cultures -- he deals in depth with samplings from each -- and all levels of society, but with an especially warm feeling for ``the people,'' their relationships to the seats of power, and their domestic and social needs.

Kostof's particular strength lies in his sense of the importance of setting. After all, he is an architecture professor in the School of Environmental Studies. This means not only ample photographs and elaborate topographical drawings and maps, but also the ``whole picture'': festivities and rituals that gave the buildings and open areas life, the relationships of patron and architect, the vicissitudes of political and economic life.

The challenge that ``A History of Architecture'' may present to the generally interested layman or the college student (to whom it is dedicated) is its unorthodox organization. One can understand that this is Kostof's reaction to the traditional, chronologically organized ``history of styles,'' which underrates individual choice and response. His alternative -- clever conceptual divisions (such as ``Edges of Medievalism'') -- allows for presentation, for example, of the early Renaissance Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi in the context of the late medieval building boom in that city.

Furthermore, despite the book's title, this is not a true history. Because of its universal scope, Kostof is simply not able to get inside each culture to judge the works on their own terms and by the values of that time. Rather, he acts as a critic with late 20th-century ideals by describing, experientially, the effects of the architecture on the viewer.

This is a marvelous introduction to the forms and presence of the art form that is the most accessible to all, but it should not be considered anything more than the beginning to an understanding of the history of the architecture.

Kostof's own interests may be summed up in his description of Biagio Rossetti (1447?-1516) of Ferrara, Italy:

. . . A city planner first and foremost -- that is, a man who saw all buildings as incidents that generate specific urban responses. He was not as interested in ennobling the everyday fabric by isolated acts of heroic architecture as he was in muting the clash between the vernacular and the monumental and in encouraging a general level of decency in the streetscape at large.

That, at least, is the effect of Rossetti's work, and let us hope it will be the effect of Kostof's as well.

Margaret Muther D'Evelyn is studying for an advanced degree in art history at Princeton University.

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