The "flawed texture" of history

In 1965, James Martson Fitch* surveyed the architectural literature from 1929-39, and wrote, in part, this:

"The period seems to me a pregnant one, a very rich and stimulating one, despite the fact that, if you look closely at its actual accomplishments, they may seem pathetic in their scarcity, their small scale, their inability to go beyond the schematic and the hypothetical.  (But many great periods of history reveal the same flawed texture when examined closely: reading the daily accounts of the Civil War, you would never guess that the Union would win and the nation be preserved.)"

This is a remarkable passage for a couple of reasons.  First, the phrase "pathetic scarcity" leaps off the page.  Although architectural historians (like me) who focus on the 20th century do agree that architecture suffered in the 30s due to the Great Depression, I would not depict it this way.  Think of Frank Lloyd Wright's activities in that decade.  Moreover, from my own studies, Gregory Ain produced some of his finest work in the 30s, the passive solar house was developed by Fred Keck, and the canonical Lake County Tuberculosis Sanatorium was built in this period as well.  (Apart from an offhand reference to Broadacre City, Fitch did not discuss Wright, Ain, Keck, or Pereira, and this is only to mention a few of the achievements he seemingly overlooked.)  I think we've developed a richer view of the 30s since Fitch's time.

His reference to the "inability to go beyond the schematic and the hypothetical" seems to have been directed at Buckminster Fuller and Frederick Kiesler.  They were discussed in some detail in the article.

More importantly, I find this notion of "flawed texture" to be immensely thought-provoking and useful.  As architectural historians we typically build larger stories out of small pieces of evidence, like a detective.  As (fictional character) Sherlock Holmes said: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”  I like to approach my work with something of this attitude.

But I think Fitch would not subscribe to the Holmes method.  He suggests discrete bits of evidence, taken at face value, may point to the wrong conclusion.  Historical interpretation is not quite like detective work.  We know that historical distance is required.  By extension, what is also required is a kind of impressionistic imagination, and perhaps---unless I am reading Fitch too liberally---a willingness to twist facts, at least a little bit.

*Fitch is a towering figure in my world, and I should write more about him.  (He is mentioned here.)  For a time at mid-century, he was the only architectural historian alert and sensitive to environmental issues, until Reyner Banham.  His article, "The Rise of Technology: 1929-1939," was published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians in 1965.

See also: Problems and Paradoxes of Architectural History