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Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command
The sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon.
—Mechanization Takes Command
Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968) was a Swiss art historian who pioneered the history of technology while helping bring forth modernity, born of the convergence of revolutionary transformations in science, technology, and the arts, and identified with such names as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, and the Wrights (both Frank Lloyd and the brothers Wilbur and Orville). Together, Space, Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command, originally published in English in 1941 and 1948 respectively, shed light on this convergence—showing, for example, how such abstruse concepts as the special theory of relativity drifted from physics and entered the popular idiom in painting, architecture, and literature. Giedion believed passionately in bridging disciplinary and cultural boundaries. It was through his artist friends that Giedion discovered a new world of science. He then coupled art and science to create a fresh vision of technology, his best hope for restoring the "equilibrium" he desired between man and machine.
Space, Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command were conceived in tandem. During the early 1930s Giedion had laid plans for a multivolume work, The Origins of Modern Man, a sociopsychological exploration of art, technology, and the machine in historical perspective. The intended first volume, Construction and Chaos—its title betrays the apocalyptic terms of his vision—was never published as such. A trip to America in 1938 led Giedion to shift his focus, and his back-to-back classics were the [End Page 374] result. Although the perspective changed somewhat, these books pursued the same basic themes he set out in the early 1930s. 1 They embodied the key ingredients of his hoped-for merger of art, science, and technology into a new vision of society. In Space, Time, and Architecture Giedion "attempted to show the split that exists in our period between thought and feeling." Then, in Mechanization Takes Command, he explored the origins of that split in the rise of mechanization and its effects upon the human being. He originally planned to base his argument on extant historical research but soon realized that "over vast stretches no research was available." He was forced, therefore, to go back to the sources, whence emerged his foray into the history of technology. 2
Though Giedion's protean writings make him hard to classify, he is probably most familiar to architectural historians. Space, Time and Architecture, which derived from his 1938-39 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard (his invitation engineered by Walter Gropius), went through five editions and became the bible for a generation of architects. Even though his discussions of space-time may have eluded most of them, the book was well known for its defense of Gropius, the Bauhaus, and modernism. When modernism went out of architectural fashion, so did Giedion. 3 The centennial of his birth provided the occasion for a retrospective at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH), focused on Giedion's place in European architectural and design traditions.
In our field, Mechanization Takes Command is generally regarded as a groundbreaking if idiosyncratic classic, though few historians of technology are aware of its thematic connection to Space, Time and Architecture. Its appearance generated a flurry of interest (Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan gave it admiring reviews, while William Fielding Ogburn was mostly confused by it), but it failed to start any sort of trend toward the social history of technology, a subfield that would remain fallow for another two decades. 4 Ahead of its time in many respects, it lacked a context of appreciation. Only much later did it become apparent that Giedion's notion of "anonymous history," the history of the quotidian, prefigured today's "history from the bottom up" and the emergence of material culture as a source of evidence. His book's defiance of form and category has [End...