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French art-historical studiesFrom art history the concept of historicism has recently entered into contemporary architectural criticism, where it is often used as an ill-defined and undifferentiated evaluation of the most varied phenomena of 20th-century architecture. The point of departure of the historicist critique is, broadly speaking, the premise that the present century’s cultural achievement resides precisely in the emancipation of architecture from historical links and traditions and in the conviction that ‘modern’ architecture created a ‘true’ unity of form and function and thereby an ideal unity of art and function, theory and practice, which could indeed be linked to history through common principles, but not by formal analogy. The adoption of a stylistic concept – devised in the context of an idealist-intoned German approach to art history – to serve as the symbol of the intellectual and cultural unity of an entire epoch and to evoke the theory of an artistic avant garde, opened the way for the postulate of an aesthetic of’pure’ abstract (technical) form. This was asserted as the fulfilment of the old search for a ‘new style’ and, indeed, the only ‘style’ of the 20th century. This intellectualized cultural and artistic model, however, denied that historicism remained alive with varying intensity in the artistic consciousness of the 20th century. The by now well-known portrait of a straightforward development of the International Style out of the revolution of modern architecture against historicism c. 1910 is but a myth of architectural history.

Throughout the 20th century historicism has continued to play a role in architecture which cannot be understood simply in terms of the characterized antithesis of the Neues Bauen or Rationalism and tradition. This requires rather a differentiating analysis of cultural definitions, ideological content and use of historical forms. The rejection of stylistic eclecticism of the late 19 century did not come about by a radical denial of all historical relationships. It was much more a fundamentalist return – after the brief aestheticist episode of the pure decorative freedom and stylistic invention known as Art Nouveau – to ‘genuine’ historical principles, that is to the typological and formal paradigms of’true’ monumentality and ‘native’ traditionalism.

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