With this fortieth guest writer essay, written by my friend Andri Gerber, I am happy to start a second series of these invited texts. The first one was fantastic and will be published in a book sometimes this year — more on that in the near future. I am very enthusiastic about this second series as well as many people — including a lot of non-architects — already accepted to write for The Funambulist and I am trying to drive a certain editorial line that should be able to tie them all together.
Today, we therefore start with the essay Meta-History, or How to Teach History of Architecture in the Era of New Media by Andri Gerber who tells us, through an autobiographic mode, how diagrams can help us to develop a knowledge about knowledge itself. The methodology it implies is a sort of cartography (Andri talks about “spatialization”) of information in order to develop a discourse.
The Funambulist Papers 40 /// Meta-History, or How to Teach History of Architecture in the Era of New Media
by Andri Gerber
What follows is a rather personal account on my understanding of the writing and teaching of the history of architecture. It is an account of the consciousness, I developed through the last years about my own work as historian, which strongly influenced the way I teach history and theory. It is personal, because when it comes to teaching, before I can teach anything, I have to understand how I understand things myself. That is, I’m trying not only to teach facts in some correlation, but also how and why I chose these correlations, so that students can get a feeling for how they can create their own correlations and thus knowledge. In this sense, I often refer myself to a quote by German ethnologist Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs who says, literally translated: “In order to understand the world, we have first to understand our understanding. Or represented by a funny illustration from the book 101 things I learned in architectural school as “meta-thinking, or thinking about the thinking.” This perfectly explains my attitude towards the writing and teaching of history. I call this awareness for the own theory of history, meta-history.
When I started writing my PhD in 2005 on Peter Eisenman’s “city as text” framed in a general theory of metaphors in urbanism, long before teaching history and theory of architecture, it was clear to me, that in relation to art historians, who had been at length taught how to research and to write history, even though I could learn techniques and methods, the “language” of art history would always remain foreign to me. Trained as an architect, it took me some time to stop asking for what I was not able to do – in relation to art historians -, but rather what I was able to do, exactly because of my training as an architect. In relation to such particularities and in this process of “self-discovery” it became clear to me that as an architect I have a specific spatial knowledge and also an awareness for the processes, which implies also an awareness for methods. I was thus constantly asking myself not only what I was doing, but furthermore, how I was doing it.
In this process of developing my own working method, I introduced diagrams as a specific instrument of research and as a flexible representation of mind-maps. Through different graphical codings, I tried to “spatialize” the information I was gathering and to make sense of them, exactly by this spatialization. I needed the diagram, to make order of my thoughts and it was thus by the diagram and what it told me, that I could understand things, I probably would have not without. I understood that this way of working – which is only one among many – was peculiar to my education and my mind, trained to think in terms of spatial arrangements.
In this particular case the diagram mapped the different texts and sources according to the year of appearance and origin, in relation to the texts by Peter Eisenman and his statements about influencing texts. It allowed for a verification of these links but opened up also space for “transversal” unforeseen insights.
While the diagram of my PhD was analogue and some when lost its capacity to give order, because of its growing and uncontrolled complexity, which was unplanned in the beginning, I am currently using, for my habilitation – a history of the epistemology of urbanism -, a specific software, TheBrain, which allows for a more interactive design of the connections (I choose the program from a set of similar software, each one with his advantages/disadvantages) and thus more control of its growing complexity.
When I started to teach history and theory of architecture at the University of Liechtensten in 2010, I was faced with the question on how to do that: shall I teach the history in a chronological manner, period after period, the way it was taught to me, or shall I rather decompose the history in relation to particular topics? The first being a more historical, the second a more theoretical approach, both having advantages and disadvantages. Looking at my own experience of structurating and restructurating facts through diagrams, as my personal cognitive process, I thought about a way to teach history to create awareness for the student about his own construction of history.
I tried thus an experiment: as I was teaching 4 semesters, I presented for every semester a different history of architecture: the history of the architects, the history of the discipline, the history of the making architecture and the history of the theory of architecture (that is: the who, the what, the how and the why of architecture). I was in fact retelling every time the same history, but from a different angle of view emphasizing different epochs and different actors, sometimes the sames.
The students were then asked, as part of their exam, to re-structurate in a diagram, what I had destructurated. This should help them to make sense not only of the history, but also of the way I was telling it. They would have to make sense of what I told them. That is, they had to try to retrace my own processes of destructuration by reconstructing the pieces in their diagram. History became thus an active, creative process of transformation and interpretation (which it always is).
The reasons to do so where not only my personal experience but also two important considerations. First, as almost all epochs where architecture fells in love with technology, as is the case right now, history plays a secondary role for an architectural student, you need a different approach to make him understand the importance of history. Second, in a time where the student can basically access to any (superficial) information from Wikipedia and where he believes that this access = knowledge, we need to show him not only how to accede to the information, but what to do with this information: how to put it into context, how to structure a knowledge around this information. And the way he will put this information in context is likely to be far away from a classical hierarchical order, rather closer, for example, to how he chooses music from iTunes for his iPod. In this context I refer myself to media theorist David Weinberger, who investigated the nature of what he calls “the new digital disorder” or “third-order of organization.” Weinberger underscores what we assumed above, that “understanding is meta-knowledge.” He brings it to the point, when he states that “the task of knowing is not longer to see the simple. It is to swim in the complex.” What we have thus to teach to the students, is how to swim – and there are many ways to swim – not least by showing how we ourselves try to keep our head above the water and how to delve without drowning.
Every student will find his own way to restructurate the information, to give them a new sense and thus gains knowledge on and through history. To do that, we have also to show them the relevance of history, beyond any periodical call for the end of history. This does not put the objectivity of history in question, but takes account on how historians were never completely subjective, always more ore less influenced by something.
We are thus facing many histories: the histories of the historians, the many histories depending on a particular angle of view but also the personal history every student will build up for himself, somehow taking reference to the history of architecture.
Meta-history is thus both the “knowledge about the knowledge”, the knowledge of second order or meta-knowledge and the theory of history every historian has, which obviously is again correlated to this meta-knowledge. Teaching history, as I try to do it, implies the awareness for the own theory of history and the attempt to communicate this awareness and how it is gained, to the student, in order that he can do the same for his own, personal positioning in history.
 I am currently working on a book on my teaching experience, that will be published in 2014, carrying the title: Meta-Geschichte, ein Lehrbuch für Architekten (which will be in German)
 Heinrichs, Hans-Jürgen, Erzählte Welt, Lesarten der Wirklichkeit in Geschichte, Kunst und Wissenschaft, Reineck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1996
 Frederick, Matthew, 101 things I learned in architecture school, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007
 Taking reference to many “metas-“ from history such as White, Haydn, Metahistory, The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe , Baltimore, London: The John Hopkins University, 1975; or Lefebvre, Henri, Metaphilosophie, Prolegomena Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1965
 See for that: Brandl, Anne Gerber, Andri, “A plea for a spatial knowledge,“ in SpecialeZ No.4, Paris: Editions Ecole Spéciale, 2013, pp. 66-81
 Weinberger, David, Everythings is miscellaneous. The power oft he new digital disorder. New York: Times Books, 2007
 Weinberger, David, Everythings is miscellaneous. The power oft he new digital disorder. New York: Times Books, 2007, p. 215
 Weinberger, David, Everythings is miscellaneous. The power oft he new digital disorder. New York: Times Books, 2007, p. 198