We know very well that the theory of art as significant form has been the ambiguous battle horse of, first, Clive Bell and, then (in an even more uncertain and ambiguous way, if that is possible), of Roger Fry, and that the neo-Symbolist theories of Susanne Langer and of a good number of the American scholars have in various ways stressed the 'significant' values of images.91
91The above-mentioned work by Boyd gives the measure of the influence of Langer's theories on American architectural culture. Boyd recognizes three phases in the Modern Movement: after the orthodox phase the Counter revolution follows, dominated by the myth of significant form, of the monolithic, of the sculptural and of the symbolic, that finds expression in the monumental work of Stone, Johnson and Saarinen. The third phase (Kahn, Tange, Rudolph, etc.) is seen as a recovery of the original values of the Modern Movement, enriched by the positive contributions of the Counter-revolution. Though rather simplistic, Boyd's historiographic view exemplifies very well the myths of English and American culture in relation to the objective crisis of modern architecture.
But, and this is more important and serious, today we are also compelled to feel 'betrayed' by history. The 'betrayal' today is felt as a consequence of contradictions within the very tradition with which we cannot help but identify. The success of all the poetics of ambiguity, in architecture as well as in urban design, is due, in fact, to the following reason: those who propose ambiguity, complexity and contradiction as communicative and formative materials of architectural and urban experience, know they are employing real conditions, know that they are making explicit something felt, more or less confusedly, by everyone. In a certain sense, history has a tendency to become ambiguous. Offering no certainties, history seems to offer itself as a mere collection of facts and things that wait to be given a meaning, in their turn, by each successive planning choice. It is not history, any more, that offers the architect a horizon of stability and values. It is, rather, architecture that, in its making, in its changing, in its attempt to recreate from nothing its own purpose and values, gives a constant metamorphosis of meaning to history.
The somewhat hidden and perhaps not completely conscious objective of Kahn, Rudolph and, even the later work of Wright, was to establish, through planning, the values of the past: to weed out from the shapeless heap of pure 'signs' still called 'history' everything that is not, somehow, related to the hic et nunc of every single work, and to include in it, as values, those other 'signs' that can, somehow, justify its existence.
In this way to the relative availability of architecture one adds the absolute availability of history. Provided that, in the very moment in which the more divided architects decide to find some terms of super-historical relationship with the past, as a compensation for the fall of their ideal tensions, the to and fro play between the ambiguity of history and the ambiguity of architecture closes itself in a circle with rather fragile boundaries. The relationship turns into baby-talk, mysterious silences, a whirl of banalities à la Ionesco, into winks meant to be light-hearted but revealing tragedy in all their haunting emptyness. Given this situation, let us try to re-state our initial proposition: criticism sets limitations to the ambiguity of architecture.
This means that the historian has to oppose the 'camouflaged anti-historicism' of present architecture. By writing past events into a field of meanings, the historian gives sense to the ambiguity of history: from abstract and completely available the ambiguity is rendered concrete and instrumentalizable. He will refuse to read in late-Antique architecture the premises of Kahn or Wright, in Mannerism those of Expressionism or of the present moment, in the pre-historical remains the premises of organicism and of some abstract experiences. And this refusal is a precise contestation of the mythologies of the pseudo-avant-garde.
There is in fact only one way of uncovering the ideologies of renunciation hidden behind the rejection of history, the exaltation of the pure event and the illusory objective of the permanent revolution of language. Rejecting history means, today, giving oneself up to the most vulgar and, at the same time, the most subtle mystifications. It is myth that takes the place of history. One has to choose between being aware of one's actions and capitulating before heterodirected stimuli.