Tuesday, September 07, 2010

What do Architects and Artists of the 20th Century Think About Technology

Having discussed for three chapters the evolution of the impact of new engineering technologies, focusing on the United States and Germany, Thomas Hughes in Chapter 5 of his book Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture turns to "Technology and Culture" focusing on way architects and visual artists responded to the evolving technology and technology impact.

He focuses on "culture" in the sense of the output of cultural artifacts (and the thought behind them), rather than in the anthropological sense of the complete set of institutions and values that characterize a society. Even in this respect, he focuses on the best known architects and some of the best known artists, rather than for example, popular culture. One might have thought that a discussion of art and culture in the 20th century might have focused on the effect of movies and television on theater, or of changing recording technologies on music. Indeed, I suspect that building technology has changed sufficiently to change the products of architecture (e.g. steel framed, hung glass wall skyscrapers, pre-stressed concrete, not to mention the application of new lighting, air conditioning and heating technologies to building design). Hughes did not choose to approach these topics.

Instead he focused on the thinking of a number of architects, artists and critics about the technology and their crafts. Hughes is aware that this approach tends to focus on the architecture of large structures, typically reflecting not only the aesthetics of the architects but also of the people who make decisions on the financing of major structures and who choose their architects. So too, Hughes' approach tends to focus on artists who are thought to be important by the curators of major museums and those who buy the most expensive works of art. Thus, we are not likely to get a view of the impact of technology on genre painters such as native Americans or those focusing on livestock, wildlife, or the west. Even so, I would have expected some discussion of the theorists of post-modern architecture.

Hughes was constrained by his choice of producing a short readable book to choose only a limited number of thinkers to discuss in this chapter. However, I was left wondering whether if he had chosen a different group of architects and artists to consider whether the thrust of the chapter might have been different. As it was, Hughes leaves the impression that some architects and artists were energized by the opportunities offered by new technologies and the new social and economic conditions evolving, while others were concerned by the direction of social changes that they perceived to be related to the impact of technology. He ends the discussion citing some of the applications of computers to architecture.

Previous posting on Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture are:

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