A historian typically explores archives of others. But what happens when a historian’s archive becomes the subject and object of exploration and even exhibition? I was recently at the Canadian Centre of Architecture for a seminar/workshop (on an entirely unrelated subject) and the workshop participants were given a guided of the on-going exhibition Educating Architects: Four Courses by Kenneth Frampton by the exhibition curator Kim Förster. I thought the really well-curated and fascinating exhibition (based on the archive of Kenneth Frampton acquired by the CCA) provides some answers to the question I posed at the beginning of this paragraph. The exhibition features an array of diverse materials — syllabi, models, drawings, sketches and writings — produced by Frampton and his students at Princeton and Columbia Do check out the website as it provides an overview of the exhibition.
This exhibition reveals many fascinating and little-known (to me at least) aspects of Frampton’s works but I was really struck by, and not without a bit of bemusement, the rather harsh comments on Frampton’s manuscript for Modern Architecture: A Critical History by Robin Middleton, his editor at Thames and Hudson at that time. As we all probably know, Modern Architecture (first published in 1980 and is now into its fourth edition) is today widely recognised as a classic that has been translated into 13 languages. But in a letter dated 14 June 1972 to Frampton, Middleton wrote
I find your early chapters unconvincing. The opening chapter is a disaster. I think the publication of Benevolo’s book in English during the mid-term of your activity has thrown you somewhat… There is no sense of a story or even continuity in your chapters.
Perhaps some harsh comments tell us that even a “great” architectural historian struggled with giving coherence to his or her manuscript, let alone normal beings like ourselves. Or perhaps the struggle was with his editor’s biases? Anyway, June 1972 was obviously some way from 1980, the final publication date. Frampton probably responded to these criticisms and extensively revised his manuscript. Moral of the story (if there is one) for aspiring writers and writers: Don’t be disheartened by harsh criticisms; work hard and one day your book might become a classic.