Counterfactuals and Architectural History

I continue to be amazed by the range of academic disciplines that have shown themselves open to exploring counterfactual thinking.

I’m particularly thrilled to see the Royal Academy of Arts in London sponsoring a mini-conference at the end of November entitled, “What If?...Counterfactual Architectural History.”

In the past few years, I’ve posted a variety of comments on this blog on the relationship between counterfactual thinking and the built environment.  But this is the first time I’ve seen a methodical effort to explore the fascinating connections between the two.

The description of the conference is as follows (click the LINK for the full description):

“A panel of architectural historians explores a range of ‘what if’ scenarios in the history of architecture, posing alternative narratives that lead us to re-think how existing accounts are written and perpetuated.”

“What if? It’s a question that historians have increasingly been asking. How might the course of history have unfolded if particular events had turned out differently, or alternative decisions had been made? The often-noted risk of such an approach is to go too far and enter the realms of fantasy. But when applied properly, counterfactual history can help us reassess whether apparently pivotal events or decisions actually were as important as existing historical accounts might have us believe.”

“Counterfactuals are most often applied to political or military history, where human agency has to be weighed against broader political, social, economic or technological forces. In this event, we apply counterfactuals to architectural history, where a similar balance has to be made.”

“Speakers will each focus on a particular ‘what if’ scenario and explore what other possibilities might have existed at this particular historical moment. The following discussion will look at the roles of narrative and causality in architectural history, and explore whether counterfactuals do in fact offer the potential of shedding new light on the architectural past.”

There is no reason why “what if” questions should not inform architectural history.  And in fact, I expect to find in my ongoing research into the history of counterfactual history that they have been present all along.

Imagine how the reputation of certain architects would have been shaped had some of their unrealized designs actually been built.  Louis I. Kahn is acknowledged as a 20th century master, but he is known just as much for what was never built as what was.

Imagine if the Hurva synagogue (see images above) had been completed in Jerusalem?  Kent Larson’s digital reconstructions provide a sense of missed opportunities that failed to be realized..

By the same token, there are countless architectural atrocities that we'd have been better off without (New Brutalism is in currently in vogue, but I never much liked it -- Boston City Hall anyone?  Maybe we'd have a more beautiful world without it....)

The list is certainly endless.