Reading Sybil Moholy-Nagy, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture in North America, 1957

Reading Sybil Moholy-Nagy, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture in North America, 1957
Silke Briel (Camera), Jonas von Lenthe (Production Manager), Marion von Osten (Director), Jill Winder (Actor), Text quotes by Hilde Heynen.

In the 1960s, the interest in a regional and vernacular architecture evolved into a sort of counterculture against the prevailing modernism in the USA. Sybil Moholy-Nagy’s book is an early document of this movement and today a classic of architecture history. It features buildings and construction techniques that emerge from social practices and whose builders remain anonymous. They include Amerindian settlement forms, Mexican pueblos and churches, as well as barns and houses of the first European settlers. The book highlights cultural and social needs as well as political and climatic conditions that lead to different building methods, The publication is the result of several field research trips taken between 1948 and 1952 to structures that were hitherto not subjects taught at American universities because they were deemed banal. In her study, Moholy-Nagy focuses on local buildings in North and Central America, but also shows anonymous buildings and details of the German Baroque period and the Middle Ages. She argues that popular American architecture was more direct and did not adhere to specific styles, thus criticizing a Euro-American history of architecture that until then had only taken ruling-class architecture, styles or famous architects into account. However, the book does not develop a critical vocabulary with regard to settler colonialism, instead adopting anthropological methods informed by structuralism. After the death of her husband, Moholy-Nagy taught architecture history at the IIT Chicago, the University of California in Berkeley and later the Pratt Institute New York.

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