The Critical Edge: When Historians Met the Present

The post-modern movement seemed to offer a place for historians at the table of contemporary architecture. Once again, the references being deployed by architects called on the specialized knowledge that only historians had at their fingertips; movements that had long been out of fashion were reexamined; books that had long been out of circulation were looked at anew. It seemed, briefly, as if historians might have a central role in contemporary architecture. Published by MIT Press, The Critical Edge: Controversy in Recent American Architecture appeared in 1985 edited by Tod A. Marder. Marder wrote the introduction and there were overview essays by the historian Robert Bruegmann and the critic Martin Filler. Graduate students wrote catalogue-entry essays on recent buildings documenting their design process and public reception. It remains a remarkable book, rich in its collection of contemporary documents and commentary. The editor foresaw the possibility of a livelier criticism in which greater documentation of a building would be available; in which images would be examined more critically; in which informed debate would spill into the public sphere. The catalogue essays written by graduate students exemplified this new critical style in which historical skills of research and analysis mattered. In all, The Critical Edge was a brave book; it called for new ways of interacting with contemporary architecture and modeled that relationship. This paper will recreate the moment of The Critical Edge, examine its ambitions and measure its critical reception.