Reviving the Idea of a “Usable Past”

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen—

While we often think that being modern means aspiring to leave the past behind with every tick of the clock, reflecting on history is an integral aspect of modernity. A slew of essays and books written in the aftermath of World War I addressed the dilemma that studying history posed for modern artists, writers, and architects: how to retain the timeless essence of art without compromising modernity’s forward-leaning thrust. An essay entitled “On Creating a Usable Past” written by the influential cultural critic and literary scholar Van Wyck Brook in 1918 led the way by positing that the study of history could spark rather than inhibit creativity. This mandated that studying past events and artifacts needed to be both intentional and selective: “For the spiritual past has no objective reality; it yields only what we are able to look for in it. And what people find in literature corresponds precisely with what they find in life,” he reasoned.[1] He called the past “usable” because it is “an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals.”[2] Historian Casey Nelson Blake noted in response, “To think of the American past as ‘usable,’ as opposed to a dry collection of facts or a completed tradition deserving mute reverence exemplified a quintessentially American, pragmatic approach to the study of history.”[3]

T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” went even further by arguing that a modern writer must engage past works when creating something new. Yet, to avoid adhering to inherited models in a “timid or blind” manner, a writer aspiring to being modern should engage the work of bygone writers on an equal plane, as if they were his or her contemporaries. The ability to erase temporal distance was the hallmark of what Eliot called having a “historical sense,” which “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” Through the creative process, “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”[4] This meant that a creative person was expected to study precedents differently than a scholar, who tended to treat historical objects as documents of a particular period and place, that is, without assigning them historical distance.

To be sure, twentieth-century modernists never left the past behindthey simply approached it from the perspective and for the benefit of the present. In his essay “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben” (“On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”) published in Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations, 1876) the famous philosopher of the future, Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized that history was “useful” only when the experiencing subject becomes aware of its multivalence and incompleteness. In his historical schemata a present moment should never be considered simply an inevitable result of an accumulative past, but as something that forces us to ask: Where did we come from, and where are we heading? Studying history was meant to be unsettling in a productive sense. Nietzsche’s declaration about the value of classical studies in Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen sums up his position: “I do not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time if they were not untimely—that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.”[5]

Nietzsche considered architecture to be an ideal medium in the effort to turn history into a generative force as he wrote: “The history of the city becomes for him the history of himself; he understands the wall, the towered gate, its rules and regulations, its holidays, like an illuminated diary of his youth and in all this he finds again himself,”[6] in this case, through “the palimpsests, even polypsest” the city encompasses, and that, instead of being predestined, our individual and collective lives follow multiple paths.[7] He taught modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to think of their work as a continuum of a longue durée and themselves as historical agents. Both used montage as a tool to underscore their historical reflectivity and agency. Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine plan (1925) proposed new construction in sharp contrast with the old city, while Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper project (1922) used the building’s glass skin to reflect its historical surroundings. The pursuit of future and novelty went, in other words, hand in hand with reimagining the past. The Bauhaus revival of medieval Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art was yet another instance in which the desire to envision future was based on retaining the forms and material practices of a bygone era.

Following Nietzsche’s lead, modernist architects called for new architecture to measure up to past achievements. Le Corbusier did exactly this in his 1937 book Quand les cathédrals étaient blanches: Voyage au pays des timides (When the Cathedrals Were White: A Journey to the Country of Timid People), which chronicled his experiences of American architecture during his 1935 U.S. lecture tour. The cover of the book juxtaposed imagery from medieval France over a 1922 map of Manhattan with an image of a medieval knight placed on the cover, imagining Le Corbusier as a modern-day architect-crusader arriving in a foreign land to combat architectural heresies and introduce a new era built on lessons from the medieval past. The author states his mission in the book’s opening pages, writing: “I wish to show only the great similarity between [the medieval] past . . and the present day.”[8] This view had led him to propose a few years earlier that, while a large patch of central Paris should be torn down to make room for his Ville Radieuse, the remnants of the city’s medieval past should be left standing as a memento of the inventive spirit of medieval builders. It was America’s turn to learn from medieval ancestors what it meant to live in the present.

While Le Corbusier’s relationship to history was ambiguous to say the least—he was particularly down on Renaissance architecture based on ancient monuments—he never thought that embracing modernity’s forward-leaning thrust would mean leaving the past completely behind. He pointed out that he had been misunderstood in this regard during a 1929 lecture in Buenos Aires, saying, ”Today I am considered a revolutionary. I shall confess to you that I have had only one teacher: the past; and one education: the study of the past. Everything, for a long time, and still today. . . . It is in the past that I found my lessons of history, of the reasons for being of things. Every event and every object is ‘in relationship to.’”[9]

His American travelogue reads as a crusade against what Nietzsche called the “misuse” of history, which hinders lessons from the past from being properly integrated into present-day life. Reading Nietzsche had taught Le Corbusier that the true lessons of the past were accessible only to those who lived courageously in the present; only then, he wrote, have people “extended our sympathy to all the world and to all times,”[10] somehow organically, without much thought.

Recent historical events have reminded us of William Faukner’s words that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[11] We have been reminded of Nietzsche’s lesson that history needs to be constantly rewritten with fresh eyes from the perspective and for the benefit of the present and future. In other words, the study of history must be useful. The Black Lives Matter movement, ignited by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of white policemen in 2020, invigorated one of the most provocative temporal constructs of the recent past—namely, Afrofuturism, which proposes that for African Americans to imagine their future requires reimagining the Black experience of the past. In her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013), Ytasha L. Womack entices the reader to imagine an alternative version of both the past and future, writing: “Maybe you’ll hop into a parallel universe with a past that reads like a fantasy or a future that feels like the past.”[12] The idea that African American history has to be reimagined is on full display in the Afrofuturist Period Room that opened in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November 2021. Based on Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century community of predominantly Black landowners and tenants that was taken over by Central Park, the exhibition contains a modest clapboard dwelling that houses both historical artifacts and works by contemporary artists, underscoring the fact that those who once lived in the area were not permitted full control of their destinies. As its title, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” suggests, we cannot rely on standard historical narratives when evoking the full African American experience, because too many Black lives never reached their full potential due to systematic racism. The curatorial statement discusses that experience in a manner evoking a poly-temporal weave as follows:

Unlike the other period rooms at the Met, this room rejects the notion of one historical period and embraces the African and African diasporic belief that the past, present, and future are interconnected and that informed speculation may uncover many possibilities. Powered by Afrofuturism—a transdisciplinary creative mode that centers Black imagination, excellence, and self-determination—this construction is only one proposition for what might have been, had Seneca Village been allowed to thrive into the present and beyond.[13]

Understood in this way, the past becomes useful and a generative tool for imagined new futures.

It is my hope that my book Untimely Moderns: How 20th Century Architecture Reimagined the Past conveys that we need at times to reinvent the past to image alternative futures. This process requires that we acknowledge that history writing benefits from different voices and vantage points. There is no doubt that in today’s increasingly fragmented and environmentally fragile world, imagining an alternative future will require not only a profound reassessment of inherited historical frameworks and narratives but listening to those who will be affected the most, namely the young. Questions such as “Whose past?” and “What kind of future?” are potent than ever.

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen is assistant dean and professor at the Yale University School of Architecture. Her many books include Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and GeopoliticsKevin Roche: Architecture as Environment; and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.

[1] Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial (Boston, 1918), 338.

[2] Ibid., 339.

[3] Casey Nelson Blake, “The Usable Past, the Comfortable Past, and the Civic Past: Memory in Contemporary America,” Cultural Anthropology vol 14, no. 3 (August 1999): 423.

[4] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Perspecta 19 (1982): 37. The essay was originally published in The Egoist in 1919 and a year later in the volume titled The Sacred Wood.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Le Corbusier, Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches: Voyage au pays des timides (Paris: Libraire Plon, 1937). Translated into English as Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White: A Journey to the Country of Timid People, trans. Francis E. Hyslop (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947), 4.

[9] Le Corbusier, “To Free Oneself Entirely of Academic Thinking” (1929), in Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 33.

[10] Le Corbusier, Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches: Voyage au pays des timides (Paris: Libraire Plon, 1937). Translated into English as Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White: A Journey to the Country of Timid People, trans. Francis E. Hyslop (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947), 6.

[11] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951; repr., New York: Random House, 2011), 73.

[12] Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2013), 2.

[13] “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” Metropolitan Museum of Art,

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