‘The historical project is an intermittent journey through a maze of entangled paths, one of the many possible “provisional constructions”’.
Architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri thus defines his ‘progetto storico’ in the introduction to La sfera e il labirinto (1980; The Sphere and the Labyrinth, 1987), a book that reaffirms his definition of a long modernity in architecture – begun with Piranesi’s dissolution of form and continued well into the crisis of the 1970s - and identifies its key moments in a fragmented history made of ruptures, redefinitions and constant self-questioning of architecture in relation to the social, the political, and the other ‘multiple techniques of environmental formation’.
Tafuri’s enunciation of the ‘historical project’ is one of the key moments in contemporary architectural historiography, and at the same time an unsettling cultural project that shakes the foundations of the history of architecture. Not a solution-finding method but a wider question-raising strategy, the historical project is not applied to architecture to produce narratives or commemorations, but works in architecture. Like architecture it does not aim to offer comprehensive and definitive solutions, and it remains an incomplete project, open to forces that are external to architecture but are at work within it. Like architecture it works with partiality, precision, intention, operating through the specificity of its objects and their material practices.
There is a tension at work in Tafuri’s ‘historical project’, between the provisional and fragmented nature of the historical journey it proposes and the highly specific material nature of the investigations on architecture through which its fragments are constructed. This paper explores the fundamental role of this tension as an active (and reactivating) force in the construction of the project of history in architecture.