Analyzing the history of urbanism is closely linked to the history of academic institutions, in which this subject was discussed, researched and taught. In the eventful decade of the 1960s, when the interest in the history of urbanism was revived, many academic institutions were founded, which devoted themselves to the history and theory of architecture and urban design. Among them, the gta Institute and therein the Chair for the History of Urban Design were established at ETH Zurich in 1967. With the beginning of the fall semester 2017, the gta 50 jubilee exhibition was opened and a series of jubilee events was initiated. Parts of the program were the conference The History of Urban Design at Schools of Architecture. Reflections on a Core Subject, held on 6th and 7th October in the prestigious historic Semperaula of the ETH main building and the gta 50 exhibition. As I had been working at the Chair for the History of Urban Design before joining urbanHIST in September, I couldn’t miss these events.
The focus of the conference program was laid on Urban Design History as a subject at architecture schools in German-speaking countries. The contributions dealt with some of the protagonists of theory and history of urban design such as Werner Hegemann, Cornelius Gurlitt, Albert Erich Brinckmann, Hans Bernoulli and Gerd Albers. Furthermore, two international excursions were made, one to the early Chairs for Urban Design in Great Britain and the other to the HTC program (History, Theory and Criticism) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The instructive talks were grouped into sub-themes as “The Establishment of a Discipline”, “Aspects of Scientification” and “The Politics of Urban Design”. The conference program was completed by a round-table discussion on “Urban Design History and Contemporary Urbanization”.
Most of the participants had been educated as architects and art historians, but – as urbanism is a wide and interdisciplinary field – they are specialized in various fields such as architecture theory, urban design history, heritage studies, urban studies, and had been working in different institutions such as universities, design offices, editorial departments and municipal offices.
The gta 50 exhibition got the title “Phantom Theory”, which is supposed to hint at theory being “comparable to a ghost unable to find its last resting place”, as mentioned on the gta 50 webpage (www.gta50.arch.ethz.ch). The exhibition was organized by students and lecturers of the gta Master of Advanced Studies Program and presents a connoisseur’s choice of drawings, pictures, manuscripts and small models, all of them artefacts from the gta Archives. On slightly more than fifty tables and some twenty panels the exhibition presents the spectrum of topics and ideas that had been crucial in the institute’s research and teaching over the course of half a century. Via a central axis of tables, the history of the institute is presented: from the historical context in 1967 and the foundation of the institute to recent activities. On both sides of this axis the exhibition opens the thematic range to the history of ideas. The artefacts on these tables deal with different topics as “Gottfried Semper”, “Swiss Modernism”, “Space and Perception”, “CIAM” or “City and Urban Design” but are all linked to the four cornerstones of the institute – history, presence, theory and practice.
With all the different activities and events the gta 50 Jubilee is capable to create a space full of reflections of the past of the institute and provides an outlook on its future.
Happy 50th anniversary, gta!
Text and photo: Helene Bihlmaier