Architecture isn’t just about creating a building to serve as a home, or office or museum. It serves so many other purposes as well. Architecture delivers a style statement and it also acts as a reflection of the era. Buildings are essentially social and cultural products, and are influenced by the ideas, values, beliefs, activities, relationships and forms of the social organizations that they sustain. Society produces buildings, and the buildings, although not producing society, help to maintain many of its social forms. This link between architecture, politics and society is one that MIT architectural historian Timothy Hyde has been documenting very closely.
Hyde says “Every building is ultimately a compromise. It’s a compromise between the intentions of architects, the capacities of builders, economics, politics, the people who use the building, the people who paid for the building. It’s a compromise of many, many inputs.”
Chronicling Cuba and Britain
An associate professor at MIT, Hyde has written three books exploring how architecture represents the political, legal and technological limits of an era. He has chronicled the links in Cuba and Britain through his first two books. Through both of these, he clearly shows how architecture has co-evolved along with the poliAn associate professor at MIT, Hyde has written three books exploring how architecture represents the political, legal and technological limits of an era. He has chronicled the links in Cuba and Britain through his first two books. Through both of these, he clearly shows how architecture has co-evolved along with the political and legal practices of the contemporary world.
“I really think about myself first as a historian of modernity. Architectural history is the particular vehicle that I use to explore the history of modernity.”Timothy Hyde
Hyde’s first book about Cuba – “Constitutional Modernism: Architecture and Civil Society in Cuba, 1933-1959” – stemmed from his realization that Cuba at the time “was an incredibly exciting and fertile place for cultural exchanges and avant-garde aesthetics, and had an economic boom that allowed the commissioning of very innovative projects.” In the 1940’s as the country was drafting its constitution, philosophers, writers and artists all played a part in the process. Hyde argues that architectural thinking was a critical part of the new revolutionary vision for Cuba.
The buildings that immediately followed the Revolution appeared to attempt something new. Conceived with the freshness of a pioneering enterprise, they were executed on an ambitious scale and delivered utopian ideas with limited resources.
His 2019 book “Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye” focusses on London. In the book, Hyde uncovers how aesthetic disagreements over London’s architecture shaped modern social, and even legal practices. Just one of the several examples is how Britain’s libel law was formed – as a result of failed lawsuits by Sir John Soane, whose early 19th-century buildings were the object of stinging put-downs from critics. Another good example is the rise of antipollution laws, as a result of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster being covered in soot during the industrial revolution.
From Practice to Academia
After a double-major in English and Architecture from Yale, Hyde went on to receive a master of architecture degree from Princeton University before practicing as an architect. While practicing, he often kept writing, which is a common practice amongst architects. He soon discovered that “I just had a recognition that the ideas I wanted to explore were best expressed through writing, as opposed to through building.”
Realising he wanted to commit to academia full time, Hyde went on to obtain a PhD at Harvard University. “Instead of trying to write alongside my practice, I realized at that point I wanted to flip the two around and focus on writing as a historian, and to be able to teach and work in academia but still remain engaged in a contemporary conversation about architecture.”
After his PhD, Hyde landed a position at MIT’s Program in History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of Architecture and Planning. He then went on to establish the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, a group of scholars in architecture. The group holds workshops and produces content to aid those working in isolation. The idea, Hyde says, is “to try to allow for a collaborative conversation that is otherwise not cultivated very strongly within the field.”