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Architecture and the Globalization of Knowledge in the 19th Century. Gottfried Semper and the Discipline of Architectural History



Hildebrand S.


Chestnova E.


Gnehm M.


Weidmann D.


External participants

Ursprung Philip

(Third-party beneficiary)


The focus of the research project rests on the works carried out by Gottfried Semper during the period of his exile in London (1850-55) and under the impression of the first world industrial fair – the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace. The years following the European revolutions of 1848, art, architecture and science were undergoing a radical shift comparable to that which affected politics and society, and the internationalisation (one might call it ‘globalisation’) of knowledge formed an especially prominent aspect of this process. London was at the centre of this transformation. During the period of his exile, the German architect Gottfried Semper (1803–1879) kept in step with the times as an observer composing various critical essays in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and as a practitioner creating architectures of display and teaching at the Department of Practical Art (formerly the London School of Design).

The research project analyses Semper’s deliberations on the global development of architectonic culture and its preconditions in the context of epistemic history and history of science. The project consists of three parts that are closely interrelated in terms of workflow structure and content: two PhD theses and an archival and editorial project, which will make the previously unedited material available to the public.

Both PhD theses are aligned with the overall themes of GLOBALISATION and MATERIAL CULTURE. In the first dissertation, Elena Chestnova examines how the new forms and contents of knowledge, as well as their ordering and mediation, have moulded the discipline of architectural history in the ways, in which it had dealt with the political, economical, social and technical changes, and thus how they have affected the formation of its methods. The focus is placed on Semper’s teaching and construction of his theory. (“Gottfried Semper: teaching and theorising at the Department of Practical Art”).

The second thesis, by Claudio Leoni, examines the question of how the meaning of the material object, which manifested itself in the global movement of goods as well as in the new attention to the to the material character of culture on the part of the sciences, had affected the substance and method of architectural history („Gottfried Semper, Crystal Palace and the Ideal Museum. Representation of Science, Art and Politics in the context of early Capitalism“).

In its third part the project carries out the scholarly indexing of its FUNDAMENTAL SOURCES in the manuscripts, letters and drawings of Gottfried Semper from the London period contained in his bequest at the gta Archives, and their aggregation into an anthology accompanied by a selection of scholarly essays (Anthologie «Schriften der Londoner Zeit 1850–55»). This part of the project employs two experienced specialists on the subject of Gottfried Semper and his theoretical bequest in the figures of PD Dr. Michael Gnehm and Dr. Dieter Weidmann.

The whole project is conceived as a contribution to the historical foundation of the current disciplinary expansion of architectural and art history in the direction of ‘world art history’ and ‘global art history’.

Additional information

Start date
End date
42 Months
Funding sources
Swiss National Science Foundation / Project Funding / Humanities and social sciences (Division I)