"Historism is the tendency to credit the power of history to such an extent, that original action is stifled and replaced by inspiration derived from a preceding historical period" (Nicolaus Pevsner, Die Wiederkehr the Historismus, in: Deutsche Bauzeitung, 1961/10, p.757). This definition by Nikolaus Pevsner from 1961 still carried the undertone of critical reproach, which had characterised the judgment of 19th century architecture by previous generations. Pevsner, a successfully objective researcher of historism, particularly in England, deemed this lack of "original action" to be the decisive criterion. We shall challenge the view that one may be speaking here of a lack of original thought or action.
Generally, the replication of historical styles is considered a sign of weakness. In doing so, one pays primary attention to the form-building component of the term "style" as defined by Schmarsow, Riegl, and Wölfflin. But "style" as a label for a period in history, for which "art" has been often referred to as "dream" or as "subconscious mirror image" (viz Gustav René Hocke), is certainly dependent on a multitude of components in the psychological make-up of a culture: not "form", but rather the contemporary Weltbild of form must be primarily considered; not the creation of shape, but the evocative powers of the entire work determine the value of artistic creation.
Indeed, how can one possibly separate "originality" from artistic imagination? Interpretation of "imagination" must not be limited to the form-building factor alone, as we have seen happening ever so frequently, and similar to the practice of limiting the complexity of "functionality" in the second Bauhaus period (and later) to construction materials and to physical needs. We should not deny the historicising architect his "originality in design".
In an essay by Prof. Renate Wagner-Rieger (Renate Wagner-Rieger, Der Historismus in der Wiener Architektur des 19. Jh., in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung Nr.4152 (109) Literatur und Kunst), historism in the architecture of 19th century Vienna is explained for the first time as a continuous artistic development, pointing to its iconographical as well as its symbolic content as the major creative components ("…in the case of a university one quoted renaissance forms as typical for humanism, in the same way as, in the baroque period, one deployed antique mythology in order to symbolise certain virtues with Hercules or Apollo." (Wagner-Rieger, op.cit.) "Therefore, if one wanted to connect school buildings with the monastic studiousness of the Middle Ages, one thought 'gothic', but if one wanted to connect with the Platonic academy, 'classicism' was chosen" (Pevsner, op.cit.). As we can see, these were some of the determinants of architectural design in the 19th century, and they must not be considered inferior to those of other historical periods.
We can demonstrate a contiguous and consequent dexterity in applying iconological ideas until the second architectural "revolution" around 1900. Indeed, the entire 19th century possessed a secure hand in practising these skills to a remarkable degree. Even though we may find contemporary "self-critique", induced by the reflection inherent in any historical-analytical attitude (arguably present also in earlier style-periods), and even though we may find on occasion an apparent lack of direction, reflected in contemporary critics' writings, we cannot fail to recognise that the enormous volume of architectural creation during the latter half of this century managed to gel into a uniform art and expression. Just take the magnificent design of the Vienna Opera: the originality of its design can hardly be called stifled, but can be recognised and intensely felt even in our "modern" days.
In no case shall we therefore confuse originality and emotional spontaneity in the design process with the sub-sector of capability of, or rather readiness for formal imagination.