Architecture Theory Today: of Theorists and Theoreticians

Although the words theoretician and theorist are often used interchangeably — with most considering them to be synonyms and their use a matter of style — as nouns, there is a slight, yet significant distinction between them. While a theorist is someone who constructs theories, a theoretician is someone who is an expert in particular theories. With this distinction in mind, it would seem that since the late 1990s architecture has had a deficit of theorists and an abundance of theoreticians.

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The Figure of Knowledge, Conditioning Architectural Theory, 1960s – 1990s / pdf spread

The declared death of architecture theory around 2000 was presented by many as the result of an inevitable deterioration of a critical project that had long left architecture practice behind by relying purely on theoretical discourse and opaque abstractions. Others, however, have associated theory’s demise to the crumbling foundations of architecture institutions, specifically, to the adoption of cost-effective managerial approaches in academic programmes in the 1990s, when direct and quantifiable impact on practice became the crucial parameter for determining staffing and financial support. But the devaluation of theoretical speculation has also been associated with an increased specialization in architectural scholarship, which further fragmented the discipline, as well as with the rise in pragmatism and increased speed in architecture practice.

But while the root causes of theory’s demise remain a matter of dispute, the effects of this demise were real and can still be seen today in the way architecture is understood at schools and practices in the Netherlands and beyond. The most decisive effect has been the institutionalization and normalization of a split between thinking and doing in architecture. This has had consequences for both theory and practice. For if theory largely became a historical project to be researched and understood, practice has retreated into the more tangible dimensions of material, programme and formal expression. Therefore, today, architecture theory is developed almost entirely by theoreticians in anthologies rather than theorists with manifestoes. That much is established by most — if not all — recent volumes on architecture theory, where much is discussed about what has been said and what has been left unsaid, but little is attempted regarding theoretical speculation or overarching narratives.

Two recent volumes from Belgian authors and editors seem to reinforce this condition. While finding inspiration in past anthologies, Choosing Architecture by Christophe Van Gerrewey and The Figure of Knowledge by a KU Leuven editorial team do not contain a compilation of architectural theories, but rather provide original historical reflections on those theories. The historicizing exercise within each volume is made explicit by their subtitles, which immediately indicate their historical scope, respectively Criticism, History and Theory since the 19th Century and Conditioning Architectural Theory 1960s-1990s. But if Choosing Architecture provides a reading of canonical writings on architecture, The Figure of Knowledge attempts to draw attention to different formative contexts and ‘minor’ expressions of theory. In short, if one volume reads the canon, the other purports to challenge it.

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Choosing Architecture: Criticism, History and Theory Since the 19th Century

As an edited volume resulting mostly from contributions to a 2017 conference that reflected on unacknowledged contributions to architecture theory, The Figure of Knowledge combines essays from multiple authors with a rather broad scope. These contributions range from reassessments of (thus far) marginal figures — such as the Australian architect Robin Boyd, the Canadian artist Melvin Charney and the Italian curator Lara-Vinca Masini — to a reappreciation of specific histories — including the invention of a Soviet avant-garde, the institutionalization of history and theory at ETH and MIT and the historiography of Critical Regionalism. Among this cornucopia of arguments and reassessments, some notable contributions emerge, such as Matthew Allen’s reading of ‘theories’ embedded in 1960s programming practices and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady’s indictment of gendered dichotomies in architecture theory.

The breadth of contributions in this volume is considerable, thus making the connections between them all the more important. Unfortunately, the connections attempted by the three sections in The Figure of Knowledge remain tenuous and somewhat laboured, despite attempts to roughly follow a historical arch, as indicated in the volume’s introduction. This is not immediately translated into the three organizing sections, since these also attempt a thematic organization (namely Modernism and its Discontents, Projects of Theory and The Misuses of History), despite each including various themes, geographies and readings of theories. That much is discernible reading through the volume, but it is also — if only implicitly — made evident by the inclusion of a concluding coda by Hilde Heynen, one of the editors. Beyond the necessity for such a coda to round off an uneven collection of voices, tones and agendas, Heynen’s short and well-reasoned text provides crucial clues to understanding the entire endeavour. By providing multiple readings of the various chapters, that is, how they could be aligned and realigned along different thematic lines, the coda suggests numerous connections, dialogues and overlaps between them. Ultimately, it tacitly implies that, rather than a complete volume to be read from end to end, these contributions are best approached discretely and on their own terms, as they engage and reflect upon very specific figures, projects and histories that may, or may not, be best understood along the juxtapositions created by the linear progression of the book.

The reassessment of peripheral theories, figures and projects is both laudable and necessary, but it must be questioned when those discussions are enveloped (figuratively and literally) in exercises that reinforce the canon. While remarkable texts of great depth, André Loeckx and Hilde Heynen’s historical overview of the role of semiotics in architecture theory’s development at the beginning of the volume, and Joan Ockman’s semi-autobiographical account of American pragmatism at its end, are inevitably at odds with the other contributions since they reaffirm the existing canon and, with it, hierarchies of centres and peripheries that those other contributions challenge. In fact, their inclusion is even more questionable  when you consider how these texts are presented as the structuring elements against which everything else can be positioned and, inevitably, validated. Arguably, by presenting semiotics and pragmatism as the two bookends of architecture theory, The Figure of Knowledge ends up co-opting everything else in between to reinforce the canon rather than challenge it in any meaningful manner. What The Figure of Knowledge achieves, perhaps, is not so much a dismantling of the canon as much as a valiant attempt at making it more inclusive for trajectories and ideas beyond the mainstream.

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The Figure of Knowledge, Conditioning Architectural Theory, 1960s – 1990s / pdf spread

Conversely, Choosing Architecture does not challenge the canon. If anything, it aims to interest students in the canon. While never acknowledged, Van Gerrewey’s book reads as a refined transcript of his lectures at the EPFL, contextualizing and explaining in plain language several seminal writings in architecture. References to Lausanne (where the EPFL is located) and popular culture (from McDonald’s and IKEA to films and books) abound, further establishing the book’s introductory credentials, while the images consistently presented at the start of each reading can be easily perceived as the slides accompanying Van Gerrewey’s lectures. Organized into four thematic sections — Housing, Society, History and Art — Choosing Architecture is a carefully orchestrated collection of short readings of seminal texts on architecture.

In Choosing Architecture Van Gerrewey combines accessibility with intellectual rigor. The organization of each individual reading also reveals a deliberate approach. Focusing on one seminal text, each reading goes far beyond an explanation of that text’s most salient ideas by also developing conversations with other authors exploring related ideas. The reading of Sylvia Lavin’s ‘The Temporary Contemporary‘, for example, explores that text’s postmodern currents by juxtaposing it with the writings of Antonio Gramsci and Fredric Jameson. Specifically, Van Gerrewey uses Gramsci’s own questioning of the difficult relation between old and new to introduce Lavin’s efforts at understanding contemporary architecture’s post-historical condition, but goes on to reference Jameson’s seminal text Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, to indicate that what Lavin identifies as ‘contemporary’ closely parallels what Jameson had previously recognized as the symptoms of postmodernism in architecture (even arguing that Lavin’s text could be understood as an attempt to ‘repackage or rebrand postmodernism that also methodologically detaches theory from history’). The reading of Mildred F. Schmertz’s ‘Low Income Housing: A Lesson from Amsterdam’, however, is effectively used as a vehicle to discuss OMA’s IJplein project and Rem Koolhaas’ theories rather than any extensive discussion of Schmertz’s review of that project. Effectively, in each and every text, the intellectual connections extending from the titled text are such that the title becomes merely indicative of the nexus of a particular conversation, with the table of contents being best understood as a sort of index (even if a comprehensive index is sorely missed).

Should there have been a comprehensive index, it would have made evident the various authors, positions and projects that inherently shape this book. There is, of course, the influential Manfredo Tafuri, the only author whose texts centre discussions in all four sections, but whose ideas surface in several other discussions, from Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme to Dogma’s ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’. There is also Geert Bekaert — on whom Van Gerrewey is the foremost expert—who is quoted in various discussions, much like Hilde Heynen, who is also quoted in multiple instances. But there is also Rem Koolhaas — on whom Van Gerrewey has recently published an anthology of texts — who while absent from the book’s table of contents, appears and reappears in a multitude of discussions. Beyond being the object of particular texts being analysed — as in Schmertz’s A ‘Lesson from Amsterdam’ or Joan Ockman’s ‘The ¥€$ Man’ — Koolhaas and his work also appear in contextualizing discussions as well as in explicit references in the discussed texts. Another author who, perhaps unsurprisingly, permeates the text is Van Gerrewey himself, with multiple references to his remarkably prolific writings.

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Choosing Architecture: Criticism, History and Theory Since the 19th Century

In such a comprehensive exercise, however, it is the absences that are most notable, and that is also the case with Choosing Architecture. More than any specific author or project (although Peter Eisenman’s absence is somewhat conspicuous), it is the dearth of texts by practicing architects that stands out, almost as a subtle reminder of the existing separation between doing and thinking in architecture. Furthermore, in the few instances that those texts do appear, such as Dogma’s ‘Barbarism Starts at Home’, they are prefaced by an indication that ‘the fact that their work pops up in this book’ indicates that they are not your ‘average office’.

It is in these subtle comments throughout the readings that, slowly but surely, Van Gerrewey formulates his main argument. Starting from an almost resigned acceptance of the current division between thinking and doing — after all, the book’s introduction is titled ‘Abandon your Pencils’ in reference to this dichotomy as experienced by Tafuri during his studies in Rome — Van Gerrewey argues for a reassessment of the usefulness of architecture theory as ‘a form of applied philosophy’ that provides ‘a way of thinking about the world, about society, and about human life by means of architecture’. An underlying argument that is — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — developed in each and every reading by continuously making visible how throughout the long 20th century conceiving architecture (beyond simple construction) has implied taking a position. That in architecture, doing only makes sense when thinking is involved.

Combined, The Figure of Knowledge and Choosing Architecture make visible the state of architecture theory today. Even though architecture theory is no longer advanced by polemical manifestos, it remains present in other forms. Either in conversations or design reviews, readings or anthologies, architecture theory continues to reveal and reflect on architecture’s entanglement with historical, societal, cultural and economic concerns. Thinking about architecture remains crucial. Theoreticians may not be theorists, and they may only provide a shadow for architecture theory, no matter how valiantly they try. But then again, that might just be what is needed since, as Van Gerrewey argues, ‘[t]he aim is not to end the conversation about architecture, but keep the conversation going’, and that is precisely what these two books accomplish.

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