theory on theory
27 January 2014
Do you have an opinion on architectural theory?
Perhaps if you are not an architect, you have no opinion and are wondering why you’re still reading this. If you are an architect, you probably have some opinion. Whether you are or are not an architect, you might still have a very strong opinion.
I see architecture on many levels and can’t believe or will believe that there is a singular way of looking at it.
I do a lot of reading (abstract and technical) and since I’m in the academic world on a part-time basis, the subject of architectural theory comes up often. I’d like to believe I’m a deep thinker. If I was not teaching, reading architectural theory would still be an interest of mine since it was introduced to me early in my schooling. Most of my school work had some theoretical basis to it. I was often inspired (and confused) by reading multiple books and authors. I still am today.
Before we carry on, let me state that the importance of whether a building functions or serves the needs of the occupants is obvious (and perhaps a theory of its own). This is what we are charged to do as professionals. Function is axiomatic. Please don’t assume I am ignoring what initiates the request to build in the first place. I am just interested in exploring architecture beyond that.
As with most issues I seek to find balance; I don’t find myself at extreme positions. To me architecture without theory is perhaps not architecture at all. It is mere building. Theory can be like oxygen-you get too much you get too high, not enough and you’re gonna die – hey, that could be a song. What I appreciate reading the most is when writers can explore deep concepts with simple explanations rather than proposing shallow concepts with complex rhetoric. To me that’s deep.
There are two aspects we must consider–the designer’s stated intentions and the readings of the users or observers.
I like to understand the intentions of the designer. What were their ideas and what drove their decision-making? What inspired them? What worked in the final building and perhaps will they share honestly how reality differed from the ideal? I find the honest evaluation to be the most interesting and useful in connecting their abstract concepts with concrete executions.
Within the endless users’ readings we can explore people’s visceral reactions and we also read theorists. People’s reactions will always be captivating, yet I really appreciate reading some theorists. However, it seems some often imagine meanings that were never intended or worse, difficult to imagine or understand from their explanations. Sometimes the only way to deal with the latter is to put on the proverbial boots and take hold of the shovel and work your way through their writings.
I am not making a universal statement, but I have frequently had the impression that many architectural theorists love immersing themselves in the deep pool of rhetoric. At times they become intoxicated with it to where they fail to appreciate architecture as a business or architecture as a profession. It appears they merely see the making of architecture (or the thinking of architecture) as the only goal. Ideas are always more important than reality. I can appreciate being intellectual, but oftentimes writers exclude their readers by making references that are only known to a select few or assume you’ve read all of the books they have. You can make a point through a reference without being vague or arcane. My other struggle with these theorists is endless pontificating filled with overly difficult sentence structures and unusually placed modifiers – and I’m not opposed to a rich vocabulary and a writing style that is varied and interesting.
Just say what you want to say. Perhaps I contradict myself.
What architects think about architecture is often very different from what other people think about architecture.
Nevertheless, I find it impossible not to read architecture on multiple levels. How can we overlook the multiple ways one may experience a building? There are implied meanings, inferred readings, references to historical precedents, metaphors that reveal themselves and generative idea patterns that are fascinating. The ramifications for future generations are critical to consider. These are all things that have to be discussed and considered outside of the pragmatic of putting bricks and mortar together to keep out the rain and keep us warm.
Hopefully these theories drive the methodology of assembling building parts to create the shelter we call architecture. That’s my theory.