theory on theory

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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.


theory on theory

12 thoughts on “theory on theory

  1. William J. Mello Jr. AIA Emeritus says:

    Master building is the skill of knowing how best to acquire and assemble material for a shelter for whatever the need be it temporary or permanent.

      1. William J. Mello Jr. AIA Emeritus says:

        Of course,”Commodity, Firmness, and Delight” according to “Architect Vitruvius”.

        But first, I do consider, the need for shelter, then its structure, then its sensual response to the user. Then I apply all in a manner that is a complete action.

        We have more applied science now than we have ever had
        With the growth of applied science since the first shelter, it will become more and more difficult to be a “Master Builder” as individual man is not “all knowing”.

        In time, it will be almost impossible to be a “Master Builder” unless the current technology(computer) develops a product the “wraps its arms about” a “Master Builders” basic steps “Technology” before rushing to complete documents or tools to build a shelter.

        Trace the survival needs of developing man. Trace the shelter needs of developing man. Trace the technical abilities of developing man.

        Now “Architect” is used in a multitude of trades.

        We now have “Architects” that have been encouraged by the current architectural education system to specialize in small parts of a needed shelter. Aren’t they really specialists in the “Architecture” of a shelter?

  2. “Function is axiomatic.”

    I was glad to see that so early on in a conversation about architectural theory. I feel like this gets over-looked a lot.

    I also agree that the designer’s intentions are important for purposes of critique and reflection on their built work. Beyond meeting functional demands / code compliance, we work in a profession with relatively few “right” answers. Determining the “success” of designs revolves largely around what the goals of the designer were in the first place. That’s not to say all architecture that fulfills the goals of its creator is great stuff, but it certainly is am important lens.

    I do think we have a tendency to be an insular profession however. A lot of the talk about our work takes place in a language that only other architects can understand. It is great to have designs that function on multiple levels with multiple readings for different occupants, but maybe more of those levels should be open to a larger portion of the population? If part of our purpose is to affect/reflect culture then I’d think it has to include a conversation with those who use our buildings (which are seldom other architects).

    Maybe our language can evolve? Maybe we can bolster more interest in architecture from non-architects so that the general level of discourse rises from what seem to be all-time lows? I’m not sure what the answer is, but it seems like something worth pursuing.

    1. I do think our language needs to be more inclusive, but I still believe there is room for us to discuss architecture on our own terms. This certainly exists in other professions where they can discuss their work on a different (not superior) level.

      I think what is lacking is more reflection on how people react and interact with architecture and less theorists who speculate in endless circles. The users’ behavior is difficult to predict but fascinating to experience. That can provide richness. We just need to be careful how our design process reflects those using our buildings. We must address them but we all know what happens when design by committee happens.

  3. Great (brave) topic Lee,

    I’m going to try and keep this to 140 characters or less.

    I would like to think that intent, no matter what it is can be successful in anything that is designed. So long as there is intent. But theory on the other hand pumps life into a project when the proportions, scale and sequence work well with the hierarchy and the ‘Plinth’ (Plinth? I smell my next blog topic) tying it all together as a composition of form. Did I really just say that??

    As architects I’d like to think that we gravitate to the theories of design because that’s how we are trained. For me I don’t enjoy my job if I can’t put thought into the work. Which can be a challenge if the client says “I don’t need any designy stuff, just give me a box with doors and windows.” Little does he know that designy stuff will still goe into his box with windows. Isn’t that what Villa Savoye was, or is?

    So much for 140 characters…


  4. c conroy jr says:

    My idea is to design a four unit one story apartment building. I never found any stress free living until i experienced a `one’ story apartment. To simplify the apartment building i choose four units designed like a four leaf clover; each unit shares space with only two neighbors. A duplex may be easier but one saves building materials with a quad apartment? The above idea may involve implementing a whole new class # into a college catalog. The above idea has saved me mounds of stress & may help `people’ who search for `far reaching’ design success with their efforts. Please enjoy & share this free short post or add any feedback.

    1. I would categorize the four unit layout as a strategy that is effective more than a theory towards architecture. Am I making an incorrect conclusion? It’s not found everywhere, but it is not rare either. What makes your idea unique?

      1. c conroy jr says:

        A person has the ability to make the world a better place. There is a difference between good & confusion around this planet. Mr. Calisti presents some interesting topics but can his stuff survive events taking place on earth today? Stress free arcitecture private & public could probably cover one maybe two or more interesting unique chapters. I know as i currently experience a stress free living situation here in ohio. Thanks for your short response & the window to enjoy some valuable vocabulry here @ this available site.

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