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How Architectural “Theory” Disconnects the Profession From the Public

Whatever the form—personal, theoretical, scholarly—architects frequently veer into the philosophical terrain when defending otherwise subjective design decisions. Personally, this may be justifiable. But professionally, this reliance on quasi-philosophical spin is one of the fundamental ways architecture differs from other practical pillars of society, such as law, finance or medicine. Those disciplines are based on structures of knowledge (precedent or code, economics, and science, respectively) that mediate between professional decisions and subjective judgement.


Architecture’s lack of a comparable mediator—between personal preferences and formal prescriptions—may be at the heart of a disconnect between architects and the people they design for. And for good reason: non-architects expect a system of empirical reasoning to support the creation of something as fundamental as shelter. As a result, a primary concern for the discipline should lie in developing its own common structure of systemized knowledge to distinguish between subjective judgements and design decisions.


Though largely separate from the scholarly pursuit of philosophy, architectural theory, going all the way back to Vitruvius, is philosophical in the respect that it seeks to discern the reasoning behind architectural decisions. Referring to architectural theory in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Saul Fisher noted that “…authors in the tradition have been (and are) in the main architects who seek to account for what they and others do, and should do, in architecture.” This to say architectural “theory” is mostly written by architects for architects and, depending on one’s level of belief, either justifies design decisions or confuses reluctant detractors into baffled submission. (“Parametricism,” anyone?)


Architectural “theory” is mostly written by architects for architects and, depending on one’s level of belief, either justifies design decisions or confuses reluctant detractors into baffled submission. (“Parametricism,” anyone?)


While there are some notable exceptions of actual philosophers contemplating architecture, the two fields have limited formal overlap, though a relatively recent flash did occur in the late 20th century. Many high-minded architects became fixated with their counterparts in scholarly philosophy in those decades, a dalliance that apparently peaked with a collaboration between Peter Eisenman and Jacques Derrida to design part of the Parc de la Villette in Paris. It’s worth noting, however, that by at least one account their working relationship was usurped by Eisenman to become what the author Stefano Corbo called  “an astute exercise in self-positioning within the architectural debate.”


Recalling this period in 2013, Architect magazine editor Ned Cramer sums up the era by saying “Deep thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were all the rage when I was in school, in the late ’80s and early ’90s—to the occasional detriment of actual architectural education, if you ask me.” While Cramer was celebrating what he believes to be a contemporary replacement of theory with pragmatism, it could easily be argued that the old tradition lives on in the current zeitgeist. This is perhaps most evident through the poster child of today’s visionary architectural pragmatism, Bjarke Ingels, who was once described by Smithsonian magazine as having “elevated problem-solving to a philosophy.” While Ingels’ approach can be characterized as a slick form of cultural marketing (i.e. branding), it is, none the less, a personal philosophy so far as it’s used to explain the decisions behind his firm’s designs.


So why do architects consistently rely on philosophical reasoning (of some kind) to defend their designs? The fungible, abstract nature of philosophical thought may just be the easiest go-to when looking to justify an arbitrary decision. If used deftly, it can be the ultimate pacifier for criticism—impossible to prove or disprove and, at its best, poetic enough to inspire reverence.


The problem with this tendency is that architecture is shelter before it’s anything else, which places it firmly at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy as a fundamental societal need. This means that it’s instinctively comparable to professions like law, finance or medicine. A key characteristic within those disciplines, though, is that professional decisions are almost always expected to rely on some sort of independently verifiable evidence. Moreover, this verification is frequently expected to occur systematically, through a well-documented, pre-existing structure of knowledge that’s intended to be drawn upon for exactly that purpose.


Between personal judgement and the enforcement of law, for example, is precedent or code (depending on where one lives); between privilege and the distribution of capital is economics; between health and the administration of medical treatment is science. These systems are only as good as the people who carry them out, which is where responsibility may lie for the majority of their failures, but the existence of a decision-making structure in each discipline is irrefutable. Architecture, on the other hand, does not have its own accepted decision-making structure for design—save for systems such as building codes or pro formas given by outside agents. Beyond stipulated restrictions, architects are simply expected to arrive at at the design of a building, however they see fit.


That sort of freedom might make the task of design more meaningful for architects, but the lack of such a structure may actually be driving a breakdown in understanding between the small percentage of people who design buildings, and the much larger percentage of people who use them. Lay people expect something as tangible as a building to be understood through a similarly recognizable structure of knowledge as other professions that have a direct impact on their lives—and the discovery that it’s not is simply puzzling.


Now consider what architecture would be like if it had a similar mediator between subjective judgments and design decisions. A common, standardized bank of knowledge to draw on as both a starting point for and defense of design could solidify the practice of architecture as a verifiable societal touchstone. To that end, it could also help architectural design resonate with a wide swath of the population that expects justifiable evidence from the professional practices they’re forced to live with.


This won’t happen overnight. Systems like common law, economics and science came into being over thousands of years, and there’s no turnkey system ready for architecture. It’s within the field of environmental psychology, though, that the beginnings of such a system of knowledge might exist, so much so that Saul Fisher referred to it as a “magic pill” in his examination of philosophy in architecture. Describing how it “…identifies ways that environmental factors such as color, shape, light, and circulatory pattern shape our visual reactions and behavioral patterns within and around the built environment,” he noted that “From such empirical insights, we can fashion constraints on architectural design principles that guide architectural creation, and devise corresponding solutions to particular design problems.”


Endeavors such as behavior modelling, structured methods for collecting data on the use of public space and a scientific understanding of how people perceive buildings are just some of the tools being developed that fall squarely into this realm. Such practices hold promise for widespread use in architecture, though a great deal of organization will be required if they’re ever to be employed at such a level of systematic application as to gain widespread public acceptance.


Fortunately for architects, that sounds like a design problem.


Featured image: created by the author, via Wikipedia Commons.



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