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Architecture Theory

Summerschool in Dubrovnik Summer 2017

Welcome to Architecture Theory

In modern life there is no place for architecture without critical reflection, in the same way that modern culture without cultural criticism would be no better than the barbarism1 it has replaced.

Architectural theory is therefore an innately modern discipline, for the need to explore the issues it raises is a direct consequence of the dynamics of the evolution of Modernity. With the advent of new materials (steel, concrete, glass), new technologies (mechanization, photography, videos, computers, smart phones) and a new social order architecture can no longer glibly or complacently set its standards by the traditions, conventions, and models of past epochs.2 In a situation where everything is constantly in flux, serious attention has to be paid to the aims of architecture, to the suitability of its methods, its means and impact. This is particularly evident during periods of cultural transition, such as the shift from a feudal to a bourgeois society, from manual to mechanical production methods in the nineteenth century and, in our own time, as the digital age sees the demise of analog technologies.

Architectural theory is critical reflection on the How and What of architecture and on the cultural function of architecture in a dynamically advancing cultural force field. The aim of any such critical reflection is to question, to affirm, or to reformulate the ideas and models that human beings use to create an agreeable environment, as opposed to the primeval surroundings that were once home to humankind.  

Architectural theory enjoys a special status since it is only through critical reflection that the full complexity and social and physical impact of architecture come fully to light. Architectural theory also reflects an ongoing crisis. It signifies a spirit that must once again take “possession of itself.”3 As a medium of the process of consciousness it is on the side of the social sciences and the humanities yet it is also focused on real life and the material-spatial praxis of architecture. Where architecture—as a sensory experience, as constructive reality, and as a system of social interconnections—is subjected to the cultural dynamics and tensions of modern life, architectural theory comes to the fore as a profoundly modern pursuit.

1. Thinking about Architecture - Traditional Theory - Critical Theory

As the cultural dynamics of human existence have changed over the centuries, so too has the nature of reflection on architecture. If architecture is the cultural process that we use to create an appropriate life situation, then it is clear that architecture cannot be defined once and for all but has to respond and adapt to changes in the cultures of a given society. The structures that are suitable for human beings are not shaped solely by basic anthropological conditions but are also dependent on the cultural reference systems of that society. In historical terms reflection on architecture can be divided into three phases:

a. Thinking about Architecture — In premodern societies architecture was part of a cultural system that only changed very gradually and where knowledge of architecture could be transmitted, largely intact, from generation to generation. Over time this led to distinctive articulations, codes, and styles but the social status of architecture was never questioned.

b. Traditional Theory — Since the Enlightenment, and all the more so since the industrial revolution, cultural life has been subject to radical change in terms of its technical-material nature, its social-societal implications, and its aesthetic-sensory norms. Technological and social change inevitably raised questions regarding the fundamentals of architecture. Early Modernist theories were crucially shaped by the question of the nature of architecture in light of the altered conditions of life. This reached a high point in an active engagement with Modernism in the early twentieth century by figures such as Louis Sullivan, Henri van de Velde, Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier.

c. Critical Theory — With the postwar building industry taking a highly functionalist turn, modern architecture became an issue in its own right. Modern architecture now had to subject its own aims and methods to critical reflection. People talked of a need for twofold reflectivity. Three main criticisms were now leveled at modern architecture: firstly, that architecture had lost its eloquence; secondly, that it had lost is historicity or historic connections; thirdly, that it had sacrificed its social function to functionalist building methods. 

2. Architectural Philosophy, Theory, and Critique

It is critical reflection that today underpins the status of critical architectural theory (twofold reflectivity) as a scholarly discipline. However, critical reflection on architecture comprises different epistemological and theoretical directions and bodies of information. It has a range of different aims. Three main areas of reflection can be identified today:

a. Architectural Philosophy — This can be seen as a form of reflection on the cultural functions and impact of architecture. It is analytic in its approach and, first and foremost, it pursues epistemological-theoretical interests. However, it would be wrong to construe it as a metaphysics of architecture, since it is of course only ever about architecture in its reality as a social and material built structure.

b. Architectural Theory (in the narrower sense of the term) — This is reflection on architecture with regard to its How and What. At the heart of this approach is the question as to concepts and models of successful architectural designs. There is a particular focus on material, constructive, and practical-technical issues. In that sense architectural theory could be described as applied aesthetics. Since its prime concern is the How and the What, its exponents engage in both analytical and speculative-creative deliberations.

c. Architectural Critique — This could perhaps best be described as reflection in public on the function and impact of architecture. It predominantly takes place in that mid-way realm where the experts in the field (architects, engineers, the authorities, and others) interact with those (members of the public) directly affected by architectural designs. One of the most important vehicles for this area of critique is the arts supplement.

3. Research in Architectural Theory at TU Berlin

a. Architectural Theory as a Core Discipline — The main focus here is on fundamental concepts and the methods used in architectural theory and its expansion or modification due to current technological and socio-cultural parameters. In “all-embracing” architectural theory as it has traditionally been practiced, a wide range of approaches were adopted from various fields including art history, German studies, sociology, the humanities, philosophy, and science. To this day architectural theorists freely draw on the methods developed in discourse analysis (Foucault), the philosophy of language (Derrida, Barthes), semiotics (Goodman), hermeneutics (Pérez-Gómez), phenomenology (Böhme, Plessner, Bollnow), and media theory (McLuhan, Deleuze, Latour, Kittler). However, it is all too clear that when an author resorts to one of these particular approaches, architecture may come to be treated more as a metaphor and an image for construction and systems than as what it actually is, that is to say, a situative, material, and constructive concretion of wider cultural, i.e. social conditions (Bourdieu). What is needed here is a clear, epistemological approach, a systemization, specification, and simultaneous expansion of methodological instruments—this is a productive and vital area of cross-disciplinary research.

b. Architectural Theory as a Theory of History — One of the essential foundation stones of architectural theory is the theory of history. Indeed, there can be no theory without history. As a cultural practice that human beings have developed to create a fitting environment for themselves, architecture is, above all, dependent on models that combine memory, contemporary praxis, and our expectations for the future. One of the major failings of architectural theory to date is that, with very few exceptions, its practitioners have drawn on highly simplistic and more or less unreflected models of history. Here, too, a meaningful, potentially ground-breaking area of research stretches out into the future.

c. Architectural Theory as a Critical Reflection of Contemporary Praxis — With the advent of new digital technologies, globalization, environmental issues, population growth, urbanization, and social networks our cultural environment is in a state of constant change. Interestingly, architecture today is still seen as “hardware.” It is regarded as immobile, as historically and materially immutable. Yet this fails to take into account the fact that by virtue of its spatial and material conception architecture conditions the processes of life in a myriad of different ways. From the perspective of the “second digital age” architecture thus appears less historical and less material than it did in the analog machine age. Architecture, today, is software rather than hardware, which in itself opens up yet more fascinating areas of interdisciplinary research.


1 Herbert Schnädelbach, `Plädoyer für eine kritische Kulturphilosophie´ in: Kulturphilosophie, ed. by R. Konersmann, Leipzig 1996, p. 311.

2 Cf. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence, Cambridge 1987.

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce homo, in idem, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 17, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici, New York 1911, p. 83.



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