Current Views in Architectural Theory

Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005


___Gerd Zimmermann



Theory and practice in architecture seem to be separated worlds.

The usual code is: architects are drawing and building, theorists are writing and talking. The medium of the architect is the building, the medium of the theorist is the book. When Mies told the architects: “Build, don't talk!" he referred exactly to that picture of a silent, almost autistic architect whose medium is the building and nothing else. That series of differences between architect and theorist could be continued: the place of the architect is the studio/the atelier, the place of the theorist is the writing desk, the library, the university. The architect has to be practical, the theorist philosophical…

If we look at these seemingly divided worlds of theory and practice in architecture, what then should be the function of theory?
Is theory only a somewhat parasitic and luxury practice exercise done by professors and journalists, a secondary,
paragonal reflection without real impact on architecture? Is theory a cognitive system which is used by architects only as a quarry to find arguments for their designs? Or is theory as part of the architectural discourse finally a defining empire of practice?

On the other hand, we may ask what an architectural practice could be without a conceptual framework or a theory? What is the origin of architecture and what then is the reason behind a certain decision made by an architect? Does this come from the belly or from the head, is it based on writing or talking, looking or feeling, drawing or building? And finally, we may ask if architectural theory has changed its status since Virtuv, and what the status of modern architectural theory is today?

It is not difficult to see that the above-mentioned cliche of an opposition between theory and practice in architecture does not really exist.
Architects are not only drawing, they are writing, talking, they read books, they write books, a lot of architects are steadily switching between building, research and teaching in schools.

Ernst Neufert – an architect from the Weimar Bauhaus – designed a number of interesting buildings but became famous all over the world by a book he wrote: “
Bauentwurfslehre”, a pattern book for design. Because of that book and not because of his buildings Neufert has been called the “most influential architect of the 20th century“.

So, there is no strict division between theory and practice. But what then is the impact of architectural theory within that patchwork practice of architects? The question is not easy to answer, but my claim here is that theory is not only a peripheral and secondary practice but the defining empire of architecture.
This can usually not be seen immediately, because architectural theory as the driving force of the discourse works like a medium. And what holds true for all media can also be found in architectural theory as a medium: the effect, possibly a profound one, is a hidden one. Media usually vanish behind the message. The message is spoken “through" a medium. Marshal Me Luhan expressed that idea of a certain power of media by paradoxically saying: The medium is the message. If we adopt that concept for our purpose, we may say: Architectural theory is architecture.


There are architects, not necessary bad architects, who explicitly started work by developing a theory before building.

We have to mention Leon Battista Alberti, who was a theorist first and never had a practical education in architecture.

Alberti finished the main parts of his theoretical writings on painting and architecture De Pictura (1435) and De Re Aedificatoria (1450) before he started building. And the first building he actually did design was conceived as the direct translation of his theoretical treatise – a built normative theoretical statement: the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini (1450), the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1458–71), San Andrea in Mantova.

Le Corbusier’s ways to architecture were completely different from those of Alberti. His was a very modern irregular type of experience created by
travelling, drawing, writing, painting and designing, a multiple representation to produce architecture.
Within the emerging media society Le Corbusier took his chance to gain public attention in the year 1922 when he displayed his diagram of the “Ville Contemporaine" in an exhibition and published “Vers une architecture", a collection of articles published before in “L’esprit nouveau" around 1920/21. The book was the printed manifesto of his theoretical approach: the modern city, the reference to the machine age (ship, aircraft, automobile), Platonism and proportion theory.

Before the year 1922 LC had build almost nothing except some small private houses. So his theory was elaborated and published before his key buildings were executed: the Pavilion de L'Esprit Nouveau (1925), the Villa Stein in Garches (1927), the Weissenhof project the same year, the Villa Savoye in 1929–30, not to mention the later work.

Finally let us take Daniel Libeskind.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück were Libeskind's first buildings. But his theoretical approach of deconstructing the symbolic impact of cultural history was elaborated before that time and expressed in diagrams, competition entries and texts. With Libeskind again the theoretical concept forms the origin of his architecture. And the rhetoric capability to verbally express his ideas is part of the success of Libeskind as an architect.

Alberti, Le Corbusier, Libeskind: all three contributed to architectural theory at the same time as defining the interpretational code of their own buildings. The reading of the Villa Savoye was widely defined by the book published beforehand – the concept of the “promenade architecturale", the proportion system, the icon of the car approaching the villa.

One may ask now if these architects and others – like Peter Eisenman, Robert Venturi et al. – are exceptions in the field of architecture or if starting with theory represents the “real" road to architecture. There is some evidence for the assumption that not only an exclusive club of star architects but all architects have to elaborate a concept, an “idea", before building.

Clearly, not every architect needs to be a writer. It is not the mode of representation that is crucial, but the fact that an architect lives in the centre of the discourse and translates it into his personal “language".

Mies van der Rohe, for example, really did not write all that much but started work in an atmosphere of theory, of avant-garde concepts and manifestos before then translating that kind of thinking into the language of his architecture.


The rise of modernity has changed all, not only practice, but theory too, and especially the interaction of both. We may argue that there is a revolutionary change of the status of architectural theory today compared to Alberti and possibly Le Corbusier.

So what can be described as “modernity"?

Destruction of the conventional, of the old hierarchies and unities leads to a growing fragmentation and individualization, constructing that modern figure of an artist or architect, who is free and lost at the same time, a Nietzschean figure, where genius and madness are touching. It is the same with the theorist, who again is no longer rooted in tradition, who is facing a broken tradition, a simulated tradition. The modern theorist, the philosopher himself in a certain sense, has to be schizophrenic like the world around him.

That farewell to tradition, the break with tradition, made modernity a place of delirious reflection. Because there is no way back, the moment counts, see Beaudelaire. Nothing is left natural, everything has to be questioned. As Marx and Marshal Berman said: “Everything which is solid melts into air."

Painting is no longer painting but a reflection, a commentary of what painting is. Tradition is no longer tradition but a stylistic construction, for gaining back the lost, a method exploding in the 19th century. Max Weber made clear that the conception of the modern world is no longer natural history but intellectual construction bringing out the abstraction and the “rationality" of modern society, a society which suffered the loss of the world's magic. Modern critical thinking evidently created a dynamic and accelerated interaction or oscillation between the construction of the new, the de-construction of the old world and then the re-construction of the lost.
The “motor" of that processes is not the machine or mechanization as such, it is not science alone, in a very general sense it should be the replacement of religion by “philosophy", philosophy which is not simply a substitute for religion, but a process of continuous critical self-reflection of the modern world.

If we accept that picture, what is its effect on architecture and architectural theory? Before attempting to answer that question again, we should have a quick look at art and art theory.

In his book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace" (1981)[1], Arthur C. Danto re-interpreted Hegel and outlined a theory of art where art is conceived as interpretation. To take an object as a piece of art means to make an interpretation. Therefore: W= I(O), the work of art is the interpretation of an object. Abstract art, pop art, ready mades, installations may give us a clear picture of what is meant here. Etwas überhaupt als Kunst zu sehen, verlangt nichts weniger als das: eine Atmosphäre der Kunsttheorie, eine Kenntnis der Kunstgeschichte. Kunst ist eine Sache, deren Existenz von Theorien abhängig ist; ohne Kunsttheorien ist schwarze Malfarbe einfach schwarze Malfarbe und nichts anderes."[2] So, the conclusion is that modern art is going to become philosophy.

Following Danto's argument we could conceive architecture the same way: modern architecture is going to become philosophy.

There is no fixed code for the interpretation of what architecture is or should be. When Vitruvius spoke about architecture, the concept of architecture included watches and military machines which is fairly unusual today. Within the Beaux Arts tradition at the end of the 19th century the basis of architecture was the use of the representational forms of classical tradition. Buildings of the engineers were excluded and new technologies were seen to be used only for construction, not for representational expression.

The role of architectural theory is to create interpretational models for architecture, thus inscribing architecture into the system of thinking, language, culture, society. This finally will become a philosophy of architecture because theory is not restricted to any special question in architecture. It is only a method to produce an interface by constructing models of understanding, thus: philosophy.

We know that Bernard Tschumi asked Jaques Derrida to participate in his La Vilette project, we know that Gropius and his Bauhaus companions had read Nietzsche and we know that Nietzsche himself reflected intensively on architecture: aesthetics as philosophy. This is not to forget Wittgenstein, who conceived the house in the Kundmanngasse/Vienna as a somewhat direct formulation of his philosophical conception.

Kojin Karatani, a philosopher again, years ago spoke about architecture as metaphor confirming that the term “architecture" is not limited to building. Very often, architecture is a synonym for structure used to describe building structures, formal structures, social structures or information structures. Subsequently there is an architecture of society, of music, of media etc. – and an architecture of philosophy too.

Some critics may say now that all that metaphorics may be true or possible, but real architecture is building and the metaphors are only derivates of that core reality of the built environment. But building as such does not mean anything; it is only one crystallization of an unlimited number of articulations of a fundamental concept of architecture, which can be represented in all possible media. If this holds true, architecture is a medium by theory.

And: there is another conclusion. Architectural theory is in no sense architectural history, just as historiography is not philosophy.

The metaphor of the text

As mentioned above, architectural theory has meant writing architecture for a long time.

If we look at the history of architectural theory we will find that the metaphors of architecture like language, book, text or grammar have been predominant for centuries.

The romancier Victor Hugo in 1832 spoke about architecture as the “stony book of mankind". He suggested that the printed book that replaced architecture would finally mean the death of architecture: “The book will kill the building". There was the “architecture parlante" of Ledoux and Boullee, the Bauhaus concept of a unifying “grammar" for all art based on elementary geometries. There was the “word of stone" by the Nazis, the “pattern language" of Alexander, the semiotic and postmodern idea of architecture as language and the city as text (Jencks, Baird and others). By showing the interrelation between words and buildings, Adrian Forty spoke of the “empire of language" where language effectively structures thinking, architectural thinking included.[3] Furthermore, we could speak about a “linguistic turn" in the cultural sciences and architectural theory. The text became a predominant concept of architecture.

The strength of that interpretational code surprise, because we very well know that stones are not letters, columns are not words and cities are not novels.

But what we may observe here is the impact of the so-called “Gutenberg Galaxy", a text-based cosmos where the text and finally the printed book dominated modern culture. The book-text became the dominating code of understanding, and architecture therefore had to be a part of it. This is the kind of media logic we speak about here. So we may understand why architectural theory as a medium of that interpretational code is based on text. This indeed is not “natural" it is pure cultural codification. Before the (printed) book there was a different codification – that of the geometric formula and the secret of the “Bauhütte". After the book there will be a new code of architectural theory again.

So it seems quite logical that the new media of the “telematic culture"
(Flusser) will overcome the traditional textuality of architectural theory.


When he published “Vers une architecture" Le Corbusier extensively used the rhetoric of photography. To demonstrate that architecture should be based on the newest technology he compared a car to the Parthenon and to refer to advanced mobility technology he displayed a lot of cars, ships and aircraft.
Ernst Neufert in his “Bauentwurfslehre" used comic-like drawings for the explanation of the design factors.

In architectural treatises images have been used for a long time.

Long before Corbusier, Louis-Etienne Boullee did almost the same in his “Essai sur I'Art", except using photography.

He displayed his monumental Utopian projects like the cathedral, the library and the cenotaph as images, as pictures. Like Le Corbusier, Boullee was educated as a painter and conceived of architecture as a tableaux and an image. Yet the idea was not to display singular projects. Instead, the huge and partially coloured pictures were paradigms or symbols of an ideal Utopian architecture. The evident impossibility to build these colossal structures – and Boullee certainly knew about it – is part of the concept to produce a Utopian ideal as pure fiction, pictorial but abstract.

Writing may be another kind of drawing and drawing may be another kind of writing. There is a crossing between text and image: the diagram.

Le Corbusier declared his “Ville contemporaine" a “diagram" to pre-empt the possibility that somebody would understand it as the picture of a real city.
Libeskind started by drawing abstract quasi-architectural structures like the Micromegas-project: Time Sections (1978/79), Tschumi did it for “Architecture of Disjunction". So the diagram is a very effective mediating structure, a kind of conceptual image.

It was Vilem Flusser who suggested that today there is a paradigmatical change in representation.

He spoke of four universes of cultural history: first, sculpture; second, pictures (like the cave paintings in Lascaux); third, text (as the oldest writings from Ugarit); and fourth, computation (the pocket calculator). Flusser suggested that this should be not linear evolution but more a “dance".

Following Flusser we are now at the beginning of the telematic culture" where dot computation is dominating and the computation of images, diagrams, texts and genes becomes possible. Flusser conceived that computation as a possibility of a new design which is not reproducing the existing world but capable to generate, to “design" a new one, new objects, and finally new human beings.

This certainly is a very general remark, but we have to realize that the new paradigm of telematic culture which implies new media, globalization and finally biotechnology is not only revolutionizing architecture, it is demanding a new architectural theory, which is based not only on text, not only on traditional imaging, but on a new media culture which integrates computational imaging, simulation and global media networks, including the cyborg concept.

Today's architectural practice is characterized by that switch to new forms of representation, to computer simulation, to global networking in producing and experiencing architecture. Architecture is film, is animated, and there is a new sphere of virtual architecture which is not built but only exists in virtual media networks.

Virtual Guggenheim was made by Asymptote as a virtual museum only. Paul Virilio spoke about the new aesthetics of these ephemeral phenomena.

We may assume that there will be a decline of the text metaphor in architectural theory and a rise of the idea of virtual space finally leading to architectural theory as a new philosophy of virtual space.

Subsequently we have do develop a new fabric of media tools including simulation, computation and mediation to represent architectural theory today.

Symbolic form

Wondering what a new relation between text and image may be, we may remember the concept of the symbol.

A symbol is a highly conventionalized sign, like in language, but at the same time it is an icon, thus combining the abstract quality of language with the sensory evidence of an image or a picture. That bridging of perception and cognition is one of the reasons for the power of symbols.

We may ask if the symbol in architecture is an actual question. I think that it is and that we need theories of symbolic identification to understand what is going on in architecture today.

Ernst Cassirer[4] and later Susanne K. Langer[5] elaborated a philosophy of symbolic forms showing that all thinking is mediated and therefore structured by symbol systems that can clearly be understood by the analysis of indigenous tribes, their totem and taboo system etc. A mythological cosmos organizes the mental and social life - and the spatial forms of architecture. Freud and later Levi-Strauss spoke about such phenomena.
However, this is really not the same today. Modern world is fragmented, but we can see that our world too is deeply organized by symbolic form, especially in architecture. As we claimed earlier, architecture is a philosophy, more precisely now: a philosophy of symbolic forms.

This is fully evident in the sphere of mass culture which is a culture of symbolic identification expressed by stars, idols, fashion and lifestyle symbolizing group, class, aspiration, desire. The impact of symbols is evidenced dramatically in the process of cultural globalization. The NY twin towers became prominent targets of the 9-11 attack because before they were made symbols, the cathedral of western capitalist world. After that vanishing of the towers the symbol became a myth. Globalization is leading to a growing interface of different cultural systems and subsequently to extensive symbolic processing which is the medium of a complete re-arrangement of the concepts of identity, home, exotics etc.

Architectural theory has to focus on those problems of symbols and identity within today's global virtual media space. What comes to mind again is psychoanalysis, mainly the Lacanian concept, for it helps us to understand that symbols are producing a projective mechanism for coping with anxiety, aggression, search for love etc. (see A. Vidler).


Is there any prominent place where theory meets practice? Evidently it is the “school". The semantics of that word is interesting because it means not only an educational or research institution, an academy or a university. Surprisingly the word school means more, means a “philosophy", a theoretical concept which is represented by architects, academics, projects and exhibitions, books and buildings. We speak of the “Stuttgarter Schule", the Bauhaus School, the School of “Vorarlberg”, the Tessin School, the Delft School. Within the concept of the modern school there is no possibility to separate theory and practice. On the contrary: the “school" is a multiple representation of a theory and theory builds the conceptual frame, may be a paragon in the reading of Kant and Derrida. Theory, differentiated from building, forms an inseparable intrinsic and defining part of the work of architecture.


[1] Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. A Philosophy of Art. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.1981.

[2] Arthur C. Danto, Die Verklärung des Gewöhnlichen. Eine Philosophie der Kunst. Suhrkamp Frankfurt a. M. 1996 S. 207.

[3] Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings. A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture London 2000, see also: Adrian Forty, The Empire of Language in: Medium Architektur. Zur Krise der Vermittlung, 9. Internationales Bauhaus-Kolloquium Weimar 2003 p 17-21.

[4] Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Wesen und Wirkung des Symbolbegriffs, Darmstadt 1994.

[5] Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a new Key. A study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art London Oxford University Press 1951.


Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005