Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


___Gunter Dittmar
  The (Endless) Question of Architecture



Architecture is one of the oldest human endeavors. Some of its greatest works have survived centuries, even thousands of years. Though of a very different place and time, many of them still speak to us about the nature of our being and our existence in this world.

Yet, in spite of this long history, architecture, to this day, has never evolved into what could be called an established discipline. It has no commonly agreed-upon ethos, no clearly defined core of universal values and axiomatic principles; no truly indigenous knowledge base, epistemology and methodology, beyond a wealth of accumulated works and building experience.

When Modern Architecture attempted to base architecture on the universal tenets of science and engineering – truth and objectivity – it did not succeed, partially because it ended up reducing the totality of human existence and experience to meaningless abstractions such as function and space, if not eliminating the human subject altogether.

Contemporary Architecture, though richer and more varied, is more volatile than ever. It is characterized by a plurality of viewpoints and approaches, but little common ground. One end of the spectrum views architecture as a pure art – and works of architecture, more or less, as sculpture; the opposite extreme as primarily a form of engineering – and buildings as functional, technological objects.

What all these trends have in common is that they are in search of, ever new, answers – but, to what question? Or, to say it differently, the question of architecture itself remains unanswered.

For architecture having survived and flourished for so long without a constituted, disciplinary structure, it naturally raises the question whether this is actually a problem? And, is such a framework even needed?

The richness of idiosyncratic viewpoints and approaches, rather than a sign of a fundamental problem, actually seems to testify to the strength and vitality of current architecture. Perhaps, what Modern Architecture so fervently aspired to, but did not succeed in, Contemporary Architecture has finally achieved: the liberation from style and stylistic concerns as an imposed “ethos” and constraint on the freedom of expression.

Architecture, after all, is a creative field. Creativity is one of its hallmarks without which it would not exist. By its very nature it necessitates freedom to explore. Just like each work of art re-defines art, so does each work of architecture define what constitutes architecture.

Consequently, the attempt to define architecture within a more universal ethos and disciplinary framework would be tantamount to forcing architecture into a strait-jacket, which not only would restrain its freedom of expression, but also severely limit its ability to respond to the rapidly changing conditions of our world and our time. The indeterminacy of the discipline and its ethos, rather than a problem, represents its very strength.

There is some truth and validity to these arguments. As a creative field, an art more than a science, a certain degree of indeterminacy and open-endedness is inherent to the nature of architecture, as is subjective interpretation, and a certain plurality of approaches and solutions. This is natural and to be welcomed.

However, it is precisely for these reasons – an unlimited “band-width” of interpretations and the still open question what constitutes architecture – that a commonly agreed-upon, universal ethos and disciplinary foundation is needed, which explicitly defines and articulates architecture’s purpose, content, logic and mode of operation; or to say it differently, an epistemology, knowledgebase and methodology that would give it an internal coherence, integrity and identity all its own.

Without such a disciplinary foundation architecture constantly is in danger of being dominated by fashion or prevailing ideologies, unrestrained subjectivism and relativism; or, being defined through other, more established fields, such as art or engineering. All of these phenomena are to some degree present and can be observed in current architecture.

With such a long history and tradition behind it, one cannot but wonder why architecture has never developed a more explicitly defined ethos and evolved into a more established discipline? Even more puzzling is, why, with the obvious confusion and lack of any clear direction in current   architecture, there seems to be little desire, let alone interest, to address these issues?

Aside from the already mentioned arguments of style and creative freedom, there are a number of reasons for this situation. Discussed here are, what I believe to be, three major ones:

  • architecture’s historic development and tradition as a craft,
  • architecture’s unique problem nature,
  • the failure of architectural theory and academia.

The Historic Development

Architecture essentially originated as a craft: the “mastery of building” or building structures. The Greek, etymological root of architect, ‘arkhitekton’, means ‘chief builder’, or as it is more commonly known, ‘master builder’. The term reflects the professional role and responsibilities of the “architect” as the person in charge of creating and erecting edifices. This typically included not only the construction of buildings, but also their design and planning, and the logistics of the whole process. Finally, what started as a craft, over time evolved into “the art of building”.

As the size and complexity of the structures grew, so did the knowledge and expertise required to build them, much of it generated through trial and error and cumulative experience. This knowledge generally resided in the person and expertise of the master builder and was passed on from generation to generation through a system of apprenticeship. It consisted mostly of structural and construction know-how. But, from early on, “building” stood for more than erecting physical structures.  Integral to it were rituals, rules and symbolic references derived from mythology and religion, translated into geometric and aesthetic principles of order as a means to explore and express immaterial meaning. It often developed into a commonly agreed-upon, if implicit, “ethos”, generated from within a particular place and culture, and formally manifest in a Idiosyncratic style and canon of architecture.

By Roman times, as told by Vitruvius[1] in the oldest, complete, antique architectural treatise that has survived, the demands placed on, and the education required from, an architect had become quite extensive, covering a wide range of subjects, including even medicine and astronomy.

If one accepts Vitruvius’ treatise as representative of the state of the art at the time, then architecture was well on its way to generate an explicitly defined ethos and disciplinary structure, with a core of guiding principles, an established knowledgebase and commensurate education.

However, this accomplishment fell into oblivion with the fall of Rome and the subsequent “dark” ages. Architecture returned to a, if ultimately highly sophisticated craft, all the way through the Gothic period.

This situation changed radically with the advent of the Renaissance when the worldview shifted from a theocentric to an anthropocentric one. Artists and humanists began to shift their focus from “the world above” to “the world down here” and study its manifold richness, beauty and underlying order.

Architecture, more particularly architectural form, was among the subjects they explored since through its idealized geometry and proportions the divine perfection and harmony of the cosmos and its order could be revealed and embodied in material form.

The consequences were profound: Architecture transformed from a craft into a fine art, from the art of building into the art of design and composition of architectural form.

The “re-discovered”, still standing buildings and ruins from classical antiquity – and the re-covered Vitruvian treatise[2] – became their source of inspiration and the model for architecture’s “new” vocabulary and canon of form. And, pure theoretical explorations – theory per se – became equally as important as ‘building’ and began to inform its solutions.

Since many of the artists and humanists, who were pursuing architectural issues had little or no training in the craft of building, i.e. knowledge and expertise in structure and construction, they often depended for the realization of their works on the assistance from experienced master builders , who co-existed and practiced with them at the same time.

The differentiation of “artist-architect” and “builder-architect” marks a seminal point in the long development of architecture. It represents the beginning of the end of the design-build culture and tradition that was typical for architecture up through the Gothic, and presages the separation of design from building, which is characteristic for architecture today: the creation of a work of architecture as an abstract, geometric representation “on paper”, disconnected from its actual, material reality and realization as a building.

This disconnection between design and building became even more pronounced when during the 19th Century structural expertise, in addition to construction, separated from architecture and became established as its own, science-based, discipline and profession: structural engineering.

The specialization and corresponding division of labor deeply impacted architecture. It cut to its very core. It shifted its, over centuries established, ethos from the holistic ‘art of building’ to the specialized ‘art of design’. Since then it has slowly diminished architecture’s integrity, identity and authority as a field[3]. Furthermore, as part of this process, the ‘question of architecture’ has been reduced to one of form and aesthetics, and that of ‘building’ to one of technology and construction.

With the exponentially increasing growth of knowledge since the Renaissance, especially in the sciences and technology, specialization was probably inevitable. Though it did not benefit architecture as a “discipline”, it did advance architecture. New materials, like reinforced concrete and steel, science-based analysis of structural behavior and industrial fabrication of building components, made it possible to create structures and building forms that were unthinkable before.

To keep up with these developments, the practice of architecture became a highly consultative and collaborative process in connection with different branches of engineering, and fabrication and construction professionals.

The Unique Problem Nature of Architecture

Though specialization – and sub-specialization – in practically all knowledge areas continues at an accelerating pace and has become a hallmark of our world today, architecture itself, with minor exceptions, has not specialized. To do so would run counter to its very nature as a field and one of its foremost tasks: the synthesis and transformation of a wide and diverse range of information and knowledge – human, environmental and technical – into a coherent, architectural solution.

In this sense architecture is truly cross-disciplinary.  It benefits from the discoveries, knowledge gains and insights of a whole spectrum of other disciplines; from the humanities: philosophy and art; from the social sciences: human behavior and interaction; from the natural sciences: physical forces and ecology; from engineering: material and structural behavior.

It would be a mistake to view architecture as an amalgam of other disciplines. Architecture operates much more from what has been termed “soft knowledge” – know how and a particular way of thinking and reasoning – rather than “hard knowledge” – factual information. Such knowledge often has to be adapted and transformed before it can be useful.

Aside from this methodological problem, the complex, cross-disciplinary problem nature of architecture poses a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the very diversity of knowledge, growing at an accelerating rate, makes it extremely difficult to integrate into a coherent, indigenous knowledge structure. It is one of the foremost reasons why architecture has not developed – not been able to develop – into a discipline with an explicit knowledgebase, epistemology and methodology all its own.

On the other hand, it is precisely the lack of such a disciplinary foundation and core that makes it virtually impossible for architecture to successfully integrate new discoveries and knowledge from other disciplines, beyond an encyclopedic collection of unrelated information and data.

If the synthesis and transformation of diverse knowledge into a whole constitutes the – metaphorically speaking “horizontal” – dimension of the complex problem nature of architecture, the other – perhaps even more important, “vertical” one  - is  the creative task to embody thought, ideas and meaning in tangible material, form and space. It demands a unique combination of imagination and reason.

Architecture is an art, albeit different from the other arts. Unlike these, it not only explores and represents aspects of our world, but directly and actively engages the totality of our human existence and experience.

It is a travesty, if perhaps not altogether surprising in the secularized world we live, that works of architecture are understood as essentially “aesthetic shelter”.  To protect us from the forces of nature, as well as our fellow beings, is without a doubt one of the responsibilities of architecture. Architecture has a double function: refuge and prospect; while it disconnects it simultaneously connects.

Works of architecture make visible and articulate our relationship to the world at large; physically, experientially and symbolically. As intermediary objects they assist in bringing our “inner” and “outer world” into consonance, and thus help us gain insight into both.

Though rooted in, and inevitably reflecting a specific culture, place and time, at its highest calling, architecture transcends the particular and raises questions as to the nature and condition of our being: who we are; what we are; and where we belong within the larger order of the universe.

Throughout its history, the role of architecture – and its fundamental question – has been how to wrest a tangible place from the infinite dimensions of time and space. As a constant, it has implicitly, more than explicitly, defined architecture’s ethos. As a question it poses itself anew for every culture and society. Each has to arrive at a resolution within the circumstances, means and understanding of its own time and place.

If, indeed, the purpose of architecture transcends aspects of shelter, technology and aesthetics, and its task is to explore and articulate the nature of our being as part of our dwelling in the world, then it seems only logical that this forms the ethos and axiomatic foundation upon which to build a disciplinary framework with a truly indigenous epistemology, knowledgebase and methodology.

It would be a serious mistake if such a disciplinary framework would become – or even be perceived to be – normative,  for  then it would definitely be contradictory to architecture’s nature as an art rather than a science or some form of engineering. Though architecture obviously contains elements of both of these disciplines, they must be understood and integrated within the principles and values of architecture’s own ethos. The foremost goal of such a disciplinary structure is, therefore, is to define and articulate what architecture is and is concerned with, and to provide guidance and direction for the field, its practice and theoretical inquiry.

The Failure of Architectural Theory and Academia

Architecture’s historic development and its unique problem nature are major causes why architecture has failed to evolve into an unambiguous, modern discipline, and still often seems to function more like a craft, i.e. without an explicit, theoretical foundation.

In the final analysis, this represents a failure of architectural theory – and by extension, academia – to address and come to grips with this issue.

One of the aspects, which distinguish a discipline from a craft or trade, is that it demands an advanced education. It presupposes a body of thought and theoretical knowledge typically housed and taught at an institution of higher learning.

For quite some time now, and throughout most of the world, the education of an architect has not anymore been based on the master-apprentice system (though some apprenticeship may still be part of it), and requires a degree from such an institution in order to practice.

If one looks at curricula from schools of architecture, one will discover that the great majority of course work is focused on design (which is not formalized and still contains vestiges of the master-apprentice model) and the acquisition of technical knowledge and expertise in structure, building materials and assembly, and environmental controls. It is rounded out by courses in architectural history, urban planning and professional practice.

Though there usually are also courses in architectural theory (often electives), absent is a complete, theoretical framework that would integrate the disparate body of thought and knowledge into a coherent whole and place it within an overarching, disciplinary context.

The emphasis in architectural education on design and technology reflects the state of architecture, its practice, and the role architectural theory plays. The education still is centered almost exclusively on the knowledge and expertise necessary for practice rather than the acquisition of a discipline. And though architecture is now housed in institutions of higher learning, it still has not found a home there as a discipline. It seems to continue operating more or less like a sophisticated craft.

To this day, much of the collective “knowledge” and understanding of what constitutes architecture is embedded in the exemplary works architecture has created over time. It is implicit, not explicit; coded and expressed in the terms of the particular time, place and style, when and where they were designed and built.

When, during the Renaissance, architecture changed from a craft into an art and initiated theoretical inquiries, it not only established modern, “architectural theory”, but its future course and direction. However, it also continued the paradigm implicitly underlying architecture when it still operated as the “art and craft of building”, except it now did so explicitly:  It defined architecture through the physical object of its investigations!

Rather than concentrating on the question of architecture – its purpose, nature and meaning – it focused on answers; rather than exploring architecture’s subject – our being – and architecture’s subject matter – our dwelling – architectural theory pursued what form it should take and why.

This paradigm continues. The consequences are profound. One of the most significant has been the increasing objectification of architecture, most recently visible in current architecture in the emphasis on novelty of formal and material expression.

For many disciplines it is the role of a sub-discipline – Theory – to tend to and advance the field’s disciplinary structure and knowledge base through which it defines itself and its identity as a field.  In architecture it would be the responsibility of academia, in particular scholarship in the theory of architecture, to explore and begin to evolve such a structure.

Yet, there is no such Theory in architecture, there exist only theories! They consist mostly of speculation, manifestos, or criticism; personal interpretations or positions on formal aspects influenced by prevailing ideologies, cultural issues, or stylistic concerns.

There is little that transcends time and place.

And so the question of architecture remains…

Personal Post Script

I owe a debt of gratitude to Karsten Harries. Some twenty years ago he graciously received me and worked with me during my sabbatical at Yale University. Our discussions and his writings have greatly influenced my own thoughts on architecture.

With Congratulations and Best Wishes,
Gunter Dittmar



[1] Vitruvius, The Ten Books On Architecture. Various translations.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Recent developments in computer software and BIM (Building Information Modeling) have made it possible to integrate complex technical and manufacturing information immediately into the design of a building. For architecture this promises to regain some of the lost control – and authority – over the whole building process.



Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007