Current Views in Architectural Theory

Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005


___Ákos Moravánszky
  Theory / Building



The territory of the theory of architecture should be defined on the basis of the problems that this discipline is supposed to solve. But disciplines for architectural problem-solving from building construction to regional planning already do exist, and it is difficult to see what kind of specific tasks architectural theory has to tackle.

The theory of architecture as the sum of treatises and manifestoes written by architects exists since Vitruvius. But architectural theory as a discipline emerged from the alliance of architectural history and politically engaged criticism around 1968. Tafuri’s thesis regarding the impossibility of a critical architecture contributed to the institutionalization of a critical theory of architecture. The exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture in 1988 at the MoMA showed already signs of exhaustion – critical theory gave place to the theoretical packaging of new design propositions. The readiness of “projective“ theory to deliver branding services for design practice was seen by many as a dangerous development; they urged architectural theoreticians to return to their roots in architectural history studies.

In a school of architecture where there are as many architectural “philosophies“ as design studios, the situation is even more difficult. A design philosophy tends to present itself as the true theory, leaving not much space for critical understanding. If, however, this “philosophy“ only serves the justification of a design practice, the term “theory“ is used undeservedly.

All this does not mean that theory has to withdraw into ineffectiveness. The practice of theory, however, has to remain rooted in language, and should affect the use of language. A course in architectural theory has to question the very terms of architectural discourse.

At the ETH
Zurich, the Architectural Theory section, which is part of the Institute gta, focuses on the analysis of the terms of our discipline which are so close to the center of our thinking about architecture, that we usually do not even question their meaning. In order to understand an architectural problem, however, we have to learn about the history of its central terms. What is architecture? What is space? What is function? What is tectonics? These are questions of a different kind than the question regarding the tensions in a cantilevered support. We can only expect that this archaeological work and critical reflection helps to understand the problem of space, function or tectonics, rather than to “solve“ these problems.

This might sound like a withdrawal of architecture theory into the realm of language. We are dealing with language indeed but it would be wrong to understand this focus of theory as a withdrawal. Architectural theory attempts to influence our (verbally organized) understanding of our environment. The very requirement that theory should not be directly involved with design practice allows to exert its influence on its development.



Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005