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,
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
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
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
We have to mention Leon Battista Alberti, who was a theorist
first and never had a practical education in architecture.
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
Le Corbusier’s ways to architecture were completely different from
those of Alberti. His was a very modern irregular type of experience created
drawing, writing, painting and designing, a multiple representation to
emerging media society Le Corbusier took his chance to gain public attention
in the year 1922 when he displayed his diagram of the “Ville
in an exhibition and published “Vers
a collection of articles published before in “L’esprit
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.
year 1922 LC had build almost nothing except some small private houses. So
his theory was elaborated and published before his key buildings were
(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.
let us take Daniel Libeskind.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
“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
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.
book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace" (1981),
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.
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."
So, the conclusion is that modern art is going to become philosophy.
Danto's argument we could conceive architecture the same way: modern
architecture is going to become philosophy.
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
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.
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
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.
is another conclusion. Architectural theory is in no sense architectural
history, just as historiography is not philosophy.
The metaphor of the text
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
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.
Furthermore, we could speak about a “linguistic turn" in the cultural
sciences and architectural theory. The text became a predominant concept of
strength of that interpretational code surprise, because we very well know
that stones are not letters, columns are not words and cities are not
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
So it seems quite logical that the new media of the “telematic
culture" (Flusser) will overcome the traditional textuality of architectural
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.
Neufert in his “Bauentwurfslehre" used comic-like drawings for the
explanation of the design factors.
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
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.
may be another kind of drawing and drawing may be another kind of writing.
There is a crossing between text and image: the diagram.
Corbusier declared his “Ville contemporaine" a “diagram" to pre-empt the
possibility that somebody would understand it as the picture of a real city.
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.
Vilem Flusser who suggested that today there is a paradigmatical change in
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".
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.
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.
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.
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
what a new relation between text and image may be, we may remember the
concept of the 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.
and later Susanne K. Langer
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
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.
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).
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.
 Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der
symbolischen Formen. Wesen und Wirkung des Symbolbegriffs, Darmstadt
K. Langer, Philosophy in a new Key. A study in the Symbolism of Reason,
Rite and Art London Oxford University Press 1951.