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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
– 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:
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Vitruvius, The Ten Books On Architecture. Various translations.
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