In response to Ned Cramer's proclamation of the death of theory last month, I go once more into the breach. Both architecture and its ephemeral twin, theory, have been announced dead so often that they must be approaching the status of God. Or perhaps architecture and theory can be better compared to specters that somehow have turned our built environment into a landscape of the haunting dead. I think most cubicle dwellers in even the most LEED-certified office building might be able to relate.
With no sense of fondness, Cramer recalls debates in which “the jargon could get so dense as to beggar translation.” He blames the preoccupation with such concerns for “alienat[ing] adherents from the realities of practice...and occupants.” Finally, he thinks theory is the culprit for “the wedges and blobs that post-structuralism helped inspire.”
The problem with theory is that it is often, well, so theoretical: it asks difficult questions and proposes untested scenarios. That is also its great value. Without theory, we would dumbly construct meaningless boxes or blobs. The minimal place theory, in both the discipline and the profession, is one of the reasons why our built environment is so mind-numbingly bad.
The fashion for deliberate obfuscation, theory for theory’s sake, and riddles popularized by Cramer’s dyad of demons, Foucault and Derrida, indeed had the effect of turning many off from the very idea of asking questions. But their work also had the effect of making us think about some issues I think are rather important, such as: what is the relationship between buildings and the exercise of power? What is relationship between how buildings look and appear through sexuality, racial definitions, and other disparities in our society? Why should we build in the first place? Should we build at all?
Some might object that these questions are distractions from just getting the job done and the building built. I think that especially the latter inquiry, however, would lead us to a much more thorough pursuit of “green architecture, building science, and ethical design,” which are Cramer’s great goods. I think we should question whether architecture should lead to building at all, unless that is the absolute best use of resources. That would be better than any green strategy, and might be better for most occupants. If we do build, we should be able to ask ourselves for whom we are building, why, and how. Those are practical considerations in an immediate situation, but they are also broader questions that should be the foundations for all of our choices.
Finally, you can’t blame bad interpretations in blobs for the failures of certain kinds of theories. I think the current fashion of dressing up boring buildings with a veneer of computer-controlled blobism has a purely mercenary root, no matter how much the current king of bad theory, Patrik Schumacher, expounds on the ethics of algorithms.
I think we need more and better theory, not the absence of theory. As a direction such a theory might take, I would point to an essay on Design Observer by Gabrielle Esperdy. Musing on the work she has been doing for the SAH's Archipedia site, which aims to create a complete inventory of American architecture, she points out the importance of metadata. Though it underlies much of what we know today, “once we got it, we rarely think about how we found it.” She calls metadata the “stepchild of authorship,” and, I would add, theory.
In reviewing classifications of American buildings throughout history, she points out Reyner Banham’s emphasis on the ways in which America’s penchant for “gizmos” helped create a distributed and dynamic civilization. It still does, and this phenomenon needs its own theory. American Pragmatism, with its emphasis on experience and experiment, on doing things and the meaning of things, offers one root for such a theory. I would add that current theories such as those expounded by Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing might be a good adaption of that history. Building on the work of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, Bogost emphasizes the interconnectedness and meaning of things and beings alike. Finally, I would argue that collage and assemblage, as a method and a practice of using what is already here,or creating the new out of what we know, might be an important way to think about building.
Theory is not dead, Mr. Cramer. Neither is architecture. Both lie dormant in a world of bad buildings that use of too much energy to make uncomfortable environments. The profession has done little to make that situation better. Maybe it should ask itself some hard questions.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.