My professors and classmates would not remember me as an ace student. And they would be entirely correct, because my love of architecture was frequently overwhelmed by my intense academic focus on sleep. So please take the following confession with a generous helping of salt: I’ve never been big on theory.
Allow me to explain. By theory, I specifically mean French post-structuralist philosophy as applied to architecture. Deep thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were all the rage when I was in school, in the late ’80s and early ’90s—to the occasional detriment of actual architectural education, if you ask me. The hipper professors and students among us treasured copies of the brilliant and inscrutable (and now-defunct) journal ANY, as though it were Holy Writ, and during reviews the jargon could get so dense as to beggar translation.
The preoccupation with post-structuralism in many ways alienated adherents from the realities of practice and construction and the well-being of clients and occupants. So I wasn’t exactly sad when those marvelous cojoined triplets—social relevance, sustainability, and building performance—began to supplant theory in the hearts, minds, and rhetoric of our leading practitioners and academics.
The official transfer of affections arguably began at the 2000 “Anything” conference in New York, organized by ANY editor Cynthia Davidson. Her husband, the architect and über-theorist Peter Eisenman, FAIA, broke the hearts of assistant professors worldwide by proclaiming from the dais, “Theory is dead.” The patron saint of post-structuralism in architecture had renounced the faith.
Fast-forward through 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, the Arab Spring, and all the other tumultuous events of the past decade, and it would appear that Eisenman was spot on. While he and a few other elder statesmen and -women continue to design the wedges and blobs that post-structuralism helped inspire, on the whole, theory itself seems to have been back-burnered.
Yet two bits of recent news brought theory rushing back to mind: the righteous awarding of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal, typically a practitioner’s prize, to critic Joseph Rykwert; and the death of philosopher Marshall Berman, author of that seminal analysis of modernity All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. And I began to think about what has filled the polemical vacuum in this, our post-post-structuralist moment.
In place of ANY, students now carry around Design Like You Give a Damn by Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair. Greenbuild, TED Talks, and Clinton Global Initiative conferences are hot tickets. In both the academy and the workplace, critical discourse is focused on green architecture, building science, and ethical design. And that’s a good thing. The built environment, and civilization as a whole, stand to benefit.
The post-structuralist camp literally twisted architecture to fit an external set of ideas, born out of literary criticism and abstract philosophy. Today’s conversation, by contrast, is deeply rooted in the social, economic, and technological implications of architecture itself—how many resources a building should consume, for instance, and whom it should serve. Don’t dismiss these concerns as a tactical numbers game. They come with a profound underlying imperative about the well-being of humanity and the planet where we live.
From a strictly theoretical perspective, the pursuit of eco-friendly, net-zero, and public-interest architecture furthers a history of ideas that stretches back millennia to Vitruvius and Imhotep—ideas about structure, and place- and form-making, that are native, inherent to the discipline. Granted, architects have a lot to learn from other fields. But imports should not overwhelm our thinking about architecture qua architecture. It all comes down to the building.