Thinking About Architecture

Anthony Vidler
Dean, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture
The Cooper Union

The idea of architectural theory encompasses many different kinds of knowledge. First, there is the kind that normally counts for theory in the sciences—the hard data and experiential results that are the substance of structural, material, and to a certain extent environmental decisions. Then there are the historical treatises of the discipline, from antiquity to the present, which constitute the received wisdom of the profession and its stylistic, aesthetic, and methodological development over the ages. Finally, there are those texts that, outside the domain of architecture, nevertheless help in framing the nature of practice and its role in society.

There seems to be little argument that practical wisdom holds a necessary place in the curriculum, and I have not heard many objections to the treatises of architecture being read as a part of the history of the discipline. Indeed, while understanding the historical conditions of architectural practice—its social, political, and formal role in its own time—we can also profitably reread historical texts with respect to contemporary questions. Thus, in a recent course studying the emergence of ecological thought, it became clear to the students that Vitruvius’s Ten Books constituted far more than fragmentary aesthetic rules cobbled together from Greek sources, but that the body of the work consisted of a wide-ranging study of the design knowledge demanded of the Roman architect-engineer, with sustained emphasis on environmental conditions.

Or, in the case of more recent texts—such as John McHale’s The Ecological Context (1971)—that might well have been written yesterday, students were presented with a truly prescient and scientifically presented concern for diminishing resources and global warming.

Where the debate arises, though, is in the last of these theoretical categories: extra-architectural works that inform rather than drive practice, as increasingly in recent years the texts of anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, cultural critics, and sociologists have been brought into theory courses as a way of introducing students to the study of the social sciences and humanities as it bears upon the study of their profession.

Some of these texts are pointed towards sensitizing students as to how architecture is perceived and utilized from the outside. Theorists from Roland Barthes to Charles Jencks have demonstrated that the meaning of buildings as interpreted by society may not match up with the intentions of the architect. Philosophers such as Michel Foucault are important for understanding that architecture was not “autonomous,” but played an integral part in the legal, institutional, and political realm of social order; Gilles Deleuze gives us clues as to how to analyze the topological geometries of forms generated by the new digital programs that privileged surface over section.

Sociologists from Georg Simmel to Jane Jacobs provide insights into the urban condition, and critical historians and geographers from Mike Davis to David Harvey study the terrible social effects of global capitalism. Studies of postcolonial and developing industrial nations demonstrate the importance of sensitivity to cultural and social differences in an increasingly global mode of practice. Equally important have been the insights of Buckminster Fuller and his followers in pointing to the fragility of the environment and the limited resources of “spaceship earth.” Meanwhile, in Western schools, a heightened consciousness of gender and ethnic differences has led to attempts—not yet fully successful—to diversify the profession and open it to women and minorities.

These insights from the humanities and from environmental and social studies challenge us to re-examine the commonplaces of an often too-complacent and tradition-bound practice, to develop new and intradisciplinary approaches to design, and to measure its social and environmental consequences. For there are few architectural projects that don’t have to take some or all of these questions into account in some way or another. Objects placed in the world are given and take on meaning; their spatial organizations are socially experienced as narratives, by subjects of diverse genders and ethnicities, and evoke powerful mental responses, through a vision that is fundamentally constructed by the visual culture of a particular community. Introduction to the study of these topics can then inform the student’s design practice, while at the same time open up often unexpected and creative avenues.

Such a contextualization of the discipline, however, does not release the architect from the most fundamental decisions of all: design decisions for the provision of habitable and sustainable space. Here, there is an increasing need for the kind of theory that used to be called “formal,” or earlier, “aesthetic,” theory, and that has been largely forgotten in the race towards technical skill and “smart design.” What is needed is an entirely rethought and substantive examination of the qualities of space, light, proportion, and human occupation, with respect to the forms engendered by new technologies of digital iteration and fabrication.

Even as the architects of the Renaissance tuned the classical tradition to their own specific political and social needs, and the architects of the modern movement transformed this tradition for the new possibilities offered by steel and reinforced concrete construction, so now it is necessary to fine-tune our ability to manipulate and control the emerging geometries of the digital era. In this sense, questions of topology and the characteristics of surfaces, as well as studies in visual perception and spatial recognition, play an important role in the kinds of mathematical wisdom imparted to the architectural student.

Certainly, although professional graduate programs in architecture assume a basis in some of these fields as undergraduate prerequisites, their pertinence for architecture cannot always be registered by students before they start a professional program. For undergraduate professional programs, an introduction to these fields seems essential.

The complexities of an architecture that is now truly interdisciplinary and intraprofessional require the architect to balance the social and economic needs of a community with the costs and implications to the environment, and thus call for a skill in ethical and formal judgment that can only come from a study of humanistic and social thought, and not simply from an expertise in practice, or a design intelligence that is based solely in pragmatically calculated needs.