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Troubles In Theory I: the State of the Art 1945-2000

Becoming a subject of interest to those beyond the profession in the late 1960s, architecture − and its theory − in turn opened up to outside influences. An anti-institutional ideology, with strong French philosophical connections − Foucault, Barthes, Derrida − served to undermine architecture’s own disciplinary focus. Key figures − Summerson, Banham, Eisenman − sought to regain the lost territory, but a unified theory of architecture remains elusive. The first of three essays outlines the background to architectural theory’s current condition

‘The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture’
John Summerson, RIBA Journal, June 1957

‘We lack a satisfactory theory of architecture.’
Christian Norberg-Schulz, 1965

‘A comprehensive unified theory of and for architecture
is important… No one has attempted a unified theory
since Le Corbusier, and perhaps since the book
The International Style, or perhaps since the work of
Christian Norberg-Schulz (Intentions in Architecture).’
Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011

Architectural theory has taken many forms since Vitruvius attempted to bring together in 10 scrolls ‘all the principles of the discipline’, with the conviction that ‘an architect should know writing [litteras]’ both to ‘secure a more lasting remembrance through his treatises’, and as a balance to the knowledge of mere manual skill. The rediscovery of Vitruvius in the 15th century led to several centuries of similar treatises, followed by a 19th century full of style handbooks and teaching manuals followed in the 20th century by a flurry of polemical manifestos, and more measured statements of purpose and strategy after the Second World War.

The generation that graduated from architecture schools in the decade following the Second World War was a generation in search of new principles for architecture itself. In the shadow of the modern masters, critical of the social and urban effects of International Style Modernism, yet reluctant to abandon a commitment to modern architecture, they looked in different ways for continuity through more or less radical revision.

In this search they were supported by the surprising catholicity of The Architectural Review’s editorial board. Despite the individual sensibilities of Hubert de Cronin Hastings, Gordon Cullen, Eric de Maré and Nikolaus Pevsner, the journal hosted debates over questions asdiverse as those posed by Colin Rowe’s Palladianising of Le Corbusier (‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’, March 1947) and the Modern Movement in general (‘Mannerism and Modern Architecture’, May 1950); de Maré’s attempt to revitalise the ‘canon’ in his three-part survey of Scandinavian, British, American and Russian ideas in 1949; Banham’s ‘New Brutalism’ (1955); and Cullen’s ‘Outrage’ over the ‘Townscape’ environment.

Hubert de Cronin Hastings (aka H de C and Ivor de Wolfe) berates the growing tide of unsympathetic urban environments in a Townscape article, December 1949

Hubert de Cronin Hastings (aka H de C and Ivor de Wolfe) berates the growing tide of unsympathetic urban environments in a Townscape article, December 1949

Indeed, the AR seemed open to all comers, at the same time as proposing a fairly consistent editorial position against what Pevsner called the ‘new historicism’ and for de Cronin’s campaign for a comprehensive adoption of Townscape. On its signature blue, brown and sometimes yellow paper inserts, contrary visions of what might be a principled postwar architecture were posed and refuted, often by the editors themselves. The AR was not alone in this debate: in Italy, the gauntlet was taken up by Ernesto Rogers in the significantly renamed Casabella-Continuità after 1953, as he indignantly refuted Banham’s claim that Italy’s Neo-Liberty style represented a retreat from Modernism, calling him the ‘curator of refrigerators’. In France, André Bloc, editor ofL’Architectured’Aujourd’hui until 1964, continued to support the second generation of Modernists − Jean Prouvé, Georges Candilis et al.

By the 1960s, however, a second postwar generation was concerned to advance this critique, with a sense that what Banham had called ‘une architecture autre’ was to be found in a reframing of the discourse through technology and social science. Architectural Design (AD) under the editorship of Monica Pidgeon with Theo Crosby, and Kenneth Frampton, supported the Smithsons an their allies in Team X, but also, such widely disparate positions as those of Cedric Price, Archigram, as well as of John Turner, with his reports from Lima spearheading investigations into the potential reconstruction of the barrios, or the world ecological consciousness of John McHale, who edited a special issue in 1967 on ‘2001’, reviewing the state of world resources and anticipating his seminal books The Future of the Future and The Ecological Context.

Cedric Price features on the cover of Architectural Design, October 1970

Cedric Price features on the cover of Architectural Design, October 1970

As Beatriz Colomina and her colleagues have made clear in Clip, Stamp, Fold, a book and exhibition devoted to the little magazines of the 1960s and ’70s, by the late ’60s ‘theory’ had been co-opted by a proliferation of these ‘little magazines’ representing an increasingly radicalised generation intent on countering the conformist axioms of the profession. Even AD was transformed into a hip broadsheet, with its signature section ‘Cosmorama’, started in 1969 when Peter Murray joined Robin Middleton as art editor and began the wild ride to be the architectural equivalent of the Whole Earth Catalog. Here the move to environmental, ecological and social issues was clear. ‘Casabella’, on the other hand, under the editorship of Alessandro Mendini, was supportive of the groups Superstudio and Archizoom in their utopian/ dystopian take on the present; Archigram published its own ‘journal’ (from 1961), as did Jean Aubert and Hubert Tonka of the Utopie Group (from 1967) in France. In total opposition, yet fascinated by the potentials of architecture to inflect society, Guy Debord and his friends published the Internationale Situationniste from 1958.

Redressing the balance

These counter-architectural movements were balanced during the 1960s and ’70s by a series of appeals to renew the language of architecture itself after the perceived barrenness of the hegemonic International Style: Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction was only the first of such attempts, followed by Charles Jencks’s The Language of Postmodern Architecture in 1977, and somewhat redundantly capped by Paolo Portoghesi’s announcement of ‘no more inhibitions’ in his installation of the Strada Novissima for the Venice Biennale of 1980. The journal Oppositions published by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York between 1973 and ‘84, under the joint editorship of Peter Eisenman, Mario Gandelsonas and Kenneth Frampton, tried to redress the balance, with an emphasis on critical theory, as did Arquitecturas Bis in Barcelona.

All these movements have been excellently catalogued in anthologies that convey the changing nature of theory during those years. Ulrich Conrads, with a hint of nostalgia, assembled the Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, demonstrating that the most important theoretical interventions between 1900 and 1968 took the form, not of ‘treatises’ as before, but of manifestos following the model of Marx. Taking up the challenge, Joan Ockman’s anthology of statements in Architecture Culture 1943-1968 reveals the shift to statements of principle as opposed to manifestos.

But around 1968 − and not necessarily as a result of the revolutions of that year − things theoretical seemed to change. Architecture, rather than a subject discussed by architects and architectural theorists, became a subject of interest from outside − from philosophy, epistemology, linguistics and most importantly politics. With the Marxist critique of institutions, from Louis Althusser to Henri Lefebvre, architecture − already under attack from the right and the left for its apparent failure to address the social problems of the postwar period − became an object of inquiry as an ideology, similar to those identified in Marxist theory: law, religion, the state. Architecture was now understood in Althusser’s terms as an ‘ideological state apparatus’, and thereby an instrument of state power. It was a moment fuelled not only by the role of architecture in representing or constructing the State, or in aestheticising Capital (the foundation of all ‘Theories’ of architecture), but equally by the politics of resistance that emerged in the opposition to the Algerian and Vietnam wars, to the neo-liberal capitalist governments of the postwar period, and to the consumer culture of the 1950s and ’60s that threatened to de-politicise the class and ethnic struggles of post-colonialism.

This argument was advanced on the left by the institutional critiques of Michel Foucault, and reinforced by the textual critiques of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. In a move towards what today might be called media theory, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio analysed the relations of architecture to representation, traditional cultures, technology and social mobility. The most effective of these interventions within architecture itself was perhaps that of Foucault, whose investigation of disciplinary discourse was centred on institutions that had developed significant architecturaltypologies since the 18th century − asylums, hospitals, prisons − and whose writings from 1965 to 1974 inspired both critics and architects to rethink the idea of typology on an architectural and an urban level.

These texts were taken by architectural theorists not, as before, as supplements to the design process itself − anthropologists and sociologists acting as ‘humanising’ influences on the theories of Team X, for instance − but rather as invitations to rewrite the theory of the disciplin as a whole. So, to give some examples out of many, Foucault’s history and epistemology of institutional discourse − asylums, hospitals, prisons − launched a critique in architecture directed at the nature of power and its sources, hidden and overt. Barthes’s essays on semiology introduced architects to the structural analysis of buildings and cityscapes as communication devices. Derrida’s deconstruction of philosophical and literary texts led theorists to question the commonplaces of their practice. Gilles Deleuze’s studies of Gottfried Leibniz and the Baroque precipitated interest in the topologies of folding and Jacques Lacan’s rereading of Sigmund Freud brought a new understanding of the relations between visual gaze and desire. In each case, the intent of the transmigration of theories from outside to inside was to unpack the verities of the profession and disclose the ideological agendas behind apparently innocent practices.

Thus from 1965 onwards, we saw a gradual and increasing influence of such critical texts from outside architecture, continuing until now, with, of course, several moments of delay due to translation lag. With the political and social movements of the 1960s, some of these texts were implicitly normative, in other words developing thought about the proper role of architecture in mass society. Some were politically engaged − Situationism, and the rereading of Karl Marx (Althusser, Étienne Balibar), Antonio Gramsci. Some were ecologically engaged (John McHale, Buckminster Fuller) − whether for or against architecture. But most of these questioned the discipline itself, as a part of the general critique of disciplines as themselves ideologically tied to and supportive of the established political power of the bourgeois liberal state.

It was perhaps as a direct response to these external theoretical movements, that a number of architectural theorists tried once more to regain the sense of adiscipline. The pressures for a rigorous and unified theory intensified, beginning with John Summerson’s appeal for the ‘programme’ as a fundamental source of unity for modern architecture (he drew his inspiration from László Moholy-Nagy’s sense of a biologically-grounded formal aesthetic); followed by Reyner Banham’s ‘Stocktaking’ of February 1960, which called for a new technological basis derived from cybernetics and computer science; and Peter Eisenman’s first forays into formalism in 1963, publishing his call for a ‘formal basis of modern architecture’ in AD. In Theories and History of Architecture (1968), Manfredo Tafuri attempted to discriminate between the rigorous construction of architectural history and ‘operative’ and instrumental criticism, noted a distinct shift towards the framing of a comprehensive theory of the discipline:

‘It is symptomatic, in fact, that there is a demand from many quarters for the establishment of a rigorous theorization of architectural problems. This need is felt by a considerable number of English-speaking critics − particularly by [Peter] Collins − by historians like Christian Norberg-Schulz, by specialists of planning methods like Alexander and Asimov, by theorists involved in planning like Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi.’

For Tafuri, the possible reasons for the desire for a systematic theory of the discipline stemmed from the perceived loss of public meaning in modern architecture and its failure in linguistic communication; from the need to control the underlying meanings of the radical transformations in the physical and human geographical environment; and finally from the need to control the form of the city, its territory and sectors. In short, he summed up, the need to find ways that can substitute for the lost linguistic unity, an objective logical and analytical method for the control of planning, urban design and architecture. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, these attempts took on forms that paradoxically seemed to reflect the divisions that classical theory from Vitruvius onwards had sought to overcome: between use, structure and form.

Thus, writing in the RIBA Journal in 1957, Summerson opined that a ‘theory’ of architecture would be ‘a statement of related ideas resting on a philosophical conception of the nature of architecture’, one that he found in a group of Mediterranean beliefs about reason and antiquity, stated by Alberti, reformulated in the age of Descartes, rewritten in Claude Perrault’s critique of Vitruvius, then again by Laugier, Durand, Viollet-le-Duc, Pugin, Berlage, Horta, Perret and Le Corbusier:

‘Perrault said antiquity is the thing and look how rational; Lodoli seems to have said up with primitive antiquity, only source of the rational; Durand said down with Laugier, rationalization means economics; Pugin said down with antiquity, up with the Gothic, and look how rational; Viollet-le-Duc said up with Gothic, prototype of the rational. Eventually a voice is heard saying down with all the styles and if it’s rationalism you want, up with grain elevators and look, how beautiful!’

In this argument, Summerson traced the idea of the Classical, the rational and the organic, to its modern conception, following a trajectory which moved ‘from the antique (a world of form) to the programme (a local fragment of social pattern).’ Hence Summerson’s celebrated conclusion that ‘the source of unity in modern architecture is in the social sphere, in other words, the architect’s programme − the one new principle involved in modern architecture.’ In his terms, a programme ‘is the description of the spatial dimensions, spatial relationships, and other physical conditions required for the convenient performance of specific functions,’ all involving a ‘process in time, a rhythmically repetitive pattern that sanctions different relationships than those sanctified by the static, Classical tradition’. The problem he identified, as with a naive Functionalism, was the need for a way to translate such programmatic ideas into appropriate form − a problem to which Summerson offers no direct answer. Dismissing Banham’s 1955 appeal to topology in his essay on the New Brutalism, as ‘an attractive red herring (I think it’s a herring)’, Summerson was not a little dismayed at the ‘unfamiliar and complex forms [that] are cropping up’ in practice around him through the extension of the engineer’s role.

Yet, as Summerson recognised, this tradition had come to a close in the modern period, to be superseded by a new scientific paradigm, that of ‘the biological’ as advanced by Moholy-Nagy. As he stated, ‘architecture will be brought to its fullest realization only when the deepest knowledge of human life as a total phenomenon in the biological whole is available’. For Moholy-Nagy, noted Summerson, the biological was psychophysical − a demanding theor of design matching a broad idea of function that called for ‘the most far-reaching implications of cybernetics to be realized… if the artist’s functions were at last to be explicable in mechanistic terms’. In this context, the problem for architecture was to discover the apt language for the expression of the new biological facts, based on the discovery of the structure of DNA.

His conclusion was, however, pessimistic; he concluded that any theory that posits programme as the only principle leads either to ‘intellectual contrivances’, or to the unknown: for his fear was that ‘the missing language will remain missing’ and our discomfort in the face of this loss would soon be simply a ‘scar left in the mind by the violent swing which has taken place’.

A new and compelling slogan

Reyner Banham, writing three years later, was more optimistic. While he sided with Summerson in deploring the style-mongering of the 1950s − ‘it has been a period when an enterprising manufacturer could have put out a do-it-yourself pundit kit in which the aspiring theorist had only to fill in the blank in the phrase The New (…)-ism and set up in business’ − he found that ‘most of the blanket theories that have been launched have proven fallible, and partly because most labels have concentrated on the purely formal side of what has been built and projected, and failed to take into account the fact that nearly all the new trends rely heavily on engineers or technicians of genius (or nearly so).’ He proposed that what was needed was ‘a new and equally compelling slogan’, and suggested some of his own: ‘Anticipatory Design’, ‘Une Architecture Autre’, ‘All-in Package Design Service’, and, perhaps even ‘A More Crumbly Aesthetic’.

Reyner Banham heralds the arrival of a stark new style: New Brutalism, December 1955

Reyner Banham heralds the arrival of a stark new style: New Brutalism, December 1955

The most radical departure from the Vitruvian triad, however, was that proposed by a young PhD student at Cambridge, Peter D Eisenman, who in 1963 propounded his faith in ‘the formal basis of modern architecture’ in a short article in AD. Attempting to go beyond the technological and social, the programmatic and the functional weighting of Vitruvius’s categories, Eisenman argued that ‘the situation is more complicated than Summerson allows for, and if seeing a work of architecture in terms of its programme is the only alternative to seeing it in terms of history, it must be admitted that criticism is not very far advanced.’

In his formal Dantonism, Eisenman then went on to refuse all outside reference for meaning in architecture, exorcising symbolic, iconographic and perceptual influences or interpretation. Instead he looked at the ‘primary configurations’ of buildings considered as structures of logical discourse − their internal spatial and volumetric considerations deriving the formal ‘linguistics’ of his understanding of architectural systems from Le Corbusier’s ‘Four Compositions’, and making their implications explicit. If for Summerson form was considered only in relation to proportional systems, or for Banham it was no more than a dead (academic) language, Eisenman saw all formal systems as communicative, based on the properties of form itself: this was the only criterion through which architecture could be thought a discipline.

Once more it was in reaction against this overt fragmentation of the Vitruvian triad, that Christian Norberg-Schulz tried to bind the body back together again, in a long-drawn-out assemblage of observations on almost every aspect of architectural thought: historical, semiological, programmatic, technological, and, above all, phenomenological. ‘Experience’ was the key; balance, the method. Yet despite his attempt to introduce the newly popular Martin Heidegger into the equation − his phenomenological credo was set out in Existence, Space, and Architecture (1971), the result was what historian Ignazi de Solà-Morales termed ‘weak’ theory − one that gave no indication of the desired result save as a bundle of untested principles without explicit formal outcomes.

The present condition of theory, however, is more complex. For, despite attempts to produce a unified theory, the proliferation of theories ‘from the outside’ has engendered a new kind of resistance, one that poses as a ‘post-theory’ position, with the argument that the counter-disciplinary emphasis of critical theories left designers with little to go on; words like ‘post-critical’ and ‘pragmatic’ are used to describe a new attitude towards design that seems on the surface to reject traditional theorising altogether. The second essay in this series will assess these ‘post-theory’ positions, and look at the non-traditional places where theory now resides and flourishes − in the experimental practices, somewhere between, art, architecture and science, that take on in a different mode, the urgent tasks of inventing a theoretical practice for an uncertain ecological future.

The AR will complete this theoretical trilogy in forthcoming issues. ‘Part II: Postmodernism to Post-Criticism’ will be in January 2012, and ‘Part III: The Global Context: New Critical Paradigms’ later in the spring.

Author’s note
In this and the following essays I have adopted the position of Eric de Maré, who, in 1949, published three articles towards a new ‘canon’ in The Architectural Review, attempting to account for the range of theoretical interventions inpostwarScandinavia, Europe, Russia and the US. And, like de Maré, I will be unable to come to a definitive conclusion…

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