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March 2012, 1381. Volume CCXXXI

Catherine Slessor

In this pivotal issue, The Big Rethink introduces Integral theory as the basis for a more complete architecture. Read this issue here

Einstein once remarked that: ‘a problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.’ This rationale underscores the latest part of The Big Rethink, which this month gathers momentum with a discussion of Integral theory, a rich, inclusive and transdisciplinary means of analysing architecture in both its objective and subjective dimensions.

Architecture and theory have a complex and often unsatisfactory relationship. Since the emergence of Postmodernism, the hijacking of literary or philosophical treatises into the service of architecture has sustained an intellectual cottage industry in academia and publishing. This must now be regarded as woefully misguided, as it disconnects architecture from historical, cultural and experiential reality.

Yet as anyone who witnessed Charles Jencks’ and Patrik Schumacher’s pas de deux at the lecture hosted by the AR at the Royal College of Art will know, reports of the death of architectural theory are greatly exaggerated. and in these critical and epoch-shifting times, a new theoretical framework is required to evaluate and reconceptualise architecture in all its manifold dimensions and point the way out of the current intellectual impasse.

In the third part of The Big Rethink, Peter Buchanan explores the origins and nature of Integral theory and how it can be applied to architecture. Simply put, Integral theory is a means of analysing objective and subjective realities based around a system of quadrants.

Each quadrant has its own intellectual disciplines and is organised and defined by specific criteria. For architecture this encompasses aspects such as aesthetics and phenomenology, semiotics, culture and anthropology (subjective, right-hand quadrants); function, ergonomics, form, construction and return on investment (objective, left-hand quadrants). As well as integrating diverse disciplines, Integral theory is also concerned with how living organisms, through consciousness, allow cultures to evolve and develop through distinct stages.

As Buchanan argues, this offers the potential to create better architecture through greater insight and inclusiveness. It can also be used to explain the shortcomings of existing movements. Modernism, for instance, concentrated primarily on the ‘quantifiable reality’ of the right-hand quadrants at the expense of those on the subjective left. This contrived to sever any empathic
and emotional connection with humanity and the planet.

From this synopsis, it should be clear how Integral theory could frame a more resonant and complete approach to architecture. In effect it regrounds both architecture and humankind in the wider framework of history and culture while drawing on the rich narratives now unfolding from new understandings of science, ecology and the cosmos. And it reasserts that true ‘sustainability’ cannot be achieved without confronting the challenge of wider cultural transformation.

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