Noticias de Arquitectura

Theory of Architecture
junio 7, 2008, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Ensayo, Teóricos

By Pentti Routio
Monday 2 June 2008, by Rédaction Journal3

Not all industrial products are modern inventions. There are several types of artifacts that have been produced during generations. Accordingly, these products have also been the object of many studies and theories. The most notable example of these is the building. The art and science of architecture has been studied almost continuously during two millennia, and a great number of these treatises have been preserved until our day.

In the following is given an overview of the most prominent lines of thought in the study of building until now. Possibly the account can also give researchers of other types of products some cues, to follow or to abstain.

Because of the great number of published essays on architecture it is convenient first to pigeonhole them to a few clusters. One possibility would be to use the normal library classification, based either on geographical areas or on the type of building (houses, schools etc). However, in practice a much more useful division of research and theory is based on the principal target of the study:

– Descriptive studies aim at reporting the present (or past) state of the object which in architectural studies can be either one building or any defined class or series of buildings, as well as people related to these buildings. Monographs of buildings often belong to this category, as well as a great part of the histories of architecture.

– Explanatory studies try to find out why each building has taken the shape that they have. The reasons can be taken either from the past (causal explanation), from the concurrent context, or alternatively from the future (i.e. from the intentions of the builders). See also Explaining Development.

– Normative studies attempt to point out in which respects the object of study could be improved, and the method of doing it. When the outcome of normative studies is generalizable to later similar objects, we can call it theory of design.

Recent studies about architecture and buildings can usually be classified into one or the other of the above three genres of research (if not being combinations of them). As a contrast, when looking at earlier writings it turns out that practically all papers published before 18 century belong exclusively to the third group, i.e. to design theory. The same seems to be true for the very oldest writings about architecture, about which has survived just the name, like “Instructions for the decoration of walls” that is listed in the library catalog of the Edfu temple in ancient Egypt (Ricken, p. 10). For those texts that still exist, the normative purpose often is clearly expressed in their introductory phrases:

“Because I saw that you [Caesar] have built and are now building extensively, I have drawn up definite rules to enable you to have personal knowledge of the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be constructed.” (Vitruve, Book I, Preface, trans. by Morgan.)

“It seemed to me a thing worthy of a man, who ought not to be born for himself only, but also for the utility of others, to publish … those rules which I have observed, and now observe, in building; … that one may learn to lay aside the strange abuses, the barbarous inventions, the superfluous expence, and (what is of greater consequence) avoid the various and continual ruins that have been seen in many fabricks” (Palladio, preface, 1570, trans. by Isaac Ware in 1738).

“My purpose is to develop the taste of architects and … to give them secure instructions of work and a method which guarantees an impeccable result” (Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’architecture, xliii, from the year 1753).

“Architects everywhere have recognized the need of … a tool which may be put in the hands of creators of form, with the simple aim … of making the bad difficult and the good easy” (Le Corbusier, The Modulor, Foreword of 2nd ed. 1951).

“This language is extremely practical. … You can use it to work with your neighbours, to improve your town and neighbourhood. You can use it to design a house for yourself, with your family; or to work with other people to design an office or a workshop or a public building like a school.” (Alexander et al., 1977, A Pattern language, page x).

It seems thus that in architectural writing during centuries the most common objective has been to guide later design, i.e. the outlook has been normative.

In present day, the design theory of architecture includes all that is presented in the handbooks of architects: legislation, norms and standards of building. All of them are intended to aid the work of the architect and improve its product — the quality of buildings. The aim is thus the same as in technology and production in general: proven theory helps designers to do their work better and more effectively. It occasionally even helps to do things that were believed to be impossible earlier on. As an old saying goes, there is nothing more practical than a good theory.

The design theory of architecture consists of all the knowledge that the architect uses in his work, including how to select the best site and the most suitable construction materials. Moreover, there is advice on how to design practical buildings, up to the ease of maintenance and reparations. You can find out what it includes by studying empirically what source material architects actually use in their work. This study will reveal that, in addition to rationally motivated rules and methods, this material includes rather miscellaneous and “unscientific” elements; prejudice of the clients, whims of fashion, cost saving decisions of building companies and horse trade of politicians.

Some people say that the architect is an artist and, unlike engineers, he cannot base his work on theory. This is true, of course: the plan of the architect cannot come into being only by following the rules of manuals nor by proceeding in a totally rational fashion from the initial information the architect has. But even an artist has to have his technique. In art, like in any other work, professional skills are needed and that is the same as knowing what you should do, does it not? This was at least what erudite architect Jean Mignot thought when inspecting the worrisome, cracking vaults on the building site of the Milan cathedral in 1400: “Ars sine scientia nihil est.” (Skill without knowledge is nothing.)

While theory of design is intended to help design, it does not necessarily precede design. On the contrary, the first building where a new architectural style is exposed, is usually created intuitively, without the help of any theory, just by the skill of a brilliant architect. The design theory comes a little later, and even less brilliant architects can then base their work on it.

In the following are examples of traditions of theory, in other words, paradigms that architects have applied at different times. They are classified in two groups in the following:

– Thematic theories
– Theories of synthesis

Thematic or “analytic” theories are treatises which aim at the fulfilment of one principal goal of architecture. They are often based on profound analyses of this goal, often made at the cost of other customary goals of building. This adds to the clarity of the theory, and also of the buildings that are designed on its basis. They are often admirable works of art and can be used as exemplars in the education of younger architects.

On the other hand, over stressing just one goal of building has often made these edifices impractical and inadequate in other respects. Indeed, many of them are today no more used for their originally intended purposes but are instead serving as tourist attractions or museums.

Theories of architectural synthesis are examples of theories which aim at fulfilling simultaneously several goals, usually all the goals that are known. These paradigms are commonly applied in conventional construction projects which then produce practical but customary looking buildings which will probably never be included in the books on architectural history.

Pentti Routio, University of Art and Design Helsinki (August 3, 2007.)


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