What is a Concept, generally and in Architecture?


There is much talk - it is almost always talk - of Concept in Architecture.

Much of this talk shows an oblivious ignorance  of the philosophical and scientific literature on concept. By oblivious ignorance I mean people who are not aware of just how ignorant they are.

An anecdote will suffice. I once heard Bernard Tschumi say, "I do not know what architecture is, but I know that it is the materialization of concepts." I almost burst into laughter at this contradiction.

After looking at his website for an explanation of concept he reveals his ignorance. He conflates concept with idea. Actually concept is a modern replacement term for idea.

There is so much writing in philosophy about concept no person could exhaust it in a hundred lifetimes. (See PhilPapers online, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also online.)

There is some standard Literature on Concept - Concepts Core Readings and the Conceptual Mind, both edited by Margolis and Laurence. The Big Book of Concepts by Gregory Murphy,  Truth, Logic  and Language by Ayer, The Concept of Mind by Ryle, The Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein, The Language of Thought by Jerry Fodor - and many many more.

I once tried to explain the Classical Theory of the Concept to a Columbia Architecture grad - how the first masterpiece of conceptual analysis in Western Philosophy Euthyphro, as the basis of that theory and how Wittgenstein debunks the theory with the concept of Games in The Philosophical Investigations. He had never heard of Euthyphro. He had never heard of Wittgenstein. He did not know what the classical theory of the concept was and why it was defunct?

So what I would like is for someone to direct me to come competent writing by architects on concept. And please do not direct me to Archisoup. No concept is not an idea, theory, notion, argument and so on .

Hint. Concepts are the fundamental components of mind in a theory of mind (Concepts and Cognitive Science by Margolis and Laurence.)

Apologies for grammar.  Hate proof reading online stuff.

May 26, 19 1:45 pm

so you are saying that concept is used as a term for idea?  Sounds consistent with the common vernacular definition.  Oh, we aren’t using the term like philosophers have used it in the past...what fools we are!  


  1. an abstract idea; a general notion.
    "structuralism is a difficult concept"
    idea, notion, conception, abstraction, conceptualization; More
    • a plan or intention; a conception.
      "the center has kept firmly to its original concept"
    • an idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity.
      "a new concept in corporate hospitality"

May 26, 19 2:04 pm

Firstly, Concept is a modern REPLACEMENT term for the older term idea where idea has been stripped of it's imagistic content and concept is viewed as more intimately bound up with language.


Ideas, since the 17th Century, are any conscious thought and the UNIQUE contents of the mind.


In vulgar usage, such as Webster's Dictionary, which seems to be your source, idea and concept are conflated. And some but not most philosophers use Idea and Concept interchangeably with Idea. In the specialized literature Idea and Concept are distinct. Concepts are not seen as having imagistic content. They are not unique to a mind. People do not experience each others ideas. Concepts in terms of their mental content are not just conscious thought. The Wikipedia entry is better than Webster's or the O.E.D



Instead of a snarky remark how about an explanation of concept that architects can apply to their own work.




Here's my conclusion about an architectural concept- based on what makes sense to me without the pseudo-intellectual jargon often found in architectural theory writings:

It's the right key to solving  challenges, while maximizing the use of opportunities in a real world setting - construction assemblies, budget, codes, poetic experience, client & programmatic needs etc presented to a designer. It's a discovery of the right set of design rules that ideally sets the constraints and help orchestrate everything from building systems to spatial experience.

I always like to use to use the analogy of a math or physics problem. Instead of using a method discovered by a famous person to solve a problem, a good designer has to discover the right tool that is applicable to that situation using the cues that they've got. The right parti, in this context is the first simplified diagrammatic solution to  the problem you are trying to solve. Depending on the problem, there may be hundreds of steps, needing back and forth iteration to get to the right concept- which to me has always been nothing more than a poetic and elegant solution from macro to detail level. This is much akin to how general relativity describes space-time in an elegant one line tensor field equation for example - in essence the right constraint/tool to use.

In this context, inter-subjectivity, from social science and anthropology might be of interest to you. Humans are the only species that have complex imaginary systems - notions like nation-states, religion, corporations etc. In the context of building, this is important because its a direct manifestation of this imagination. This evolution is super-fast compared to genetic changes. This is important because a birds capability to build beautiful nests is genetically coded but ours is not. It's acquired through this ability to live in a co-imagined set of principles that allows us to work together as a species. That's why the client and context are very important cues that cannot be ignored as their inter-subjective experience is highly-localized: a very important thing to be aware of before starting off solving a problem. 

May 26, 19 5:17 pm

Well at least you took the issue seriously. But your response is not really what I was looking for. Instead I was looking for an explanation of what a concept is and how it is applied to architecture.


Well, unlike the other commenter, you have produced a serious response. But what I was looking for is a few short essay like comments that answer some questions. What is a concept in the general sense and Philosophy? What is a concept in Architecture as opposed to Philosophy. How is a concept produced and analyzed (developed) in Architecture? How is it different and similar to Conceptual Analysis in Philosophy?

For example, most concepts in philosophy are what are called lexical concepts, ones that correspond to lexical, fundamental components of natural languages (morphemes). Words such as dog, cat, space, time and so on. When concepts correspond to a sub-propositional group of words, they are called conceptual combinations. Father is a lexical concept. Stepfather is a conceptual combination.

The importance of this for designers, is that concepts are rather dumb simple things, at least in their language component, making it relatively easy to know if you have a concept or not. Concepts are not theories, hypotheses, arguments - all two complex. If you cannot sum up your concept as a lexical concept or conceptual combination, then you do not have a concept.

Many designers struggle with concepts because, like you I am afraid to say, do not actually know what a concept is.

For example, Architecture is a concept. How would you analyze this concept Philosophically and Architecturally?

May 26, 19 9:12 pm

First of all, your comment is ad hominem. Nonetheless, I'll try once to keep this discussion productive.

( o Y o )

I have analyzed the concept of this thread and determined that it is pseudo-intellectual bullshit.

May 26, 19 10:21 pm

I’m about to conceptually rearrange this persons ass with my foot


'Concept' in philosophy as you mentioned is a simple abstract, fundamental component that is used to build more complex things. Again I would like to point out this is something very unique to homo sapiens. No other biological group that we know of is capable of the notion of a concept.

What I described in my previous comment and what many architects think of as 'concept' in architecture is technically what you would call a theory in philosophy. A set of complex principles discovered NOT invented in response to a problem. I wouldn't be high-handed and say designers don't know what they are doing just because they don't know the technical agreed term behind their process. Many excellent musicians don't know music theory but have an excellent grasp of how melody works in nature through experience.

Concepts in the philosophical sense change very rapidly just like language because of its inherent nature of being an inter-subjective reality something existing in the mutual imaginations of humans. The physical objects they represent don't. Architecture is a concept which in its most common agreed understanding is simply building of this imagination in a physical form using physical techniques and materials. We can argue if its true or not just like the analysis of any other concept in philosophy. Also analyzing the concept of architecture architecturally makes no sense.

Knowing a bunch of technical terms/jargon hardly ever helps in solving problems in reality that a lot of architects capably do. Is this purely theoretical question? I would love to know how knowing this would actually help a designer in the profession trying to solve a problem.

May 26, 19 11:16 pm

OP you seem to expect that architecture and philosophy use jargon interchangeably. They do not. As with all fields, there are specialized usages of terms that only make sense in the context of that field. Architects in particular are not very concerned with the language used to describe their working process.

In normal usage within architecture, 'concept' has come to replace what was formerly called 'parti' - basically the premise underlying an approach to designing a project. It's a loosely applied usage and could describe the specific spatial logic of a program or more broadly a social or polemical goal of a project.

In evaluating a design the concept helps provide an ideal standard to which the specific design can be compared, so a critic can acknowledge the concept is valid but the execution flawed. Conversely and probably more common in practice are weak concepts executed very nicely.

It would be interesting to research the origins of this usage. I suspect it came through OMA and the group of theorists trying to develop a more flexible approach to modernism in the late 70's where they tried to consider other aims of architecture beyond the idealistic social and economic utilitarianism of earlier Modernism. It was a framework for analyzing the organization of a building more open ended than the assumptions of Modernism.

May 27, 19 5:35 am

you'll know it when you see it -or- if you have to ask, you'll never know

May 28, 19 7:47 pm

If you have to ask, you can't afford it. 

May 29, 19 8:14 am

an idea

May 29, 19 10:45 am

only on an unconscious level does this work so it doesn't work at all because architecture is spatial it has no concept that being said like music it can have a theme

May 30, 19 11:42 pm
Witty Banter

Thank you for clearing this up for us.


This is why I use "parti"

Also why we shouldn't invite philosophers to architecture crits.

May 31, 19 11:56 am

I would love to see you interact with my roofer, he would laugh all the way back home at your pomposity.

May 31, 19 1:38 pm
The concept of this thread is interesting, the idea not so much.
Jun 2, 19 4:42 pm

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