Theory Central

A recent thread got me thinking about architectural theory and I remembered how much I enjoy talking about it (It also made me regret not making time to sit in on a theory seminar this last semester). So I did a quick search and found some other threads related to theory and such but I was surprised that despite people complaining about it (cue links to threads here and here) no one has created a place to talk about theory ... ergo, welcome to Theory Central.*

Use this thread to:

  • Ask questions like, "What's the deal with Post-postmodernism? Can't somebody just come up with a better name?"  or, "Is this building capital 'M' Modern, or just modern with a lower case 'contemporary'?"
  • Call attention to other thread like, "Did you guys see the 'Is Parametricism really the new unified style!!!' thread?"
  • Branch off topic from other thread without necessarily disrupting that discussion but without creating a whole new thread like, "You know, I saw that picture of the Vanna Venturi house in this other thread; 'my professors in school showed us that ... house, and I still don't see what's interesting or unique about it.' Can anybody explain?" (no offense TheMasterBuilder)

In the end I think there are some pretty good discussions regarding architectural theory on this forum and that says a lot about the people who contribute to them. And while a Theory Central thread isn't necessary in order for these discussions to happen, I don't think it can hurt, and it will at least give someone new to theory a place to start.

P.s. I'm categorizing this thread as Culture instead of General Discussion or Random Tangents for a reason.

*Yes, this is a clever play off of the extremely popular Thread Central. I figure that with well over 45,000 comments it isn't a bad model to emulate. And yes, I realize that Thread Central has transformed from its original incarnation into more of a legendary realm of archinect lore both mysterious and awe inspiring to those unfamiliar with it, but I don't see any problem if this thread turned into that either.

Dec 21, 11 4:44 pm

Here's something to get things going:

Jean-Francois Lyotard said, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives." Even more simply put, Modernism's metanarrative was that through industrialization and advancements in science and technology we could create this utopia that was clean, perfect and had lots and lots of buildings by Corbusier. Well that was all fine and good until we started to question this metanarrative because of things like WWII and failed urban housing projects. So we demolished Pruitt-Igoe and said, "We hate metanarratives, we love complexity and contradiction, we'd rather see Charles Moore spit water than look at another white wall."

Effectively Postmodernism was king and Modernism was dead ... or was it? You know that building rating system the USGBC created called LEED? You know how by simply looking at and addressing 100 (+10) points you can certify your interior, building, or even your neighborhood as gold or platinum? What would we call that sort of system if not a metanarrative? If it is a metanarrative, should we all just slowly put down our LEED study guides and back away slowly?

Dec 21, 11 8:35 pm

I'll start, with this quote from the Nick Hornby novel A Long Way Down.  The speaking character is a somewhat suicidal teenager.

People go on about places like Starbucks being unpersonal and all that, but what if that's what you want? I'd be lost if JJ and people like that got their way, and there was nothing unpersonal in the world.  I like to know that there are big places with no windows where no one gives a shit.  You need confidence to go into small places with regular customers - small bookshops and small music shops and small restaurants and cafes.  I'm happiest int he Virgin megastore and Borders and Starbucks and Pizza Express, where no one gives a shit, and no one knows who you are.  My mum and dad are always going on about how soulless these places are, and I'm like Der.  That's the point.

This seems to relate to Rem's talking points about "soulless cities": These days, we're building assembly-line cities and assembly-line buildings, standardized buildings and cities.  But I frankly don't know anything about Rem's theories - I've never read any of his books, but I do love the IIT Campus Center.  Can anyone give me a 2-minute summation of rem's attitudes towards the generic?



Dec 21, 11 8:35 pm

Ooh, Brian we're both first!  But you are really.

Dec 21, 11 8:36 pm

I must have just barely edged you out.

Dec 21, 11 8:38 pm

I don't know what Rem would say about the big box store type of 'generic' but a few of the things that I'm familiar with in his writing and built works might lend themselves to another type of generic. Something more along the lines of a generic that allows for customization. Think of the Seattle Central Library and the book spiral. As far as a way to store books it is pretty generic. Different and I'd argue innovative, but generic nonetheless. But that same spiral in two cities, that have nothing else in common, allows the library to organize the stacks to fit the city.

Similarly, in Delirious New York (if I had my book on me I'd be able to explain this better) when Koolhaas describes the skyscraper that would be like moving between worlds by just changing floors. Yet the tool to achieve that variety is the generic skyscraper.

Plus speaking of Rem, there's a link below to an audio podcast of some writings and discussions on Rem from a presentation one of my professors did earlier this year in what we call the 'Eclectic Lunch Series,' basically brown bag lunches with various professors or lecturers talking about whatever they wanted. BTW, don't expect any more of these podcasts ... I only ever did the one.

Open iTunes
Click 'Advanced' menu
Click 'Subscribe to podcast...'
Type ''
Click 'Ok'
Wait for the download and listen, repeat if desired

Sorry, it's much longer than 2 minutes.

Dec 21, 11 9:35 pm

@ donna, as far as i can tell rem embraces the generic. he is not kunstler , whining like an old man about the fucking ducks shitting on the front lawn.  instead he's sitting up and looking round and suggesting where he wants to fit in.  i don't recall reading anything where he suggests the world should change to suit his image of things.  he could obviously never be a republican.


in which case his theory is more observation than way forward.  unless you are into the surrealist critical paranoid approach that he seems to really be into even now.  that always seemed a way to organise his own thoughts than a theory to me though.

Dec 21, 11 10:06 pm

Is there a relationship between our understanding of science's dominant paradigm, and architecture's formal output?  What would Bohr have to say to Le Corbusier?  What would James Clerk Maxwell say to Luis Sullivan? Why Newton's Cenotaph?

Dec 21, 11 11:03 pm

I forgot that I had only done the first half of the lunch discussion on that podcast, so I hunted down the other half, edited it a little and published the 'Q and A' session. The recorder had gotten switched off for about the first minute or so and we jump in mid-answer but the rest is there. Sorry in advance for the recording quality and background noise, but it is what it is.

Dec 22, 11 1:09 am

@ h miller, why comparison 100 years old scientists and architects?

architects are usually pretty up on the science.  sure appears in the theory a lot, even if seldom used correctly.  some of the biomimicry people and the algorithmic designers are rihgt on the edge of research in science in way that is maybe new...?

Dec 22, 11 4:53 am

M-theory.  I predict architectural scientists will soon propose a fourth dimension that will unify all architecture theories (modernism, post-modernism, critical regionalism, etc.) into one grand theory thus proving that architects aren't really p-branes afterall, yo!

Dec 22, 11 9:02 am

Will and Henry, are you familiar with any of the work done by CASE (Center for Architecture Science and Ecology)? 

Dec 22, 11 1:18 pm

i had understood post-modern thought as embracing the diverse narratives over a single grand metanarrative for everything.  By implication, this would move architecture (and presumably most fields) away from "-isms" and more in line with specific conditions;  though not completely throwing it into a relativist world.  I suspect science and art theorists are less interested by architecture as the flow of information seems to go more the other way around - perhaps social sciences (public health, criminal justice, etc) could have more interest (and in personal conversations they seem to), but architects able to converse with those fields are fewer than perhaps needed?

If we're going down the path of -ism discussions, what's with landscape urbanism and new urbanism getting so worked up about each other?  I find them not mutually exclusive and to some extent complementary.

Dec 22, 11 7:03 pm

@ Mr Galloway:  Only begging the question.

@ Mr Henry: I was not aware, and I love the project.  Who knows where the next Bell Labs is?


Dec 22, 11 9:39 pm

What have I done to destroy this thread's momentum?


Dec 25, 11 8:32 pm

I hope it wasn't so much you as it was the holidays. I know I've been away from the computer most of this week. Let's hope the new year brings more momentum for the thread.

For my own questions above relating to LEED, I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts or ideas. While it might be a stretch to call LEED a metanarrative, I do see it as oversimplifying a complex system when it comes to building sustainability. That's probably why it is so appealing.

Dec 30, 11 1:01 pm

On the other hand, that Deconstructivism thread is pretty intersesting.

Dec 30, 11 1:04 pm

 Can architecture simply stop using the word "theory?"

Why not call it rationale, postulation, codification or even philosophy?

Because once a theoretical building gets built, the theory is really never tested. Conjecture leads to finding antecedents and conjecture about success or purpose leads to formalization.

Once a theory is tested multiple times, presentiment becomes dogma that begets scheme and method.

Too long; don't reply— architectural theory rarely becomes architectural fact and the "theory," itself, is so convoluted that there rarely is a unified hypothesis in any of it; lending itself to a needing a small library of books, there is no experiment, no model and no real methodology.

Perhaps a better term would be "architectural philosophy" or, even, "architectural persuasion."

Dec 31, 11 1:28 pm

Why not call it rationale, postulation, codification or even philosophy?

because 'theory' is shorter, simpler, and more to-the-point than 'rationale, postulation, codification, (and) philosophy'.

the·o·ry  [thee-uh-ree, theer-ee]
noun, plural the·o·ries.

1. a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity. Synonyms: principle, law, doctrine.

2. a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact. Synonyms: idea, notion hypothesis, postulate. Antonyms: practice, verification, corroboration, substantiation.

3. Mathematics . a body of principles, theorems, or the like, belonging to one subject: number theory.

4. the branch of a science or art that deals with its principles or methods, as distinguished from its practice: music theory.

5. a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it; a system of rules or principles: conflicting theories of how children best learn to read.


architectural theory ~ we're talking 'bout definition numbers 4 and 5, not so much 1 and 2

Dec 31, 11 3:59 pm

donna hilarious love this "Paul Andreu's National Grand Theater of China, the iconic titanium-and-glass design of which resembles an egg floating on water and is intended to symbolize a cultural island in the middle of a lake while both enclosing and revealing the function of the structure within public/private space. Completed in 2007, the theater stands as proof that the phenomenology of Norberg-Schulz, despite the waning of interest in recent times toward the conceptual framework he pioneered, remains a vital and culturally relevant school of thought in architecture today."

Jan 9, 12 10:19 am

Throw in the word 'archiTECTONIC' about a dozen times (capitalization and everything), and some more big words used [incorrectly] and I swear they took that from a former professor's syllabus. No joke, the professor finished reading the syllabus and he asked the studio, "So what should we do for the rest of the day?" and one student replied, "Probably go over this again with a dictionary." The professor visibly smiled as if to say, "my job here is done. Brains have exploded."

Jan 9, 12 6:50 pm

polymathic just dropped a Heidegger bomb on Guy Horton's CONTOURS feature, "The Divisions that Bind Us."

Jan 23, 12 7:34 pm

i don't know if this anything to do with this thread but tonight i have been continuously listening to one of my favorite recordings of all times and it reminded me this thread for whatever the reason. 

Jan 25, 12 12:27 am

Is there a growing resentment against LEED in academia?

Apr 6, 12 3:47 am

not sure about exclusively in academia, i think many designers (i know and speak with) appreciate the need to design more environmentally sensitive projects but dislike the design by numbers approach and think that LEED point system could certainly use tweaking

Apr 8, 12 10:43 pm

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