WHAT HAPPENED TO THEORY?
THIS ISSUE OF Architecture Australia includes interviews with three of architecture’s most significant theorists – Kenneth Frampton, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley. Although very different in their concerns and approaches, each speaks in some way about their work in relation to architecture more broadly – its effects both intended and unintended. Kenneth Frampton reflects on the fate of his formulation of critical regionalism, and how this might relate to his subsequent work on tectonics and the “poetics of construction”. For him, these are part of his ongoing search for ways for the architect to resist image and spectacle. In contrast, Beatriz Colomina sees image and spectacle – media – as an integral part of architecture. In her understanding, the media is a place of great architectural opportunity. She speaks also about how her ideas, based in the archive, have taken on a life of their own in the hands of other architects and artists. Mark Wigley positions the architect as an intellectual, as someone who thinks through and with buildings, and this enables him to consider the role of the architecture school in the future of the profession.
The conjunction of these three different approaches in the pages of this magazine is due to serendipity, not design – all three visited Sydney recently and generously made time to speak to our interviewers (three strong thinkers in their own right). Nonetheless, the interviews are tied together by the thread of “theory”.
For each of our interviewees “theory” is an intrinsic part of architectural enterprise, rather than an intellectual import.
So, what has happened to architectural theory? After the heady “theory dazzle” days of the eighties and nineties, architecture seems in the midst of a backlash. Indeed, I recently heard one of Australia’s more prominent educators and critics claim that he now tells students not to read theory, to just make things. But surely that is to miss the point. “Theory” is not something that is applied to architecture (or not) at a whim, and it is not just something to justify or generate unusual forms. Ideas are much more fundamental. They help us understand where we find ourselves and think about how to proceed. They help us make things and, simultaneously, making helps us to think in new ways.
One of the discipline’s weaknesses is its propensity to pick “theories” up enthusiastically but drop them just as quickly. In recent decades we have had semiotics, deconstruction, feminism, rhizome theory and so on. Each has had an effect, but each has also generally been dropped before having a fuller impact on how the profession thinks its way through architecture, and thereby the world. It is this “plastering” of theory onto architecture that is now being resisted. However, we must ensure that this does not turn into the banality of anti-intellectualism.
Instead such bodies of work should be put to use to help us continue to think architecturally, to reinvent the profession, and to engage socially and culturally – as each of our interviewees does. Likewise, there are many ideas to be found within the discipline, ideas that might be redeployed and reworked. Architecture’s archives brim with material which might help us understand our contemporary situation and how to manoeuvre within it, as Colomina has demonstrated.
And, as Wigley points out, the architect’s particular skill is how to think through and with buildings. While Wigley, Colomina and Frampton might have different ideas about how the architect should proceed, they each take the discipline, its ideas and its ability to effect change seriously. Each invites us to think architecturally.