Theory's Curriculum - Nick Axel, Joseph Bedford, and Nikolaus Hirsch - Editorial


Nick Axel, Joseph Bedford, and Nikolaus Hirsch

Fragment of Cornelis van Haarlem, Antrum Platonicum (Plato's Cave), 1604, engraving. Source: British Museum.

Theory's Curriculum
April 2019

Theory’s Curriculum is a project by e-flux Architecture and Joseph Bedford, featuring the collaborative work of Matthew Allen, Joseph Bedford, Elisa Dainese, Gabriel Fuentes, Joseph Godlewski, Antonio Furgiuele, Jeremy Lecomte, Jake Matatyaou, Ginger Nolan, Bryan Norwood, Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco, and Marrikka Trotter.

Syllabi are theory’s infrastructure. While they are not the same as the essays, lectures, books, case studies, films, and other media organized by them, they can and should be seen as theoretical contributions in their own right, and subjected to the same degree of critical reflection, scrutiny, and innovation. Syllabi set a program for study, give structure to vast networks of ideas, and define an interpretative stance on the world. Focusing attention on syllabi—which texts they include, and how they are organized and framed—offers a window into larger problems facing the field of architectural theory today.

Architectural theory went through an academic renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s, with scholars forging new links with groundbreaking theoretical movements of the time, from feminism and postcolonialism to semiotics, phenomenology, and deconstructivism. New syllabi were formed in architecture curricula that incorporated contemporary discursive practices, positions, and sensibilities. Yet the syllabi for such classes have not developed significantly since then.1 Architectural theory in academic curricula today is often addressed either through a history of theoretical concerns—from mimesis, analogy, beauty, honesty, and utopia to modernity, alienation, authenticity, regionalism, contextualism, autonomy, and postmodernity—a tabulation of theoretical frameworks—from structural linguistics, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology to feminism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism—or a roster of authors—from Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier, Perrault, Boullée, Durand, and Ruskin to Le Corbusier, Loos, Meyer, Jacobs, Alexander, Banham, Venturi, Scott-Brown, Norberg-Schulz, Rowe, Rossi, Tafuri, Eisenman, Jencks, and Koolhaas.

Academic courses that address more urgent contemporary issues and diverse geographies are too often allocated to specialized fields, institutions, or spaces of study, such that they rarely come to challenge the canon of architectural theory’s increasingly standard model. Theory is one of the necessary ingredients for the maintenance of the discipline of architecture as a synthetic manifestation connecting history, criticism, and practice. Therefore, theory must overcome the institutional inertia of pedagogical reproduction, the neoliberalization of intellectual labor, and the disorientation of informational media, and rearticulate its necessary role. At an infrastructural level of knowledge production, theory must attend to the changing nature of cultural communication, globalization and calls for inclusivity within the social space of discourse, and the economic logics driving planetary collapse.

The starting point for any reformulation of architectural theory should be the ways we learn. The conditions of contemporary thought itself have been transformed over the past decades by new media platforms and the emergent practices of surveillance capitalism. The old attentional economy that once sustained reflective and critical thought has been replaced by an economy of distraction. The work of analyzing difficult texts has become alien to digital natives young and old, who are habituated to a culture of instant access, skimming, and the hypnotic rhythm of clicks, taps, and swipes. When video tutorials appear more engaging and specific than the seemingly dated writing styles of even a decade ago, the habits of reading, thinking, and writing common to theory’s past must be re-imagined.

This expanding space of communications has accompanied intensified intercultural exchanges brought about by global economic integration, migration, and the resultant pressing together of different peoples, cultures, and ways of life. Theory’s debt to a Western tradition of philosophical, historical, and critical reason has been brought into question. Architecture’s theoretical discourse needs to respond to the critique of Western-centrism and the calls for its provincialization. It must address the question of opening up to alternative epistemologies and broader methods of discourse production, be they poetic, practical, symbolic, moral, magical, or mythic as much as philosophical or metaphysical. Provincializing Western architectural theory is one way to address the social struggles and conflicts between identity groups that have intensified with the proverbial shrinking of the world. In this vein, theory must reflect on who constructs architecture’s theoretical canon, who speaks as a theorist, who theory speaks about, and who theory addresses as its audience. While embracing the concrete political gains in the social redistribution of power among different genders, races, sexualities, and class backgrounds, theory should also question the role of identity as an operator within discourses, institutions, and national politics, and critically reflect on both its essentializations and constructed nature.

The globalization of culture is, for better or worse, supported by global, transnational, and neoliberal economic practices and their consequent forms of ecological destruction. As much as the global can provincialize theory, the global can also further focus theory upon the new ethico-political demand created by the explicit awareness of technological convergence and impending planetary collapse. With the recent granting of a new geological epoch to our species, we have passed a threshold of irreversible awareness that modern dreams of progress, infinite economic growth, and unlimited consumerist self-expression produce the counter-effects that turn dreams into nightmares. Yet while causes remain global, their effects are often local and asymmetrical, demanding that we theorize both a new hermeneutics of our technological being and a new ethics and politics of the earth.

In challenging architectural theory, these historical factors hold the capacity to reenergize and rethink its relationship to its traditional concerns, frameworks, authors, organizations, and geographies that shape its curricula. They might even force the most basic of existential questions for architectural theory itself: what is it for, today? At its very minimum, we can understand theory to be an instrument for socializing architects into a shared vocabulary and tradition, both within and outside of the discipline, as well as a means for providing a forum for ideological debate between the many conflicting practices that compose the field of architecture. But should architectural theory seek to renew the projective avant-garde project which it was understood to be a couple of decades ago, one capable of challenging and reorienting studio culture and professional practice more widely? Or should it keep a critical distance from design, and instead focus its lens upon the formation of the subjectivity, critical consciousness, ethical comportment, and civic duty of the architect themselves?

Theory’s Curriculum is an extra-academic initiative that seeks to provide theory with a means to challenge its existing methods of pedagogical reproduction. It seeks to build a collaborative project that brings together isolated laborers to pool ideas and methods across dispersed institutions and geographies, to compare inherited models, to detect received assumptions, and to ask fundamental questions about what and how we should teach and learn when we teach and learn architectural theory.

Collaboration is inevitably a heuristic fiction, promising what is often difficult to sustain against the dominant structures of modern individuation, today’s entrepreneurialization of the self, and the semiotic capital of discourse. It inevitably cuts across the values of wage-labor and attribution, and blurs the boundaries between professional roles, friendship, and community spirit. Yet, as McKenzie Wark has argued, the conditions of intellectual laboring in the academy today necessitate that we adopt a more realist approach to theorizing as the cumulative task of many smaller efforts, rather than the great leaps forward once marked by grand philosophical systems or public intellectuals.2 With these syllabi, Theory’s Curriculum seeks to reconceptualize intellectual work as the function of a general intellect, an ecology of contributions on particular themes and ideas that, when exchanged and debated, evolve as a collective project.

These syllabi aim to indicate potential avenues for progress, and in so doing prompt a debate. They are far from exhaustive, yet are free to be used, recycled, hacked, and plundered. They are offered in the spirit of further collaboration, and with the hope that they will invite others to join this nascent enterprise in the rearticulation and teaching of architectural theory today. Ultimately, they suggest that pedagogy is not secondary to theory, but that rethinking how we teach and learn theory might be central to how we theorize anew.


Instead, those same models have propagated, following the production of a spate of anthologies during the 1990s that compiled the texts assumed necessary to teach them. Sylvia Lavin, “Theory into History; Or, the Will to Anthology.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58, no. 3 (September 1999): 494–499.


McKenzie Wark, “Introduction,” in General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Verso, 2017), 1–15. As Norman Contor argued in the late 1990s, Derrida and Foucault must be seen as the products of unique contexts of an elitist educational system, mixed with the freedoms given to those at its apex, and the demand French culture placed upon the production of philosophical thought. See Norman F. Cantor, The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times (Harper Collins, 1997), 449.

Theory's Curriculum, a project by e-flux Architecture and Joseph Bedford, is produced with the support of the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative; Virginia Tech Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and School of Architecture + Design; School of Architecture, Syracuse University; John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto; Department of Architecture, Wentworth Institute of Technology; and Department of Architecture, Iowa State University College of Design. Special support for the project in its initiation, fundraising, and guidance was provided by Joseph Godlewski.

Architecture, Globalization, Technology
Knowledge Production, Academia
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