History/Theory - Richard Anderson - Possible Conjunctions

Possible Conjunctions

Richard Anderson

October 2017

It is, by now, commonplace to refer to the practices of reading, writing, and thinking about architectural production as the “history and theory of architecture.” Now a fundamental part of the discipline, this phrase is accepted—even taken for granted. It can refer to subjects offered to architecture students as part of their professional training, such as courses with titles like “Architectural History 1,” or “The History of Architectural Theory.” It might also refer to a more focussed understanding of disciplinarity—to the discourses that take architecture as their object. So much (and more) can be said for the history and theory of architecture. But the articulation of history and theory becomes more complicated when we consider other possible conjunctions: history or theory; history of theory; perhaps even history as theory.

Let us begin with “and.” The “History and Theory of Architecture” finds itself attached to the names of institutes, as the title of program of study (MA, MSc, PhD, etc.), and as a sub-discipline within larger units of contemporary universities. The linkage of history and theory delimits a field of knowledge proper to architecture. It points to architecture’s multiplicity—to the fact that one needs to grapple with both its history and its theory to make any sense of it. The field is thus defined against disciplines that, to the uninitiated, might appear less complex. Chief among these is art history (which usually appears without mention of theory), whose programs typically teach about architecture. Larger departments of art history might even offer surveys devoted entirely to the history of architecture. This poses problems for the “history and theory of architecture,” insofar as it looks like an external discipline laying claim to what might be thought of as properly architectural knowledge. One can find reports of how an older generation of architectural scholars “fought the art historians” in the process of legitimizing the history and theory of architecture as a discipline.1 Perhaps this was the case in the 1960s and 70s, as architecture history and theory institutes and programs were established in North America and Western Europe. Yet to someone like myself who works within the field yet was not trained in it, such distinctions appear less urgent today. This is in part because the discipline has, indeed, been legitimized. The number of PhDs completed each year in the history and theory of architecture demonstrates this. But this may also be due to the fact that art history and art historians have changed: since the 1960s and 70s, art history has learned to grapple with a range of issues (space, process, critical theory, etc.) that have immediate relevance to the study of the history and theory of architecture. Rather than diverging, the respective interests, aims, and objectives of art historians and historians and theorists of architecture seem to increasingly converge.

Nevertheless, when someone says they work on the history and theory of architecture, it is not always true. At times it seems like there is a disciplinary mechanism at work, one that sorts people according to whether they do history or theory. This sorting occurs at many levels and can mean many different things; it takes place in the classroom and the design studio, as well as at conferences and through networks of publications. My home institution is a case in point: we are one of the few Universities in the world to offer a four-year undergraduate degree in architectural history. And while each of these students studies architectural theory, they do it from an historical perspective. Their engagement with Vitruvius, Palladio, Semper, Venturi, Koolhaas, and others is focused on the diachronic axis—as an unfolding series of propositions and responses about the proper practice of architecture. The students read the scholarly translations of Perrault, Durand, and Le Corbusier; they look at Palladio in the original and peruse Harry Francis Mallgrave’s volumes devoted to architectural theory. But they approach this intellectual tradition as historical material; they study the history of theory. This will to historicize is writ large in the key disciplinary journals that support this mode of scholarship: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Architectural History, and Architectural Histories, to name but a few. In its most radical version, this mode of scholarship makes an ideal of empiricism and finds legitimacy primarily (perhaps exclusively) in documentary evidence. Archival records, preserved drawings, ministerial reports, old publications, house inventories, and other forms of evidence can serve, often with great persuasive power, to illuminate buildings and spaces of the past. The direction of travel is from evidence to relationships, ensuring a verifiable chain of documentary custody. But problems arise when the evidentiary corpus systematically masks power relations, or when historians become too closely entangled with the language, discourse, and categories of their objects of study. At the extreme, one find instances where the object (i.e. the evidence) seems to overpower the subject (i.e. the architectural historian). This can result in a production of “research” without a point of view; in the organization of data rather than the production of knowledge; in the compilation of catalogues, not histories.

A complementary and distinct mode of scholarship engages primarily with the theoretical aspects of architectural production. In its most banal form, this approach appears in the course that our architectural design students take: “Architectural Theory.” While it shares many texts with our course on the history of theory, it has a fundamentally different orientation. Rather than seeking to understand the development of architectural theory, it suggests new ways of thinking about key architectural problems. Its perspective is directed at the present, with an aim toward the production of new knowledge and potentially new action. In this realm, where the classroom and the design studio are closely aligned, architectural theory can become a powerful tool for postulating new relationships between buildings and their respective publics. That is to say, there are moments when architectural theory serves as an instrumental form of knowledge—one laden with metaphors and relationships that bespeak and enable particular design sensibilities and modes of spatial imagination. Think, for example, of the productivity of the Deleuzian concept of “the fold” for a certain generation of architects.2

At a critical distance to such an instrumental approach of architectural theory sits an alternate position that draws on a wide range of theoretical constructs to explore the semi-autonomy of architecture. Here theory operates as a “practice of mediation,” in K. Michael Hays’s terminology. Accordingly, theory establishes relationships between architecture as a semi-autonomous discipline and the social ground or context in which it stands. Challenging both the possibility of an unmediated comprehension of architectural form and vulgar instrumentality, this position, in Hays’ words, “aims to show how architecture enables certain ways of thinking that are irreducible to other modes of thought.”3 This school of thought reinforces the irreducibility of the discipline by nominalizing an adjective: this is architecture theory, not architectural theory. Architecture theory expands the scope and force of architectural discourse. It discloses relationships between categories of thought and practice that might have once appeared disparate: linguistics and architecture; deconstruction and architecture; psychoanalysis and architecture; and so forth. But the search for architecture’s disciplinarity presupposed by architecture theory is not without risk, for disciplines and institutions are often closely linked. When viewed as an institution, architecture theory’s probing of autonomy can appear as a bounded, disciplinary closure. What is more, the institution of architecture theory, as it has come down to us, can appear quite limited in its geographical and discursive range, referring almost entirely as it does to architecture from the US and Western Europe and acting from within a dense network of institutions located in small parts of these territories. Architecture and architectural thought are surely broader and more diverse than the institution of architecture theory. We might need different tools and alternate approaches in order to make sense of this.

Many would object to the and/or scenario of the history/theory of architecture I have just sketched out. The ways architectural historians approach their subject has been enriched by robust theoretical engagement. Likewise, most theorists work with a self-conscious understanding of the historicity of thought. The task of history for today is neither the defence of properly architectural territories, nor is it to process the backlog of empirical evidence. At the same time, the conditions and preoccupations that made architecture theory such a productive discourse may no longer hold. Instead, the discourse of theory and its subjects are now becoming the objects of historical scrutiny, which will inevitably be accompanied by a re-evaluation of the efficacy and validity of its propositions. My hypothesis is that the specific discourse of “architecture theory,” in its Anglophone variant at least, will prove to be inextricably linked to, and in part determined by the cultural, political, and economic configurations of the late Cold War. To remain relevant to a younger generation of citizens, scholars, and architecture, the field of the history and/or theory of architecture requires a new sense of scale and a new territory of investigation, both of which demand historical and theoretical consideration. It is no longer possible to speak of architecture in the singular. We know that even within a global framework there are multiple and competing world-making agendas at play. What is more, we are becoming increasingly aware of the tension between the histories and theories of architecture we write and teach to our students and the non-synchronous worlds of architectural production. We are still faced with the project of delivering, in Tafuri’s words, a “historical assessment of the present contradictions.”4 This requires that history and theory be “thought” together so that we can understand how architecture has been, and might be thought otherwise. Maybe this adds up to history as theory; or possibly theory as history. Which exactly is up for debate.


Mark Jarzombek, “The Rise of the So-Called Pre-Modern,” in 2000+: The Urgencies of Architectural Theory, ed. James Graham (New York: GSAPP Books, 2015), 135.


See: Folding in Architecture, ed. Greg Lynn, Architectural Design 63 (1993).


K. Michael Hays, “Introduction,” in Architecture Theory since 1968, ed. K. Michael Hays (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998), xii.


Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 2.

History/Theory is a collaboration between the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zürich and e-flux Architecture.

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History/Theory is a collaboration between the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich and e-flux Architecture.

Richard Anderson directs the MSc Architectural History and Theory graduate program at the University of Edinburgh.


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