Architectural theory

Architectural theory

Architectural theory is the act of thinking, discussing, or most importantly writing about architecture. Architectural theory is taught in most architecture schools and is practiced by the world's leading architects. Some forms that architecture theory takes are the lecture or dialogue, the treatise or book, and the paper project or competition entry. Architectural theory is often didactic, and theorists tend to stay close to or work from within schools. It has existed in some form since antiquity, and as publishing became more common, architectural theory gained an increased richness. Books, magazines, and journals published an unprecedented amount of works by architects and critics in the twentieth century. As a result, styles and movements formed and dissolved much more quickly than the relatively enduring modes in earlier history. It is to be expected that the use of the internet will further the discourse on architecture in the twenty first century.



There is little information or evidence about major architectural theory in antiquity, until the first century BCE, with the work of Vitruvius. This does not mean, however, that such works didn't exist. Many works never survived antiquity, and the burning of the Alexandria Library shows us a very good example of this.

Vitruvius was a Roman writer, architect and engineer, active in the 1st century BCE. He was the most prominent architectural theorist in the Roman Empire known today, having written "De architectura", known today as "The Ten Books of Architecture", a treatise written of Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. It is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity. Probably written between 27 and 23 BCE, [Kruft, p.447.] it is the only contemporary source on classical architecture to have survived. Divided into ten sections or "books", it covers almost every aspect of Roman architecture, from town planning, materials, decorations, temples, water supplies, etc. The famous orders of architecture that we can see in every classical architecture are rigorously defined in the books. It also gathers three fundamental laws that Architecture must obey, in order to be so considered: "firmitas, utilitas, venustas": firmness, commodity (in the sense of functionality), and delight. The rediscovery of Vitruvius' work had a profound influence on architects of the Renaissance, prompting the rise of the Renaissance style. Renaissance architects, such as Niccoli, Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, found in "De Architectura" their rationale for raising their branch of knowledge to a scientific discipline.

Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, architectural knowledge was passed by transcription, word of mouth and technically in master builders' lodges. [Evers, Thoenes, et al, p.13.] Due to the laborious nature of transcription, few examples of architectural theory were penned in this time period. Most works that from this period were theological, and were transcriptions of the bible, so the architectural theories were the notes on structures included therein. The Abbot Suger's "Liber de rebus in administratione sua gestis", was an architectural document that emerged with gothic architecture. Another was Villard de Honnecourt's portfolio of drawings from about the 1230s.

In Song Dynasty China, Li Jie published the "Yingzao Fashi" in 1103, which was an architectural treatise that codified elements of Chinese architecture. [Liang Ssu-ch'eng. "A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture: a Study of the Development of its Structural System and the Evolution of its Types". MIT press, 1984. ISBN 0262121034] [NancyShatzman Steinhardt ed. "Chinese Architecture". Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0300095597]


In the Middle Ages, Vitruvian tradition survived among many manuscripts, but in practice, it had little relevance. With the Humanist acquaintance with the classical work, it suddenly became a norm in architecture. This marked a deep discontinuity within the European tradition, medieval architecture was eventually seen as something obsolete and barbaric and thus received the pejorative title of gothic architecture.

The first great work of architectural theory of this period belongs to Leon Battista Alberti, "De Re Aedificatoria", which placed Vitruvius at the core of the most profound theoretical tradition of the modern ages. From Alberti, good architecture is validated through the Vitruvian triad, which defines its purpose. This triplet conserved all its validity until the nineteenth century.


Nineteenth century

A vibrant strain of Neoclassicism, inherited from Marc-Antoine Laugier's seminal Essai, provided the foundation for two generations of international activity around the core themes of classicism, primitivism and a "return to Nature."

Reaction against the dominance of neo-classical architecture came to the fore in the 1820s with Augustus Pugin providing a moral and theoretical basis for Gothic Revival architecture, and in the 1840s John Ruskin developed this ethos.

Towards the end of the century, there occurred a blossoming of theoretical activity. In England, Ruskin's ideals underpinned the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement exemplified by the writings of William Morris. This in turn formed the basis for Art Nouveau in the UK, exemplified by the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and influenced the Vienna Secession. On the Continent, the theories of Viollet-le-Duc and Gottfried Semper provided the springboard for enormous vitality of thought dedicated to architectural innovation and the renovation of the notion of style. Semper in particular developed an international following, in Germany, England, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, France, Italy and the United States. The generation born during the middle-third of the nineteenth century was largely enthralled with the opportunities presented by Semper's combination of a breathtaking historical scope and a methodological granularity. In contrast to more recent, and thus "modern", thematically self-organized theoretical activities, this generation did not coalesce into a "movement." They did, however, seem to converge on Semper's use of the concept of "Realismus", and they are thus labelled proponents of architectural realism. Among the most active Architectural Realists were: Georg Heuser, Rudolf Redtenbacher, Constantin Lipsius, Hans Auer, Paul Sédille, Lawrence Harvey, Otto Wagner and Richard Streiter.

Twentieth century

Around the turn of the twentieth century Camillo Sitte published the "City Planning According to Artistic Principles" which was not exactly a criticism of architectural form, but more precisely an aesthetic criticism of the nineteenth century's urbanism. Mainly an urban planning theory book, it has a deep influence in architecture, as the two disciplines are deeply intertwined. It was also highly successful in its time. Between 1889 and 1922 it is edited five times, French translation came in 1902 and the English translation in 1945, in New York. For Sitte, the most important is not the architectural shape or form of each building, but the inherent creative quality of urban space, the whole as much more than the sum of its parts. Modernist movements rejected these thoughts and Le Corbusier energetically dismissed the work. Nevertheless, his work is often used and cited as a criticism to the Modernist movement, and reemerged its importance in the post-modernist movement, late in the sixties. Also on the topic of artistic notions with regard to urbanism was Louis Sullivan's "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" of 1896. [Louis H. Sullivan. "Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings." Courier Dover Publications, 1979. Page 202. ISBN 0486238121] Another influential planning theorist of this time was Ebenezer Howard, who founded the garden city movement. This movement formed communities with architecture in the Arts and Crafts style at Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City and popularised the style as domestic architecture.

In Vienna, modernism had many theorists and proponents. An early use of the term "modern architecture" in print, was in the title of a book by Otto Wagner, [Otto Wagner. [ "Moderne Architektur: Seinen Schülern ein Führer auf diesem Kunstgebiete."] Anton Schroll. 1902.] [Otto Wagner. Translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave. "Modern Architecture: A Guidebook for His Students to This Field of Art." Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. 1988. ISBN 0226869385] who gave examples of his own work representative of the Vienna Secession with art nouveau illustrations, and didactic teachings to his students. Soon thereafter, Adolf Loos wrote "Ornament and Crime", and while his own style can be seen as part of the transition to Art Deco, his demand for "the elimination of ornament" joined "form follows function" as a principle of the modern architecture movement which came to dominate the 20th Century. Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier provided the theoretical basis for the international style with aims of using industrialised architecture to reshape society. Frank Lloyd Wright, while modernist in rejecting historic revivalism, was idiosyncratic in his theory, which he conveyed in copious writing. Wright did not subscribe to the tenets of the International Style, but evolved what he hoped would be an American, in contrast to a European, progressive course. Wright's style, however, was highly personal, involving his private views of man and nature. He created no major "school" or theoretical movement. Wright was more poetic and firmly maintained the nineteenth century view of the creative artist as unique genius. This limited the relevance of his theoretical propositions. Towards the end of the century postmodern architecture reacted against the austerity of High Modern (International Style) principles, viewed as narrowly normative and doctrinaire.


In contemporary architectural discourse theory has become more concerned with its position within culture generally, which is why university courses on architecture theory may often spend just as much time discussing philosophy and cultural studies as buildings. The notion that theory also entailed critique stemmed from post-structural literary studies. This, however, pushed architecture towards the notion of avant-gardism for its own sake - in many ways repeating the 19th century 'art for art's sake' outlook. Since 2000 this has materialised in architecture through concerns with the rapid rise of urbanism and globalization, but also a pragmatic understanding that the city can no longer be a homogenous totality. Interests in fragmentation and architecture as transient objects further such thinking (e.g. the concern for employing high technology). And yet this can also be tied into general concerns such as ecology, mass media, and economism.

ome architectural theorists

*Andrea Palladio
*Sebastiano Serlio
*John Ruskin
*Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
*Karl Friedrich Schinkel
*Gottfried Semper
*Hans Auer
*Paul Sédille
*Constantin Lipsius
*Richard Streiter
*Hermann MuthesiusModern
*Otto Wagner
*Le Corbusier
*Adolf Loos
*Raymond Unwin
*William Pereira
*Ebenezer Howard
*Christian Norberg-Schulz

*Charles Jencks
*Aldo Rossi
*Demetri Porphyrios
*Peter Eisenman
*Robert VenturiContemporary
*Kenneth Frampton
*Christopher Alexander
*Stan Allen
*Jeff Kipnis
*Rem Koolhaas
*Leon Krier
*Daniel Libeskind
*Juhani Pallasmaa
*Colin Rowe
*Nikos Salingaros
*Robert Somol
*Bernard Tschumi
*Anthony Vidler
*Mark Wigley

Bloggers [ Progressive Reactionary]



*Reyner Banham. "Theory and Design in the First Machine Age". Praeger Publishers, 1960. ISBN 0262520583
*Bernd Evers, Christoph Thoenes, et al. "Architectural Theory from the Renaissance to the Present". Taschen, 2003. ISBN 382281699X
*K. Michael Hays. "Architecture Theory since 1968". Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. ISBN 0262581884
*Hanno-Walter Kruft. "A history of architectural theory: from Vitruvius to the present". Princeton Architectural Press, 1994. ISBN 1568980108
*Harry F. Mallgrave, "Modern Architectural Theory: A Historical Survey, 1673-1969". Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0521793068
*Kate Nesbitt. "Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory". Princeton Architectural Press, 1996. ISBN 156898054X
*Joan Ockman, Edward Eigen. "Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology". Rizzoli, 1993. ISBN 0847815110
*Manfredo Tafuri, translated by Giorgio Verrecchia. "Theories and History of Architecture". Harper & Row, 1968. ISBN 0064385809
*Vitruvius, Translation: Morris Hicky Morgan (1960). "The Ten Books On Architecture". Dover Publications.

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