Architectural theory  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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, 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. 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.


In the Middle Ages, 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.


The Age of the Enlightenment witnessed considerable development in architectural theory on the European continent. New archeological discoveries (such as those of Pompeii and Herculaneum) drove new interest in Classical art and architecture. Thus the term Neoclassicism (exemplified by the writings of Prussian art critic Johann Joachim Winkelmann) arose to designate 18th-century architecture which looked to these new Classical precedents for inspiration in building design.

Major architectural theorists of the Enlightenment include Julien-David Leroy, Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Robert Adam, James Stuart, and Nicholas Revett.

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.

The American sculptor Horatio Greenough published the essay American Architecture in August 1843 in which he rejected the imitation of old styles of buildings and outlined the functional relationship between architecture and decoration. These theories anticipated the development of Functionalism in modern architecture.

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. In this essay, Sullivan penned his famous adage "form forever follows function"; a phrase that was to be later adopted as a central tenet of Modernist architectural theory. While later architects adopted the abbreviated phrase "form follows function" as a polemic in service of functionalist doctrine, Sullivan wrote of function with regard to biological functions of the natural order. 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, 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 the slogan "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.

In the past decade, there has been a resurgence of the old "organic design" theories, but in a much more scientific setting. Several currents and design methodologies are being developed simultaneously, and some of these reinforce whereas others contrast with each other. One of these trends is Biomimicry, which is the explicit copying of forms and structures found in biological organisms for buildings. Architects design organic-looking buildings in the belief that by copying nature, Organic architecture reaches a more attractive form. Another trend is the exploration of computational techniques, which are strongly influenced by algorithms relevant to biological processes. Trying to utilize Computational creativity in architecture, Genetic algorithms developed in computer science are applied to evolve designs on a computer, and some of these are proposed and built as actual structures. There exists, however, a controversy as to whether all such evolved designs through Design computing are truly appropriate for buildings, or are merely attractive forms that may be too complex for habitation. The new discipline of Biophilia developed by E. O. Wilson suggests the advantages of forms inspired by biological structures, but in a more profound way than simple mimicry. Wilson's original idea is extended by Stephen R. Kellert in the Biophilia hypothesis, and applied to architectural design in the book "Biophilic Design". Mathematical features of biological forms such as fractals, Scale-invariance, very sophisticated notions of symmetry, Self-similarity, and complex Hierarchy are proposed as essential tools for designing architectural forms. Trying to understand the complex interaction between humans and their environment gained from Human-computer interaction, Mobile robotics, and Artificial intelligence leads to ideas in Intelligence-Based Design. We are witnessing a growth of new ideas that are generating an entirely new type of architectural theory. It bears little resemblance to the dominant school of architectural theory based on linguistic analysis, philosophy, post-structuralism, or cultural theory.

Some architectural theorists





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