Theory of architecture is most often taught through the study of canonical writings about buildings. But it really helps to understand of how buildings carry meaning before discussing the kinds of meaning buildings have been tasked with carrying over the history of architecture! The primary goal of this seminar is to examine how buildings frame experience, which is the main means by which buildings carry meaning. Engaging this issue early on helps you more deeply investigate how your own designs operate.
In this course we will examine a series of recent buildings. The second goal of the class is to introduce you to the pressing issues that define architecture today. Most of these buildings are urban, so you will also be able to get a better sense of how architects, working even on single buildings, can effect reconsideration of the urban world. Many of these buildings also engage the pressing, unresolved question of how sustainability will redirect architectural thinking.
Central to the course is the proposition that a building is a justified negotiation — primarily with the client or inhabitant — about how form can best structure meaningfulness with regard to the specific problem that architecture can resolve (since it cannot resolve all problems). Many people think that a building is primarily about an architect’s autobiography — whatever an architect wants to do! — rather than the specific circumstances that make buildings possible at all. But buildings are expensive things, rarely made just because the architect wanted it that way.
So in this class we are less interested in the architect’s words (which often disguise what an architect is actually doing) than in the world of experience that a building organizes for its inhabitants, since that is what an architect has to justify. An architect may well have a strong opinion, but this will take its most critical form in the building itself, rather than the architect’s verbal justifications.
In this scenario theory is not something applied to a building. Here theory is what you form when you attempt to cohesively order the sensate condition of dwelling within that building: you struggle to explain why, and, in so doing, posit a framework of meaningfulness, a theory. Your intelligence seeks to give order to the knowledge of experience, and that giving some understandable order is the main kind of theory we will be discussing. This is theory as the consequence of a verb: to theorize.
This course is undertaken entirely by case study, one building per class. Prior to our discussion you (working with other students) will be tasked with imagining yourself dwelling in the buildings to the extent you can through available documentation. We will the talk about what it's like to live in that building, focusing on what is challenging to conventional norms. Through group and seminar discussion — in a form actually resembling synthetic detective work — the class will attempt to reconstruct each building's conceptual underpinnings. We will then briefly compare our discoveries with writings about the building in order to map out internally and externally developed theoretical models.
The format is loose and free-flowing, and the discussions are wide-ranging, exploratory, and challenging. The past four decades in architecture differ from the prior full century in that the recent past has not been ruled by the sorts of dogmatic theories and movements that to a great degree defined the Modern era. There is no common agreement about where recent architecture has gone. That does not mean the architecture of the recent past does not have consistency — of course it does, just look at it! — but this consistency does not stem from any single agreed upon agenda. What we will ultimately be studying are different arguments about meaningfulness today.