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Taking A Position

An expert from “Taking A Position”, from the blog of Lebbeus Woods.

Architects are not born theorists, that is true. Most of the world’s best architects never wrote a line about their work, let alone proposed a theory–they didn’t have to. There were busy critics and professors who followed their works with great attention. Innovative architects were lucky to have their Mumfords, Gideons, and Tafuris, and, more rarely, their Foucaults, Deleuzes and Derridas. The theories that the theoreticians spun around their works enabled a wide discourse to develop, elevating architecture to a form of knowledge, lifting it out of the venal chatter of the marketplace. Sadly, those critics and professors have died, leaving a conceptual—and critical—void.

Many of us pored over theory books in school and attempted to extract every sliver of meaning that we could and integrate it into our studio projects, whether successfully or not. Having graduated from school and growing into a ‘professional’ environment, the struggle I find is finding the space for theory in practice. Managing a project means accommodating the needs of the clients, the funders, the contractors, the engineers, the users, the dept. of buildings, the dept. of education, etc. The list goes on and on.

Theory is most certainly at the end of that list. But how can we find the space for theory? Who will pay for it? Many probably would criticize Woods’ position as one of privilege and ignorance (his work is mainly theoretical and unbuilt) to the realities of the pursuit of building architecture. Who is right? Architecture does not exist within a vacuum, there are rules to abide by and parties to appease. Does this remove the purity and the joy from the work?

As with any creative process that exists within the world of commerce, there is the perception of the commercial destroying the purity of the work. However, as Woods notes, the great architects are the ones who recognize their position, navigate the commercial and ultimately build what they desire to build. Ultimately, we as architects have the power to mandate theory as an integral component of practice.

For those who say that theory is lost, it is not due to the lack of the vocal critics applauding the intricacies and influence of the work. Theory is lost by the architects who believe they are merely building buildings and not constructing ideas. I applaud all those who struggle to pursue the latter.

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If you have thoughts of how this relates to your profession, please comment and begin a dialogue.

image: AIGA design archives

1 Response to “Taking A Position”

  1. If you don’t want “rules to abide by and parties to appease” you should call yourself an artist. All designers (incl. architects) create within the framework of real world pressures: cost, function, regulation, aesthetics, environmental impact & marketability. This is what I find most satisfying about being a (lighting) designer.

    I do fully agree that we as designers need to carve out time for R&D be it in theory & criticism, technologies, public outreach or process. This needs to be integral to our practice just as manufacturers are always working to improve & innovate their products.