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Architecture’s existential crisis pt 2: The foundations of architecture

In part 1, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society. In this part, I will talk a bit about the categories of architectural theories and styles, and how we can unify these.

Why theories and styles are inappropriate

Goals and foundation are equally important to a functioning profession. However, although we have plenty of candidates for goals as offered by theories over the years, we only have a few candidates for architecture’s foundation. As of now, we seem to mainly compete over architectural theories and architectural styles. These become our two initial foundational candidates.

An architectural style describes the physical characteristics of an era. This may be as specific as pointed arches in Gothic architecture, or as vague as chaotic forms in Deconstructivist architecture.

An architectural theory is a set of ideas that outline an approach towards architecture. These ideas are non-arbitrary, which may be implemented in one or more architectural styles. For example, modernism’s “form follows function” is a theoretical approach towards architecture, and one stylistic implementation is by removing ornamentation from a building.

Creating this distinction between style and theory is important as it reveals that styles are insignificant. They are merely a single manifestation of an idea that people copied. They are fleeting, superficial, and aesthetically subjective–but more importantly, they represent a lack of understanding of the discipline behind a building (This has been identified in the second group of the architectural schism.). These are not hallmarks of a good foundation to base the architectural profession upon.

In contrast, an architectural theory is normally based on the religious, political, social, technological and ethical ideas of the time. This encompasses more aspects of our total experience of the world and thus makes it a better candidate for an architectural foundation.

Theories have been described as that which identifies the practices, production and related challenges of architecture. They re-evaluate architecture’s intentions and relevance\cite{newagenda_. Although it shares the same intentions as a foundation, the fact remains that theories die and have a short-lived existence compared to architecture’s full lifespan.

If theories and styles are both inappropriate, a third route is to consider that theories are simply strategies executed underneath a global and timeless architectural framework. The theory is not the foundation of architecture, but an instance which tackles the issues that the framework proposes. This is in the same way that a style is an instance which tackles the issues that a theory proposes. Identifying this global and timeless architectural framework, and in turn, foundation, is the first step to resolving architecture’s crisis.

Characteristics of a framework

A framework is a basic structure underlying a system or concept. Rather than attempt to elaborate on this phrase, I will instead immediately present an architectural framework:

[in Architecture, an operative art] the end must direct the operation. The end is to build well.

Well [an ideal] building hath three conditions: firmness [sturdy], commodity [useful], and delight [beautiful].


For a quote which has survived more than 2000 years, it seems to remain relevant and encompasses all architectural theories. No matter how different each theory is, each theory first prioritises these three elements, and then prescribes a strategy to showcase their prioritisation. For example, Gothic architecture may be seen as prioritising firmness and delight, or Modernism may prioritise firmness (technology) and commodity. Some believe all are equal (Vitruvius), but all theories form a stance in relation to these three.

We also notice that the framework’s elements are neither prescriptive, proscriptive, affirmative or critical of anything. It is a listing of attributes which must be considered for a building, but offers no more guidance. It is a description, not an arguing point.

These elements are also agnostic. They do not rely on a culture, religion or belief. All physical forms have an element of structure (firmness). All living beings all have an intent (commodity). And when living beings are put together with structure, we give an aesthetic judgement (delight). This characteristic has given it a timeless nature.

These three characteristics (encompassing, descriptive, and agnostic) upheld by three elements (firmness, commodity, and delight) form an unquestionable architectural framework. Architects are now free to juggle different theories as strategies governed by the framework, but must consider all elements of the framework. They are also still free to implement a theory as an architectural style. Each style considers a theory, and each theory considers the framework.

A new hierarchy of Framework > Theory > Style shifts the focus of architecture away from the details of theories towards a set of commonalities. This allows us to treat theories as just another item in our toolkit towards solving bigger problems. It’s no longer about getting caught up in the details and their changing natures, it’s about selecting the right tool for the job.

This means that theories can be marketed as what they truly are: an approach towards a defined society, not a law unto itself. This helps prevent arguments about details and encourages speculation over the elements in the architectural framework as a root for theoretical strategies.

A resulting increased emphasis on society as a specific audience per theory allows us to be more aware of society’s needs. This allows us to tackle multiple types of societies simultaneously with each theoretical solution tailored towards their interests. This satisfies the professional requirement of working for the benefit of society.

Because of the framework’s characteristics, it may always be applied in all situations at all times without prescribing goals–a simple, agreeable outline that has always affected what we had done in the past, without restricting what we do in the future.

In part 3, I will explain how this architectural framework is incomplete without a compass to guide its application, and introduce the question of architectural ethics.

  • [1] Wotton, H, 1651, The elements of architecture (translated from De Architectura, Vitruvius), Thomas Maxey, London, UK

Dion Moult

I've been developing software for well over 10 years, work as an architect (not the computer kind, the regular sort), and am classically trained as a pianist. I try to do the right thing when I get the chance in my field, such as through contributing to open-source communities and promoting sustainable living.

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