A while back (half a year ago), I planned to attempt to solve architecture’s long-lasting “existential crisis”. I thought of creating a framework where people could understand what a theory was and how to generate new ones. The more overarching goal was to look at architectural theories in a positive and constructive light, rather than as points of debate. However in this first part, I just want to highlight the symptoms of the problem.
In architecture’s 8,000 years or more years of existence, it has had about 112 distinct architectural styles (not counting regional differences). Each style represents a theory or a subset of one. More than half of these theories were formed in the past 250 years – a mere 3% of architecture’s lifespan. At this rate you will encounter 10 more architectural theories during your average career. Simply put, architecture has an existential crisis.
But what is an existential crisis? It’s a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value.
An existential crises creates two problems. The first is that we are unable to define goals unanimously as an profession. Without goals, our efforts become divided and ineffective towards serving society.
Uncertainty has spilled over into our schools of architecture. Thirty years ago Christian Norberg-Schulz charged that “the schools have shown themselves incapable of bringing forth architects able to solve the actual tasks.” Things are no different today although we are more likely to meet with challenges to the very notion of “the actual tasks”. Do we know what these tasks are?
– Karsten Harries
The second problem is that we lose a professional foundation. We are unable to be disciplined in our actions, measure standards of success, and focus on the needs of society. These are all professional traits that a foundation provides.
[A profession is] A disciplined group of individuals who adhere to high ethical standards and uphold themselves to, and are accepted by, the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised, organised body of learning derived from education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to exercise this knowledge and these skills in the interest of others.
Inherent in this definition is the concept that the responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the community shall take precedence over other considerations.
– Australian Council of Professions
As a result of undefined goals and non-existent foundation, we get lots of theories vying for the industry’s attention. However, at any one time only a few theories are marketed as relevant, each describing a certain type of society. Not only does this mean we are limited in our ability to serve types of society, but we get a schism in the architectural body into:
- Those who apply theory as a discipline to the relevant group in society with shared interests. ie. part of a profession.
- Those who apply theory as a discipline without understanding which society it was meant for. Exercising knowledge without considering the interests of others is not part of a profession.
- Those who disregard theory and do what they please. This lack of discipline is also not part of a profession.
With architectural fame dominated by theoreticians who build, it is encouraged to critically observe the previous generation’s philosophy and debunk it with your own. This is childish bickering–creating a dog-eat-dog industry where we aggressively defend our individuality and treat it as a good thing.
This lack of discipline and resulting schism is why I propose that either the state of architectural profession is a short-lived movement waiting to be debunked, or we do not have one. Extending this movement into something that is timeless and bound by the definition of a profession is how we can solve the existential crisis.
Some might argue that continuously questioning our approach is a sign of dedication towards relevancy in society and see it as a good thing. This, however, is missing the point: it isn’t about the details of each theory or how they are formed. It is about how theories are marketed.
Architectural theories are marketed as the be-all and end-all of architectural approach. Although hindsight continuously proves this to be wrong, our impression of current theory renders past theories outdated and somehow irrelevant. Our resistance to change then fixates our attention on the theoretical details between past and present, leading to arguments. This hinders our ability to see larger goals.
Additionally, we are still unable to outline goals or foundation despite increasingly and continuously questioning our foundations. If we continue generating theories at a rate of every 3-4 years without being able to highlight any one of these theories as being correct or still relevant today, then perhaps we are searching in the wrong place.
Coming in part 2: What are the foundations of architecture and why are they inappropriate?
-  Timeline of architectural styles, Wikipedia, viewed 11 September 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_architectural_styles
-  Harries, K, 2000, The Ethical Function of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
-  Definition of a Profession, Australian Council of Professions, viewed 4 October 2012, http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/277772
-  Breitschmid, M, Architecture & Philosophy: Thoughts on Building, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA