The Disciplinarity of Architecture, Defined.
I propose that the discipline of architecture can be broken down into four main regimes of practice. They are as follows: Capital-A Architecture (the built), architectural (the speculative), discourse, and process-led. Some truths are consistent regardless of the specific regime. First, each of these regimes exist in both the professional practice of architects as well as in architectural academia. Second, the work and products of these regimes, intentionally exist within our world because they have been designed to serve a purpose, they did not appear randomly.
Within each regime of practice there are specific principles that are held true, although what might be true for one regime is not necessarily true for another. Additionally, the definition of each principle can vary based on which regime it is located in.
Otherwise known as “built works” this regime of practice is based on designed physical spaces built for the purpose of habitation. If the previous statement is true, then these works are functional and non-autonomous. If those are true, then the work can not ignore ethics, aesthetics, building systems, or the historical and cultural context in which it is located.
Put on hold the preconceived definitions of autonomy and aesthetics that you may already have. In this regime I define aesthetics as the appearance of a thing and that appearance is determined by scale, proportion, material (texture, color, weight), and form. Using these as building blocks the architect manipulates them until the desired effect is achieved. These effects in the case of Architecture are legible, they speak even if they are dumb as Adam Sharr describes and have the ability to “set out people’s responses to - an consequent understanding of - the world around them.” (1) This definition of aesthetics is different from the one Karsten Harries distills from Richards Serra’s quotation in the the second chapter of The Ethical Approach to Architecture. Harries asserts that an aesthetic approach as some might argue for requires the following: “The aesthetic object should not mean but be. The aesthetic object should present itself as a whole. The aesthetic object demands aesthetic distance. The aesthetic object promises to put us at one with ourselves.” (2) Harries then comes to the conclusion that if Architecture is to be regarded as pure aesthetic appeal then it requires autonomy, and pursuing autonomy within Architecture would require at some point a break with ethics, thus excluding it from the Capital-A Architecture regime. Autonomy within this regime is defined as the degree to which the work engages with outside influences. A non-autonomous piece of architecture can exist in a vacuum and has the freedom to disregard reality and its implications as it pleases. A non-autonomous work of Architecture exists in the real world whose conditions and limitations are all a part of doing business.
Below are three examples of built works that according to the definition of the regime above would be considered Architecture. The examples range from having a heavy architectural hand applied to having nearly no architectural hand applied.
The first is Rem Koolhaus’ Seattle Public Library, a work that many, within or outside of the discipline would easily and quickly classify as Architecture. This is because first, it functions as a public library meant for the greater good of the city of Seattle. While the aesthetics, via overall form and exterior facade composition, are fairly uncommon they are employed in such a way that they still allow the building to be legible to a passerby. For example the fenestration on the ground floor is scaled appropriately to the human size and is not an unusual proportion to the city and society’s expectations at large. It goes without argument that multiple building systems are in play here in order to create a building that functions mechanically, structurally, environmentally, and socially.
The Quinta Monroy project by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena situated in the northern coastal town of Iquique was built and completed as “half-finished” housing. In this example the non-autonomy of Architecture comes to light as the housing project was paid for by the Gobierno Regional de Tarapacá (the Regional Government of Tarapacá), abides by the regulations of the government’s housing policy, and is intended for the final use of low-income families. (3) Ethical issues abound in a project like this, ranging from determining fees that either cut into the architect’s profit or cutting into the budget for the housing, to providing dignity to families with very little, to the choice between Architecture that glorifies the genius of Aravena or Architecture that glories an elevated human existence. The aesthetics of the project, as defined within this regime, are created using common and inexpensive materials. The end result is an Architecture with many rough, literally unfinished edges. The unfinishedness though is what allows for the customization of each building particular to the homeowners’ personal tastes and preferences. The highly trained and specialized architect has willingly given up his title of “Connoisseur of Good Taste” and placed that responsibility in the hands of laymen, the homeowners. Alternatively, and more likely, is that Aravena knew exactly how much connoisseurship to hold onto and how much to give away in order to produce Architecture that was in delightful tension.
Finally, this leads to the example of the woodshed, which many would not consider Architecture almost entirely based on the fact that it is common, of “poor taste” aesthetically, and has almost no identifiable marks of an architect’s hand. History has so far removed the woodshed from the architect’s scope of vision of what we consider Architecture that we, as architects, have become “nose blind” to the very archetype of our discipline. The woodshed is Architecture without an explicit architect but it still considers all the necessary regime principles: building systems, context, functionality, ethics, non-autonomy, and aesthetics. Many architects have turned away from vernacular elements, seeing them as uninteresting, too lowly, or too assimilated into capitalistic aims (e.g. Home Depot sells them so architects don’t or won’t.) A retired soccer player who is now feeble and clumsy may be considered a poor soccer player, but they are still a soccer player.
Otherwise known as “speculative” this regime of practice is unbuilt but explores spatial relationships using forms of representation. If the works are unbuilt and not intended for the purpose of physical occupation, then the functionality isn’t literal and autonomy becomes negotiable. If these things are true then the work need not be held to a standard of ethics and it can be a “true” aesthetic approach like the one outlined by Harries mentioned earlier. The possibility of this use of aesthetics is that self-justifying worlds can be created, and this self-justification is what allows the work to be autonomous. Although the work may concern itself, through representation, with ethics there are no unequivocal standards that the architects is held to. Finally, since ethical concerns are negotiable so is the choice to acknowledge or ignore historical and cultural contexts surrounding the work. A theme that appears time and time again in the speculative works oeuvre is the role of technology in creating a utopic or dystopicfuture. As Antoine Picon argues, technology in the contemporary discipline routinely makes no reference to historical contexts. (4)
Speculative architecture can be facilitation through various mediums - drawings, constructs, models, or even at times through film. The fact that the work remains unbuilt is the hinging point that allows the definitions of autonomy and aesthetics to deviate. Examples of speculative architecture include Archigram’s Walking City and Lebbeus Wood’s Inhabiting the Quake.
This regime of practice includes history, theory, and critique. It is usually mediated through language whether in text or speech and the work remains unbuilt. Significantly the work is more often authored than it is designed. If it is indeed authored, then the work requires critical distance and a set of ethics upheld by the author. Unavoidably the author will be working from their own set of personal experiences and either first hand or second hand knowledge. The insertion of phony coins by Fischer von Erlach (whom was both architect and historian) in his Karlskirche in Vienna drawing, shows that there is sometimes too great a temptation to record your own desires as history. Examples of this regime would include Robert Venturi’s book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation, or Sam Jacobs’ “A Strange Harvest” lecture given at Taubman College on January 29th of this year.
Process - Led
This regime of practice is based on process and concerns itself with designing the methods of creating architecture, not the end products. If process takes precedence, then technology and authorship play important roles, and if these two things are true then aesthetics, autonomy, and critical distance all become important.
This regime creates the most discomfort for me because if the process is going to continue and improve then the end product must be evaluated in order to inform the next phase of the process. So therefore it is concerned with the end product, but this product is neither Architecture, discourse, or speculative. I’d go as far to say that process without informing, like in the example of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraints, would be considered art and is now outside of the the architectural discipline. If the process is informed by the various products it produces then the question of who is doing the evaluating arises. The evaluation in this regime is usually done by two different parties, the first is by the architect and the second is done by a computer. Informing without architect evaluation begins to hint at the reason why I commonly assume the products of parametricism fall more into the field of sculpture than they do the field of architecture.
In conclusion, the regimes of practice as described above create a diagram that classifies the core of the architectural discipline. As Charles Willard states “innovation occurs at the outer edges, at the points of overlap, intersection, and cross-pollination with other disciplines.” (5) Those projects, as we will see next, do not fit neatly in the diagram on the following page.
(1) Sharr, Adam, “Can Architecture Lie? On Truth, Knowledge, and Contemporary Architectural Theory,” Architectural Theory Review Vol. 8 No. 2 (2003): p. 166
(2) Harries, Karsten. The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997): p. 17
(3) “Quinta Monroy / ELEMENTAL,” Arch Daily, December 31 2008,http://www.archdaily.com/10775/quinta-monroy-elemental
(4) Picon, Antoine, “Does our Technology Make the Past Irrelevant to our Future?” Harvard Design Magazine (January 2010): p. 141 - 161
(5) Willard, Charles. A Theory of Argumentation (University of Alabama Press: July 3 2003), p. 213