Architecture has long been considered an art and a science, although architects – in effort to raise design’s respectability higher than that of the “cappuccino crowd” – relentlessly try to clear the blurred lines between them. The pragmatism of engineering reveals its dominantly systematic approach that separates it from architecture, a more creative design collaboration placing emphasis on aesthetic principles equal to those of functional principles. The separation between architecture and art, however, is found in intention; architectural design requires objective decision making while art may not. Theory in architecture exists and has existed for one main reason: to enhance the built environment through various ideas and principles relative to the theory. Consequently, intention is the basis for theory; a goal or objective is to be sought (intended) by means of the theory. Moreover, to deny theory totally in architecture and prescribe it only for historical references, (as Dr. Speaks suggests) in turn welcomes an anarchic attitude to the design process – which pushes design closer to art. Thus, not to incorporate theory into design is to slip irresponsibly into “random creation” and hope for serendipity – the occurrence of serendipity is not a bad thing, but not to be relied on. Therefore, theory is necessary for design to be successful, and at the very least, for design decisions to be justified.

A theory does not need to be as specific as a set of rules. The ideas of deconstruction based on Jacques Derrida’s thoughts mentioned in Speaks’s essay are very broad, and sometimes confusing – Derrida described deconstruction as neither analytic nor critical; a term that lacks a definition. Theory is speculative, based on phenomena. Deconstruction or anti-capitalistic, the theory is a means to which a utopian architecture is the end; an end most realize to be impossible because of socio-cultural changes over time that in turn help shape theoretical generation. It is this binding to society and culture that makes theory necessary to the built environment. To separate architecture from culture and society – to claim that theory is irrelevant – would be absurd; theory is the foundation on which responsible design decisions are made.

In the nineteenth century Antoni Gaudi, designing in unison with the Art Nouveau movement, drew inspiration from neo-gothic building characteristics, as well as organic shapes, incorporating them into architectural design. For Gaudi, symbolizing natural forms in design best communicated the “ideal beauty” Catalonian modernists sought after. What may be called a theory of organic symbolism helped Gaudi create some of the most innovative and intellectually progressive structures of his time. Today, stunningly expressive designs by Daniel Libeskind continue to be architecturally successful, due in large part to theoretical concepts that promote their motif. I saw Libeskind give a presentation at the University of Minnesota in April, and it was clear from listening to him how much his designs rely on formal and emotional communication, e.g. the Denver Art Museum. The primary objectives of his designs are to manipulate the perceptions of the user through form; the spatial interpretation of the user is the focus. In each case – historical reference to creations of Antoni Gaudi’s and present-day works of Daniel Libeskind – the necessity of theory is apparent.

In his essay “After Theory,” Dr. Speaks states that “theory is not just irrelevant but was, and continues to be an impediment to the development of a culture of innovation in architecture.” To be innovative and intellectually progressive in design, finding a theory and proclaiming it to be elite to rest – as if to demand all to use it – is not the way to accomplish this; here I agree with the potential for a theory to be an impediment, as Dr. Speaks suggests. This is why many theories have existed over time. Cannot a multi-theory architecture exist? Must one be so intemperate as to claim their own subjective theory to be the best, thus engaging in partisan bickering comparable to that seen on Capital Hill? This is an impediment to innovation. To claim, however, that the existence of any theory at all is an impediment to innovation may go too far. Why not let the designers choose their own guiding theory? Each different designer with their different theory may be as progressive, if not more, than no theory at all. Perhaps this is what Dr. Speaks is suggesting when he insists on a “new intellectual framework [for architecture] that supports rather than inhibits innovation.” Each theory feeding off each other and competing with one another would have to spawn innovation, wouldn’t it? Or is this too much of a ‘capitalistic architecture’? This new “intellectual framework” that Dr. Speaks demands seems to have grown out of questions of truth in theory and the creation of knowledge, e.g., he argues “Action is thus dependant on the discovery or declaration of a set of guiding truths or principles, even if, as was the case with theory, the truth is that there is no truth.”

Letting architectural theory guide design comes from the Enlightenment, as Dr. Speaks equates it to the idea that, “thinking is separate from and in fact guides doing.” The problem for Dr. Speaks is that theory is based on phenomenal principles, which can yield no truth. Although these principles are based on subjective interpretations of phenomenal experience, they still hold more water than Dr. Speaks wants to acknowledge. After all, let us not forget that we will never know the noumena, or essence, of something, as we only experience the phenomena, or external world perception of it. Thus, we will never know the essential truth, be it by means of a theory or an intellectual framework.

The framework Dr. Speaks suggests involves the genesis of knowledge simultaneously with physical production. With new technology, the ability to quickly generate large scale models allows for a more interactive and dynamic design process. This ‘prototyping’ technique apparently became a vehicle for the development of intelligent design, at least for Alejandro Zaera-Polo, a designer for Foreign Office Architects on the Yokohama Port Terminal. “The design process became in itself a process of creating knowledge,” he said. Although I do believe this process to be beneficial to the design process, isn’t Dr. Speaks getting a little too excited about it? Is the process of contrasting prototypes and redesigning them really all that new to the architectural practice? This new and exciting process Dr. Speaks refers to is nothing more than trial and error. Of course these prototypes are larger and more detailed than the typical “rip-and-tear” model, but essentially the same thing is happening – interactive design refinement.

What ultimately emerges from the debate on theory in architecture depends on how large a lens through which one observes it. Although theory vanguardism potentially can “chase its own tail,” the progressive nature of vanguardism cannot be discarded. One theory is not the answer; theories, as well as intellectual frameworks, are dynamic in time. A theory that transcends time may be too much to ask. Theory, however, in its fundamental meaning, must be present in architectural design as a basis for the decision-making process. The absence of design theory is what leads architecture into cyclical paths. Moreover, the idea of a new intellectual framework for a more innovative culture in design is a theory in itself; those who claim design to be better off without it are presenting, paradoxically, their own theory. However, innovation through theoretical progression and design process-evolution is realistic, and emerges as the obvious objective. It is a theory of, and for innovation; a multifaceted, dynamic framework of, and for design intelligence – one that offers a path away from the past, but doesn’t abandon it.


Braden R. Engel
Student of Architecture
North Dakota State University