I agree with Michael Speaks that design theory is finally and fortunately shedding the negativism and nihilism of Deconstruction and Marxism. His lucid essay “After Theory” in the June issue also celebrates the rise of the “post-critics,” who have rejected “criticality” in favor of engagement with the marketplace and embraced proactive, so-called “projective” practices. After a generation of bingeing on abstract theory, it is time for vanguard architects to start addressing the many problems that face society. The rise of young, innovative “workshop” practices represents a return to architecture as craft, albeit high-tech.
Does this mean the end of theory? I hope not. That would only ensure critical theorists will have their revenge in the next cycle. And there is no way for our sophisticated architectural culture not to be theoretical––at least not since Alberti and Palladio raised our craft to a discipline and discourse on a par with science and the humanities. Our brains will always tend to be ahead of our hands, even though some things are better learned through the encounter with materials and tools. Although some breakthroughs come from the workshop floor, expensive and long-lived works of architecture and urbanism need intelligent and careful thought. Let’s continue to be theoretical, but in a more pragmatic way that addresses environmental, social, and economic problems and opportunities, as well as aesthetic issues.
Let’s also remember that not all the strategies and solutions will need to be new or innovative. Architectural production is not just market- and technology-driven. It is also an expression and embodiment of culture, which typically changes more slowly and incrementally than science and technology. Architects can help make sure people are neither overwhelmed by these changes nor left behind by them. Let’s stop the pendulum before it swings from too little theory to too much theory. Maybe a little balance—that would be radical.
Doug Kelbaugh, FAIA, Dean, University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Ann Arbor, Michigan