For architects, students, young professionals, and architecture professors alike—not to mention the legion of non-architecture specific designers out there that have an increasing impact on Design’s variform areas—the intellectual authority of our field, we are led to believe, is trapped up inside the high and mighty Trojan walls of Theory. Though critics and theorists, deans and directors may testify otherwise, it is their ability to navigate through the post-modern obscurantist miasma of theory that helps them understand architecture, design and design pedagogy. And it is this same miasma that hangs over our head, with which we are beaten about the ears, and that can make or break a project. Put simply, too much of architectural and design academia is trapped and preserved in the mythos around our most immanent critics, around theory, and around or most fetishized relics, like the universally recognized Architecture Theory Since 1968, edited by Michael Hays. (Not that Architectural Theory, as an object, is without contention or controversy. Like everything else in the battleground of academia, it is a field of controversy and shade throwing.)
Though I have long resisted the day when I sit down to begin reading this epic tome of architecture theory—a day that I was led to believe would have to come if ever I wanted a future in design academia—the dubitably comfortable safety of procrastination is over. Introducing a new project for MAIN|prjkt: “11 Weeks of Michael Hays”; 11(-ish?) weeks of daily summaries and reviews of the 59 essays comprising this famed anthology. What the hell could make me want to take on this task? Academics and intellectuals may scoff at this idea—which they have already done to my face—telling me it is ‘unnecessary’, asking ‘why would I do that to myself’, and arguing that ‘theory is a thing of the past.’ This latter argument I can at least get behind; but that doesn’t keep mainstream design thought from resting in theory’s shadow.
“11 Weeks” is a practiced effort at making a heavy swath of architectural and design theory accessible to the even larger swarm of practicing artists, designers, and students who might benefit from a populist approach to theory. (At the very least it will be a useful companion to the occasional student assigned readings from Architectural Theory. Share the word, fellow travelers!) To the unlikely professor, academic, editor, or general intellectual who may come across the next three months of posts: apologies if I butcher the hell out of a text; please comment and set me right if I err too egregiously—it is my goal to clearly interpret the three decades of essays in this anthology. However, no apologies for the premise of this project—even if it does seem ridiculous—or occasional irreverence or flippancy.
// For the uninterested, take heart: the slew of regular, less fearsome, more schizophrenic posts will continue in addition to this series. (Something for everyone here on M | P I guess…) In fact, all the fabulous projects that I love but do not feature in PRJKT Dumps will now be featured on “The Field”, MAIN|prjkt’s new tumblr, just for your amusement and to fuel your creative procrastination. (You are very welcome.)
This anthology predicates itself on the “unprecedented transformation of architectural discourse,” in the second half of the 20th century, “in which theory displaced architectural criticism” and became an alternative method for architectural history. “Architecture Theory” is not the same as design methodology or architectural ideologies, which were articulated in essays, manifestoes, publications and pamphlets for over a century before Criticism became the primary medium of architectural thought. That transition, following WWII especially, corresponded to the decline and eventual collapse of Euro-Modernism and its transformation into U.S./International-based Modernism (a.k.a. “Late Modernism”—I’m talking about you, Philip Johnson). (Just kidding; RIP Philip Johnson.)
According to Hay’s introduction, architecture theory was “a practice of mediation”—“the production of relationships between formal analyses of a work of architecture and its social ground or context (however nonsyncronous these sometimes may be).” The crux of this relationship, however, is to justify architecture’s autonomy as a force “negating, distorting, repressing, compensating for, and even producing” that very same context. This process—an admitted appropriation of Fredric Jameson’s transcoding—is responsible for “rewriting systems of thought assumed to be properly extrinsic or irrelevant into architecture’s own ideolect.”
Firstly, I love the word ideolect and it is one that I had forgotten until I read this intro., so already Hays is making me a better person. But this last bit is the crucial element in understanding the history of architectural thought—its historiography—and how it evolved into a sometimes high browed weapon-fortress of theory and academia. During the 1960s, architecture—or, rather, architects and critics—began claiming extra-architectural fields of intellectual inquiry (i.e. Marxism, Capitalism, Semiotics, Psychoanalysis, &c.) as legitimate ground for architectural discourse. This was the start of Architecture’s aggressive campaign to consume and integrate other fields of thought into its own territory.
Personally I’m grateful for this campaign as it allows me to combine any number of interests in a design-guided investigation. But this was an essentially practical attempt to produce a more holistic architectural history (or historical methodology): “the world is a totality; it is an essential and essentially practical problem of theory to rearticulate that totality, to produce the concepts that relate the architectural fact with the social, historical, and ideological subtexts from which it was never really separate to begin with.” So we may summarize that “theory” was and is an attempt at the holistic uncovering of preexisting architectural reality (/-ies).
This is an easy enough premise, and the next 11-ish weeks will endeavor to excavate that same basic truth-telling from the po-mo linguistic nonsense that awaits. To help, MAIN|prjkt will develop a tagging system to make navigating recurrent themes across these 59 essays an easier prospect.
Here we go—