Architecture school theory: introduction

So, what is architecture school theory? Take Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’, which I blogged about earlier. This is a book written by a non-architect, for non-architects (mainly), about architecture. From the perspective of architecture schools, it is almost counter-cultural. How did this happen?

In the UK, Oxford University has no architecture school at all (although Oxford Brookes does). Some schools of architecture are fully independent (the Architectural Association). The school I attended (the Mackintosh) is embedded within of Glasgow School of Art and has only a very slender link to Glasgow University. The state of formal academic writing about architecture reinforces the sense that there is little dialogue between (anglophone) architecture schools and humanities departments. However, some architecture schools produce architectural theory. Overwhelmingly, this draws on a so-called ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy. This is a category that recognises–perhaps tendentiously–an academic fissure that was opened by anglophone philosophers such as Russell and Moore in their rejection of the method of F. H. Bradley and other so-called ‘British idealists’, who themselves identified–more or less–as followers of Hegel. On the far side of this fissure there now also stand French and German writers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (with Brentano as a common influence); hence the term ‘continental’. These writers share a focus on articulating conscious experience through introspection (‘phenomenology’). They are also ‘system builders’, making efforts to present complete (and therefore lengthy) philosophical descriptions; implicitly the reader is asked to consider the verisimilitude of the picture presented: this itself continues a tradition of Hume, Kant and Hegel, and is an approach mostly rejected on the anglophone (or ‘analytic’) side since Russell. All disputes fade with time; what I think is (slightly) interesting here is that anglophone architectural writers have made no efforts to bridge the gap: they continue on with Heidegger et al.

I suspect that, in part at least, this is because Heidegger himself is one of few philosophers to directly address architecture, mainly via his short essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) (.pdf). If so, the situation is unflattering to architects, as if writing from other disciplines has to be flagged as ‘about architecture’ in order for architects to think of reading it. What then, should architects read? Architecture is something which people do that affects the world and the people in it. Architectural theory, then, has to be thought of as a guide to action; an answer to the question: what should architects (and planners, and designers) do? In answering this question, ethics and politics are the topics in philosophical writing that theory-minded architects ought to turn to first, with aesthetics following … possibly. These topics are richly represented in the analytic tradition. Introspective explorations of consciousness might feature; on the face of things it is hard to see any specifically architectural application for this line of inquiry. From a scan of the literature, though, you might think that phenomenology was considered to be architecture’s special philosophical complement.


That said, over the next few months I plan to write some posts here on architecture school theory, with the intent of setting out what seems useful in it, and what seems objectionable (or at least questionable). I hope to give a fair representation of it along the way. Or of a slice of it. There are a lot of words out there, and I haven’t decided how best to organise the task: reading everything is not feasible. Most likely, I will take a thematic approach, looking at topics such as representation (architects do drawings!) and what is now often called ‘place’. If there are connections between what is in architecture school theory and some of the advocacy for traditional architecture, or for modernism, I will try to sketch those out as well.

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 2

Watkin’s ‘Morality and Architecture’ (1977) is still fairly well known, although I suspect it’s starting to lose currency. It has been described as a ‘polemic’. Its most favourable reading—its best hope, even—is as a call for some space for the practice of the traditional in architecture, and beyond that, for architectural aesthetics to recover priority. It does not succeed in this.

At the end of his book, Watkin writes: “a historicist emphasis on progress and the necessary superiority of novelty, has come close to undermining, on the one hand, our appreciation of the imaginative genius of the individual and, on the other, the importance of artistic tradition”. The book doesn’t contain much argument. Watkin’s method is to take a succession of writers—Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, Lethaby, Giedion, Furneaux Jordan, Pevsner—and subject them to a sceptical debunking, generally in the form of ‘… and we see that he too has been captured by the idea of a Zeitgeist’. The book is short, so each of these figures can receive only a short amount of discussion: Pevsner gets the most. Watkin frequently uses not only the term ‘Zeitgeist’ but also the more direct ‘Hegelian’; even so Hegel’s arguments are not presented or explored. Yet with the chutzpah dial at full, Watkin also writes that “no one with a proper training in philosophy, intellectual history, religion, or the social sciences has turned a critical eye on architectural history”. At the same time, Watkin cites Karl Popper (‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ and ‘The Poverty of Historicism’), with apparently no sense that this in itself might be a serious warning off to anyone with “a proper training in philosophy”.

A practicing designer will also find Watkin’s debunking project to be dotted with statements that irritate. For example: “the so-called ‘human needs’ are defined arbitrarily, arrogantly, and with a complete disregard for the importance of tradition as a guide to the architect” (are we allowed to try to define such needs in a better, less arrogant way?), or “in fact [the use of glass] is generally an aesthetic urge disguised as a technological necessity” (why can’t it be both?), or “in itself [structural efficiency] is not particularly interesting except to the specialist or the structural engineer … most people take structural efficiency for granted” (they might take it for granted, but they might also enjoy it).

Watkin’s discussion of Pevsner ought to be the most rewarding part of the book: Watkin was a student of Pevsner, so we can hope to find an unmediated characterisation. Here, a sense of timescale might be helpful. Pevsner’s ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’ was published in 1936, when (what we’d most likely call) modern architecture was established as a focus of activity in many countries (except Nazi Germany, where it was subject to official repression) but actual built examples were still comparatively rare. By 1977 (the publication year of ‘Morality and Architecture’) another world war had occurred, many social institutions had been re-ordered, the Marshall Plan had taken effect, extensive physical rebuilding had taken place across Europe, and a number of prominent émigré architects (for instance, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe) had influenced a rapidly expanding American built environment. In 1936, the advocates of modernism—the CIAM architects, for instance—were working to enlarge a cultural space for the practice of modernism. In 1977, Watkin feels able to write as if the practice of modernism in architecture threatens his freedom to enjoy classical architecture. ‘Pioneers …’ and ‘Morality and Architecture’ can be seen as opposed works of advocacy; the one calling for more modernism, the other calling for less of it.

However, Pevsner’s ‘Pioneers …’ is also a history. It is a slim, illustrated book that aims more (much more) at ordering and categorising modern and proto-modern buildings than at explaining or justifying them. We might, of course, object to the way in which the categorisation is done. We might say that a supposed example of proto-modern architecture is not any such thing, nor does it somehow contribute or lead to the development of modern architecture. Watkin does this. But this line of criticism, even if sustainable (and it is not), is fiddling around the edges. It doesn’t abolish the category of modern architecture: that remains. What is Pevsner’s normative argument about it? Pevsner does not give us much. What we find in ‘Pioneers …’ is that Pevsner says that certain features of a building will be sufficient for it to count as ‘valid for our time’: specifically, a stylistic ‘coldness’ and a respect for the ‘anonymity of the client’. By ‘anonymity of the client’, Pevsner seems to mean the opposite of a patronage relationship between client and architect: with a modern building, the architect does not work for the satisfaction of any one individual; instead, he or she aims at collectivity, or universality. The architect does not necessarily know who will inhabit or use a building: the building is—at least to a degree—public. But what does Pevsner mean by ‘coldness’? Again, the word is used against its opposite: ‘warmth’:

“The warmth and directness with which ages of craft and a more personal relation between architect and client endowed buildings of the past may have gone for good. The architect, to represent this century of ours, must be colder …”

But there is no suggestion that the resulting built environment should be one that is stripped of ‘warmth’: implicitly, the result will have both. We are right—Pevsner seems to say—to prefer a world that also has modern architecture compared with a world that excludes or ignores it. It would be a mistake to miss—or fail to live up to—the possibilities and challenges of our era:

“[a] world in which we live and work and which we want to master, a world of science and technology, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security.”

After writing this, Pevsner continued with his life, as one does. By 1958, he had founded the Victorian Society and had made a major contribution to the Architectural Review’s Townscape campaign, which advocated a humanised modernism with—as Tim Benton writes in his review of Draper’s ‘Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner’ (2004)—“picturesque asymmetries and a touch of robust popular culture”. But these later activities were in no sense a recantation: in his 1960 revision of ‘Pioneers …’, Pevsner adds:

“… today’s reality, exactly as that of 1914, can find its complete expression only in the style created by the giants of that by now distant past. Society has not changed since, industrialisation has expanded, anonymity of the client has not been overcome, anonymity of architectural design has increased. The whims of individual architects … cannot be accepted as an answer to the serious questions which it is the responsibility of the architect to answer. Whether his answer ought to differ from that of the pioneers of 1914, and in what way it ought to differ, it is not for this book to decide.”

Does Watkin’s charge of historicism then stick? I see nothing in Pevsner that says modern architecture is the necessary outcome of previous development; that a historian of, say, 1851, or even 1909, could (in principle) have foreseen something like Gropius and Meyer’s model factory of 1914. And this is what historicism is (in the Popperian characterisation of it, at least). Pevsner’s historical method appears—by contrast—conventional. To read a building as having a feature that reappears in a later building, possibly transformed, is just to note that the potential for transmission of an idea exists, or existed. A more exact history might confirm (or disconfirm) that this transmission happened: perhaps through documented evidence of a building visit, some correspondence, or some other interaction. The search for exactness extends the same activity. And the activity here isn’t historicism, or prediction; it is just the writing of history, as when Pevsner describes the role of Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927):

“By pronouncing … ideas still unfamiliar in Germany, Muthesius soon became the centre of a group of congenial spirits. Of paramount importance … was Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), art historian and director of the Hamburg Gallery … in the lectures which he delivered between 1896 and 1899, and  which are full of praise for England, he pleaded for practical, unadorned furniture … for wide horizontal windows and ‘floods of light’ …”

What, then, should we think about Pevsner’s normative claim: that certain features of buildings are sufficient to make them ‘valid for our time’? He doesn’t justify it: the call for ‘seriousness’; the call for stylistic reflection of public (‘anonymous’) use, of the technological, is best taken as an appeal to our sensibility, aware, as we likely are, of the features and opportunities—and the difficulties—of our own era. Let’s recall Watkin’s task—as I’ve characterised it—of making space for traditional style. Defeating Pevsner’s ‘historicism’ or “the Zeitgeist Pevsner wishes to establish” is redundant to this task: there is nothing to defeat; nothing—in Pevsner—to block stylistic co-existence. Nor does Pevsner’s advocacy, such as it is, prevent designers from assigning priority to aesthetics: on the contrary, Pevsner’s writing readily—if not routinely—turns to a sense of the aesthetic, of the experiential. Of Hoffman’s Palais Stoclet (relevantly, a large private house) he writes:

“[it] is a work of exceedingly spirited composition, its exquisitely spaced openings and light walls are a joy to the eye, and the high uninterrupted window of the staircase is again present; but the artistic attitude is here far from sachlich (rightly, no doubt): a charm and playfulness are expressed in these facades which are alien to most of the outstanding buildings in the new [i.e. modern] style …”

There is an openness to diversity and heterogeneity in Pevsner that Watkin seems to completely miss: in light of this, it is hard to see how Pevsner can be fairly represented as a Philip Johnson figure, working tirelessly to converge creative efforts; to curate a modern future. ‘Morality and Architecture’ is a straw man effort, and a misdirection of energies. There simply is no requirement to move Pevsner out of the way for any traditional or other stylistic revival.

(Above: plan of the Stoclet House, Brussels)

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 1

‘Aesthetics of Architecture’ (Scruton, 1979) is presented as an introduction to “the subject of aesthetics [for] those who have an interest in architecture”. It also advances a theory of aesthetics, where the designer’s stylistic choices are connected to individual flourishing; some stylistic choices, it is argued, will support such flourishing while others will hinder it. But the book is more than this. Like the contemporaneous ‘Morality and Architecture’ by David Watkin it is a defence of traditionalism in architecture, seeking to carve out a space for the practice of traditional design. Its illustrative photographs and drawings are mostly of pre-modern designs; its arguments take aim at modernists. Here is what is being missed, Scruton seems to say; you are not wrong to like it, and here also are reasons to resist the arguments of those who might try to reorient your taste. Since the book has the flavour of advocacy, the reader develops the sense that the arguments of prior philosophers included in the narrative are there not so much to inform as to be made use of: their talk of Hegel can be countered by our talk of Hegel, since he also said such and such. In this, ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’ differs (slightly) in its aim and in its tactics from Watkin’s ‘Morality and Architecture’, which simply finds objectionable a (supposed) Hegelian tradition in art history and does not attempt to recruit some other part of Hegel (or any part of any other philosopher).

Here is an exegesis of Scruton’s aesthetic theory. We have a capacity to exercise certain judgements over a certain range of things that is universal: all reasoning persons may make such judgements; they are not a feature, say, of the psychological regularity of humans. An aesthetic judgement (giving the answer, say, to the question: ‘is this beautiful?’) is to be counted among these judgements. Are there (physical) objects we might make that are guaranteed to be judged as beautiful? No: every aesthetic experience is unique; we cannot say that everyone will feel or react in the same way to a certain experience, since that (exact) experience is not shared. In understanding aesthetic judgement, we would do better to turn our consideration away from experiences, and towards the critical faculties of those who undergo aesthetic experiences; are these individuals well equipped to make aesthetic judgements? Are they ‘cultivated’? Here, Scruton does not intend any kind of elitism; his view is that every person should be allowed to develop such faculties: “the kind of outlook … which would best reward aesthetic attention”. Indeed (argues Scruton) we have an obligation to support this development, since the exercise of a critical aesthetic faculty is essential to the self-realisation of every individual. Such a faculty comes about through engagement with a public world which “[bears] the marks of human action”, where such marks are not alien and unfamiliar, but consonant with prior aesthetic judgement. A critical aesthetic faculty is developed over time; through habit, through repetition in experience, through familiarity. There is therefore moral force to the call for the practice and maintenance of artistic tradition; only this will properly support the critical aesthetic faculty of individuals, and through it, human flourishing.

Designers who have worked to develop qualities of figurative repetition and self-similarity in their output—things that might be called harmony—might see something in Scruton’s idea of a critical aesthetic faculty that comes alive through repetition in experience. In this creative mindset, what presents itself as beautiful can be analysed as containing the same thing repeatedly; a proportion here is repeated in a proportion there, but transcending monotony through scaling, or material or colour change, or some other transformation. The embrace of consonance can be extended to context: the designer also reflects the proportions of neighbouring objects (i.e. buildings) in their own contribution, aiming at a greater whole, assembled collaboratively, and over time. This attitude is naturally friendly to artistic tradition; the greater whole is a long term, possibly generation-spanning project; as such it requires tradition.

But which tradition? Scruton—in the text at least—conscientiously leaves this question open, as if to say only that at least some tradition in architecture is to be followed. However, he does tentatively advance as essential two features found in classical architecture; mouldings (i.e. smooth unrelieved surfaces should be avoided) and facades (a building should have an obvious public face demarcating the boundary between the exterior and the interior). And the book itself, as noted above, favours pre-modern illustrative examples; of these, classical and baroque buildings are the majority. This seems hopeful, as if we are to be suggested to a correct conclusion through visual immersion. The reader can easily imagine a broader editorial selection, where Corbusian villas sit comfortably alongside Palladian villas (as in Colin Rowe’s well known analysis of proportional similarity in the work of these two architects), and with the modern examples giving visual support to Scruton’s argument just as effectively as the classical examples. Or perhaps, if mouldings are essential as Scruton says, we would be pleased to see examples from an alternative modern tradition that features mouldings; one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile houses, for instance.


And is a person’s critical aesthetic faculty really so fragile as Scruton seems to say? We can agree that experience is necessary to the development of a mental faculty; why wouldn’t we believe that a given mental faculty is as well—or perhaps better—developed when that experience is heterogenous? Analogously, music is often taught as a progression through a canon; hence a developing piano player starts with Bach, Clementi, Mozart, early Beethoven; only later exploring, say, Villa-Lobos. The aim is security in a skill that takes time to acquire. Yet some modern composers have deliberately intervened in this process: Bartok’s ‘Mikrokosmos’ is a large collection of piano pieces for players of all skill levels, and features alternative tonalities, scales and rhythms throughout. Nobody thinks Bartok subverts musical education in this way, or that players raised (partly raised, in all likelihood) on ‘Mikrokosmos’ will be deficient in skill or sensitivity. Similarly, we can question Scruton’s call for stylistic adherence; the repetition of the familiar. Will we fail to develop as individuals if we sometimes experience the unfamiliar? It looks doubtful.

Is there a way forward for Scruton? Yes, I think so, although it doesn’t necessarily lead to an outcome he’d like. By making community—one where both designers and users of buildings operate within a tradition—of central importance, Scruton makes an argument that looks somewhat Hegelian, and indeed Scruton acknowledges this connection in his text. For Hegel, the self can realise itself only within a community (and I take the term ‘community’ to stand adequately for ‘spirit’, or ‘geist’). However, Hegel also claims that for this realisation of self to properly succeed, the community of which the self is a member must also undergo a process of self-realisation, through critical self-examination. The community progresses and eventually arrives at a well-founded—and inevitable, so long as progression occurs—modernity. So Scruton might propose that the traditional architecture which he favours simply is modern. It just is the outcome of the critical self-examination undergone by our community.

After all, it worked for Hegel. If Hegel can confidently use the term modernity, as he did, in the context of the architectural designs of his classicist contemporaries such as, say, Schinkel, why cannot Scruton hold that the description ‘modern’ still applies to classical architecture today? (A perspective of Schinkel’s design for a palace on the Crimea is shown above.) Beyond simple distaste for the second part of Hegel’s scheme as I’ve sketched it above, I suspect Scruton’s reluctance to do just this stems from it not passing a laugh test. Far too much has to be discounted or ignored; the evidence has piled up on the wrong side and in alarming quantities. And it opens a door that Scruton wants to hold shut. A modernist—as conventionally understood—can point to the very extensive architectural design work and literature post-Hegel, and, more importantly, post-Schinkel. Look at all this re-evaluation, the modernist can say. Look at the nineteenth century ‘battle of the styles’. Look at the continued attempts in the twentieth century to find a resolution. Look at what’s happening now. Look at the possibilities. There’s your geist in action. This well-rehearsed rhetorical line of modernists of the Pevsner era is surely just what Scruton wants to steer the discussion away from. Uncharitably, we can say that he takes the part of Hegel that he finds useful, and discards the part that will probably only help his opponents. More charitably, we can say that he seeks to highlight a part of Hegel that modernists might overlook; the implication in Hegel that designers should consider the ways in which the built environment might affect the self-realisation and development of individuals.