You are on page 1of 4

S A T U R D A Y, O C T O B E R 2 7 , 2 0 0 7

Taking A Position

An expert from "Taking A Position", from the blog of Lebbeus
Woods.
-Architects are not born theorists, that is true. Most of the world’s
best architects never wrote a line about their work, let alone
proposed a theory–they didn’t have to. There were busy critics and
professors who followed their works with great attention.
Innovative architects were lucky to have their Mumfords, Gideons,
and Tafuris, and, more rarely, their Foucaults, Deleuzes and
Derridas. The theories that the theoreticians spun around their
works enabled a wide discourse to develop, elevating architecture
to a form of knowledge, lifting it out of the venal chatter of the
marketplace. Sadly, those critics and professors have died, leaving
a conceptual—and critical—void.
-Many of us pored over theory books in school and attempted to
extract every sliver of meaning that we could and integrate it into
our studio projects, whether successfully or not. Having graduated
from school and growing into a 'professional' environment, the
struggle I find is finding the space for theory in practice. Managing
a project means accommodating the needs of the clients, the
funders, the contractors, the engineers, the users, the dept. of
buildings, the dept. of education, etc. The list goes on and on.
Theory is most certainly at the end of that list. But how can we
find the space for theory? Who will pay for it? Many probably
would criticize Woods' position as one of privilege and ignorance
(his work is mainly theoretical and unbuilt) to the realities of the
pursuit of building architecture. Who is right? Architecture does not
exist within a vacuum, there are rules to abide by and parties to
appease. Does this remove the purity and the joy from the work?
As with any creative process that exists within the world of

Occasionally. It’s as though we’ve reached the ‘end of history.’ proclaimed. leaving a conceptual—and critical—void. their Foucaults. There were busy critics and professors who followed their works with great attention. Working feverishly at the end of history. we as architects have the power to mandate theory as an integral component of practice. and Tafuris. and. more rarely. exponents of liberal democracy’s main activity–capitalist enterprise. That’s where the money is. Ultimately. Sadly. the great architects are the ones who recognize their position. Theory? Actually. The liberal democracies of Dubai (UAE) and Kazakhstan. Most of the world’s best architects never wrote a line about their work. but the end of history as such: that is. in 1992. Innovative architects were lucky to have their Mumfords. navigate the commercial and ultimately build what they desire to build. Architects are not born theorists. even when the architects are flying first class. Shanghai. or the passing of a particular period of post-war history. there is the perception of the commercial destroying the purity of the work. Or of Bejing. For those who say that theory is lost. those critics and professors have died. “is not just the end of the Cold War. The theories that the theoreticians spun around their works enabled a wide discourse to develop. governments–who need the same kind of upbeat PR–are clients. Singapore. it is not due to the lack of the vocal critics applauding the intricacies and influence of the work. That’s where the developers and their architects (including many of the best we have) are. . let alone proposed a theory–they didn’t have to. that is true. In the age of McLuhan (and Debord) they understand the value of the PR spectacular architecture delivers. Theory is lost by the architects who believe they are merely building buildings and not constructing ideas. lifting it out of the venal chatter of the marketplace. I applaud all those who struggle to pursue the latter. today seem more eager than ever to play the main game of liberal democracy. elevating architecture to a form of knowledge. TAKING A POSITION We do indeed live in a dry time for theories of architecture. often the hand-maidens of politics. Deleuzes and Derridas. for example. the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. However. Gideons. And who are the clients? Developers. “ he wrote. it’s excess baggage. which is the pursuit of clients and their commissions. as Woods notes. by Francis Fukuyama: “What we may be witnessing.” An astonishing prospect! Architects.commerce.

the taciturn genius. no? Exeunt critics and professors. In fact. by building. They don’t write theory. It hasn’t inspired a new architecture. or modeled) form. or a new discourse. or intending to build. I think architects themselves need to take up the task of theory writing. An architect’s work begins in philosophy. exactly. What is important is the relationship between an architect’s thoughts–expressed in writing or speech–and their presence in a building. other than that of media success. who have done just that: Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl. Certainly the architect. That may seem at first an absurd expectation. and the contemporary world. With its advent. there’s not much that can be said about it beyond its great success. their buildings and their books. Novel forms work so well. The “Bilbao Effect” has dampened critical architectural writing. Herbert Muschamp was right—the building is the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe. are shaping the world. because he was very much a thinking and writing and speaking architect. like Marilyn. but imitable. It is not merely speculative to say that without his theorizing he would never have created the architecture he did. Bilbao is a manifesto without a theory. No one is advocating this kind of abuse. interest shifted from the heady quarrels about Deconstructism and Post-Modernism to a concern with the much less intellectually taxing search for novel forms. the architects who.Many of the critics and professors of the present day may be silent about the most recent works for a reason. as in his statements on the relationship of design to form—are very evident in his buildings. not just opportunities. was . but I can think of two architects very engaged in building. If we look behind the curving titanium skin. but they place their work in the context of ideas. I like the idea of a building as a manifesto. LW 1. A notorious example of such an attempt was the use of the theories of Barthes and other post-structuralists to justify 70s kitsch like Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia. That’s not only admirable. If new ideas are not embodied in built (or drawn. Sorry. from the viewpoint of promoting tourism and other spun-off enterprises. This is because architecture embraces the widest possible understanding of the human condition. As for the Bilbao Guggenheim. Certainly he knew that. or even a comprehensive argument. and an architect needs to be self-conscious and self-reflective in ways artists do not. but they have taken positions vis-à-vis other fields of knowledge. It encloses the same old museum programs. All I can say is. we find swarms of metal studs holding it up–no innovative construction technology there. hasn’t said anything of consequence. and so should we. Think what you will of them. then no amount of written theory is going to put them there. and not wait for rescue from the quarters of academe. but an architect cannot be only an artist. Even Mies. I’m glad aes mentions Kahn. Sexiness just speaks for itself. let’s have more from others. Kahn’s writings—very much a conscious creation of theory. They take the risk of putting off potential clients.

LW .given to seminal pronouncements that conveyed ideas it took others volumes to express.