State of mind
Ideas That Shaped Buildings By Fil Hearn. MIT Press, 2003. £12.95
Tutors and students will be blessing Fil Hearn for his little book, Ideas that Shaped Buildings.
It is compact, erudite and literate, and runs through the canon of architectural theory from Vitruvius via Viollet-le-Duc to Venturi, with excursions to Alberti, Laugier, Ruskin and Wright. On its chosen theorists it is cogent and concise.With all these advantages, any quibbles might sound like minor carps.
Some are. Some are not.
The minor ones first. Any attempt to condense a 2,000-year-old tradition will inevitably involve debatable personal decisions. The absence of the Picturesque is rather odd, and it is hard to understand Ruskin - on whom Hearn majors - without some mention of Burke's Sublime and Beautiful.
Another oddity is his dismissal of Semper as 'outside the mainstream', although he has to treat him in various subsequent contexts.
The point - and here we move from minor carps to conceptual flaws - is that Semper is only outside the mainstream if one accepts certain questionable constructions, which theory should, by definition, constantly question. To be sure, Semper was not a major influence on William Morris, Le Corbusier or the Smithsons, but what about Loos, Louis Sullivan and Mies? To postulate that there is a 'mainstream', and presumably several backwaters, is a short step from claiming a canon of 'great works', chosen as if by apostolic succession rather than reasoned judgement.
If it has any validity at all, theory should force us to reassess what we consider great and why. It is a continual practice, even a state of mind, rather than a series of texts. It will certainly bring questions of historical method to bear, because what seems great at one period might seem pretty dreadful at another: a theorist might be as interested in explaining that change as in propagandising for one side or the other. Theory is not history, but exists in an historic context.
As soon as we engage with theory we alter it. As Hearn himself confesses in his opening sentence: 'A theory of architecture resides in any notion of what a building ought to be like.'He might have developed this promising start, but instead proposes a taxonomy of 'underpinnings', 'conventions', 'principles' and 'convolutions', which he relates respectively to theories in general, those before 1800, those from 1800-1965, and those from 1965 to now.
This division, however, tends to rely on normative distinctions rather than challenge them. So Vitruvius, Alberti and Laugier predominate up to 1800; Ruskin, Viollet, Wright and Le Corbusier in the second period;
Venturi and Eisenman in the last. Those off piste are unacknowledged. Moreover, Hearn fails to recognise non-architectural thought, but pioneering works of architectural history, such as Panofsky on scholasticism or Wittkower's Architectural Principles, have shown how closely architectural thought mirrors current intellectual concerns. Hearn's comments on individual theorists are often pithy and apposite, but the overall effect is as if they are chained in the dingiest dungeon of all, that of intellectual convention.
Hearn claims there is a point around 1965 where theories flip from being prescriptive to discursive.A more subtle hypothesis might be that there is always a time-lag of around a generation which requires different treatment from the remoter past. New (or reshaped) ideas need time to bed down until they become part of received wisdom, and during this period are prone to behave as if they were accelerated particles in an atom.
They might attach themselves to different particles or assemble themselves - either temporarily or permanently - in ways that taxonomists find inconvenient.
So a historical survey of architectural theory might be possible, especially if it found some way of recognising its relationship to other systems of ideas, be they literary, scientific, political, economic or theological; but trying to treat 2,000 years up to the present day in a single volume is nigh on impossible.
At root here is a fundamental point about history rather than theory. Hearn implies that the critical, as opposed to didactic or prescriptive, aspects of theory are a new phenomenon. Introducing 'Convolutions - Theory since 1965', he writes: 'Such convolutions could, hypotheticially, be applied to underpinnings, conventions and principles alike, but because they were generated in reaction to the principles of Modernism they have functioned thus far only as challenges to that body of theory.'
Now this is debatable, because Venturi and Eisenman question rather more than their immediate past, while Modernism surely was in part 'generated in reaction to the principles of ' recent architecture. But most contentious is the idea that theory only became critical of itself in the 1960s.
What is needed here is a delicate flip, such as Hearn performs in many of his comments on individual writers: an inversion of the underlying relationship in his mind between history and theory. Whatever the book's internal thematic subdivision, he allows a consistent view of history - chronology - to provide its overarching structure. Perhaps the same knowledge, perception and intellectual commitment might have achieved a sharper focus around a consistent view of theory - that aspect of architectural thought with the capacity to be critical of itself.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University