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The practice of theory

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Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti has launched a broadside against theory-free, post-modernist posturing. But theory, says Joseph Rykwert, must address architecture’s ‘thinginess’

We do not hear as much about the death of architecture as we used to. That post-modern theme was fashionable among architectural academics in Latin countries and the USA over a couple of decades and it even had the odd adept in this country. By a sleight-of-hand, a Hegel/Marx doctrine was cobbled together to justify the view that architecture proper could only be possible after the Revolution, the triumph of the proletariat.

Until that happened we would have to make do with building as industrial production, and more of it was not merrier at all, but provided us – by a further Freudian slip – with spaces whose power would be uncanny, weird, would alienate their users. These spaces were all variants on the 57 post-modern styles and freed all that followed them from any compliance with architectural seemliness. Airports and shopping malls were thought to provide the models of alienating spaces, such as our more ambitious architects might seek to provide.

So maybe it is just as well that the rebellion against the posturing that justified all the unwieldy buildings going up from Dubai to Beijing as the architecture our society should expect has come from a Latin country. Vittorio Gregotti’s pamphlet against the end of architecture (Contro la fine dell’architettura) is a few months old. It was prophetically written just as the financial crisis loomed and was published just after the Reagan-Bush-Thatcher-Blair free market crashed about our ears, tearing through the financial fabric which sustained such buildings.

‘Any architecture worthy of man’ – Gregotti quotes the philosopher-critic Theodor Adorno – ‘must take a view of society and of individuals which is an improvement on their present condition’. And he concludes that ‘any critical theory of architecture must have as its aim the construction of the project, and not a demonstration of its impossibility’.

A critical theory? Who needs one, some readers may ask. We all do, say I. No true practitioner can work without theory and, stretching a point, I would say that any practitioner who claims to discard theory furtively holds on to some cranky or moth-eaten one.

Architectural theory offers clients and builders a reason for doing things in a particular way

Gregotti, rightly insistent on the need for a theory, is perhaps a little defensive of its position in the discipline of architecture. True, architectural theory cannot quite be like a theory in physics, which sets out to explain some perplexing ganglion of phenomena and to direct future research. It must be humbler and give the architect as well as anyone else involved in the wearisome business of building (even his clients) a reason for doing things in a particular way.

Nor will the old chestnut that what might be all right in theory will not work in practice do as an excuse: it is no chestnut, but a hot potato, which sent the usually serene Immanuel Kant into incandescent fury a couple of centuries ago.

That we need theory now more than ever is Gregotti’s true theme, which he takes by way of an analogy with the other ‘visual’ arts, which have sharpened ‘twenties avant-garde procedures so that the eye is flummoxed by their “conceptual” productions, which increasingly create in time rather than in space so that only “concepts” are fabricated while “things” seem to be despised’.

Now, architecture is obstinately anchored in space. Buildings are things and quite unlike the products of an amorphous ‘design’ process, which Gregotti blames for reducing shoes and aeroplanes, advertising and cities to the same aesthetic brew in a grotesque parody of Bauhaus ‘universal’ design.

However, architectural ‘thinginess’ is quite separate, as Gregotti insists. The making of the architectural project must take account of how the programme relates to form, how a building welcomes its occupiers, how its shape must depend on the way it is made, how it is constructed.

This may seem self-evident, but it is largely forgotten. Gregotti’s reminder makes his an essential text for our time – and I wish we could have it in English.

Contro la fine dell’architettura, by Vittorio Gregotti. Einaudi, October 2008, 133pp, 10 euros. ISBN-13: 97888 06192938

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I'm inclined to take Rykwert seriously because he is such an impressive academic, as well as having been a practitioner, but this all seems wrong to me. The quote used to justify his call for 'more theory' is merely common sense, the kind of common sense that any zealous architect with a few years of experience under their belt would have recently adopted.

    What is needed is honesty, not theory. Honesty on the part of practitioners about the means of making buildings today. i.e the means of industrial production, and the means of procurement. This varies from country to country. I think the best architect to leanr from in this case is Siza. Now I know he's all the range at the moment, but look at what he does. When he's got a big municipal client, he doesn't 'go for the jugular' like he did with the enlightened sympathetic client of his Brazilian Ibere museum.

    In portugal and other latin countries, he uses concrete freely. while in northern europe he reverts to brick.

    He is single minded about delivering quality, and is not driven by abstract artistic theories.

    Making good buildings is no real fine art, it is years of trial and error, and single minded devotion to the minor success of creating viable architecture is required to make those years count for something and to make real progress. Most talented architects are interested only in being stars, even the new quiet generation, only they do it in a different way, and more deliberately than the old 20th century masters did.

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