Architectural Theory Now

Compared with the 1970s, 80s, and 90s—decades when journals such as Assemblage, Casabella, Daidalos, October, Oppositions, Zodiac, and ANY were filled with heady polemics that spilled over into popular architectural magazines, seminars, and design studios—architectural theory is today at an impasse, if not passé. Not only are many print journals now gone, architectural theory courses have been eliminated in many schools’ curricula in favor of technology-centered courses, research studios, history without theory, and “autonomous theory.” It’s as if architectural theory, a field of inquiry developed and articulated over a few thousand years, filling archives and rare book rooms with beautiful and beguiling works of architectural knowledge, was suddenly transformed in unrecognizable ways, or became obsolete. Yet, at least to date, the discipline of architecture has always had a practice of theory and theories of practice.

This symposium asks, “What happened to architectural theory and where is it headed?” Is it M.I.A., D.O.A. or simply in transition? What constitutes the practice of architectural thinking—or theory—today? Surely, even if preoccupations from earlier decades now seem irrelevant, architects and students still have the need to reflect on the greater purposes of their activities. Age-old architectural concerns about aesthetics, function, materials, and construction have not disappeared. The early 21st century has been shocked and traumatized by global environmental concerns and terrorism, and all but overwhelmed by widely debated social, cultural, technological, economic, and political concerns. Indeed, while architects have much to consider, and much is asked of them, generationally critical issues must be addressed by theory. Recently, courageous students, architects, and academics have addressed topics such as gender inequity and social injustices in the profession, unfair labor practices in the construction industry, and the politics of serving in the construction of border walls and prisons. Yet more comprehensive intellectual tools to interpret, assess, and evaluate the long-term social and cultural implications of architectural work, in particular the highly technological expansion of design and building activities, are needed.

If little in architectural theory, as developed in recent decades, has prepared architects to thoughtfully engage in our contemporary challenges, it is perhaps time to make a new start in defining what architectural theory is now.

4 April, 12:00 to 6 April 2019
210 South 34th Street
19104 Philadelphia, PA
University of Pennsylvania School of Design