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In a new book from Routledge, Building Theories: Architecture as the Art of Building, Franca Trubiano, associate professor of architecture and chair of the Graduate Group in Architecture, offers a close reading of texts from antiquity, the Renaissance, and the nineteenth century, along with a critical eye on architectural theory post-1968. This excerpt lays out the structure of the book and describes how the interdependence of design and construction might be more carefully considered in contemporary architecture theory.
On Wednesday, March 22, 2023, the Department of Architecture holds a book launch for Building Theories, with a presentation by Trubiano. The event is free, but registration is required.
Building Theories: Architecture as the Art of Building speaks to the value of words in architecture. It addresses my fascination with the voices of architects, engineers, builders, and craftspeople whose ideas about building, however faint, have been captured in text. It discusses the content of treatises, essays, articles, and letters by those who have been, throughout history, committed to the art of building. In this, Building Theories argues for the return of a practice of architectural theory that is set amongst building, buildings, and builders. This journey of close reading reinterprets the words of Vitruvius, Alberti, de L’Orme, Le Camus de Mézières, Boullée, Laugier, Rondelet, Semper, Viollet-le-Duc, Hübsch, Bötticher, Berlage, Muthesius, Wagner, Behrendt, Gropius, and Arup. With chapters dedicated to antiquity, the Renaissance, and the nineteenth century, and with a critical eye on a version of theory popularized in the Anglo-Saxon world post-1968, readers are introduced to a wider, more inclusive definition of architectural ideas. Building Theories considers how contemporary scholarship has steered away from the topic of building in its reluctance to admit that both design and construction are central to its concerns. In response, it argues for a realignment of architecture with the concept of techné, with a dual commitment to fabrica e ratio, with a productive return to l’art de bien bastir, with the accurate translation of the term Baukunst, and with an appeal to the architect’s ‘composite mind.’ Students, practitioners, and educators will identify in Building Theories ways of thinking that strive for the integration of design with construction; reject the assumed primacy of the former over the latter; recognize how aesthetics are an insufficient scaffold for subtending the subject of architectural ethics; and accept, without reservation, that material transformations have always been at the origins of built form.
Architectural theory is a well-articulated field seeing as throughout the centuries, architects, scholars, and critics have explicated its givens via publications. And yet, the recent history of architectural theory has revealed serious challenges ahead. More than ever, theory’s relevance to both those who design and those who build is questioned. Overwhelmed by technological exigencies and the bureaucratization of their profession, little time remains for theoretical considerations on the part of architects. Conversely, the building industry, with its material, economic, and political constraints, is rarely at the center of architectural speculations by architects, students, theorists, or critics. The labor of builders, diminishing global resources, and the economic aspirations of clients is sparingly of concern to those principally guided by questions of formal analysis, design influence, philosophical correspondences, and semiotics. More critically, students, educators, practitioners, and builders have recently lost sight of the work and words of architects who once actively reflected and deliberated on the process and meaning of building. When and how did the definition of theory transform to preclude the very subject and object at the center of the architect’s practice?
To answer such questions, rehabilitating our understanding of architectural theory and articulating an alternative path for thinking through building is required. A renewed focus on the very acts and circumstances that define how design, culture, and construction shape the built environment is needed. To this end, a work of architectural theory that redefines its very principles is the goal of Building Theories: Architecture as the Art of Building, which identifies the work of architecture as both the thing made and that which it means.
Of interest is the long history of the art of building of which theory has been an essential and constituent part. The threads of continuity are many and consistent between cultures and contexts which embraced thinking through building. Building Theories argues that subjects rarely addressed by contemporary architectural theory were once seminal to its definition and emblematic of the interdependence of design and construction. Chapter 1, “Thinking through Building,” reviews the immediate history of architectural theory (1970–2000) when the turn to conceptual architecture and the subsequent zenith of critical theory in schools of architecture in the United States and Anglo-Saxon countries cemented a culture of critique and contestation. And yet, almost as quickly, within three decades, theory chose to cease and desist. Albeit facing no fewer challenges today than it did then, since the turn of the twenty-first century, theory’s greatest trial is its own relevance. Architectural projects in our post-critical era, sanctioned by an array of representational and fabrication technologies, have dismissed the very need for theory, let alone an ethics of building. Alas, what both tendencies fail to notice—be it the hyper-intellectualizing of critical theory or the no-theory of the post-critical—is that the very body, matter, and thingness of architectural theory is—and had always been—present in building.
Chapter 2, “Building and the Treatise,” details various characterizations of the art of building central to architectural treatises written by Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti, Philibert de L’Orme, and Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, amongst others. Whether building artisans, scholar architects, or mason authors, these thinkers practiced architecture as a form of techné, as a mechanical art, and as an art of disegno. And, in all instances, they sought to integrate the making of architecture—its fabrica—with its reflection—its ratio. Thinking through building and ‘building well’ have been the subject and destiny of many a work of theory, that for hundreds of years bound the idea of building to edification. Chapter 3, “Architect as Builder and Thinker,” outlines Jean Baptiste Rondelet’s insistence at the beginning of the nineteenth century that his colleagues be skilled in more than just drawings and renderings. Architects must learn to measure, test, procure materials, organize labor, manage the site, and judge the quality of the work and its craft. In this, Rondelet articulated an art of building that was intimately tied to a prescient theory of ‘the nature of materials,’ even if in his eagerness he precipitated its assimilation to a near-science. Chapter 4, “Matter(s), Hidden in Plain Sight,” speaks to the long-standing dialectic between matter and form that characterized the greater part of the nineteenth century, and that forecast the demise of the former to the benefit of the latter. The chapter contributes to the story of matter’s slow death at the hands of architects and philosophers, alike. It highlights the growing disinterest in all-stone buildings, the ornamental impulse and the over-articulation of surfaces, and the increasing desire to build ever-larger structural spans. Overstating the dematerialization of nineteenth-century architecture, however, risks our losing sight of important evidence of composite thinking in architectural theory of the period. The thoughts and texts of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Gottfried Semper make this clear: the former in his invention of the structural hybrid, the latter in his celebration of woven walls, actual and metaphoric. Chapter 5, “Lost in Translation,” excavates long-buried correspondences between the art of building and the German notion of Baukunst. Well into the end of the nineteenth century, there was little use of the German language term for architecture, Architektur. This fact remains unacknowledged by contemporary English translators. In numerous recent translations of nineteenth-century German texts—by Heinrich Hübsch, Carl Bötticher, Hendrick Petrus Berlage, Hermann Muthesius, or Otto Wagner—the definition of architecture as an art of building is denied. This categorical dismissal of the concept of Baukunst amongst architectural historians in the 1990s has contributed to further rarefying the hegemonic definition of ‘Architecture’ as a representational art. Chapter 6 speaks to architecture’s changing relationship with representation. It advances an alternative ground for the practice of theory, one that is far older and well beyond aesthetics and language. “From Aesthetics to Ethics, and Back” argues that a contemporary understanding of mimesis is possible when the art of building participates more fully in the eternal struggle that is architectural artifice in the face of nature. In this, it unmasks the gap between things built and our perception of them, as between modes of reflective thinking and the spirit of construction. Chapter 6 considers contemporary writers which foreground the ethical values of making, craft, details, tectonics, surfaces, metamorphoses, maintenance, and error. In each, we are reminded that architecture is a work of human effort whose matter reconciles our thoughts with gravity, water, temperature, wind, and nature herself. Nothing that is built escapes its force. Amongst the founding myths of the art of building is the re-presentation of nature’s interminable drive to lay ruin to all that it makes.
Chapter 7, “Design and Construction,” is dedicated to two mid-century building professionals whose words and works are emblematic of the principles described and promoted in this book. Walter Gropius, German architect and pre–World War II émigré to the United States, founded the most transformational school dedicated to the art of building—the Bauhaus; he also promoted a narrative of professional integration and collaboration openly criticized in the heady days of modernism. Ove Arup, Danish-educated engineer who was born in London, England, invented the very concept of integrated systems design and championed the need for new forms of re-presentation (drawings, tools, and models) to render visible the invisible—the forces, energy, and flows—and to facilitate the collaborative work of Total Design. Chapter 8, “The Composite Mind Re-Builds Theory,” bears witness to both Gropius’s and Arup’s promotion of the idea of the ‘composite mind,’ with its particular ability to unify qualities with quantities, and to integrate matter with mind. The ‘composite mind’ bonds in sympathy with the ‘other,’ and paves the way to a reconciliation of design and construction.
This is the ethical charge of Building Theories. To address critical questions associated with architectural value and judgment. To identify, by way of past examples, principles germane to an embodied practice of theory. To empower with agency future practitioners of the art of building, and to speculate on its communicative capacity.