Architectural Blatherations

Architecture as a Discipline

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The Good Oil

This page is pretty heavy. Skip it unless you want an in-depth discussion about how achitecture fits into the intellectual demi-monde.


No great labour is required to unearth an article in the academic press that excoriates architecture for its failings as a discipline.

Amos Rapoport's invited piece for the jubilee issue of one of the profession's most prestigious journals, the Journal of Architectural Education (JAE), can be taken as typical. He bases his attack on the grounds that architecture has failed in its mission, which is the creation of environments for users: The only justification for architecture as a profession is in providing better environments for people. To do this, he argues, requires the development of a discipline-based profession. He remarks that the search for well-founded reliable knowledge is precisely what a discipline is all about, and that architecture has made no attempt to develop such knowledge. When describing his own area of environment-behaviour studies he amplifies his concept of what a discipline is:

It tries to build explanatory theory without which normative statements are impossible. It is committed to rationality and reason, to explicit goals based on knowledge, goals which can be tested and refuted if wrong; in this way it is committed to the creation of a self-correcting discipline on which the professional/practice side must be firmly based.

That this task is not as simple as those such as Rapoport would have us believe may be gleaned from the fact that even to the individuals whom one would most readily identify as being its members—academics—it is not entirely clear if there is a discipline of architecture, or just what it is. Rapoport complained that architecture's problem was precisely that there was no discipline worth the name, but that if there was one, its function was to help architects do their job of creating decent environments for the users of buildings. As well as specifying its proper content he determined the discipline's form: it should resemble one of the social sciences. Others feel that there is no single discipline called 'architecture' but a collection of intersecting research communities whose work feeds back mainly to their parent disciplines. Some have wondered aloud whether there was anything to architectural research that was not building research, noting that the latter was not of much interest to architects.

The discipline in the field

It is important to realise that the field of architecture is much larger than the discipline of the same name. Nor is the discipline wholly contained within the field. Members of the discipline are also members of the field of education, which commits them to teach, and to produce scholarship or research, not to just produce buildings. That is, disciplinarians must generate some sort of intellectual product. Many members of the field of literature write, producing novels, stories, poems and plays. A member of the discipline of literary studies need not have written a work of fiction in their lives, but they must have produced some critical work about literature. Just so in architecture, as many architectural critics have never designed a building themselves.

Further, the discipline is not at all the same as the profession, and membership of the two only partly overlaps. The profession is full of people producing architecture, while the discipline is mainly filled with people who talk about architecture. The discipline is a second-order activity, a pursuit wholly dependent on the existence of architectural producers. It follows that:

The central function of the discipline of architecture is to provide the intellectual instruments by which 'architecture' is valorised. Discourse about these instruments constitutes the primary symbolic capital of the discipline.

The nature of the particular intellectual instruments so devised—that is, the content of the discipline—is not of interest here. We can simply note in passing that all the instruments are arbitrary in that they could be other than they are, provided they serve to convince others that certain parts of the built environment are good and great, and others are not. So, for example, in the Middle Ages one simply appealed to Platonic number theory to justify built form. Vitruvius was enlisted in the Renaissance and a more refined number mysticism introduced. Through to the end of the nineteenth century architects fell back on an explicit declaration that some people—that is, them—had an innately better taste than others, and that was that. Eighty years ago one talked about function. The content of the justification is irrelevant, as long as one can persuade the rest of the field that it is the right justification.

Differences from other disciplines

Architecture differs in several fundamental ways from disciplines such as the sciences. For those that have become most entrenched in universities, such as physics or sociology, the schools provide three important structures: an intellectual market of symbolic capital; a system of production of 'knowledge' or 'scholarship'; and a reproduction system to reproduce members of the discipline. The unification of these structures is most complete in the fully institutionalised disciplines, and least so in those at the other end of the continuum. So, for example, many physicists are employed in universities or associated research centres, and the discipline is firmly centred on these academic units. Academic departments reproduce physicists, employ physicists and produce physics. Academic scientists produce their science in their capacity as academics. A scientist who stops producing science and starts talking about science is held to have moved into another area (such as history and philosophy of science). There is a very clear disjunction between doing science and producing discourse about it.

None of these things is true of architecture. Academic departments of architecture produce only a fraction of the total discourse of architecture, unlike their colleagues in the sciences. They differ also in that if, say, chemistry departments are dedicated to producing members of the discipline of chemistry, architecture departments are not committed to producing members of the discipline. Instead, they produce members of the occupation, architects. Further, while science departments produce science, architecture departments rarely produce architecture, but talk about architecture. When architectural academics design buildings, they do so in their capacity as a member of a design firm quite distinct from their university department.

Structure of the discipline

Architecture is clearly not as nearly academicised as physics or chemistry or the other natural sciences. At most two per cent of American architects are employed as full-time academics, and the figure is probably rather closer to one per cent. Between 10% to 15% of American scientists are so employed. Whether one takes the proportional difference as five or fifteen times, it is clear that a significantly higher proportion of scientists are embedded in Academe than architects. Not at all surprising, but it does drive home the point that this necessarily gives the discipline of architecture a different character to that of any of the sciences. Academics exercise far less power in the field compared to those in other disciplines.

Universities employ only a proportion of those who would consider themselves as members of the discipline. A large number of disciplinarians work as media critics, in galleries, museums, in the private sector, historical conservation, and in various cultural organisations who contribute to the work of the area. We may take the membership of the Society of Architectural Historians as an indicator: about one-third are academics, a little less than one-third are practising architects and most of the rest are working in historic preservation.

A small fraction of practitioners would also consider themselves as intellectual producers, but even if this amounted to only one per cent of the professionals it would constitute a body of similar size to the academics. University-employed academics carry little clout in the discipline. As a result, the universities are not consecrating institutions in the way that they are for other disciplines. Where in other fields an authoritative opinion is sought from an eminent academic, in architecture the same force is granted to, say, the critics of the New York Times or Architectural Review.

The journals

The importance of this lies in the fact that as a consequence the discipline of architecture is rather less affected by influences from other scholastically dominated disciplines and their academics. The scholastic virtues that the corporate university attempts to enforce on all its members are brought to bear on only a fraction of the members of the architectural discipline. Perhaps architectural publishing provides the best examples. In the sciences, most journals are edited by academics and produced by academic presses. Papers are usually unsolicited, and blind- refereed by anonymous reviewers. The aim, whether it succeeds or not, is to remove bias from the process. The assumption, whether it is valid or not, is that a scientists' peers have the right to pass judgement on their fellows' work, and to determine what is publishable.

Architectural journals are usually produced by practitioners, local professional associations, arts institutions or private publishers. The late Progressive Architecture, Architecture, and AIA Journal in the United States, Architects' Journal and Architectural Review in the United Kingdom, and Domus, Architecture and Urbanism elsewhere—for example—have nothing whatever to do with universities. Editors compete to obtain the rights to the most fashionable projects and architects. They practice what is euphemistically called "access journalism", which simply means that a bankable architect allows his or her work to be published if nothing particularly critical is said of it. In the worst cases, the architects insist on bowdlerizing articles prior to publication. Some of the most widely read journals and presses are little more than vanity publishing houses, relying on their favourite architects to pay for photographs and to buy a couple of hundred books or magazines for use in self-advertising.

Information flow

Intellectual influences tend to penetrate architecture less through specific academic channels than through the wider communication system of the field of culture—media such as the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Channel 4, PBS and so on. Conventional academic communication is minimal compared to other disciplines, a fact to which the paucity of academic journals attests. Two points should be made here. First, the great intellectual tides of the time bear on architecture more than specific ideas originating in other disciplines, and, second, they do so not so much through their influences on academics as on the other members of the field. Deconstruction offers an instructive example. It has been noted that this literary theory has penetrated various other disciplines, moving from academic departments of English to others. In architecture the movement was not from academic to academic, but from the architecture profession to the schools. Deconstruction was evidenced in the work of certain avant-garde architects, in the writings of some critics, and in some exhibitions at important galleries before it became a major topic of discussion in Academe. In the English-speaking world, certainly, the universities have never been the major sites of intellectual production in architecture.

Symbolic capitals

The capital par excellence in the field has always been that associated with the design of buildings or, more properly, with images of buildings, since it need hardly be said that some of the most important architecture has never been built: the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Corbusier, most of the deconstructivists, and Boulleé come to mind. Images are often more important than any experience. For example, as Juan Pablo Bonta demonstrated, one of the most influential buildings of the first half of the century, Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona pavilion, existed only for a few months. It only achieved its status years after its destruction, through the promulgation of photographs.

Architectural discourse circulates as a secondary capital within the discipline. Deconstruction could be seen as an attempt by the disciplinarians to revalue their capital to a status comparable to that of architecture per se. In this it is a weapon in the perpetual conflict between academic and architect, the former relegated to the role of mere exegete to the titanic demiurges of the profession. Within the sciences, academics hold a substantial portion of the symbolic capital of the field and therefore rank highly in its stratification systems. Elite scientists are embedded in Academe and so control its reproduction system, a system around which research is organised. This is not so in architecture. Academics are secondary figures in the production system but dominate the reproduction side. Elite architects have little direct influence on the reproduction system, and even this is exercised only in sporadic and brief royal progresses through the design studios of the more elite schools, or the occasional hortatory harangue published in the popular architectural journals.

Architecture and related disciplines

To say that architecture produces instruments of valorisation is to say that it produces the instruments of taste, the discourse that labels some buildings and architects as great, and others as not. This is not to say that this discourse is devoid of "knowledge", but to emphasise the fact— invariably ignored by architectural academics—that it does more than this. It is no wonder then that areas one might normally consider of interest to architects, such as acoustics, or psychology, or sociology, carry so little weight in the discipline, for they are relevant to its central function only when the intellectual fashions of the time require their service in the formulation of the instruments of valorisation.

Architectural acousticians, for example, are really acousticians working in architecture schools, and are predestined to always and forever be members of the discipline of acoustics, not of architecture, until such time as the turn of the intellectual wheel of fate might necessitate the enlistment of their discourse, as it did for a short while of psychologists in the 1970s. The fundamental failings discerned by psychologists and environmental scientists (such as Rapoport, quoted earlier) and all the others from disciplines "allied" to architecture—namely the utter failure of architects to listen to them, the dismal and seemingly perverse inability to integrate the fruits of their scholarly labours into the architectural process—can be seen to be no fault of the architects, but the failure of the others to perceive that their work has no bearing at all on the valorisation of architecture.

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