Architecture & non-architecture : A draft... / by Ian Bailey

***Originally posted 03/01/2013***

“There is no such thing as bad architecture; only good architecture and non-architecture.”Ernesto Rogers

Taking Reyner Banham’s view of A black box : The secret profession of architecture as a starting point for considering the professions position, it would appear that it has lost touch with with normality, presenting tangible outputs but being unintelligible to the mainstream throughout it’s conception, production and activity. This paper will look to analyse to what extent present educational systems and practices support this idea and present an opportunity to investigate the resulting outcomes of a re-engagement between education and different types of practice -both accepted and side-lined examples- that perhaps offer a glimpse of an alternative system of creating architecture.

Architecture could be described as bi-polar; it would appear that the profession and it’s proponents are constantly stretched between two opposing and disparate determinations about it’s/their role, both in and of themselves and within the wider context of sentient life on planet Earth. The problem at hand here is that Architecture no longer operates like a conventional field of human activity, – that is, by people, with people, for people – it has stepped out of the mainstream of accessible professions, setting itself apart from all other creative fields to try to elevate itself to and maintain a ‘mother of the arts’ role. The profession has to break away from these ‘official histories’ and ‘black box’ autonomy mentalities that have gradually built up since Vitruvius and engage with the common public again, as long as it remains within the keep of it’s canons it cannot do that, it will remain aloof and self aggrandising.

The association, use of and proliferation of power in and through the profession of Architecture has been analysed from several angles, most notably by Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre who respectively would argue (broadly speaking) that Architects are merely pawns in a larger regime of power and control, or, alternatively that Architects are active agents who exercise their own power and manipulate it for controlling purposes. Architecture has long been used as a tool for demonstrating power, from banks to monuments, palaces to country houses, these are just some examples of how building become a physical manifestation of power. This proliferation of Architecture as icon has been on the increase throughout the latter half of the last millennium but the upward curve has taken an almost vertical trajectory during the last 25 years alone with multiple new towers and headquarters, museums and galleries, schools and stadiums being designed and built every year around the globe forming a veritable smorgasbord ofbuilt objects all pushing new heights of aesthetic beauty and structural finesse in multiple societies and cultures.

Foucault has written extensively about power and it’s position, location and use/abuse within society. Whilst he hasn’t specifically written about education in itself “as some of the new nineteenth-century institutions of power, Foucault inferred that schools, colleges, and universities employed the “generic ‘micro technologies of power’ (‘surveillance,’ ‘normalisation,’and ‘examination’) to transform subjects from one state to another.” So when talking about Architectural education it would follow that the pedagogic systems in place should ‘normalise’ or ‘socialise’ it’s participants using the power that it inherently has as an educational institution. In Architectural education that power is in the hands of the tutors, lecturers and visiting practitioners who have already passed through the ‘black box’ as Banham would describe it – that is a group of socialised people that “retreat into a rarified and self-referential world” that “appears as the exercise of an arcane and privileged code.” This retreat is demonstrated in schools of architecture across the globe as discussed by Till in his book Architecture Depends, with students entering the course as “normal, situated, humans and come out as rather abnormal, detached, members of the tribe.” Within all schools of architecture (which in themselves are very particular societies) there are complex strategical situations such as the crit. Helena Webster writes about how this architectural educational institution forms part of the black box and equally how it is a physical and psychological demonstration of the power and truth that reside with the visiting qualified (those who have already passed through the black box) architects and tutors. Foucault suggests that it is these kind of settings that demonstrate real power, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” The role of the crit in forming the architectural brain of a student into thinking, speaking, responding and reacting could be argued as the nub of the power within the black box of architectural education.

Part of this discourse relates to the notion of truth, Foucault discusses that each society has it’s own truth and it could be argued that this notion could be applied to the field of architecture where the canons and official histories are presented as ‘truth’ and therefore the knowledge of that truth becomes power. Lev Shevtsov notes that “Truth found inside a tightly sealed room is hardly any use outside; judgements made inside a room which, for fear of draughts is never aired, are blown away with the first gust of wind.” The black box of architectural education acts like a sealed room, with official histories and professional truths presented as truths rather than viewpoints or opinions, perhaps slightly in the fear that subjectivity might creep in over and above objectivity – as if that were unacceptable within a creative field.

Jeremy Till suggests that there is an architecture outside of the ‘official histories’ or ‘truth’ that could equally be presented to architectural students; “between the architecture as described in the official histories, and the architecture whose story is rarely told… people who dare to eschew the greats and the specials, and look to the everyday, the social, and the economic as forces that shape architecture” such as Paul Oliver and Bernard Rudofsky in their individual books on Vernacular Architecture. These ‘non-architectural’ productions are often eschewed and placed alongside the idea of ‘bad architecture’ or non-design – Reyner Banham tells this story; “In a telling example from my own experience, I once found myself defending point by point a student design for a penthouse apartment that had been failed by my academic colleagues. I secured their agreement that it fulfilled all the requirements of the programme, was convenient in its spatial dispositions, well lit, build-able on the roof-structure in question and that all this could be seen in the drawing pinned up for judgment. But the drawing was scratchily done in ball-point on one sheet of what appeared to be institutional toilet paper; and ‘result to architecture’. The year master announced, thus making it clear that, for him, the effective design of buildings was apparently something other than ‘architecture’.”

Separating Architecture and non-architecture as a system of discrimination stems from the side of architecture that is all about the ‘how’, the process; the theory/concept/drawing/construction/occupation – that is and will always remain within the domain of ‘architecture’ due to it being written in the secret language of the architects tribe long passed down from generation to generation. However if Architecture relies solely upon this “discourse through special drawn and oral codes, more than technical terms and methods of presentation, akin to a private language” then it’s power as a profession will likely become eroded as it is mis-understood, mis-represented and mistaken within the public realm. This alienation of the profession threatens the very activity or architecture by undermining the authority and experience that it can bring to the social, cultural, political and economic table.

The alternative side of the profession is the school of thinking that embraces the breaking of the mould, relishes in new forms of language to design with and a greater interaction with normal everyday life that the majority of the population would understand and be able to engage with. In this modus operandi architecture is about the end result – the product/ building/object/monument/system, that is, the public and accessible nub of the designer’s skill and engagement. For these practices the ‘how’ merely represents the process of taking a building from a client’s request and budget to it’s physical manifestation through space and cost design, planning, building regulations, contract administration and construction. The ‘how’ does not necessarily make the output architecture more than just a buildingand neither does the ‘what’. Pevsner’s suggestion that Lincoln Cathedral is a definition of Architecture whilst a bicycle shed is not falls insultingly short of either side of the profession and serves to suggest that Architecture is more about systems of power and control than space and use. Generally the output space or structure is created in response to a practical or economic need which makes it as a product accessible to the general public as it connects with readily recognisable inputs and outputs such as poverty and alleviation or production and storage etc.

(insert : discussion about critical regionalism and non-modernism regionalism (Kenneth Frampton and Steven Moore) and the place of vernacularism)

Rethinking education

The role of architectural education has to be pre-eminent in any discussion regarding moving the profession of architecture forward, it is where the values that define both architects and the practices they eventually set up are established. The architects brain is trained and moulded during education, Banham and Till both discuss this and demonstrate a certain level of disdain for the manner in which we’re all socialised into the ‘tribe’ – architects train architects to be architects using architectural canons. They use the training of architects to paint a picture that shows how the profession and most architects are so engrained in the ‘black box’ mono-culture that they have become isolated, unimpeachable and pretentious. Maglia Sarfatti Larson argues that this isolation or autonomy is justified stating that the “professional’s claim of possessing a special and superior knowledge, which should therefore be free of lay evaluation and protected from inexpert interference.”For the profession of Architecture to move forward it is important that this freedom from interference be re-evaluated. ‘Lay evaluation’ suggests a source that lacks training or understanding – perhaps in the form of another profession or critic – and whilst any interference or criticism from this source might smack of impudence it could equally come with an insight that such a self referential profession as architecture cannot possess within it’s own quarters: think again of Shevtsov’s assertion regarding truth in a sealed room.

At birth the brain has only formed around 50% of it’s neural connections, the remainder are established throughout our lives. Now the brain has a certain plasticity which enables it to configure and reconfigure these connections which ultimately determine our decision making modes and thinking processes etc. As these are most strongly formed during our younger years, particularly whilst within education it is critical that the education of future architectures is considered as needing to think differently to suit our changing culture and society. Harry Mallgrave discussed how “the brain of the Renaissance or Nineteenth century architect was configured differently from the brain of the twenty first century architect, for better or worse.”  With our methods of production becoming ever more digital the way we think through a process changes rapidly and requires new skills and attitudes, to deal with this we have to take the opportunity to enable a new generation of architects to think more outside the box, more broadly and with more focus too.

(Insert : Expanding architectural education as a means of expanding the field)

Rethinking practice

“There exists today two kinds of modern architecture. A public standardised, international-style architect’s architecture that may be perceived as arrogant or even provocatively aggressive; and a private architecture, often based on regional models, that blends naturally and harmoniously within the architecture of existing landscapes and cities.”

This divide of the profession parallels that of theory and practice within the ‘black box’ itself; Edwin Gardner is one architect who has begun to assess this divide and investigate how one might bridge it in a series of essays upon the blog. In his post entitled ‘Architecture left to it’s own devices’ (which was subsequently published in Volume Journal #22) he demonstrates the disparity between the two camps, “whilst knowledge may accumulate in the office, it remains intangible and ephemeral because it travels in heads, not in books. In the office, it’s all about applying knowledge. Where academia judges knowledge on originality, rigour, argumentation and referencing, practice is only interested in knowledge’s effects.” Understanding informs doing and architecture in all it’s forms requires understanding of not only the theory of things but also the application of that theory otherwise the resulting ‘doing’ is weak. “Conventional practice renounces theory, but in so doing, it simply reiterates unstated theoretical assumptions. If theory imposes regulated ideological criteria over the undisciplined heterogeneity of the real, the unstated assumptions of conventional practice enforce known solutions and safe repetitions.”

Stan Allen proposes an alternative way of looking at practice in light of the tension between conventional architectural practice and the function of architectural theory serving it; He proposes that instead of seeingtheory and practice as competitors in an abstract battle and to cheer for one or the other installing theory within practice and defining practice as either ‘material’ “(concerned with matter, forces, and material change, activities that transform reality by producing new objects or new organisations of matter.)” or ‘discursive’ “(hermeneutic, primarily textual, bound up with representation and interpretation… critical, discursive and interpretive.)” which would eliminate the categorisation of theory and practice and enable them to work efficiently with different elements of the same field. Discursive practice would work with the gaps between and inconsistencies of theoretical texts, analysing the past to produce more texts which provide an “overarching theoretical construct, expressed in a medium other than buildings and drawings.” Meanwhile Material practice would be involved in the operations of translating such constructs and transforming matter for the future generating spatial outcomes, working for clients and creating architecture. An example of one practice that demonstrated this ability was that of Alison and Peter Smithson; Peter Salter discusses how in the practice biography ‘Architecture is not made in the Brain’; “One learnt how idea became strategy, and how strategy became the rules for detail. The consistency of the building, came through this folding together of strategy and construction detail.”

(Insert : discuss alternative practices such as Rural Studio, TYIN Tegnestue and Crimson Architectural Historians for examples of work with a greater anthropological bias)

(Insert : discuss how post occupancy analysis might demonstrate the shortfalls of current architectural practice outcomes – refer to buildings by Herman Hertzberger, Frei Otto, Zaha Hadid etc for examples of good/bad outcomes.


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