Further DRS musings... / by Ian Bailey

***Originally posted 30/11/2012***


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

Architecture is 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 life on planet Earth. On one side there is a 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 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; an ‘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’.” 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.


On the opposite side of the tracks is the school of thinking that would wish to keep architecture within it’s ‘black box’ as Reyner 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 Jeremy Till his book Architecture Depends, with students entering the course as “normal, situated, humans and come out as rather abnormal, detached, members of the tribe.” This stems from the thinking that architecture 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.

The role of architectural education is paramount in any discussion regarding moving the profession of architecture forward. Banham and Till both 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.


This divide of the profession parallels that of theory and practice within the ‘black box’ itself; Edwin Gardner begins to assess this divide and investigate how one might bridge it in a series of essays upon the Archis.org 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, architecture requires understanding.

Jeremy Till discusses this notion that Architecture is dependant upon everything else out there to make it happen. There is a divide between what architecture is as a multi-disciplined profession and what architects wishfully want it to be and similarly “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. On the other side of the coin, Rationalists such as Massimo Scolari saw this diversity as a negative diversion from the canons stating that the pursuit of immersing architecture in “political, economic, social and technical events only … mask[ed] it’s own creative and formal sterility.”

Architecture has to break away from these ‘official histories’ and ‘black box’ mentalities that have been utilised in an attempt to maintain a position of ‘mother of the arts’ or an autonomous realm of design. The profession has to engage with normal life more easily and as long as it remains within the keep of it’s canons it cannot do that, it will remain aloof and self aggrandising. I will examine the problem and some of the proffered solutions to achieve this emancipation and in doing so aim to substantiate my own growing dissatisfaction with the profession into which I am being initiated.



– Allen, Stan. Practice, Architecture, Technique and Representation. Routledge, 2009
– Gardner, Edwin. Revising Practice : Strategies and attitudes for architecture in the next century. Projective Landscape Symposium, TU Delft, 2006
Garder, Edwin. Architecture left to it’s own devices, or how theory stopped guiding architectural practice. Volume #22, Archis publishers, 2009 edition 4.
– Hays, Micheal K. ed. Architecture Theory since 1968, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000
– Hyde, Rory. Who’s steering this thing? 2010, http://archis.org/action
– Krauss, Rosalind. Sculpture in the expanded field. The MIT Press, 1979
– Mallgrave, Harry. The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
– Till, Jeremy. Architecture depends. The MIT press, London. 2009