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By Alex Brown  




Theory of Architecture is not History of Architecture by another name. History deals with buildings and the various styles of architecture which have arisen throughout time. History in this sense is a DESCRIPTION of the architectural facts.


Theory attempts to provide an EXPLANATION for those facts. It looks at the reasons why buildings look the way they do and why architects have chosen to design their buildings in particular ways. It also looks at the reasons why architectural styles have changed over time and the assumptions and attitudes of architects which influenced their thinking during particular periods and led to those changes. Equally it looks at the sources for the ideas that architects use in the design of their buildings. Where do architectural ideas come from? How do they get into circulation? Examples of movements, influences, ideas and theories in architecture which changed the course of architecture over time – the way it looked and the styles that were used. That is which made buildings different to what they were before. How theory influenced the practice of architecture by introducing new perceptions of the same events - new way of looking at reality and therefore new ways of representing that reality in built form.




a)      Buildings are material facts. They are physical things. No matter how complicated they are, their basic function is to provide shelter for human beings against a hostile climate.  As physical enclosures they also provide a psychological sense of security to their inhabitants.


b)     Because buildings contain different activities and are built in different locations, they are necessarily different to one another. They respond to their particular context (time, place, technology & programme). Individual buildings represent very particular individual circumstances.


c)       Yet there are similarities between buildings -sometimes considerable similarities even between buildings of different size and function. A survey of the many buildings built during a period of history will show that they can be classified into groups of similar buildings. That is, buildings which share similar characteristics. They use the same basic set of forms to solve their very different programmatic, climatic or locational problems. In other words they use the same language to express their different situations. 


d)     Architects in the same geographic area exchange information and experiences. They look at each others work and select forms which they combine in their own individual projects. The forms used in these projects are then selected by other architects. This continuous selection of forms between the architects within the same architectural area produces an increasing similarity of form. Buildings begin to look similar to one another because certain architectural forms are selected more often than others. These forms become typical of an architectural group. They become its identity and define its character.


e)       This typical set of forms used by a number of different buildings is called a STYLE.  Styles are groups of similar buildings. Sometimes there are several styles existing together. Sometimes there is a single dominant style which most architects use. A style is a similarity between a large number of different buildings no matter what their purpose or function. The style emerges over time and through the practice of many architects. It acts a model of behaviour for architects and provides an economic solution to the problem of designing buildings. The architects does not have to invent every building from nothing. The style (as model), offers a ready-made set of elements which have been developed and tried by many architects over time and which are understood or familiar to the public. These few elements can be selected and combined for new projects.


f)     Architecture can be defined as the stylistic similarity between different buildings. Architecture in this sense is not a physical state but rather INFORMATION.  That is, information which characterizes (gives a particular identity) to buildings which are physical objects – material facts. Communication between architects produces information – styles or patterns of behaviour which influence or shape buildings.




To understand what Theory of Architecture is, we must first look at what architects DO in the design buildings.


The basic function of architecture is to REPRESENT social institutions in built form.


To do this they TRANSLATE the complex relationships of an institution into the language of architecture. (That is the programme of the institution). These are relationships between the various activities which take place within the institution. Architects give each of these activities a particular physical space and these spaces are arranged according to the functional relationships between groups of activities within the institution. In this way a building represents the ORGANIZATION of the institution in physical form.


a)       Individual buildings represent individual programmes, circumstances and institutions. They REPRESENT the relations between different parts of the institution.  They represent those relations IN BUILT FORM. That is, in the language of architecture.


b)      The style – as a collective phenomenon – REPRESENTS the relations between all of the architectural work in a given area and the many institutions which they represent. These institutions outside architecture act as the ENVIRONMENT of architecture. Architecture represents that environment with built form. Not, however with any kind of forms, but with the typical set of forms produced by the interaction between many architects over time. That is, with the current style.


 c)      Theory of Architecture looks at the kind of choices architects can make in selecting forms for their buildings. When architects select forms from the work of other architects to be combined in their own work, they are making a choice. Eg. ‘What is the most suitable combination of forms for this particular circumstance or project?’ ‘What is the most suitable combination of forms which can EXPRESS (represent) the character of this particular institution?’ Does this building (this representation) match the organization, the complexity, the symbolic character or expected social meaning of the institution which is being represented.


At the level of the whole of architecture, Theory of architecture asks the same sort of questions: does the current style match the state of the environment which it is meant to represent? Does it offer enough choice to the architect to accurately express the character and complexity of social institutions? The environment changes over time. Styles change too, but at a different rate. It is possible that the style no longer adequately represents the environment. It may be that a new style is necessary – a new approach to architecture.




This relation between the architectural form of buildings during a particular period – the historical facts - and the institutions (the environment) which they represent is the area of Theory of architecture. Theory of architecture can be understood in several ways:


a)      Theory acts as a critical function between what architects actually do and what they think they are doing or what they should be doing. It identifies the difference between performance and achievement. If the task of architecture is the correct or accurate representation of its environment (social institutions), then theory assesses how well that task has been achieved.


b)       Theory identifies problems which occur when architecture fails to represent its environment successfully. These are semantic problems. That is, problems of MEANING where the identity of the institution (its character, purpose or organization) cannot be understood or PREDICTED by looking at its architectural form.


Theory of architecture analyses the causes of such problems and in some cases offers solutions. When we say that Theory is used to analyse something, we mean something quite specific. That is, HOW SUCCESSFULLY architecture represents that particular institution.


c)      The analysis of the success or failure of a single building or the work of a small group of architects in the task of architectural representation is called: architectural criticism.  Theory applies the same kind of critical thinking to the global level of architecture - to the whole of architectural production. It looks at the stylistic choices currently available to architecture and asks whether they are capable of adequately representing the current environment. This is theory’s critical role.


d)    Do the current styles match the complexity of the environment? Do they allow architects the necessary vocabulary to respond to human psychological, physical, social and symbolic needs. If they do not, why not and what are the options open to architects to solve these problems. Architects do not ‘design’ styles. They emerge over long periods of historical time through the work of many architects. Thus individual architects cannot invent styles on their own which ‘work better’. In order to be understood, they MUST use the currently available styles. These are the only language available to them even if they don’t work too well. Architects cannot choose NOT to use the styles. They are trapped  in history - they have to use them.  If they don’t use the available styles (architectural languages), no one will understand their buildings.


Theory of architecture analyses this condition and identifies the nature of architectural problems, suggesting alternative approaches. That is, ways in which architects can break out of this historical trap – ways they can successfully represent social institutions with architectural form. Theory of Architecture offers critical analysis of the relation between architecture and other institutions. It does so by: 


i.       Offering architectural criticism of the design of single works or groups of works in terms of their success or failure.


ii.    Looking at what architects WANT TO ACHIEVE against what they ACTUALLY ACHIEVE in the act of representation


iii.      Offering possible solutions to the semantic or stylistic problems within architecture as a whole (new stylistic approaches, images, sources of inspiration or new directions). Sometimes it imagines a future architecture where current problems have been solved.  (The Utopian solution).


iv.   Providing explanation, context and historical background to critical issues in architecture and to current problems. It says why things are the way they are.


v.      Examining the process and techniques by which designs are created and the influence which these have architectural form. For instance, in order to translate the form of the institution into an equivalent architectural form, the design process may exclude complex relationships within the institution. While this may provide a simple diagrammatic explanation, it fails to accurately represent the complex reality of things. Here, Theory would indicate that the design process itself is inadequate for its stated purpose of representation.




Theory identifies critical problems in architecture. Some examples of these kinds of problems are given below:


a)      When buildings or styles are too similar to each other


For instance, if the buildings of a particular period are too similar to one another or its forms are too stereotyped and rigidly fixed, the difference between different buildings cannot be expressed or represented. If all buildings looked the same, there would be a serious semantic (meaning) problem. One would not be able to tell the meaning, purpose or function of any of them. One would in a sense be ‘lost’, unable to differentiate one place from another.


b)     When buildings or styles are too different from each other


For instance, as in the 19th century, where there are too many equally-valid competing styles in architecture to give a single coherent image of the environment. In this case there are too many differences between buildings. If everywhere is different from everywhere else – there are no similarities – then one would again be psychologically ‘lost’.


c)      The Introduction of new Building Types


The ‘sudden’ increase in the number of new building types which emerged during the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century: railway stations, large factories, mass housing, office buildings, departmental stores, could not be adequately handled by existing architectural forms. A whole set of new forms had to be invented to cope with these problems – a whole new architecture called the Modern Movement was born.


19th century theory concentrated on this particular issue. What would a new and ‘Modern Architecture’ look like? How would its forms be shaped to cope with these new large-scale and complex building types?


 d)     Rigid Styles which generate Hostile or Aggressive Environments


Or, in the 20th century, where the rigid and geometric forms of Modern Architecture were regarded as hostile, abstract and meaningless having nothing to do with human sensitivities. In both these cases, it was generally understood that there was something fundamentally wrong with the architecture of the period. The result was a crisis of meaning in the 1970s, a rejection of Modern Architecture and the rise of the Post-Modern Movement.


e)      The loss of Regional Character or Identity in Architecture


Theory can point to the loss of particular regional architectural types when an economically dominant society imposes its culture on another society. For instance Modern Western architecture has replaced regional architectures in the Middle East, Africa and Asia because of the dominance of Western (European/American) economic power. This loss means that a single dominant architecture is imposed everywhere. There are no other ways of representing things. The special identity of places and cultures is wiped out in favour of a single global culture. There is a loss of cultural complexity and variety. That is different ways of expressing things. This is like the loss of regional languages which allow peoples to identify ‘who they are’ and express their cultural differences from other societies. Theory can discuss this problem and suggest possible solutions.




The general function of Theory of Architecture is to define the relationship between architecture (which itself is a social institution) and the other institutions in a society. In all cases, however its primary concern is the state of the architectural language – its capacity to represent those institutions - how that language expresses or represses the symbolic and organizational character of other institutions. It also deals with the influence of these other areas on architecture

itself. Theory of Architecture in this way is a truly interdisciplinary subject. For example, theory can analyse the relation between:


a)      Architecture and Sociology


Studies how architecture expresses the changing relationships within society and the emergence of new social groups. Eg. Urbanization. The rise of an industrial working class or middle class in the 19th century – eg. mass public housing The rise of the post war consumer society. The suburban dream or minority ghettos. Different architectural or urban building types in different societies. Theory in this case deals usually with URBAN issues and how the City changes to meet new social and population developments. Also looks at how architecture reflects the complexity and plurality of society in the late 20th century – its division into numerous special interest groups. Can a single architectural style really express this plurality of interests? Post Modern architecture as a response to increasing diversity of lifestyle and social groupings by introducing multiple styles. Other examples of this kind of theory include the study of how architecture represents gender issues, minority groups, the disabled, etc. etc. and ultimately how it reinforces the roles and stereotypes which prevail in a society.


b)     Architecture and Technology


Studies the influence and use of new technologies on the shape of architecture. In historical terms the use of iron and concrete in the development of the Modern Movement in architecture. Examines the possibilities for new architectural expression based on developing technologies. Eg. Archigram in the 1960s theorized the possibility of fluid or mobile cities. New communication or computer technologies – virtual realities - suggest the possibility of distibuted spaces rather than specific locations for buildings.


c)      Architecture and Politics, Wealth, Power or Class


Analyses how the social division of society is reflected in the architecture of a period – the type of buildings and the type of symbolic images and forms used to reflect power within a society. Eg. The architecture of monarchies, dictatorships or democracies will be different. In what way do the relationships of power within a society affect the architecture? Eg. The shape of Baroque architecture and the use of the dominant axis, or the presence of Modern Corporate power in the design of office buildings. Or, analyses the theocratic architecture of India or South East Asia in terms of the strict organization of society and architecture laid down by rulers. Looks at ‘revolutionary architecture’ as a break with tradition and authority. Eg. Boulle and Ledoux during the French revolutionary period.  Studies the relation of Modern architecture to democratic


d)      Architecture and Art


Studies the sometimes very close relationship and influences between the art of a period and its architecture. Eg. The invention of perspective and new drawing techniques by Renaissance artists and the work of Neoclassical and Romantic painters decidely influenced the design of buildings during those periods. Note also the direct relationship between Cubist painting and the development of the early Modern Movement. So too, Modern graphic art and the movies suggest new, imaginative forms which architects can use in the design of their buildings. Modern art, which deals with environmental design (Installation Art) produces ideas which become influential with current architectural thought.


e)      Architecture and Philosophy


Philosophical ideas about meaning, order, ethics, the ideal, rationalism, the methods of critical thought, deconstructivism, logic, consistency, the idea of beauty, harmony, aesthetics, theories of mind, representation and perception, and so on all have their parallels in the Theory of Architecture. Usually these relate to how to organize buildings according to some non-functional but controlling idea such as symmetry, hierarchy or multiple axes and how to integrate the different parts of a building into a coherent and understandable or meaningful whole. Theory can also take a moral or ideological position where it demands that architecture express the shape or form of a better society – a more just or moral society. (Eg. Arts and Crafts movement).  Also, the philosophical concept of functionalism or instrumentalism has been translated into architectural terms by the expression of the internal dynamics (spaces) of the building. Some of these ideas where incorporated into the forms and organization of the Modern Movement in architecture. A more recent and complex philosophical analysis of architecture is that of Deconstructivism. In this, Theory is used to compare the complexity of the programme or the institution with the inevitably simplified version represented in the building. In Deconstructivist terms, the order of the building ‘pretends’ to represent the institution but in fact merely substitutes a set of preconceived and simplistic forms. While the building seems to have an order, it is not in fact the order of the institution which it is supposed to represent. In Deconstructivist terms, the building must express the complexities and contradictions, accidental arrangements and organizational collisions which are the real nature of all institutions. What architecture usually does is to reflect only a pure or ideal version of the institution not the messy reality. The issue of how architectural form is actually perceived by humans can also be found in philosophical ideas and this can be taken into account in the manipulation of built form.


f)      Architecture and History


This looks at the uses of history in the pursuit of architectural form. Eg. The idea of ‘historicism’ where there is a deliberate use of traditional forms in modern buildings to provide continuity with the past and increased meaning in the form of new buildings. This is either by the direct use of forms from past architectures or as eclecticism where forms from different past and present styles are mixed together. And, the counter-argument which rejects the use of past forms as superficial and decadent. Theory looks at the function of history in architectural design and how previous forms are re-combined to produce the new. Theory also looks at the idea that each architecture is a pure product of the social and economic  processes of its own time quite separate from previous architectures. This radical idea formed the basis of the early Modern Movement which completely rejected traditional forms. Today, however, with Post-Modern architecture traditional forms can be freely combined within a modern building in order to give it an ‘instant’ memory – a set of ready made associations and a richness of image.


g)      Architecture and Science


The various branches of science, from physics to biology to cognitive studies to systems theory and artificial intelligence (AI), cybernetics and computer engineering offer examples and analogies to processes operating within architecture.  These are of essentially two kinds: those such as AI and computer engineering which deal with the design process. For instance, identifying or mapping networks of relationships and hierarchies within the institution to be represented as a building. The theory is that these ‘scientific’ techniques allow the architect to be more accurate in the design of the organization. Sciences such as physics, biology or general systems theory provide examples of architectures as ‘systems’ or ‘organisms’ in terms of system-environments, behaviour, cybernetic feedback, field theory (space-time perception) and others. These suggest examples of how social institutions like architecture might operate. These are necessarily abstract examples and attempt to get a different or ‘outside’ perspective of how the discipline functions without getting involved in the languages, history or practices of architecture.


i)      Architecture and Human Perception


Theory and practice both suggest that HOW human beings perceive buildings will affect how buildings are designed. People get their experience of things through their five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell & hearing. There are also psychological factors in how people perceive space and form – issues of familiarity, distance, colour and the shape or spatial; definition of space (narrow, enclosing, open vistas, concentric or linear, axiality, etc.). Each of these factors – sense and psychology – can be used to analyse the success or even just the character of built space. Theory looks at buildings in terms of how it they are supposed to be seen or experienced and how it is ACTUALLY experienced. Theory compares what we know about human perception and the experience of shape, colour and texture (decoration) of particular buildings. Theory can also discuss architecture in terms of perceptual territory, psychological security, defensible space, the relation between social groups and their identification with particular urban areas. That is how people perceive their social space and how new buildings reinforce or destroy that identification. (Eg. Living in tower blocks surrounded by open space rather than low level housing and high densities. A factor in this kind of analysis is to match crime, social delinquency, psychological or social alienation and community breakdown to the shape of architectural and urban space).


j)         Architecture and the Future


One of Theory’s tasks is to suggest alternative architectures. There are three possible ways of doing this. The first is to produce architectures of the future which are designed to suit new or developing technological or social conditions. Some of these ideas can then be incorporated into present day architecture to solve current problems or provoke a change in direction and a recognition of developing trends that are not being expressed in architecture. The second is that these completely imaginary architectures are used to shock or disrupt the normal processes of architectural thinking. These attempt to break architecture out of a cultural trap where it produces inexpressive or cliched buildings or shapes the form of architecture purely in terms of functional or instrumental goals. In such a case, an imaginary (or Utopian) architecture might propose an architecture stripped of all references to history and to the conventional forms of architecture. To produce a truly radical architecture by inventing or discovering forms which had no precedent in history. The third is to produce pure works of the imagination – graphics which are in a sense artworks. They are there to provoke wonder or pleasure in the viewer – an experience in itself. In this case the architectural forms are merely the content or subject matter of a work of art. These however can be provocative and influential, in some cases producing changes in architecture itself.


k)     Architecture and the City


Theory of architecture deals in many cases with urban design theories. It is in the complexity of the City that architecture finds its truest expression. That is, in the collision of many different buildings both from the past and the present and from the many functions which the City includes. There is a direct parallel between the theory of architecture and that of urban design. In both cases the issue is to represent in built form and in spatial enclosure the organization of a social institution. The City is the most complex social institution in history. It has to be given physical form inspired by or determined by the nature or character of the many sometimes conflicting institutions which co-exist within it. Theory of architecture as such analyses architectural interventions in the City – how they either reinforce or change its identity. The architectural basic elements of this urban analysis can be the network of streets, routes and paths, squares, focal points, neighbourhoods, domains, symbolic centres, boundaries, public monuments, vistas, enclosures, the presence of nature (parks, water), the continuity of street fronts, the significance of street corners and so on. These elements are matched against the functional zoning of the city into business, industry, housing, entertainment, government areas and in general into the complex mix of functions which make up the city itself and its transport infrastructure. The other factor is that the City is the product of continuous development through many historical periods and that this constrains the present and future development of the City. The City is layers of memory slowly transforming through time – a geological - sedimentary  (deep) structure as society after society writes out its own character in physical form. Theory looks at new types of city structures which incorporate new urban technologies – superhighways, trains airports and the changing relation of the countryside to the City.


l)       Architecture and Ecology


Ecology deals with the relationship between an organism and its environment. That is, how well the organism responds (adapts) to changing conditions in that environment. The behaviour of the organism. Its ability to respond to heat, cold, light, its use of energy in order to survive. Or, in the worst case its tendency to destroy its environment and thus destroy itself.  In architectural terms, these factors are expressed in the form and materials a building uses and its ability to conserve and use energy generated by the natural environment or its own internal processes. An ecologically sensible building will be designed on the basis that it can deal with the local climate (sunlight or cold) without the need for expensive importation of energy (electricity), eg. in the form of air conditioning. The form of a building is dictated by many factors (programme, site, technology, finance, etc.), ecology is another factor which constrains (controls) the final shape of a building. For instance the design of a building can be influenced by the need for shading from sunlight, thermal insulation of its walls, the use of natural ventilation techniques, natural air circulation, orientation, solar panels, re-cycling of its water, low technology construction techniques, use of traditional or low energy building methods and materials in certain regions, the use of internal courtyards, compact layouts or response to the existing topology and landscape features. Theory of architecture analyses current building technology and design to see how efficiently new buildings are designed to optimize energy resources and minimize waste.




Architecture – like any other language – represents experience with a combination of particular forms. In other words, architecture communicates experience. The elements of any communication systems can be described as ‘signs’. That is, something which stands for (represents) something else. The study of these sign systems, what they mean in combination with each other and the rules by which they can be combined (the grammar or syntax) is called Semiotics. Architecture can be analysed in semiological terms as a system of signs (architectural forms) which are drawn from a familiar and generally-understood vocabulary (Style) and combined to mean something in particular circumstances. Any system of communication involves three levels of activity. Semiotics defines these as:


a)    SYNTACTICS: the rules which govern the acceptable combination of signs (the syntax or grammar). In architectural terms this would be the stylistic rules or conventions which govern the combination of a group of architectural forms. Forms cannot be combined at random. If they are, the result is meaningless. Syntactic rules are derived from the most recurrent or regular practices of the past. They are familiar and they become the standard practice, the norm which guides all future acts of communication.


b)   SEMANTICS: the meaning of the signs. What they are supposed to suggest, or the associations they produce in the observer’s mind. ‘Meaning’ refers to how familiar or probable a particular combinations of signs are. If the form of an object such as a building is totally unfamiliar – it is meaningless. Semantics deals with the difference between the POSSIBLE as against the PROBABLE (the familiar or understandable). Spoken language is very similar. There are an infinite number of possible sounds or ‘words’. However, only a few of these will have any semantic use. The others will be meaningless and thus useless. There are an infinite number of possible architectural forms that can be imagined and built. However, there are only a few of these which can have any meaning or significance in architecture.


c)   PRAGMATICS: all communication has an intention, a goal or a function. Each act of communication (such as design of a single building) is a report or a message about an event. In architecture the building is a meaningful report IN BUILT FORM about the relations between the different parts of an institution. (the event). In order to carry out the task of communication it is necessary that the message be clearly understood. This is the pragmatics of communication. It defines the communicational PURPOSE of the message – the likelihood of its being understood and acted upon in a particular context or the circumstances.  In different circumstances (context) the same message (the same building design ) will mean something completely different. Pragmatics governs the selection (of signs) and combination of those signs in each particular case. Pragmatics compares the intended message/meaning with the actual message/meaning.

Communication involves both codes and messages. In architectural terms, a code is a style – a set of TYPICAL ways of doing things, while the building is a message – an ACTUAL way of doing things. The code - which limits the possible arrangement of the elements of a message is not a separate ‘thing’ from the message. It is the name for the most typical or probable features present in the many messages (buildings) which are created in the system of communication (architecture). A code or an architectural style is a VIRTUAL entity (thing) – a statistical concept scanned out of the similarities between the many elements of the real world. Remember: a style is a similarity of form between a large number of buildings. So too a code is a similarity of form between a large number of messages.




Theory of architecture is the tool by which architects check or compare the goals of architecture with its actual achievements. It is the critical function which regulates the practice of architecture and attempts to bring it back into line with its function of accurately representing social experience.


In many cases Theory of Architecture is presented as a WRITTEN COMMENTARY (a text) on the physical or visual reality of architecture – its buildings. However, it can also be presented in the form of a VISUAL COMMENTARY – drawings, which propose alternative or imaginary architectures, or new directions for existing architectures.  In both cases Theory can be defined as the regulatory function of architecture, or perhaps in a moral sense - its conscience.







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