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ARCHITECTURE LE LEFT TO ITS OWN DEVICES or How theory stopped guiding architectural practice 5

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Edwin Gardner

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Michael Kubo’s P Publishing Practices project shows a beautiful overview of where discipline looks for guidance. The presented collection of the architectural d canonical pub publications function as guidebooks for the discipline, books that instruct how to practice, aid our understanding of reality, and show us the way towards a makeable future. But alas, now that ‘history has ended’ and all the grand narratives that offered us a set of principles to live by and utopia’s to hope for have muted, the books we are left with to guide us are those that help us get a grip on reality – to not get crushed by its forces, but to surf its waves (S,M,L,XL). Instead of manuals for the future or anchors in the past, all that is left are coping mechanisms for the now. 20

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There was a time when practice was guided by a sense of legitimacy, as opposed to pragmatism, and acted in accordance to a moral truth instead of mining contradictions of reality. Legitimization in architecture was acted out through rituals in which the sacred rules of an ancient craft were transmitted from master to apprentice. The professional truth was determined by the guilds and later by elaborate catalogues containing precedents and style-rules that function as the holy scripture of architecture. Then came the manifesto; architecture went from being legitimized by the traditions of the craft, to being legitimized by novel ideologies. In the late twentieth century, these ideological premises shifted from a 5-point manifesto to the import of -isms such as deconstructivism, structuralism, and rationalism. These -isms evolved from the domains of post-modern philosophy into ideals that legitimized architectural practice and form. Paper architects brought theory and practice together in the arena of art galleries and lecture halls, but this convergence ended when the market regained momentum and building commenced once again. Consequently, theory remained in academia while practice followed the money. Now we’re left with an academic discourse that produces ideologically (anti-capitalist) charged theory for a practice operating in hyper-capitalist conditions. While practice is driven by market opportunism, all theory can suggest is for practice to negate the market. This is not to say we shouldn’t be involved in criticizing capitalist society – though criticism is a branch of theory, some have mistaken critique for instruction – but buildings themselves cannot be instruments of criticism. Besides, not all theory should

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be critique because critique is predisposed; it operates from a moral high ground. The problem is that this creates vast blind spots before the theorizing even begins. Here we arrive at the problem concerning the relationship between theory and practice, which I’d like to introduce with an anecdote. In March 2006, I was involved in the organization of a conference entitled Projective Landscape, which aimed to deal with the landscape of ideas that was bubbling in architectural discourse around the term projective. Thus we invited theorists from all over the world, and several practitioners. We had hoped for more, but most practicing architects seem to be hesitant to join these highly intellectual circuses. At the closing forum, Willem-Jan Neutelings (architect) asked of the theorists, ‘When I get to my office again Monday morning, what can I take from today’s conference and put into practice?’ The room remained silent; the theorists had no answers for Neutelings. With this simple question, Neutelings laid bare the troubled relation between the theory and practice of architecture. Theorists and practitioners seem to live on different planets, because even when the architecture theorist is asked directly by the architect, ‘What should I do?’ the theorist can provide the architect with little guidance. Apparently those who think about architecture cannot guide those who make it. When the theory and practice exponents of a discipline doesn’t make sense to each other, there is a problem. It begs the question: are these actually exponents of one and the same discipline? Is there even a common ground where they can meet?

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11/12/09 13:31

Architecture left to its own devices  

or How theory stopped guiding architectural practice

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