Practice vs. Theory in Architecture and Construction

According to the American Institute of Architects:

“The theory of architecture may be defined as embracing the comprehensive and consistent organization of its facts and principles. In this sense any architectural activity whatever necessarily implies the use of theory. If the theory used is sound, thought and action will be more certain of success. Thus, every building design and every architectural curriculum presupposes an adequate theory and, in turn, inevitably reveals the quality of the theory on which it is based.”

Yet, Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban and design theory, wrote “it is generally acknowledged nowadays that architectural theory has degenerated into a narrow point of view, neglecting architectural space and meaning.”

According to Salingaros, a building’s success should be judged by the quality of life within it, not by the theory through which it was achieved.

These two opposing views may leave today’s architect at a bit of a loss. Discarding theory entirely and creating buildings within the moment –without much thought to how that building relates to the past, present and future – would leave us without much more than a mindless collection of spaces. Meanwhile, holding too closely to hypothetical ideas and situations instead of directly focusing on the needs and problems of real people puts the architect out of touch.

So, how can architects and other design professionals continue to apply theory while remaining open to the constant fluctuations of today’s complex construction industry?

Well, just as in most areas of life, it all comes down to balance.

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Finding Meaning

Upon graduating, students of architecture often find themselves in a disengaged state. What they were taught in school – complex and multi-layered theories blended with artistic expression – is replaced with real-world tasks. And while those real world tasks are important and enjoyable, the idea that architecture is primarily about infusing spaces with meaning can fade. Architects have come to be thought of as technicians, in charge of creating drawings and models that look “beautiful,” but remain disconnected from the physical realm.

On the flip side, holding onto a specific theory or school of thought when it is time to let go is often the greatest factor in the creation of unliveable spaces. Concepts and models only benefit a project when they apply to the project’s specific needs.

Doing something simply because “that is how it is done” is counterproductive. True innovation comes from casting aside theory and welcoming brand new ideas. Ideas that better reflect what is going on right now.

Balancing Theory and Reality

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a master at balancing theory and reality. By developing his own set of general principles to operate within, he then adjusted them to match the specific requirements of each building he worked on. And, while he held a steadfast belief in his theories, he was not unwilling to respond to client requests and to the constantly fluctuating design world.

Wright wisely said, “confusion arises because there is ‘doubt in some minds’ and ‘fear in some minds’ and ‘hope in some minds.’” What all of this doubt, fear and hope alludes to is a lack of a clear, concise role for architects and architectural theory in today’s world. An increasing reliance on technology and science has pushed the artistic side of architecture further away.

Architecture is a Practice

Much like doctors practice medicine and lawyers practice law – architects practice architecture. Practice implies not just theory, but the correct understanding and application of theory. And while fully understanding the entire scope of architectural theory sounds daunting, understanding the fundamental principles of design is both necessary and achievable.

It is the core concepts of architectural theory that give the constantly changing design and building industry something to revolve around. As Wright put it, “the circumference of architecture is shifting but the centre remains unchanged.” That centre comes not only from architectural theory, but from the core principles ingrained in each architect through careful study, analysis and experience.

The Freedom to Create

Certainly, the architect’s constant struggle is locating the balance, locating the core, and then using and modifying it to create and solve problems. But, of course, the battle is worth it. Diving into the centre and being certain of what lies there is what gives the architect freedom to feel uncertain in other ways. And it is through this uncertainty they are able to truly experiment and truly innovate.