Inaugural post, by Carolyn Fahey

As an undergraduate I was indoctrinated with the idea that theoretical appeals were the most desirable and most acceptable method for approaching architectural design. This went OK for my first studio, but after my second and onto my third, each instructor introduced a different theory, and each one we students were to treat with the same unwavering devotion. I simply could not reconcile the obvious disparities between each method and my rejection of this left me alienated (and in the philosophy and comparative literature departments). Since then I have embarked on a PhD entirely devoted (at least it seems to me now after three years of study) to coming to terms with my emigration from the architecture school. My involvement with philosophy and comparative literature has allowed me to reconcile the use of concepts in architecture discourse and practice to a degree, but I hope that the opening of a platform meant for this sort of discussion helps to bring others interested in these problems together in hopes of coming to, in the very least, a better understanding of the appeal and role of theory in architecture practice. On this note, I warmly invite those interested to engage, and those tentative about this to maybe spend some time thinking about what they take architecture to actually be, and hopefully return to us with a response of some kind. Looking forward to what transpires.

Harvard Citation Guide: Fahey, C. (2009) Inaugural Post, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 02 Aug 2009, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

One thought on “Inaugural post, by Carolyn Fahey

  1. In philosophical terms, we end up with these large questions (What is philosophy? What is architecture?) which are practically useless, though they may be interesting as a way to orientate your personal world view. We may need to ask what the purpose of philosophy is, or how theory operates with a degree of difference to philosophy, and then what either of these can provide to architecture. Philosophy itself struggles between poles associated with rationalism and social/moral poles. My gut instinct is that philosophy became more removed from spatial concerns/built environment (if you consider architecture simple the emergent and systems based act of the refinement of form in social space, as I do as a practitioner, designer and theorist) as the field of enquiry shifted from experience to language in the early 20th century. The later attempts at importing philosophy have had limited degrees of success, especially the contemporary thread of positions which attempted to avoid metaphysics following the attempts of Heidegger, Nietzsche and Derrida.

    Architectural practice, as opposed to thinking about qualities of space which just might be a different discipline using the same word, could be argued not to need philosophy as it doesn’t operate on the same level, with the same concerns or judgement of success using the same outcomes. The situation is very similar to a struggle in the sciences and can be summarized by the oft-quoted statement attributed to Richard Feynman, the U.S. Physicist and Nobel Prize winner, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” The broader context that is of interest to philosophers has little effect on the practice and application of architecture.

    I would also argue that philosophy in the 20th century became a private act, private theorizing rather than public philosophy, and therefore has little relevance to a craft like architecture which exists in the cultural, social and technological relationship between individuals and groups. Of course, the avant garde belief in progress (ie. novelty) as the only representation that matters and the responsibility of social progress through education borrowed from the art world has affected segments of the design world. This belief in progress as part of the Enlightenment project still seeks out changes in philosophy as a way to describe the world in different terms, though the end result is occasionally questionable. Consensus of real-world effect is necessary, private musings and complicated wordplay can hold interest for a time, but like a theory of medicine, if the patient doesn’t get better, or in architectural terms, quality of the space doesn’t improve, then the philosophical position is simply either fashion or irrelevant.

    There is still the empirical trend in architecture, however the bulk of this seems to reside in either pure poetry, or had responsibility in areas taken over by the growth of psychology. Architecture has some degree of sympathy with this position as the discipline perceives itself as a creative, intuitive act, wrapped up in the intellectual concerns of the fine arts and literature. Yet, within the profession, there is a constant tension between the ‘art houses’ of critical practice (architecture as an art of expression) and the service offices focused on business concerns. I equate this to the fashion industry with their haute couture culture and the pret-a-porter spin offs each season. At the core of any discussion of philosophy of architecture or theoretical positions has to be a much larger conversation. First, whether there is actually a relationship between one discipline and the other or should they be considered isolated paths of enquiry (nothing wrong with that). Second, is the existing foundation of architectural theory that has developed over the past several centuries unstable? What I mean by this is there a trend in architectural thinking towards “one-offs” as artistic expression, or stylistic manifestations which are really the creation of a marketing niche meant for the attention of publications and clients, rather than reproducible and transferable knowledge?

    On a final note, I would argue that most of what passes for architectural theory today isn’t theory at all, but actually architectural critique. Its purpose is for interpretation. If philosophy or theory is to be relevant to architecture as a design discipline then it needs to operate as a generative tool applied to the thinking of architecture and the practice/application of architecture.

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