So who needs architectural theory? It’s mostly rubbish isn’t it?

A colleague from an Architecture School in another University said to me that the current crop of students had no interest in learning history or theory. Maybe the new generations of architecture students don’t like to read. Perhaps these students have no desire for books and archival research. Maybe the centre of the student’s limited architectural universe is that of Dezeen, ArchDaily and all those brutalist schemes on Instagram.

As one Sydney colleague reported to me:

Start of design for some new low-rise apartments in North Sydney. The instruction from the directors was for 4 recent grads to come to the next meeting with any first thoughts, generative form-making or at least some intentions. Of the four on arrived with a sketch (educated in another country), the other three raided Insta/Pinterest for their latest favourites, tabled images only and talked about marketing aspirations for the building.

It can be argued that the relationship between theory and architecture has been broken. Theory is not about critique or the construction of new ideas that support, explain and confirm our architectural endeavours. It’s about consumption.

Philip Johnson

For example, I tried to rev some of my students up the other day with a shortish discussion about the Architect Philip Johnson, his problematic fascism and the camp subversion of the hetero-normative and corporate American dream. But they just looked at me like I was some kind of eccentric and irrelevant idiot.

I guess those students would rather watch Madmen. I think, I wasn’t talking about those zinc-clad googly gables you see on Grand Designs. Or Bajrke’s latest scheme to save the whole world, and New York City, from global warming.

I thought WTF maybe all they want to learn are the software programs rather than history and theory. I guess if you don’t learn history and theory in your Architecture school, you are easily seduced by techno-utilitarianism. As well as falling prey to the combination of architectural and urban fantasies mixed in with the propaganda of software vendors.

Without theory, you will be oblivious to architecture’s relation to politics.

officer standing beside bike and people with signs
Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on

Yes, design methods and digital practices are political. The ‘Paraguru’s’ as a friend of mine calls them, have by and large forgotten this. If they ever remembered it in the first place. The paradox is if architecture is merely a useful vocation, then why aren’t architects better at managing their businesses.

Without theory, architecture is just spin.


Without some theoretical underpinning or narrative, architectural work will easily get lost in the overriding swamp of consumption. It may look good on Insta, a few arches a bit of funky brickwork a few parametric gestures, but without a theoretical position it’s just an empty shell. There is an image-politic even on Instagram and without theory how would you usefully interpret this constant flow of content. Or is it just base judgements of taste, profiling and bias? How would you try and figure out anything without some contestable and argued theory?

Without theory, there is no danger. 


So why is history and theory so difficult for students or architects to swallow? Might it mean you have to read some stuff? Such things seem too far removed from the cult of design. Could also mean you have to use your brain to try and figure out how to judge precedents and identify various controversies in history. I guess it’s easy to go with the flow of architectural pragmatic architectural production.

Theory, of course, has its dangers. For the practising architect fully embedded in circuits of capital, they don’t really like being told their work is lacking in some way. In Australia many years ago we had a magazine called Transition it was a site where theoretical debates in architecture could play out. It was and still is a site of conflict, in the end, it was killed off by an unfortunate combination of misogyny, cronyism and an ego-centricity that did not need any theory—particularly not feminist theory.

But isn’t that the point? The point of architectural theory is to offer a perspective that enables architectural design knowledge to be assessed in order to create new design knowledge.

Without theory history is just description. 

Yep, we can catalogue, describe and profile the canon of modernist, post-modern and parametric architecture in all sorts of different ways. But without some critical theory, all these efforts become simply evaluative description at best. One brand of pedantic scholarship that seems to thrive these days always seeks to recast historical narratives without questioning the prevailing paradigms of history or the social conditions of architectural production. In these monolithic accounts of architectural history there will always be an invisible ‘other’ an invisible entity; the intern, the invisible female partner, the BIM slaves in the back room of the practice or the actual workers and users of the building. Power asymmetries are rarely discussed in these accounts. We never hear about the webs of finance that corrupted and gave rise to the building’s genesis. These normative, and on appearance oh so seemingly reasonable narratives, of the architectural canon, are crazy because of what they exclude.

So What?

 Of course, I hate that kind of theory that is seemingly apolitical and moored in the fashions of continental philosophy. Try listening to a philosopher talk about architecture and then try listening to an architect mix it up with a bit of philosophy. Try listening to one of those long dry dialogically argued talks by so-called architectural theoreticians.

FFS the house is burning down, and for architects, we are mired in a quagmire of abstract theory that has no idea about practice, the production of space and the real lives of people. Let alone, any engagement with the extinction politics of the climate crisis beyond good intentions.

Theory is essential to practitioners and practice. And I don’t mean the utterances of the shamanistic shamans that inhabit the elite schools. Without architectural theory, we will never be able to explain and argue the collective worth of our discipline to others.