Theory Matters

Does Theory Matter?


When we designers place pencils to paper or mouse to pad, we are choosing, whether we know it or not, to become  foot soldiers in an ongoing struggle.  The combatants in this struggle are the subject, the object, and the creator.  The relationship between these three has been the single dominant subject of twentieth century art theory, ever since modern experience began to call into question the Classical, realist, humanist tradition.  In the twentieth century and, so far in the twenty-first century, the clear winner of this struggle has been the subject.  The idea behind a subject-based universe is that  “All we can know on the basis of sense perception are our own states of mind, or ideas.”


In art: the “immanent” – meaning, ”within the mind of the subject” – characteristics of Art have precedence over any historical or ideological components.  Unless there are ways of knowing that do not rest upon sense perception, this is all we can know.  The phenomenological reality of postmodern urban life throws objective conceptions into question. Experience is irrational: In real life, patterns fail: Things fall apart, people die or do not behave in the way we expect. Dreams may fail. It is natural for us to question our conceptions of cohesive idealized order. Following the lead of Berkeley and Hume, a philosophical theory of sense perception is today considered to be basic to the interpretation of the results of empirical investigations.


“Cellar Door”.  These are the words that Drew Barrymore’s character in the movie, “Donnie Darko”, stated are the most beautiful in the world.  The original remark is by H. L. Mencken, although it has also been attributed to Edgar Allen Poe and J.R.R. Tolkien.  In the early sixties the idea that experience is subjective led to a criticism of abstract art. Artists such as Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth argued that the central contribution of the artist was not the creation of the Beautiful, but rather the creation of Ideas.  It was no longer Important that the words, “cellar door”, have a pleasant sound when spoken aloud.  Instead, what was important was what the words meant.  Very quickly, a reorientation of art occurred from form to content and from the visual to the conceptual. As a result, today, in addition to the traditional objective criteria by which people evaluate buildings, (such as context, history, and program) are added additional subjective criteria (such as gender, language, time, and all the concerns of the human body).


How does this affect the architect as he designs?  After all, he or she may not even know of these airy problems.  The answer to that question is clear: Architects are affected by theory whether they intend to be or not. C. J. Jung said at the beginning of the twentieth century that ideas lay buried within humanity’s collective unconscious awaiting expression in the different arts.  As the world changes, so do ideas, and so, necessarily, is the architect pulled along in the wake of these ideas whether he intends to be or not.  From Pittsburgh to Hong Kong, architects are responding to these new subjective criteria.  Consciously or not, architects now consider the phenomenal experience of the future inhabitants of their buildings.


The answer to the question, “Does theory matter,” is an unqualified “Yes”!

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