Theories of Architecture Page 2:

Thematic Theories of Architecture

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Thematic theories are treatises which aim at the fulfilment of one principal goal, usually at the cost of other customary goals of building. Theories which aim at fulfilling simultaneously several goals, perhaps all the goals that are known, are discussed on the page Theories of architectural synthesis.

Paradigm (=style) of architecture: Basic presentation of its theory:
Doric, Ionian and Corinthian style and their varieties in ancient Greece and Rome Vitruve: De Architectura libri decem. It was mainly documentation of earlier architectural traditions.
Romanesque and Gothic styles.  Medieval anonymous tradition of trade guilds has not survived to us; minor fragments are the following: Villard de Honnecourt and Schmuttermayer.
Renaissance, baroque, rococo, neo-classical style Alberti: De re Aedificatoria. Serlio, Vignola, Palladio...
Large constructions: bridges and halls. "Structuralist" styling (=which emphasizes the structure). Galilei: Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze. Hooke, Bernoulli, Euler...
l'Art Nouveau. Personal styles of architectural geniuses: Gaudi, Le Corbusier etc. Viollet-le-Duc: Entretiens sur l'Architecture. The book showed logical basis for new form languages but it did not create them yet. Notice also Owen Jones and John Ruskin.
Functionalism. The teaching of Gropius and Bauhaus. Adolf Loos. Neufert (1936): Bauentwurfslehre
Systems Building from prefabricated components The lectures and exemplars given by Mies van der Rohe and others. Habraken.
Ecological architecture (energy collectors etc) Eco-philosophy by Henryk Skolimowski was one of the pioneering works.
Symbolic architecture. Norberg-Schulz: Intentions in Architecture, Jencks... 
Postmodernism and Deconstruction Robert Venturi: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

Some of the theories in the table are now certainly outdated and have little interest to a modern builder, but some contain still valid information about important goals of building, notably on the questions of functionality, construction, economy and ecology. The last-named, still valid theories can be seen as building-specific branches of the general goal-specific theories which pertain to all types of products and are listed in Paradigms Of Design Theory.


Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the author of the oldest research on architecture which has remained till this day, worked during the reign of emperor August. He wrote an extensive summary of all the theory on construction that had been written so far: Ten Books on Architecture (De architectura libri decem). He seems to have been a learned man, he had a thorough knowledge of earlier Greek and Roman writings that have now been lost. There is a list of these works in the introduction of book VII; most of them described a temple. Two of the writings were about proportions, and as many as nine writers spoke about the "laws of symmetry", which in modern terminology mostly mean the systems of module measuring.

Vitruve's book consists almost only of normative theory of design. His rules are usually based on practical points or reasoning; sometimes he also motivates them by saying that this has always been done, i.e., with historical tradition.

Vitruve discusses not only one theme but several practical goals of building, each one of these in a separate chapter of the book. The treatise can be seen as a collection of parallel thematic theories of design. Vitruve gives no method for combining these into a synthesis, he only presents a classification (I:3:2) of all the requirements set for buildings:

This remained a model for almost all posterior research of architecture: buildings are researched mostly as combinations of characteristics, rather than as holistic entities. In the course of time, a particular, rather independent theory was developed for every group of characteristics, as we will see later.

The aesthetic form rules of Vitruve influenced greatly all subsequent writers. The are based on Greek traditions of architecture, and also on the teachings of Pythagoras (ca. 532 BC), according to which harmony is created by applying the proportions of whole numbers. This was based on earlier observations of the tuned strings of instruments and also on the proportions of the human body; and now Vitruve wanted to apply the same proportions to architecture as well. The supreme criterion was, however, the estimate the public gave of the work. A building was beautiful if its appearance was pleasant, it was in accordance with good taste, and its parts follow proportions (lat. proportio) and the "symmetry" of measures (the unusual definition of symmetry is found in I:II:4).

The Middle Ages

Most documents remaining from the Middle Ages have to do with the monastery institution. The convents erected a great number of buildings. However, their archives contain surprisingly few descriptions of buildings or projects. There are numerous building contracts, but usually the building is only defined by stating its size and that it shall be made "according to the traditional model".
On the whole, there was little interest in mundane values like the qualities of architecture. "There's no accounting for tastes" (lat. de gustibus et coloribus non disputandum) was the rule of thumb of Scholastics, which did not favour the development of the theory of arts (however, you could see St. Augustine on this). Fortunately, the libraries of the monasteries preserved at least some fragments of the architectural theory of antiquity.

The practice of architecture was, first of all, based on tradition dating back to antiquity, and, starting from this tradition, both the Romanesque and the Gothic building style developed over the centuries, presumably with hardly any or no literary research. The only documented presentations that have remained till this day are the "sketchbook" by Villard de Honnecourt from 1235 and the "Booklet on the right way of making pinnacles" (Büchlein von der Fialen Gerechtigkeit, picture on the right) by Roritzer, printed in Regensburg in 1486.

When the knowledge of Latin and even literacy degraded, the importance of traditional knowledge in building increased. Traditional knowledge was learned by doing, in the guidance of old masters, and it was probably not written down anywhere. But tradition could be rather binding and precise in the closed guilds of builders. It also became rather homogenous throughout Europe because builders apparently moved from one town to another, depending on where the building sites were.

Since the beginning of the 13th century, craftsmen in the building trade started forming guilds (German: Bauhütte). These guilds probably gathered a great deal of traditional information related to construction, but it seems to have remained a professional secret of the guilds and the masters, and they preferred not to publish it. Even if it was written down, these notes have been lost.

Classical Theory of Forms

Renaissance brought about a new interest in the feats of antiquity, especially in Italy. Ancient works of art and survived buildings became objects of study, and a search for writings dating back to antiquity started.

In 1418, a copy of Vitruve was found among the manuscripts of the monastery of St. Gallen. The word about the manuscript spread fast to the circles of architects in Italy and was soon met with enthusiasm there.

Leon(e) Battista Alberti (1404-72) belonged to universal geniuses of Renaissance; he was a gifted playwright, mathematician and sportsman. As the person in charge of the constructions commanded by the Pope, he had the occasion to write one of the greatest works of the theory of architecture: De re aedificatoria (On Building). Most of it was completed in 1452 and printed in 1485.

Like Vitruve, Alberti wanted his book to include all that was needed in the design of buildings and all the knowledge that was generally known and applied at that time. But what he emphasized most was the decoration of building exteriors which was a usual task of architects at that time. That is because a great number of modest medieval churches and dwellings had to be modernized in such a way that at least their facades would be representative and fashionable. The architectural style of imperial Rome (like the triumphal arch above) was usually preferred in these renovations.
To give structure and decoration to facades, Alberti developed a clever system of classical pilasters and architraves which could be superimposed on any earlier smooth surface. Alberti used the name "ornamentum" ('equipment', 'decoration') for these architectural elements.
On the right, you can see an example of this "ornamentation": the church of San Francesco in Rimini. Parts of the original, plain building are still visible, because the commissioner, Lord of Rimini Sigismondo Malatesta, died in 1466 before the work was finished.

For a long time, the classical system of the "orders" (on the right) became the most visible contents of architectural theory, although it also emphasized the composition of building masses and rooms and the concepts of proportion and harmony. The classical style is aptly called 'mannerism' in some countries.

Writers after Alberti complemented their works with still richer illustrations, in which the precision and glamour of classical form details was brought to perfection. Theory books of architecture started resembling fashion magazines. The purpose of the works was usually to present the "rules of art" to designers in as easily applicable form as possible, and the reasons were only briefly commented on. This purpose was often stated in the name of the book, too. For example, the name of the work by Sebastiano Serlio was Regole generali di architettura, picture on the right.

Giacomo (Jacopo) Barozzi da Vignola is another distinguished author. In his book Regola delle cinque ordini (1562) he wanted to present the "concise, fast and easily applicable rules of the five column systems." But what Vignola was presenting was not in fact rules but outright standardized columns and decorations. The basis for their measurements was the module measurement used by Vitruve, i.e. the eighth part of the diameter of the pillar served as a measurement unit. A typical picture on the left.

In the foreword, Vignola tells how he came by these "rules of art":

"In order to be able to set up the instructions for the Doric system, I used the Marcellus theatre as a model because it is praised by everyone. First I measured the main parts; but if some smaller part would not obey the [Vitruvian] proportions of figures -- which may have been caused by the imprecision of the stonecutter or by other occasional reasons -- I made it follow the rule." (From Germann 116.)

Vignola based his design instructions on four things, which were:

I quattro libri dell'architettura by Andrea Palladio (1508-80) is the father of modern picture books of architecture. It contains little theory but all the more pictures on buildings skilfully designed by Palladio. They were there for even less literate architects to copy.

It is not surprising that Italian architects took the architecture of their Roman ancestors as their ideal. Likewise, it is natural that French theorists were more critical. The first of them, Philibert de l'Orme (ca. 1510-1570) proved with measurements that in the Pantheon the Corinthian columns were dimensioned according to as many as three different proportions. He therefore rejected the doctrine of the absolute beauty of measures and explained that the measurements of a column depended on whether the column was large or small in size or whether it was placed high up or downward in the building. This meant that the actual form of the column did not alone determine its beauty; the final impression of beauty was only created when somebody was looking at the column. This principle which later developed into perceptive psychology inspired de l'Orme to continue the list of ancient column models with his own inventions (there is one example of such a column on the right).

According to the model provided by Renaissance theorists, general presentations of the classical rules of architecture were issued especially by teachers of schools of architecture. Works printed in France were widely read in other countries, too. The most important of these were:

Alongside with listing classical "orders" of columns, the writers analysed other formal characteristics of architecture, such as the balance, scale and rhythm of building blocks, rooms and components. Requirements of usage and maintenance were covered fairly briefly.
Many of the theorists of architecture successfully tried out their hypotheses in the buildings they designed. However, they knew no method for inspecting systematically the results provided by these experiments. That is why the classical architectural theory progressed fairly slowly and eventually failed to correspond to the requirements of modern society.

Construction Theory

From times immemorial, available building materials and tools have determined or at least modified building forms, as can be seen in many surviving examples of vernacular architecture which have been created without the help of architects or theory. Examples:

Building material: Ensuing architectural form:
Amorphic material: soft stone, snow Spherical vaulted construction: the igloo, trulli (South Italy), nuraghi (Sardinia)
Sheets of skin or textile, and poles. Cone shaped tent-like constructions.
Logs of wood Box shaped construction

The era before written construction theory produced some admirable buildings. For example in Mesopotamia a stone vault with a span of over 20m has been standing well over two millennia and exists still today. Because its shape exactly duplicates that of a catenary curve, we can assume that its design was based on the invention that, whenever a catenary is turned upside down, the original stretching forces become replaced by compression only and all sidewise forces remain absent. This means that the shape can be copied to stone masonry which is well able to resist pure compression but not stretching tension. It thus seems probable that the builders used a mechanical analogous model instead of those mathematical algorithms that we use in modern construction. The method certainly necessitated some verbal instructions which today would merit the name "design theory" even if it was never written down.

The semi-circular vault was known to ancient Romans, while its theory was still in rudimentary level as Vitruve has only one sentence to say about it:

"When there are arches ... the outermost piers must be made broader than the others, so that they may have the strength to resist when the wedges, under the pressure of the load of the walls, begin to ... thrust out the abutments (VI:VII:4).
Not a sentence has survived to us about the theory or the models which were used in erecting the magnificent vaults of medieval cathedrals. The treatises that survive are of somewhat later origin: Le Théâtre de l'art de charpentier (1627) and Le secret d'architecture découvrant fidélement les traits métriques (1642) by Mathurin Jousse. The former deals with wooden constructions and the latter with stone vaults. Both describe mainly traditional structures and do not yet present any tangible theory for their design. However, as the shapes of gothic vaults often resemble fragments of inverted catenaries, we perhaps can assume that the catenary model (see above) was known to some architects.

In antiquity and in the Middle Ages, architects designed not only the layout and decoration but also the construction and stability of the buildings. Architects were also in charge of the construction work itself. From Alberti onwards, architects tended to specialize in the "disegno" of buildings, i.e., the design of the exterior and the layout of the buildings. Therefore, the mechanics of materials and construction started to become a field of study of its own. The methods of creating mathematical models and verifying them through experiments were adopted from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
Galilei himself already put the method to practice in the field of construction in his work Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (1638, a graphic from it is on the right). Our modern construction theory is a fairly direct successor of the theory on the solidity of constructions presented in it. Unfortunately the research of constructions was detached from the rest of architectural theory for centuries, and even a separate guild of engineers was created.

The name "engineer", which comes form the Latin word ingenium = "genius" or "a product of genius", "invention", had already been used in the Middle Ages for skilful architects. Now this word was adopted by Marquise de Vauban when he founded a building department, Corps des ingénieurs, in the French army, in 1675. In that time, it was usual for military engineers to design castles, town plans and even churches. This new profession specializing in construction questions got organized fairly quickly and in 1747, a special school, Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, was founded in Paris.

Central figures in developing the mathematical construction theory were Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Jakob Bernoulli (1654-1705) and Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). All of them published several books. From Euler onwards, the theory of elasticity of structures developed side by side with mathematical theory.
On the other hand, new innovations of practical building were made and published in books, e.g.:

The publication of theoretical progress and inventions started also in building magazines in the 19th century. Thus the most important publisher of the theory of the reinforced concrete technique used to be the journal of Francois Hennebique's construction company, Le Béton armé.

The most consequent applications of construction theory are today large edifices like bridges and industrial halls. The shape of any large construction must be simple and healthy, or else the costs skyrocket. Examples of lofty constructions which also are great architecture created by engineers are the bridges of Maillart (on the right) and many exhibition or athletics halls. On the left, a restaurant building with a span of 30m, constructed by Weidlinger and Salvadori.

The situation is slightly different in the design of modern office or residential buildings. Their architecture is not as much dictated by constructional principles. The reason is that modern building materials, notably steel and reinforced concrete, are so strong that almost any architectural form is equally feasible. Anyway, many architects have wanted to create distinctively structural or "constructivist" forms; Curt Siegel (1960) presents an excellent overview of these in the book Strukturformen der modernen Architektur which is also the source of a couple of graphics here.

Personal Styles

Since the times of Renaissance, all the renowned architects and theorists in Europe had taken it for granted that the "form language" of new buildings, i.e., the systems of columns and decorations had to be copied from antiquity, where they had already been brought to perfection. The only thing designers of new buildings then had to do was to combine and modify these elements in order to fit them to the practical requirements and resources of each commissioner.
Some sporadic protests (e.g. the defence of the Gothic style by Goethe: Von Deutscher Baukunst) had been heard. But they did not affect the mainstream of design.

The first theorist who set out to create a totally new system of architectural forms independent of antiquity was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1863). In his book Entretiens sur l'architecture (lecture 1, p.29), he states that "what we call taste is but an involuntary process of reasoning whose steps elude our observation". "Authority has no value if its grounds are not explained" (p. 458). Given the fact that the foundations of modern architecture cannot possibly be the same as those prevalent in Greece 2000 years ago, Viollet-le-Duc saw as his mission to develop a new architecture which would be based, in the same way as Descartes' philosophy, only on facts and reasonable conclusions reached on the basis of them. Examples of his deductions (idem):

Viollet-le-Duc tried to put his theories to practice in his own design as well. In it, he was carried on to bring the theoretical logic of the constructions so far that few people would consider the product beautiful. On the right, you can see a sketch of a concert hall which would be built of brick and cast iron elements. On the left, there is a detail of steel constructions in which a striking impression of beauty has been created by the clever design of the indispensable diagonal trusses. The decoration has thus a rational foundation, as Viollet's theory dictates.

Although Viollet-le-Duc could not create a timeless architectural style himself, he showed others the philosophical foundation and method that they could use to develop even radically new form languages.

Owen Jones was another important writer that inspired young architects to create new formal styles. He studied the methods of exploiting an eternal source of architectural forms: nature and especially the forms of plants. The result of his studies became the first design instruction on the use of ornaments originating in nature: Grammar of Ornament (1856). One of its 37 rules (no 13) states that "flowers or other natural objects should not be used as ornaments", instead acceptable are "conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended image to the mind, without destroying the unity of the object they are employed to decorate." And rule 35 says that "imitations, such as the graining of woods, and of the curious coloured marbles [are] allowable only when the employment of the thing imitated would not have been inconsistent."

After the Gothic style, the first architectural style independent of the tradition of antiquity in Europe was l'Art Nouveau. Its origins included the philosophy of Viollet-le-Duc and the rules and examples of Owen Jones but no considerable theoretical research was done by the creators of this style. It may even be that, because of the world war, the hegemony of "Jugendstil" became so short that people never got as far as to do research. In art, it is often so that the works of a new style first come about without any explicit theory, guided by the intuition, and only after a few years do their principles become clear to such an extent that they may be worded.

The example set by l'Art Nouveau encouraged some of the most skilful architects of our century to create their private form languages. The first of these was Le Corbusier, who also presented a short written foundation to his system of proportions (based on the Golden Section) in the book Modulor (1951). Its fundamental perceptive psychology base was presented already 1923 in the book Vers une architecture:

"Architecture is a brilliant, orthodox and original jigsaw puzzle of masses combined in light. Our eyes were created to see the forms in light; light and shadow reveal the forms. Cubes, cones, balls, cylinders and pyramids are primary shapes that light so excellently reveals; the picture they give to us is clear and perspicuous without indecision. That is why they are beautiful forms."

Alongside with l'Art Nouveau, Le Corbusier based his style on the study of natural forms of plants. Characteristic of Le Corbusier is that buildings are understood as giant sculptures (see e.g. the Ronchamp chapel, on the right).

As a contrast to many other creative talents, he also tried to write down the theoretical postulates that he followed in his creation, although this research was mostly done rather subjectively, without verifying how the new doctrine or the ensuing new forms were received by the general public of architecture. He published in 1926 a paper Les 5 points d'une architecture nouvelle where he declared the cardinal rules of "new architecture". They were (as explained by Kenneth Frampton, 1980, p. 157):

5 points d'architecture

  1. "Pilotis" or columns elevating the building body off the ground,
  2. The free plan, achieved through the separation of the load-bearing columns from the walls subdividing the space,
  3. The free façade, the corollary of free plan in the vertical plane,
  4. The long horizontal sliding window or fenêtre en longeur,
  5. The roof garden, restoring, supposedly, the area of garden used up by the house.

Le Corbusier illustrated his "5 points" by pairs of sketches (above) where the traditional model was shown on the right and the new style on the left.

The theoretical proposals of Le Corbusier, and also his sculptural buildings, received at first much attention among Functionalist architects, but fresh theories were soon put forward by other authors. Some of these pronounced an exactly opposite notion: the core and crux of architecture is not the sculptural pattern, but instead the building interiors. These can be seen as "negative solids", as voids which the artist divides, combines, repeats and emphasizes in the same way as the sculptor treats his "positive" lumps of substance. The most notable treatise on this topic is Architecture as space by Bruno Zevi (1974).

The "personal styles" of architects are not necessarily based on laws of nature or on logical reasoning. More important is that they exhibit a coherent application of an idea which also must be so clear that the public can find it out. An advantage is also if the style includes symbolical undertones.


The intended uses of new buildings have certainly influenced their architecture long before the emergence of first architects or theories. Examples of this can be seen in ancient vernacular buildings:
Intended use of building: Arrangement of building,
as generated by the use:
An independent family; co-operation with neighbours is coincidental One room detached house.
A group of families in collective housekeeping A group of sleeping rooms around a central kitchen/dining room
A family and domestic animals. A space for people and another space for the animals in close connection.

Many of these ancient tacit traditions of building became documented already in the first treatises of architecture. The usability of buildings is one of the three cornerstones of Vitruve's theory, and he writes tens of pages about it. From Renaissance onwards it did not receive as much attention from researchers; most of them just mention in one sentence this requirement. At the beginning of the 20th century, some more extensive studies on it appeared, e.g. the following:

Despite the influential slogan of Sullivan, "Form follows function" no coherent theory of functionalism was created before the 1920s when it started to unfold in the Bauhaus school headed by Walter Gropius (1883-1969). The results are well presented in the book Bauentwurfslehre (1936) by Ernst Neufert who worked as an assistant to Gropius. On the right is an illustration from it, showing functional space needs in a hospital.

"Function" of the building meant to the first developers and supporters of the Functionalist theory mostly the physical requirements (primarily dimensions) that were necessary to carry out the practical corporeal activities in the building. Psychological needs of the great public were largely ignored. When it thus became necessary to refer, for example, to the concept of "beauty" it was usually defined on the basis of the functionalist doctrine, for example as being equal to good functionality or to high quality of fabrication. Gropius defined:

'Beauty' is based on the perfect mastery of all the scientific, technological and formal prerequisites of the task ... The approach of Functionalism means to design the objects organically on the basis of their own contemporary postulates, without any romantic embellishment or jesting (The Bauhaus Book no. 7 pp. 4 - 7).

If a layman happened to have other ideals of beauty and he or she wanted to have more decoration on a building, these wishes were often disregarded as "bad taste". A manifesto by Adolf Loos (1908), Ornament and Crime, had great influence on architects. Loos declared that people who liked ornamentation (for example, if they wore tattooing) were either immature, primitive or even antisocial. In contrast, cultivated people prefer unadorned, plain surfaces, he said. Accordingly, functionalist architects avoided decoration of buildings and favored simple geometric forms.

Functionalist architects understood how essential it is to base their design on empirical research. Many findings of these studies are still valid and widely applied even by those architects who have long ago abandoned the rectangular formal language of functionalism. However, research on the psychological needs of building users was slow to speed up, which was regretted by several of the pioneers of Functionalism (like Sullivan, Gropius and Breuer) in their more mature age. For example, Alvar Aalto wrote in 1940 in the journal The Technology Review:

During the past decade, Modern architecture has been functional chiefly from the technical point of view, with its emphasis mainly on the economic side of the building activity... But, since architecture covers the entire field of human life, real functional architecture must be functional mainly from the human point of view. ... Technic is only an aid ... Functionalism is correct only if enlarged to cover even the psychophysical field. That is the only way to humanize architecture. (Aalto 1970, p. 15 - 16).

Systems Building from prefabricated components

In accord with the vigorous tradition of handicraft of Bauhaus, Functionalist architects tried to respect not only the functional requirements of the consumers but also those of the construction industry. They soon learned that the productivity of building was greatly improved when as many building components as possible were produced in permanent factories, instead of making them on the building site in awkward places and in unpredictable weather. The economy of mass production, in turn, advocates designing the products so that they do not vary too much. The corollary regarding the completed building is that it should be composed from identical components as far as possible. At least the components should have uniform dimensions and if there must be variation between them it should be of a kind that creates minimal problems for the factory.

The theoretical basis for architecture using prefabricated identical components was largely adopted from the science of normative economics about which a description is found elsewhere. The philosophy is very much the same as was used in industrial conveyor belt production of cars, for example. There were even architects who wanted to turn this into an aesthetic ideal. The new prefabrication-oriented style of architecture propagated itself not through an explicit theory or treatises, but instead through the medium of exemplars, bold novel designs by innovative architects. Among these perhaps the most influential was Mies van der Rohe, director of Bauhaus from 1930 to 33 and of the department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1939 to 1959. He had designed all the main buildings of the school and had ample opportunities to profess the philosophy behind their architecture. His catchphrases "Less is more" and "next to nothing" describe his attitude to surface decoration.

Most of Mies' followers were gifted with less subtle taste of detail and the prefabricated style of building soon became known as "match-box architecture". The design of many a suburb was largely dictated more by the radius of the crane than by the needs of the future inhabitants.

Above it was said that several Functionalist architects wished to have more research on the psychological needs of customers, but the work was slow to catch on. Only lately some architects have realized that for gathering people's preferences there are easier methods than surveying large populations and translating the findings into theoretical standards. Particularly in the context of systems building there is a unique possibility of inviting the future building users to participate in design so that they select suitable prefabricated components among the range that has been prepared by the architect. The method is discussed under the title Collective Design, and in many countries it is already in operation in the commercial production of one-family houses. For high-rise apartments the method is not as common, despite of the proposals published by N.J. Habraken (1972).

Ecological Architecture

Making a shelter from bad weather was certainly one of the earliest goals of building, and it has also later affected the building forms. Some examples:

Climatic incentive: Ensuing architectural form:
Excessive cold Airtight, isolating outer skin.
In the centre a source of warmth
Excessive heat Large roof to give shadow;
large openings in the walls to allow ventilation
Too hot in daytime
and too cold during the night
Thick heavy walls

In the Western countries room air conditioning is now so common that we have almost forgotten the above foundations of architecture, see e.g. Mechanisation Takes Command, by Sigfried Giedion (1950).
Nevertheless, lately the ecological imperative has again come to surface, the natural resources of earth dwindling and the people in developing countries starting to contend their share. Henryk Skolimowski was one of the first to examine the practical conclusions from the situation. There is not yet much literature on the principles of ecologically sound architecture, but more is certainly in preparation. It goes without saying that the theory of ecological architecture can be based on the findings of industrial ecology which lately has made great progress.

The physical appearance of ecological architecture is often dominated by large sloping panels which gather solar energy. These are placed on the roofs and along the southern walls. As a contrast, the cool side of the building is characterized by the absence of large openings, and the windows on this side can be covered for the night. A diagrammatic example of such a building is seen on the right, from the book Energiakäsikirja [Energy Handbook] (1983).

Another approach in ecological design deals with building materials and aims at minimizing the use of not replenishable raw materials. This means preferring such building materials as wood, stone, earth and recycled material like used boxes and barrels, and naturally it necessitates a peculiar style of architectural design as well.

Building as a Message

The oldest notes on architectural symbolism preserved until this day were issued by Vitruve (I,II,5). The instructions told about a suitable (lat. proprius) style of architecture for the temple of each god. The style suited to the temple of Mars, the god of war, was the austere Doric system, whereas the graceful Corinthian style decorated with leafy branches corresponded to the flexible nature of Venus, the goddess of love. On the right, you can see a drawing from the 15th c. by Giorgio Martini reflecting Vitruve's idea.

Allegorical symbolism was popular in several fields of medieval culture, but hardly any original writings exist on how this symbolism was precisely understood in architecture. What is known is that some church buildings were built to symbolize either the "vault of heaven" or "heavenly Jerusalem". In other cases, the model was the temple of Solomon or the liturgical calendar. The pillars of the church were put there to symbolize the prophets and the apostles. Proportions were sometimes considered important not because of their beauty but because of the numeric symbolism hidden in them.

During Renaissance, symbolism suited to church buildings was developed further. Palladio (IV,II) thinks circular forms are fitting for churches because they symbolize the unity, infinity and justice of God. Others thought that proportions and forms of the human body were suitable for a church because, according to the Bible, the human being had been created in an image of God. Giorgio Martini explored this idea in the sketch on the left.

Etienne-Louis Boullée (1729-99), teacher of architecture at the Paris school of construction engineering (Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées) presented rather original ideas on the symbolism of building. He told his students to design "talking" (Fr. parlant) architecture, i.e., for example, the house of a saw owner had to be designed to resemble the blade of a saw. "Buildings should be like poems. The impressions they create to our senses should produce analogous feelings to those produced by the use of those buildings." (Arnheim 1977, 275).

In the 19th and 20th century, architectural theorists did not write much about symbolism, but architectural design got a number of symbolic models of forms of buildings, which became conventionalized. Wayne O. Attoe (1979 p. 23...31) has written the following list of them:

Günter Bandmann gives in the book Ikonologie der Architektur (1951, p. 60 ... 61) the following list of typical architectural symbol-vehicles and of the methods of their study:

Architectural signs often refer to social or political relations. An introduction to such studies can be found in Politische Architektur in Europa vom Mittelalter bis heute edited by Martin Warnke (1984).

Pentti Tuovinen (1985) has studied the symbolism used in architecture. He has presented a fairly simple method to design the symbolism of the town. The model has been adapted to the scale of town planning but its principle could probably also be used in the design of the symbolism of one single building.

Tuovinen (129...) states that expressive, that is, explicit symbolism is one aspect in town planning. It can be defined with words and designed by an architect. In the process of design, this verbal description is first turned into an "ideal model of the symbolic system" and in the end, in his artistic design work, the architect once more recodes the message into the geometric form language of the town.

Tuovinen (130) suggests that the ideal model of town symbolism be achieved in such a way that the symbolic elements at hand are first made into a chart, see picture on the left:

In the next phase, the combinations chosen for the chart are made into a diagram showing the symbolic system; part of the example can be seen here on the right (ibid 132), the basis of the diagram is the schematic division of the town into quarters, into which the symbols planned for the town are then inserted. In the end, the structure of the symbols shown by the diagram is transferred to the town plan, to be eventually carried out.

Rudolf Arnheim (1977) has studied the subconscious symbolism of the forms of buildings. "The strongest symbols are derived from the most elementary perceptual sensations because they are connected with such basic experiences of the human experience which serve as a basis for everything else." (209) Arnheim found that dynamic forms which referred to movement were the most expressive forms of architecture, whereas if architectural forms imitate the forms of other objects too clearly (e.g. if a church is built in the form of a fish), this is bound to disturb dynamics and expression.

Sometimes you hear people say that consciously planned symbolism is bound to remain trivial and that in the end, it decreases the artistic value of a work. In fact, psychological research of art has shown that "too easy" symbolism is not valued aesthetically; in other words, the intensity of the aesthetic pleasure produced when one perceives a symbolic message depends on the intellectual effort preceding the moment of discovery.

The problem a researcher taking an interest in symbolism constantly faces is that the capacities of individuals in the general public to interpret symbols vary a great deal. Some symbols are "archetypal" or common to all people, but most of them are learned in communal living, and these differ a great deal from one individual to another. The problem is that a work of art should deviate from the expectation of the public to some extent (otherwise it would be trivial) but not too much (then it would be incomprehensible). In many art forms, this has meant that there are two genres of art: "the art of the people" and "the art of critics". Another solution has been to design the symbolism of works in such a way that it is "double coded": certain messages are directed to the general public and others to art connoisseurs. Works are thus made multicoded and multisensed in such a way that it allows different personal interpretations.

Postmodernism and Deconstruction

In his bookComplexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Robert Venturi opposed to simple "matchbox architecture". He analysed numerous esteemed historical architectural masterpieces starting from the works of Michelangelo and noticed that Mies' motto was mistaken.
It was the other way round: "Less is a bore", said Venturi. Architects have always pursued contradictory aims and it is this exactly tension that creates the final enjoyable, exquisite result, Venturi explained. It would be too trivial to follow simply and logically just one goal, for example the clarity of construction, as did the structural school of architecture. On the contrary, many famous architects have wanted to show their skill by hinting that all the rules are there to be broken. Historical examples are the Baroque columns in the sketches on the left and the right (from Siegel 1960 p. 9).

"I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties. By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I aim for vitality as well as validity." "I like elements which are hybrid rather than "pure," compromising rather than "clean," distorted rather than "straightforward," ambiguous rather than "articulated," ... redundant rather than simple; inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear." ... "I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning ... A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning ... its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once."

Venturi's aesthetics demands a lot of the spectator: if the spectator is to read the message of architecture in several parallel ways, he should know the conventional interpretations, i.e., the main points from the history of architecture, in advance. Architecture becomes thus an art which can be fully appreciated only by other artists and educated critics, not by laymen -- a deplorably usual case in modern art.
If the spectator is up to his task, he has expectations of the object of art. He relates the work to known references: to other comparable works of art and historical styles. The "competent" observer is also able to estimate if the work obeys these styles or if it deviates from them on purpose; and if there is such a deviation, he knows that he is supposed to find out the purpose and the message of the deviation. Finding this kind of clues, especially if it is not too easy, is conducive to the feeling of "eureka" which is one of the basic factors of aesthetic pleasure.

The pleasure is still more exquisite if, in addition, the clue is "double coded": for instance that it simultaneously includes a boring, matter-of-fact statement and an "ironical" hunch which tells that there is something hidden and unusual to be found behind the "boring" element.
This trick has been used in music for a long time; it is not uncommon that a juicy tango is simultaneously a parody of all previous tangos. The weaning effect used by the theatre of Brecht serves the same purpose: it makes the spectator not identify himself too trivially with the work and implies: "this is not reality, this is art" and thus makes the spectator do some personal, aesthetic thinking.
Venturi exemplified his ideas with a witty series of sketches called "Entrances" (1977). One of them is on the right. Moreover, he applied his theory to numerous new buildings and thus became the founder of the architectural style called postmodernism.

Deliberate contradiction received some philosophical support in Jacques Derrida's several writings between 1967 and 1972, where he points out the inevitability of ambiguity in all human activity and especially in written texts. When applied to architecture (cf. Broadbent's analysis of it, 1991), Derrida's ideas were taken to mean that there is no need to aspire to consistent and harmonious general pattern for a building. Instead, the principle of deconstruction (or 'deconstructivism') states that it is all right if the architect lets the eventual contradictions in the builder's goals shine through the finished design as well.

Even when the briefing documents (i.e. the building programme) include no apparent contradictions, the trendy architect may concoct artificial contrasts in his creation, just to make it more interesting. Typical contrasting features in avant-garde building in late 20 century were beams, detached rooms and other large building elements positioned so that they clash or penetrate each other at odd angles, creating an illusion of a recent collision with an aeroplane. On the right, Zaha Hadid's proposal for "Zollhof 3" in Düsseldorf (from Broadbent 1991, 26).

Another usual trick was to manipulate the grid of construction which since Functionalism had become a conventional instrument of design giving crystalline structure to modern buildings. Typical for deconstructivists was to use simultaneously two (or even more) interlocking grids which departed from each other by a few degrees. This created at once a multitude of clashing points, each of them then presenting to the architect a new and unique problem to be solved ingeniously. Regrettably, the building grid itself disappears in the finished building, and consequently most of the sophistication around it remains visible only for connoisseurs.

Pages about architectural theory:

  1. Overview of architectural theories
  2. Thematic theories (this page)
  3. Theories of synthesis

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August 3, 2007.
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