Is Schoolyard Theory a Waste of Time?

“Practice without theory is blind, and theory without practice is empty,” is an expression I have heard several times this semester in an architecture and urban design theory class.  The expression itself relates to the cyclical feedback between these ‘two entities’ – practice informs the direction and development of theory, and theory guides the design of practice.

Theory is what pulled me into architecture in the first place during a time of confusion, and it helped keep me going for the last two years in grad school.  I’ve struggled with a lot of that design theory that I’ve encountered, however; so much of it – including a lot of the most influential theorists – seems completely abstract, without any base in reality, research, or practice.  Conversely, there seems to be a vibe from visiting jurors that many of them volunteer only so they can have the discussions they once had in school.

Although I see the value of both and want to participate in both, my interests align more with thought than practice.  And in an age where our patterns of settlement and inhabitation need to be rethought and reshaped, theory – high-level thought about the very nature of what we’re doing – seems as valid a tool as its counterpart.  But I’m not getting the impression that it’s as valued.

I wanted to take a different approach for this post: to ask questions, solicit answers from anyone who has experience in practice and has opinions to offer, and start a discussion on the subject if I can, because the student sector of ’emerging professionals’ might be interested in the answers to these questions.

First off, perhaps the most obvious:

“Does theory have a place in conventional practice, or do architects only have those conversations in schools and juries?”

I have my own suspicions about this answer, but I prefer to hear someone else’s informed opinion rather than offer my ignorant thoughts.  If theory does, indeed, have a place in practice, I am curious about the manner in which it does.  What discussions are had and between whom?  In what part of the design process do they take place?  In what ways do they inform the practice?  And in what ways does the practice return and inform the theory that had been used?

If theory doesn’t seem to have a place, why is that?  Is that high-level thought and theory so ingrained in architects that discussions are unnecessary?  Or is there some other force at work?

As a second major question:

“How have architects handled the transition between the discussions of grad school and those of practice?”

My post and my questions might sound ignorant and unenlightened, and that’s because they are.  I appreciate any and all answers and discussions anyone is willing to give.

6 thoughts on “Is Schoolyard Theory a Waste of Time?

  1. Your questions are certainly not ignorant. While I am not currently studying in the field of architecture, I have dealt directly with the concept of theory vs. practice in the field of Art.

    I would argue that you need both. To create thought-provoking Art, one needs to be competent enough to imbue his/work with a theme, or philosophy that – hopefully – the observer is able to pick up on and the experience becomes further enriched by its inclusion.

    However, my observation has been that many, many artists simply use this concept as a crutch to make up for their lack of practical application. In my opinion, skill is just as vital a component to creating successful work, if not more so. Would you rather look at a detailed oil painting of a dragon attacking a village, or listen to someone explain how their cardboard box full of aluminum foil represents their inner turmoil?

    After reading your post, it would seem that some architects only engage in theoretical discussion during lecture and that there is little use for it in practical application. I would be wary of this. As I said before, ideally you would want experience in both. Ultimately, the question that begs to be answered is- what do you want to do? Do you want to design bridges for rural communities, or do you want to implement radical concepts that could impact the global population, both socially and economically.

    It’s okay to be theoretical, as long as you have enough practical application to ensure that the implementation of your ideas is possible.

    • I appreciate the parallels you make between our two ‘different’ worlds. The discussion of having both a theme or philosophy as well as having the technical skill to make the painting more successful seems to be easily transferable to every field I’ve ever studied, including architecture, but I don’t think I ever would have articulated that thought as well – and the analogy to a cardboard box full of aluminum foil seems to describe exactly what’s been happening in so many disciplines for so many decades.

      I could find a lot of parallels in music, as one example, and especially architecture, as another, where someone has to explain what their philosophy is and try to sell it, just because their execution of that idea won’t be able to.

      You also raise an idea I find very interesting and hadn’t previously considered in this context, that of ‘scale’: Designing some local, rural bridge somewhere versus trying to incorporate vast concepts to benefit entire populations, which you use as a specific and very relevant example.

      So, if I were to be designing a shoe box, it wouldn’t be enough of a practical application to warrant spending two years developing a theoretical framework for it, whereas the thought underlying complex systems and patterns like a large building or a regional plan would potentially benefit from such rigorous study…

      That idea of scale and applicability is something I’ll be thinking a lot about and even finding a lot of use for. Thank you.

  2. Like you I want a balance of theory and practice (informing each other) in my work. Also like you, I prefer theory.

    Architecture school focuses more on theory than practice which seems disingenuous since not only is the design and theory portion of architectural work much smaller than the practical (code interpretation, permitting, drafting, etc.) but that portion is rarely given to younger designers.
    Despite my preference for theory, school should focus on practice at first and later (grad school) begin to incorporate theory.

    To go along with Aaron’s comment above, theory is what and why you paint, practice is your mechanical ability to do so.
    Learn HOW to design a building that will meet codes requirements, owner’s budget, ease of construction, and a clearly drafted set of drawings. This skill can then be used to produce meaningful architecture. The skill should never be an end in itself but a means to enable the architecture you desire — the reason for the project in the first place.

    Also, in response to Aaron, the biggest difference I can see between art and architecture is the designer’s authority to create what they want. In art the materials are relatively inexpensive and the artist can create what they want. In architecture the materials are relatively very expensive and their vision and ideas are necessarily tempered by building codes, cost, constructability, and most importantly the client.

    Back to the original question: many architects would like theory to take a bigger part in design but are unable to do so. Architectural fees are often less than generous and there’s usually (in my experience) little room in the budget to spend much time on the design. Clients have to not only be convinced that your design is interesting but that it’s worth a(n) (sometimes considerable) increase in cost.

    There are areas of architecture (higher end) where there is more freedom for theory to play a part, which is nice. I worry that we are too ready to abandon low-cost design to purely practical concerns with no thought for theory. I’ve always been inspired to bring quality design and thought to lower-cost design — where it has historically been absent. Because of a perceived lack of value-added, it can be an insurmountable obstacle when finances come into play.

    How do we solve this?

    • Thanks for your thoughts Daniel, you raise two important questions in your post that I want to respond to separately.

      First, you bring up the idea that the design and theory within architectural work is much smaller a component than the practical aspects, which – as you discuss later – has roots in discussions of ‘value’ to clients. You compare this to architecture school which seems to focus, in a disproportionate amount, more on theory, and you suggest that school should first teach practice (undergrad?) and second teach theory (grad school).

      For those of us who came from “unrelated” undergrad programs (I would prefer to say “differently related”), our entire exposure is a few years of grad school. In my particular program, my first four studios were predominately theory; it wasn’t until our fifth, comprehensive studio that we were intended to all of a sudden master all of the ‘practical’ stuff that just gets thrown in at the end with less of a focus, including the codes and systems and technical drawings that will occupy far more of our time than theory ever will.

      A lot of my classmates complained along the way that things seem reversed, and rightly so according to your thoughts.

      You suggest an order of things that is that reverse, and in a way what you’re suggesting parallels a lot of the changes in teaching in a variety of disciplines – people are finding that immersion is a stronger way to teach, even at higher levels. In language, this relates to the Rosetta Stone style of learning – actual whole sentences and thoughts first, and an understanding of grammar and vocabulary second.

      In computer programming, this relates to giving students established functions that they’re taught to do things with – whether it’s moving a turtle onscreen or making changes to photographs, as a few examples I’ve recently seen – BEFORE they’re taught to understand and write those functions from the ground up; meaningful, visible, understandable results before grammar, syntax, and theory.

      Likewise, teaching someone how to play guitar is more effective when you teach them a song first, and only then teach them the theory behind the music. Whenever I’ve started with theory, eyes get glassy and students get bored.

      I’m surprised that I never took the leap to relate this to architecture school, until your response encouraged it. I wonder how other schools treat the perceived divide between theory and practice differently than my own, and how might the reversal of practice and theory you suggest translate into stronger knowledge and application of architecture once we’re out of school.

    • Second, you offer an answer to why theory is not as prominent as perhaps it should be in conventional practice: money.

      I wish I had any good thoughts on the questions that you raise, but I’m stumped. I too feel that there are sectors where theory and higher-level thought are traditionally minimal or absent – residential housing, for one? – and this seems a shame because those seem to be areas where we might benefit from the most thought, rather than the least.

      Answers to your questions and concerns might involve not only a different way of architects educating, defining, presenting, and selling themselves, but might also involve different ways of them actually practicing, or at least different patterns of how they fit with other disciplines. I don’t know; I would love to find actual answers somewhere that aren’t as vague and meaningless as my statements. Those answers would probably revolutionize not only the practice of architecture but the benefits reaped from it, as well, between both the clients/consumers as well as the architect’s paycheck.

  3. Just another thought, sort of along the lines of your “scale” discussion above, and that is of “use”. Different types of projects warrant differing levels of “concept”. Design a spec office building and mention the word “concept” and you might get thrown off the project. It is all (seemingly) about FAR, net leasable space, constructibility, and permitting. On the opposite side of things, I recently worked on a worship facility and spent most of my budget discussing nothing but “concept”. I can make more money cranking out “spec” designs, but find more reward in thinking through concepts (parallels between meaning and construct). I’m finding a balance of the two might result in a pretty killer career! having fun and making money, what could be better!?

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