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Theory on Theory

October 31, 2008

The term theory has been used for many things in many ways. Generally speaking, theory tries to either find the cause behind a particular effect, or to predict the effect of a particular cause. In architecture, theory holds a distinct, yet related, meaning. It tries to find and to deal with the proper cause for a desired effect.

Over the years this has been applied in architecture in different ways. It has looked at historical precedent, user needs, and a holistic method. When architectural theory was driven by historical precedent, it met and satisfied a cultural expectation and desire, yet more and more failed to meet the needs of those who used the buildings. Eventually architects rebelled against this stricture and abandoned all reference to the past. These “Functionalists” distilled each project down to the minimum of square footage and the minimum of dollars spent, at the expense of addressing how people actually functioned in a social and psychological way.

The third holistic approach draws information that a designer can use in his process from a multitude of places. The designer can pull from the past, from the needs of a building, from psychology, religion, politics, fine arts, etc. This provides a way for the designer to meet all functional needs of a building, both seen and felt.

This also allows a designer to find solutions to problems by looking at it from a different perspective. All problems have solutions simply because they are problems. When we are tied to a single vantage point, we can often overlook a solution that is staring us in the face.

This brings us to a point where Architecture and vernacular architecture split. When theory is applied with aesthetics in mind we have architecture rather than just buildings. Vitruvius, an ancient roman architect, wrote that for there to be architecture there must be three things; Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas. In other words, it has to stand up, it has to work, and it has to be beautiful. All buildings built agree that there must be durability. All agree that it must fill a function.

Where the path splits is on the question of Beauty.

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