“Productive theory”

The topic of ‘productive theory’ in research and teaching was up for debate at this year’s ‘architecture theory days’, an event at the Leibniz Universität Hannover from 2 to 4 November. What could this term mean? In which way could this type of theory relate to other kinds of theory?

From 11 to 15 December 1967, a symposium titled Architekturtheorie (‘architectural theory’) took place at the Technische Universität (TU) Berlin on the initiative of O. M. Ungers. It was the first symposium of its kind. During his introduction, Ungers explained his foray into the topic as follows: ‘It is necessary, following a period of extensive construction and, at the same time, at the start of a still greater development, to look into theoretical foundations.’ But despite the high-profile attendance (Friedrich Achleitner, Reyner Banham, Peter Blake, Lucius Burckhardt, Ulrich Conrads, André Corboz, Günther Feurstein, Kenneth Frampton, Sigfried Giedion, Otto Graf, Antonio Hernandez, Jörn Janssen, Jürgen Joedicke, Julius Posener, Colin Rowe, Eduard Sekler, Sam Stevens and Adolf Max Vogt), Ungers’ aspiration to initiate the development of theoretical foundations for architecture was hardly met. At the TU Berlin itself, the subject had huge difficulties establishing itself at first. At the time, ‘architectural theory’ meant the history of architecture following Germany’s late baroque. Still, Julius Posener, who was under a teaching contract at the time, gave a unique and unforgettable lecture series. Elsewhere, things were a little better for architectural theory: In 1967, the gta, Zurich’s Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, was established. It represented, at least during its foundational years, the idea that history, theory, and design could come together. In the same year, Manfredo Tafuri joined Venice and published his Teorie e storia dell’architettura (‘Theories and History of Architecture’) soon after. The book became one of the most influential writings on the topic for decades to come. In 1968, Jürgen Joedicke, founded the Institut für Grundlagen der Modernen Architektur und Entwerfen (‘Institute for the Foundations of Modern Architecture and Design’) at Stuttgart University, which, under the influence of system theory, cybernetics, and so on, had a clearly theoretical orientation, even if design was an essential element. In 1974, Stanford Anderson made a decisive contribution to the introduction of MIT’s History, Theory, and Criticism programme. In the same year, Royston Landau took over as director of the Architectural Association’s graduate school in London, with the History and Theory programme as the main pillar. This means that, although architects have been theorizing since time immemorial, architectural theory as an academic subject has only been around for the last 50 years.

Yet, in this relatively brief period since its institutional anchoring, theory has undergone such a rapid development and striking proliferation of topics that it has taken on the shape of a monster with a thousand tentacles. Should one wish to map the situation of architectural theory in research and teaching – both regarding its contents and its methods – one would discover a variety of approaches. First, there would be the history of architectural theories from Vitruvius to this day, i.e., that which Hanno Walter Kruft gave us in form of a book in 1985 and established as a teaching tradition. Next, architectural theory would come as an encyclopaedic engagement with contemporary debates – although one might of course argue about which contemporary debates are relevant to theory and which ones are not. Third, a theory heavily informed by philosophy is at least as popular. How that theory turns out depends on respective preferences: Critical theory inspired by the Frankfurt School and its successors, phenomenology, structuralism, deconstruction, post-structuralism, and more recently, speculative realism all have more or less powerful architectural offshoots. Fourth, an architectural theory ‘in an expanded field’, meaning a theory that thinks of itself as part of cultural studies, has been gaining ground since the 1980s, with so many branches that one almost loses sight: feminism, identity theory, post-colonialism, social theory (especially regarding urbanism), psychology, media and communication theory, and much more. Finally, at the turn of the millennium, ‘projective theory’ entered the stage, which committed itself to the idea that theory was only interesting ‘as it was capable of producing design’. The focus thereby clearly shifted from theory itself to its operability in design: ‘A design theorist is interested in being operational’ (Somol). From this abundance of approaches, two clearly distinguishable tendencies emerge. On the one hand, theory is divided into various branches. Distinct fields of expertise are born and become more and more independent. On the other hand, these fields overlap, cross over, and blend into conglomerates with hardly recognisable contours. In any case, it is barely possible to speak of architectural theory in the singular. Rather, it would be more appropriate to speak of different genres or styles of theory.

Given the brimming theoretical treasure trove, manifest in an almost inflationary production of texts, it may seem paradoxical that there is so much talk nowadays about the ‘end’ or even the ‘death of theory’. This, however, also has a tradition, which perhaps goes back to Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author (also from 1967), although the deaths and ends piled up in a worrying way in the 1980s and 1990s and have continued with undiminished momentum until today. Behind the more recent claims was the death of grand narratives, which Jean-François Lyotard announced in his The Postmodern Condition – A Report on Knowledge in apocalyptic fashion in 1979, but soon, more causes of death emerged, relating both to culture in its entirety and architecture specifically. As for the latter, the diagnosis was that theory had served its time because architecture itself fell into the grip of neoliberal market forces. The argument goes as follows: To adorn its rather unwelcoming countenance, investor power is interested only in the production of a certain kind of architectural bijoux fabricated by an elite of practitioners, and is completely indifferent towards architecture as a cultural achievement. This way, it establishes a star system within the discipline, but otherwise strangles its theory. Further, new tools at the architects’ disposal reduce them to headless, i.e., theory-shy software users, coders, BIM managers, thus turning them into digital automatons. As for the academic context, the Bologna Process, the obsession with evaluation and accreditation, clusters of excellence, competition for funding – that is, the ‘managerial revolution’, as Joan Ockman named this phenomenon cumulatively – force theory into a conformist straitjacket that drains it of every last drop of blood. Based on this quick sketch, one can perhaps recognise the reason for the aforementioned paradox – theory’s simultaneous abundance and downfall – in the separation of theory from practice in architecture to an extent hitherto unknown. Theory at best becomes a pastime for beautiful souls, otherwise irrelevant for architecture and therefore dispensable, while architectural practice brings about commodities without cultural value, gratuitously negotiable in the marketplace. All of this of course describes tendencies.

So, what is to be done? Does the ‘productive theory’ chosen as the heading of the Hanover gathering offer a possibility to prevent the slide either into an eschatological necrophilia or into a critically motivated miserabilism? Could it instead offer new perspectives? The first thing to do would be to clarify what is meant by ‘productive’, i.e., which concept of production ‘productive theory’ is based on. One option would be a logical definition of production, marking the transition from a general concept to another general concept or to a particular. For the present case, however, this idea of production does not seem to serve us very well. Another possibility would be a definition of production in terms of economic theory, which would relate to the transformation of production factors such as labour, raw materials, and so on, into consumer goods. Even this concept, however, does not seem to yield much in the present case. The event organisers could have had a different concept in mind, which would indeed bring us close to classical philosophy, namely the Aristotelian concept of production. The ancient philosopher famously divided knowledge into three categories – theoretical, practical, and productive. Theoretical knowledge is knowledge for its own sake. Practical knowledge is about actions aimed at the public and private good. There is finally a third kind of knowledge, often translated as productive. It refers to the production of artefacts. In Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses one sole example for this so-called productive knowledge: ‘οικοδομική τέχνη’, or the art of building (1140a). Building is ‘ποιητική μετά λόγου’, says Aristotle or a poetics with logos or ‘a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning’ according to another verbose translation. Logos in this particular case is not a matter of reflection, but a way of thought that underlies and is ascribed to making. Poetics, on the other hand, is certainly not limited to the skill and ability of producing useful things, because it does not just refer to the useful arts, but to all art, theatre and rhetoric. I do not wish to open a philosophical or even philological discussion, let alone practise a cult of antiquity. After all, the idea appears in various guises, e.g., in modernity, in Paul Klee’s ‘Bildnerisches Denken’ (imprecisely translated  as ‘The Thinking Eye’ but perhaps better rendered as ‘artistic thinking’) or more recently, in ‘projective theory’, and now in ‘productive theory’, which accordingly demands theory’s immediate proximity to the architectural project, as well as its appropriation of poetic, and therefore imaginative, speculative and projective ways of thinking. At present, teaching and research offer the best terrain for the implementation of these demands.

© Georgiadis, 2017

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