Relationship of Convenience: The Polarization of Theory and Practice in Architecture

[Originally published in Proceedings of The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture West Central 1997 Regional Conference, Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba]


The dialectical relationship between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ is perhaps nowhere as rich, ambiguous and complex as it is in the field architecture. This is only natural for a discipline that is very broad in scope, encompassing everything from highly abstract geometry to the most primordial and basic of human needs. Nevertheless, in contemporary architecture it is becoming increasingly possible to perceive a widening split or polarization into either ‘theoretical’ or ‘practical’ modes of operation. On the one hand, there is a rarefied ‘art world’ architecture that is highly theorized and geared toward the consumption of images in the media or the museum; on the other is a more typical ‘real estate’ architecture geared to more direct material consumption. However, when studied in a larger context, these polarized realms can actually be seen to be intricately bound within an ‘economy’ in which the value of prestige and distinction is traded. A problem in this order of things is that architectural theories and ideas attempting to address pressing social and environmental issues, for example, are not in a viable position to be ‘put into practice’ as they do not lend themselves quite so readily to commodification in the form of symbolic or material goods.

This paper will examine the polarization of architecture into seemingly autonomous specializations within the global context of the cultural pressures of postmodernism and late capitalism. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s model of ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ forms of capital, it will show that ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ modes of architecture are not as independent as they appear, but are in fact interdependent. Finally, the paper will briefly discuss some relevant concepts from the ‘pragmatic theory’ movement in the field of philosophy, which calls for an end to theory itself, as well as Donald Schön’s concept of ‘reflection in action’ in order to explore some possible options.

Two Architectures

The word ‘architecture’ is becoming used increasingly as a metaphor in the general language while, at the same time, ironically, the institution of architecture is itself becoming more and more invisible. Today, we are more likely to hear about the ‘architecture’ of computer software than that of our cities, or to read about the ‘architect’ of a political treaty rather than that of a building. Within the institution of architecture, meanwhile, we hear chiefly two refrains, each by now a cliché: that of the architectural practitioner complaining that architecture schools are not teaching students skills that they need to know in order to ‘survive in the real world’, as it were; or, conversely, we hear the refrain of the student or instructor of an architecture school in which a local practitioner is berated as an unimaginative ‘hack’ who ‘can’t design’. There are clearly two sets of values in operation here, each with their own aesthetic. Indeed, it can be quite striking sometimes to compare the kinds of images produced in schools with those that circulate in the profession, let alone the public. One almost has to ask if there aren’t essentially two architectures: one being that of professional practices while another is that of academies; or one whose main concern is that of securing a contract for another office building in Edge City, while the other is concerned more with recent debates in the Sorbonne or the latest publication from Éditions de Minuit. The architectural glossies, meanwhile, attempting to cover a middle ground, are busy portraying the latest celebrity architect’s overdesigned art museum, usually a spectacular signature piece that doesn’t even look remotely similar to what gets built for the most part today. The question this paper asks is whether there are essentially two architectures, and if there is a polarization between the two along some definable axis?

‘Architecture’ is not easy to define. It is often used in opposition to the word ‘building’ to discuss a difference such as that between Lincoln Cathedral and a bicycle shed, to use an oft-quoted example. Miriam Gusevitch interestingly points out that “the term ‘architecture’ is a word of Greek and Latin provenance; ‘building’ on the other hand, has Anglo-Saxon roots. In common parlance both have the same referent (structure, construction, edifice); they are synonyms. Nevertheless, they have different connotations, architecture meaning something superior to building…[and] referring to the canon.”[i] Thus architecture as canon, or effect of architectural criticism, implies a basis in discourse and scholarship, whereas building is craft-based. What emerges is an association of architecture with academia and theory; and ‘building’ with the so-called ‘real world’ of practice. But officially, in fact, an architect is a registered, professional practitioner of architecture, so we are back to two architectures. Might we then speak of a ‘theoretical architecture’ and a ‘practical architecture’?

Tha Nature of Architecture

While this may seem somewhat trivial or obvious, there is, in the case of the field we are investigating, an awkward relationship between theory and practice that is compounded by the very complex and unusual nature of architecture. To begin with, the realization of a built work of architecture is a relatively expensive undertaking, and so there exists in schools of architecture an unusual situation wherein students of a design studio inevitably produce, for the most part, only representative drawings and models, rarely actual, realized examples. At least in the world of filmmaking, which is also prohibitively expensive, a film school student can begin by making a short instead of a feature film, and still get a feel for the craft involved in producing a film: a short film nevertheless involves scriptwriting, scenario development, directing, editing, etcetera. There is no equivalent for an architecture student: realizing an outhouse or a piece of furniture is simply nothing like the work involved in realizing even a small house. Furthermore, in architecture school, where the myth of the hero-architect continues to be very strong, there is a great deal of emphasis on individual students becoming talented designers, when in fact ‘design’ is typically only a fraction of the highly collaborative effort that goes into the realization of a work of architecture. A building project is also extremely contingent upon particular political and economic circumstances, the client, financial institutions, government authorities and building trades; aspects which cannot easily be addressed in the design studio. It is therefore perhaps understandable why a different sort of architecture would be practiced in school than outside of it.

Is it fair, however, to say that the knowledge gained in architecture school is useless to the ‘real world’? Should educational institutions exist merely for acquiring practical and tactical techniques of survival, as much as my generation, it seems, could have made use of them during recent recessions, and as much as employers would like to have a supply of ready-trained automatons at their disposal? The pressure toward a smooth, seamlessly integrated economic machine in which persons are trained not to question and just to do is obviously present, which entails precisely why there is perhaps a need for autonomous institutions that rest on ‘higher ground’, so to speak. This should include architecture schools whose role is not limited exclusively to that of training architects, but also to reflect and comment upon the role of architecture in society. One problem, however, is whether this can be done through architecture itself, since, even when practiced ‘on paper’, architecture’s abstract language is not the ideal medium for conjuring empathy in the way that, say, visual art or written text can. A work of architecture therefore has an inherent difficulty in claiming to be ‘resistant’ –let alone ‘critical’– to the commercial imperatives of the marketplace even, or perhaps especially, when it is purely theoretical, and by extension unbuildable, since the cultural institution of architecture is socially legitimated in the first place precisely by virtue of architecture being an applied art.

Yet, there is a whole ‘art-world’ around so-called ‘theoretical’ architecture, complete with stars, galleries in major cities, journals that are usually published through the academies, even collectors of napkin sketches and patrons who commission a work of architecture precisely because the architect is one of ‘signature’. Here, it is not the material value of the building that matters, but the symbolic value, the caché. It is the image of a rarefied object that is consumed, not the object itself. This is an architecture whose discourse lays claim to transcending the commercial imperatives that drive mainstream building production, addressing the marketplace of ideas instead. The art of architecture here becomes celebrated apart from its less glamorous, practical side. This can be seen to represent a separation of issues of ‘quality’ from those of ‘quantity’, or of mind from body, separations that are highly problematic, I would argue. Nevertheless, it seems so natural and convenient, and so one has to wonder: is the widening separation of the symbolic role of architecture from its industrial role not perhaps for these very reasons of convenience, since each can then get on unencumbered with its own business? I would like to question if it is in fact constructive to separate the two, and if it does not present other problems in turn.

The Art of Collusion

The Dutch critic Ole Bouman, sounding a bit like Noam Chomsky, has said that the celebration of a rarefied, highly theorized and overdesigned ‘art-world’ architecture actually functions, in the end, as “an alibi for the building industry”[ii] since it is effectively functioning as a distracting sideshow, or spectacle, behind which industry is able to concern itself almost exclusively with a crass and uninspired commercial agenda. The implication is almost that there is a sort of collusive association at work between the two architectures, that a cartel has been formed, albeit unwittingly, of course. While this notion itself makes for an entertaining ‘conspiracy theory’ of architecture, it is a compelling argument given the kinds of global market pressures that have come to bear upon the practice of architecture. We might therefore look to a socio-economic model that encompasses these architectural practices, one that traces the exchange of value across these seemingly separate realms in order to see if there is in fact a relationship present.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has developed an analytical method and a model that might be useful here.[iii] Bourdieu describes society, especially cultural production, from a very wide perspective as a system of diverse ‘fields’ within each of which is played a game where winners gain power and authority. All fields are themselves inscribed within a larger field, so the power game is played out between different fields as well. Each field possesses its own ‘habitus’, or set of dispositions and inclinations that shape perceptions and form the unspoken rules of the game. Bourdieu distinguishes between two fields within the field of cultural production that are especially relevant to this discussion: the ‘field of restricted production’ and the ‘field of large scale mass production’. Restricted production, or ‘high art’, is a field in which prestige, consecration, and artistic celebrity are valued, and in which production occurs purposefully in small quantities in comparison to the field of large scale mass production. Because the restricted field involves ‘production for producers’, economic profit is typically disavowed and frowned upon, and so there is an inversion of the principles of ordinary economics within this field. An example of this inverted economy is the hero-myth of the starving artist(or architect) who lives by his or her principles and refuses to ‘sell out’. Indeed, Bourdieu writes:

[T]his does not mean that there is not an economic logic to this charismatic economy based on the social miracle of an act devoid of any determination other than the specifically aesthetic intention. There are economic conditions for the indifference to economy which induces a pursuit of the riskiest positions in the intellectual and artistic avant-garde, and also for the capacity to remain there over a long period without any economic compensation.[iv]

In the field of large scale mass production, it is precisely financial gain that is valued, but interestingly, this field occasionally borrows ideas from the restricted field in order to renew itself. In each field, a mix of different kinds of capital is accumulated in order to wield power and authority: in the restricted field, it is mainly ‘cultural’ and ‘symbolic’ capital’ that are acquired; whereas in the field of large scale mass production, it is mainly ‘economic capital’, or simply financial gain, that is accumulated. Cultural capital takes the form of knowledge: it is accumulated over time through inculcation and education, and so it is not easily bought. ‘Symbolic capital’, as prestige, honour and consecration, “is to be understood as…a ‘credit’ which, under certain conditions, and always in the long run, guarantees ‘economic’ profits”[v]. Certain forms of capital are therefore convertible to one another under certain circumstances, but never reducible. All fields, according to Bourdieu, are sites of competition for power. In the restricted field, this competition concerns the power, or authority, to in turn consecrate honour and prestige, and thereby shape the canon governing the field itself. ‘Position-taking’ in a field makes it dynamic, with struggles usually occurring between the orthodox and the avant-garde heretics, or between the ancients and the moderns.

If we use Bourdieu’s model to look at the two architectures we are studying here, it becomes apparent that the more ‘theoretically’ inspired architecture corresponds to Bourdieu’s restricted field, where it is cultural capital based on knowledge that is accumulated, and where honour and prestige are more valuable than profit, even if eventually this honour may be traded in for financial recompense; whereas the more ‘practically’ orientated architecture corresponds more with the field of large scale mass production and the value of economic and political capital. Furthermore, just as the field of large scale mass production is known to borrow ideas from the restricted field, so ‘practical’ architecture is known to superficially appropriate the ideas of ‘theoretical’ architecture in order to rejuvenate itself. The perfect example of this phenomenon is, of course, Philip Johnson.

Bourdieu’s model not only describes a relationship between the systems of value, and therefore beliefs, that establish authority in a given field, but also accounts for the more subtle roles that charisma, taste and distinction play in legitimizing the very existence of each field within the larger field. The fact that architecture is seen by the general population as an aesthetic discipline, (an applied art) and moreover one of luxury means that any elite-theoretical or populist-practical posturing becomes less significant in the larger context, since architecture on the whole becomes so marginal that it then falls entirely into a restricted field. In this sense, it becomes useless to distinguish between ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ architecture. In fact, at this point, all architecture becomes theoretical, even commercial architecture.[vi] So just what, exactly, do the words ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ mean then? Is one that which we learn in school and the other that which we do afterward, so that the former hopefully becomes the knowledge base that informs the latter; or is ‘theory’ the ‘thinking’ that accompanies ‘doing’? If ‘theory’ is defined as thought and ‘practice’ as action, [vii] then architecture, indeed most professional endeavours, must always consist of a balanced mix of both.

Reflective Practice / Pragmatic Philosophy

Here, Donald Schön’s concept of ‘reflection-in-action’ can be instructive. Schön argues that professions are rooted in an outmoded tradition of technical rationality. “Technical rationality is the positivist epistemology of practice. It became institutionalized in the modern university”.[viii] In fact, it is interesting to note, in light of our look at the university affiliated ‘art-world’ architecture of today, that “according to the positivist epistemology of practice, craft and artistry had no lasting place in rigorous practical knowledge.”[ix] The problem for Schön, however, is that positivism cannot deal with the situations in the ‘swampy lowland’ of ‘confusing messes’: “Increasingly, we have become aware of the importance of phenomena –complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value-conflict– which do not fit the model of technical rationality.”[x] Reflective practice, which involves reflection in action, is a way of thinking not before or after any act, but precisely during action. The problem I see here is that the ‘action’ implied here is then presumably limited to one of problem-solving, and does not account for an architecture that might be inspired by a theoretical idea. But then, maybe we shouldn’t be building theories either.

Another option that presents itself is the negation of theory altogether. The so-called ‘pragmatic philosophers’ Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels have put forth a compelling theoretical argument calling for theory to stop altogether. While this might be seen as either the ultimate in altruism, or an attempt to have the last word in theoretical discourse, it is in fact the separation between theory and practice they are also problematizing, and so I will quote here the final paragraph of their provocatively entitled essay “Against Theory”:

The theoretical impulse, as we have described it, always involves the attempt to separate things that should not be separated: on the ontological side, meaning from intention, language from speech acts; on the epistemological side, knowledge from true belief. Our point has been that the separated terms are in fact inseparable… theory is nothing else but the attempt to escape practice. Meaning is just another name for expressed intention, knowledge is just another name for true belief, but theory is not just another name for practice. It is the name for all the ways people have tried to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without. Our thesis has been that no one can reach a position outside practice, that theorists should stop trying, and that the theoretical enterprise should therefore come to an end.[xi]

Concluding Questions

So should architecture theory ‘end’? What would be the basis, then, for architectural criticism, unless that were to end too? Without criticism, there is no history; without history, no canon; and, as noted at the beginning, without a canon, no architecture, at least in contradistinction to building. But can one even build, however pragmatically, without any knowledge of history, or at least precedent? The polarizing of architecture into distinctly theoretical and practical modes reflects today’s tendency toward specialization, toward more narrowly defined and limited areas of expertise. This runs very much against the grain of architecture as a form of general knowledge, an art that is ‘applicable’ in many different environments, sites and contexts. Instead, architecture is increasingly being used only for certain kinds of programs, such as, ironically, museums, the ultimate mortuary. There has even been a recent proliferation of museums dedicated to architecture where representations, means to an end, are viewed as ends in themselves. Architecture cannot exist for its own sake alone, as “l’art pour l’art,” or art for art’s sake. Perhaps it takes precisely an artist to remind us of this: to quote Sol LeWitt, from his seminal text “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”: “Architecture, whether it is a work of art or not, must be utilitarian or else fail completely.”[xii]


[i]  Miriam Gusevitch, “The Architecture of Criticism” in Andrea Kahn, ed., Drawing, Building, Text (Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), p.8.

[ii]  Ole Bouman in a panel discussion on ‘Reflexivity’ at the Berlage Institute Amsterdam, 1995.

[iii] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993).

[iv]  Ibid. p. 40.

[v]  Ibid. p. 75.

[vi]  see Carol Willis, Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995) for an interesting theorization of one kind of commercial architecture.

[vii]  Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice. John Viertel, tr. (London: Heinemann, 1974), p. 74.

[viii]  Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 31.

[ix]  Ibid. p. 34.

[x]  Ibid. p.39.

[xi] Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory” in W.J.T. Mitchell, ed., Against Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 29-30.

[xii]  Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), p.836.


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