Date: January 3, 2011
Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore
AR 5221: Contemporary Architectural Theories
by Dr. Jeffrey Chan and A/P Dr. Wong Yunn Chii
“The activity of knowing is no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.”
--from Responsibility and Judgment (2003), Hannah Arendt
What is contemporary architectural theory? What does contemporary architectural theory offer? Does it offer a body of ideas and insights for the architectural practice? Or does theory offer a reflective forum where architecture can be critically contextualized, examined and questioned in relation to contemporary problems and issues? And why is architectural theory even important?
In recent years, architectural theory has fallen into disrepair. On one hand, the economic boom before the catastrophic financial meltdown of 2008 compelled countless architects to bypass theory for building. In tandem, new visualization and fabrication technologies promising quick solutions in architecture rendered the slow process of theorizing unattractive and perhaps even obsolete. On the other hand, rising environmentalism worldwide increasingly transforms architecture from a social art into a calculable, quasi-scientific process for the most energy efficient building or city. The architect who once relied on theory for critical practice now finds himself relying on equations and ‘green’ affirmations. Taken together, architectural theory has become seemingly irrelevant.
But is it? The architectural excesses from the era of easy capital now stand incomplete and derelict in Dubai and Dublin alike. In the wake of the most severe economic recession in recorded human history with much of its social, political and geo-political repercussions still to be fully played out, architecture has been severely compromised--leaving architects and architecture still reeling from this unprecedented shock. In the absence of capital for construction, powerful visualization and fabrication technologies sit idle. And despite the rigour of building science, no amount of science can convince the architect that he ought to build (a green building); rather, the decision to build or not to build can only be made if and when the architect ventures beyond science into ethics.
The architect who has eschewed theory now finds himself amid false promises and dead-ends confronted by a slew of hazardous global problems and issues today. The architect is unable to move beyond the quagmire of these hazardous problems, false promises and dead-ends today solely by the act of building.
To move beyond this quagmire, the architect must theorize again.
Then, what does such theorization entail? Theorization entails the critical act of questioning, clarifying, explaining, formulating and constructing productive approaches for architecture. Theorization must begin with the act of questioning and understanding. Inadvertently, theorization ought to end with either an explanation, a question or a new formulation--or all three--for understanding architecture.
Furthermore, this course is a departure from existing forms of theorization in architecture. This course is neither solely a survey of the history of ideas in architectural criticism nor just a critical extrapolation from the various hagiographies of ‘star-architects’.
In contradistinction, this course takes the various pressing contemporary problems and issues related and relevant for architects and the discipline of architecture as its point of departure for theorizing. Through this concrete point of departure, the course attempts to respond to the critique that architectural theory has become irrelevant and marginalized as a productive field for human concerns and social/public interests. The vehicle for thinking about the various problems and issues is by understanding, internalizing and then critiquing a collection of contemporary (i.e., very new) readings in architectural theory and other related content.
This course advances the concept that theory can be productively activated as a tool for architectural thinking, design and decision-making. In this sense, this course departs from the various ways in which theory has been conventionally used as a metaphorical entity for architectural design. Instead, architectural theory presented in this course focuses on the activity of critical clarification, explanation and formulation: the architect must know that theory is a world-building activity no less than the activity of building houses.
Aims of the Course:
The threefold aim of this course is:
(i) to provide a survey to the contemporary landscape of issues and problems relevant to the discipline of architecture.
(ii) through this survey, to activate your initial theoretical response for future work in the dissertation and thesis phase of your education by way of critical questioning, explanation, clarification and formulation of new approaches or visions.
(iii) to encourage critical thinking, constructive debates and intellectual comfort with uncertainty and open questions in the discipline of architecture.
Course Grade Distribution and Evaluation
Deliverables Percentage Aggregate Percentage of Overall Grade
Reading responses x 4: 5% each= 20%
Group In-Class presentation & discussion of weekly questions x 10: 5% each= 50%
Mid-term short paper 10%= 10%
Final research paper 20%= 20%
- Reading Responses
Each student is expected to write a total of 4 (four) reading responses, each corresponding to one reading of their choice in the course due at the beginning of the class respectively on the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 12th week (as indicated on the syllabus). Each reading response should not be more than 250 words (or one A4 page), and should go beyond summarizing the reading by critically reflecting and then criticizing the content of that reading.
Late responses will not be accepted.
- Group In-class presentation and discussion
Students are to form study and discussion groups for class discussion (to be organized during the first class). Each week, the lecturer will provide a cluster of three questions for that week’s reading, of which the group will then seek to answer one cluster of questions during the next class while other groups will then respond to these answers, vice versa.
The group must bring their answers for discussion during the following week, and the group must also hand in their discussion reports on A4 print-outs and to post them online for mutual sharing and grading. The discussion report for each group is not expected to exceed beyond 500 words or 2 A4 pages. The answers to the question can be a summary on a lengthier or more elaborate response to be shared verbally and argumentatively during the class.
Students are expected to actively participate in these discussions. The aggregate grade for this category is nearly half of the total grade.
Absentees or non-participants within the group will not receive the grade given to the group work. Active individual participation will be noted and graded accordingly.
- Mid term short paper
Each student is expected to write a mid term short paper consisting of 3-4 pages, 250 words on each page with a 1,000 words limit. The proposal for this short paper is due on week 5 and the paper itself is due on week 9. This short paper should be used as a theoretical base for the student’s final research paper.
This short paper can be based on any topic of the student’s choice. However, the paper must allude to the topics covered in the course either directly or indirectly. For topics that are beyond the scope of this course, please consult the tutor before proposing on week 5.
- Final research paper
Each student is expected to submit a final research paper consisting of 10 pages, 250 words on each page with a word limit capped at 3,000 words limit. The student is expected to have consulted the tutor at least once before undertaking this task of proposing and writing the final research paper. Feedback provided for the mid term short paper will also help the student in formulating the topic for this research paper.
The final research paper is seen as a synthesis of the student’s theoretical position in this course. Each student is expected to draw connections between the ideas discussed in the course, and critically reflect and appraise these ideas before identifying any potentials, gaps or contradictions between them.
Importantly, the student is expected to correctly cite research materials used along with a bibliography of reference materials used.
The final research paper is due, by 5pm, 22 April, 2011, Friday. Late papers will not be accepted.
- Class participation
Each student is expected to participate actively in the on-going discussions in the class. Perfect attendance is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for active participation; the student will have to think about the on-going dialogues in the class, and make his or her own voice heard in a clear and concise manner at all times. Furthermore, the student is expected to argue on behalf of his or her classmate by either building on the other’s ideas, or clarifying them, or arguing against them in a constructive manner for the purpose of fostering mutual learning.
- Other Factors for Evaluations
(1) Students must come to each class having read the readings assigned each week with intelligent questions that can help everyone to go deeper into thinking about the topics at hand. Unprepared ignorance will not be tolerated in the class.
(2) There are optional readings every week. By ‘optional’, such readings have been offered to students who enjoy challenges and therefore demand a broader intellectual horizon to the topics at hand.
(3) Late assignments will not be accepted except for reasons of (1) validated medical leave (2) valid emergencies.
(4) Unexplained and persistent absentism from class will not be tolerated.
Due to the class size this semester, the class will be divided into two groups. Both groups will participate in the short lecture given each week; one group will then stay for the subsequent seminar while the other group will attend the seminar on Tuesday, Room SR6, from 11am-1pm.
Importantly, the first seminar for this course (for the Tuesday group) will begin on 18 January, Tuesday.
READINGS LIST AND SCHEDULE BY WEEK
Updated: 3 January, 2011
Week 1, Monday 10 January: Introduction and Setting the Stage for Contemporary Architectural Theory
Architectural theory and theory-in-the-making do not take place in a vacuum but are framed within the volatile world today.
Introductory short lecture: ‘what is contemporary theory?’ and introduction to the course
(1) Fisher, T.R. (2000). In the Scheme of Things: Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Chapter 1: Design in a World of Flows]
(2) Benedikt, M. (2005). Less for Less Yet: On Architecture’s Value(s) in the Marketplace. In S.W. Saunders (ed.), Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 8-21.
(3) Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of Global Capitalism. NY: Verso. [Excerpts: The neo-liberal state, pp.25-29, & pp.44-48.]
(1) Owen, G. (2009). Introduction. In G. Owen (ed), Architecture, ethics and globalization. NY: Routledge, pp.1-16.
Week 2, Monday 17 January: What is Architectural Theory?
What is architectural theory? What does architectural theory do? Why do architects need it?
Discussion of Week 1 Readings
(1) Baird, G. (2009). Thoughts on the Current State of Criticism in Architecture. Journal of Architectural Education, Vol.62, No.3, pp.5.
(2) Nesbitt, K. (1996). Introduction. In K. Nesbitt (ed), Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995. NY: Princeton Architectural Press, pp.16-70.
(1) Leach, N. (1997). Introduction. In N. Leach (ed), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. NY: Routledge, pp.xii-xxi.
Week 3, Monday 24 January: The Role of Architects and Architecture I: Identities from the Inside and the Outside
What is the role of architects and architecture? Are architects simply producers of space? How is this role constructed both from within the discipline and from outside the discipline?
Discussion of Week 2 Readings
First Reading Response Due
(1) Lefebvre, H. (2009). Space: Social Product and Use Value. In N. Brenner & S. EIden (eds), State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp.185-195.
(2) de Botton, A. (2006). The Architecture of Happiness. NY: Pantheon Books. [Chapter 1: The Significance of Architecture, pp.9-26]
(3) Larson, M.S. (1993). Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in the Late Twentieth-Century America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. [Chapter 1 AND Chapter 4]
Mcleod, M. (1998). Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism. In M. Hays (ed), Architecture Theory Since 1968. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.680-702
Ballantyne, A. (2002). The Nest and the Pillar of Fire. In A. Ballantyne (ed), What is Architecture? NY: Routledge, pp.7-52.
Week 4, Monday 31 January: The Role of Architects and Architecture II: Star-Architects, Globalization and Practice in the New Economy
How has the role of architects and architecture changed in the context of a globalized and star-studded practice?
Discussion of Week 3 Readings
(1) Dunham-Jones, E. (1997). Stars, Swatches and Sweets: Thoughts on Post-Fordist Production and the Star System in Architecture. Threshold, vol.15, pp.16-21.
(2) McNeill, D. (2008). The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form. NY: Routledge. [Introduction and Chapter 4 on the Bilbao Effect]
(3) Sorkin, M. (2005). Brand aid; or, the Lexus and the Guggenheim (further tales of the notorious B.I.G.ness). In K. Frampton (ed), Commodification and spectacle in Architecture: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp.22-33.
Speaks, M. (2002). Design Intelligence and the New Economy. Architectural Record, Vol.190, No.1, January 2002, pp.72-79.
Sennett, R. (2006). The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. [Chapter 2: Talent and the Specter of Uselessness]
Zulaika, J. (1997). The Seduction of Bilbao. Architecture, Vol.86, No.12, December 1997, pp.60-64.
Week 5 (Topical Issue I), Monday 7 February: Global Capital and its Contemporary Discontent--the end of an Era in Architecture?
What is necessary for architectural production and consumption? How are architects and the practice of architecture tied to global capital? What happens to architecture during a crisis of global capital?
Discussion of Week 4 Readings
*Students proposal for short paper (3-4 pages) due
(1) Till, J. (2009). Architecture Depends. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Chapter 1: Deluded Detachment]
(2) Marcus, J.S. (2009). The Sky’s No Longer the Limit: Rem Koolhaas reflects on the global slowdown’s effect on ambitious projects; the aftermath of a fire. Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009.
(3) Architecture’s Reality Check: Global Downturn Dooms Prestige Construction Projects. www.spiegel.de, 15 January, 2009.
(4) Harvey, D. (2010). The Enigma of Capitalism and the Crises of Capitalism. UK: Profile Books. [Chapter 4: Capital Goes to Market, and Chapter 6: The Geography of It All]
(5) Wright, E.O. (2010). Envisioning Real Utopias. NY: Verso. [Chapter 3: What’s so Bad about Capitalism?]
Hall, P. (2002). Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. Third Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. [Chapter 11: The City of Enterprise]
McKnight, J.M. (2009). How Can Architects Survive the Recession? www.businessweek.com, March 4, 2009.
Arndt, M. (2009). Architecture’s Ever-Optimistic Daniel Libeskind. www.businessweek.com, April 29, 2010.
Week 6 (Topical Issue II), Monday 14 February: The Question of Spatial Justice: the Rhetoric of the Creative Class, its Implied Non-Creative Counterparts and Other Iniquities
What does it mean when we speak of uneven development or social inequality? How are these phenomenon represented by what architects do? Where does the architect stand in the ‘lifestyle’ debate on the creative class and ‘livable’ cities?
No Group Discussion this week; Longer lecture; No Tutorial on Tuesday
Second Reading Response Due
(1) Graham, S. & Marvin, S. (2001). Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. NY: Routledge. [Chapter 1: Introduction]
(2) Lim, W.S.W. (2005). Asian Ethical Urbanism: A Radical Postmodern Perspective. Singapore: World Scientific. [pp.27-37 on spatial justice]
(3) Florida, R. (2005). An Introduction to the Creative Class. In S. Franke & E. Verhagen (eds), Creativity and the City: How the Creative Economy is Changing the City. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, pp.20-41.
(4) Kloosterman, R. (2005). The Creative Hype. In S. Franke & E. Verhagen (eds), Creativity and the City: How the Creative Economy is Changing the City. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, pp.56-65.
(5) Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. UK: Polity. [Chapter 4: Out of Touch Together]
Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of Global Capitalism. NY: Verso. [Chapter: Notes towards a theory of uneven geographical development, pp.69-116]
RECESS WEEK 19 FEBRUARY - 27 FEBRUARY: NO CLASS
Week 7 (Topical Issue III), Monday 28 February: Architecture of Fear and In-Securities: Fortresses and the Terror-of-the-Other
How is the architect implicated in the global fear of terrorism? How ought the architect respond to the emergence of the fortress building and the fortress city?
Discussion of Week 6 Readings
(1) Sorkin, M. (2008). Introduction: The Fear Factor. In M. Sorkin (ed), Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State. NY: Routledge, pp.vii-xvii.
(2) Coaffee, J. (2009). Terrorism, Risk and the Global City: Towards Urban Resilience. USA: Ashgate. [Chapter 1: Introduction: Terrorism, Risk and the Global City, pp.3-12]
A case study on London for the Olympic Games 2012:
Coaffee, J. (2009). Terrorism, Risk and the Global City: Towards Urban Resilience. USA: Ashgate. [Chapter 10: London Prepared? Resilience, Reputation, and Securing the Global City, pp. 261-304]
Week 8 (Topical Issue IV), Monday 7 March: High-Risk Technologies & Fabrication: The Politics and Hazards of the Homo Faber.
What authorizes the making and the producing act of the architect? How is this authority justified and legitimized? What are the risks and pitfalls associated with unbridled making?
Discussion of Week 7 Readings
(1) Flyvberg, B. (2005). Design by Deception: The Politics of Megaproject Approval. In S.W. Saunders (ed.), Urban Planning Today: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 131-148.
(2) Kieran, S. & Timberlake, J. (2004). Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction. NY: McGraw-Hill. [Chapter 1: The Process Engineer and the Aesthetics of Architecture]
(3) Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. [Chapter 7: Private Morals, Public Risks]
(4) Celento, D. (2010). Innovate or Perish: New Technologies and Architecture’s Future. In R. Corser (ed), Fabricating Architecture: Selected Readings In Digital Design and Manufacturing. NY: Princeton Architectural Press, pp.56-83.
(1) Jonas, H. (1984). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. [Chapter 1: The Altered Nature of Human Action, pp.1-24]
(2) Perrow, C. (1984). Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. NY: Basic Books. [Introduction, pp.3-14, & Chapter 9: Living with High-Risk Systems, pp.304-352]
Week 9 (Topical Issue V), Monday 14 March: Hunger and the Global Food Crisis
What is the architect’s role and position on the emergence of a global food crisis? How ought the architect design or advocate to design given that food production and distribution have been displaced from the city, which in turn, has become unsustainable given accelerated urbanization?
Discussion of Week 8 Readings
Third Reading Response Due
Students’ short paper (3-4 pages) due.
(1) Cribb, J. (2010). The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. [either Chapter 1 & 12, or book excerpt/summary from New York Times]
(2) TenHoor, M. (2010). The Architect’s Farm. In A. Andraos & D. Wood (eds), Above the Pavement--The Farm! Architecture & Agriculture At P.F.1. NY: Princeton Architectural Press, pp.166-189.
(1) MacFarquhar, N. (2009). Experts Worry as Population and Hunger Grow. New York Times, October 21, 2009.
Week 10 (Topical Issue VI), Monday 21 March: The Idea of Sustainability in Architectural Production and Consumption
What is sustainable architecture? What is the practical and ethical relationship between sustainable architecture and the environment? How ought the future generations be considered in architectural decision-making?
Guest Activist and Theorist: Tay Kheng Soon (confirmed)
Discussion of Week 9 Readings
(1) Guy, S. & Farmer, G. (2000). Contested Constructions: The competing logics of green buildings and ethics. In W. Fox (ed.), Ethics and the Built Environment. NY: Routledge, pp. 73-87.
(2) Garvey, J. (2008). The Ethics of Climate Change: right and wrong in a warming world. NY: Continuum. [Chapter 3: Responsibility & Chapter 4: Doing Nothing]
(3) Shedroff, N. (2009). Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. NY: Rosenfeld. [Chapter 1: What is Sustainability?]
(4) Wheeler, S.M. (2004). Planning for Sustainability: Creating Livable, Equitable, and Ecological Communities. NY: Routledge. [Chapter 3: Theory of Sustainability Planning, pp.34-52]
(1) Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, Vol.162, No.3859, pp.1243-1248.
(2) McDonough, W. & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things. NY: North Point Press. [Chapter 2: Why being “less bad” is no good]
Week 11 (Topical Issue VII), Monday 28 March: An Ethic for Architecture?
Given a survey of these topical issues in relation to architecture, can we imagine an ethic for architecture? What are the parameters and criteria that outline this ethic?
Guest Theorist: Chang Jiat Hwee (confirmed)
Discussion of Week 10 Readings
(1) Lagueux, M. (2004). Ethics versus Aesthetics in Architecture. The Philosophical Forum, Vol.XXXV, No.2, Summer 2004, pp.117-133.
(2) Saint, A. (2005). Practical Wisdom for Architects: The Uses of Ethics. In N. Ray (ed), Architecture and its Ethical Dilemmas. NY: Taylor & Francis, pp.7-22.
(3) Till, J. (2009). Architecture Depends. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Chapter 10: Imperfect Ethics]
(1) Varnelis, K. (2009). Ethics after the avant-garde: the critical, the post-critical, and beyond. n G. Owen (ed), Architecture, ethics and globalization. NY: Routledge, pp.148-157.
Week 12 (Topical Issue VIII), Monday 4 April: Reflecting on the Education of an Architect
Finally, how ought architecture be taught? Is architecture simply vocational training comprising of technical skills? Or is architecture merely the acculturation of tastes and aesthetics preferences? What is the value of an architectural education and what purposes does it serve?
Discussion of Week 11 Readings
Fourth (last!) Reading Response Due
(1) Stevens, G. (1998). The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Chapter 5: Understanding Architectural Education]
(2) Dunham-Jones, E. (2004). A Modernist Education. Windsor Forum on Design Education: toward an ideal curriculum to reform architectural education.
(3) Fisher, T.R. (2000). In the Scheme of Things: Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Chapter on Bridging Education and Practice]
(1) Gardner, H. (2006). Five Minds for the Future. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. [Chapter 3: The Synthesizing Mind & Chapter 4: The Creating Mind].
Week 13, Monday 11 April: Conclusion and Final Reflections
The class concludes by returning to the beginning: what ought architects do? What can architects, and beyond that, educated and thinking individuals do in this world?
Finally: what have we learned? How can we apply what we have learned? What are the future directions for architectural theory?
No Group Discussion this week; longer lecture; No Tutorial on Tuesday
(1) Aicher, O. (1994). The World as Design. Berlin: Ernst & Sohn. [Chapter: the world as design, pp.179-189].
(2) Gardner, J.W. (1995). Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. [Chapter 1: Growth, Decay and Renewal, and Chapter 12: Moral Decay and Renewal]
FINAL PAPER DUE 22 APRIL, FRIDAY, 5PM in the Department’s Office. A box will be placed there for your papers.