Tools of the trade

Architectural theory is often considered a process of writing (and often denigrated as a result), but the production of architectural thought always engaged other tools of expression besides quill, pen, pencil, typewriter, or computer. Some of the most significant written innovations in architectural theory are interlaced with tools of inquiry that lie outside those directly involved in writing. Or put another way, architectural theory is full of tools that help the author gather data and precede writing – ad hoc structures, optical instruments, vehicles (e.g. Le Roy’s drawing structures, le-Duc’s use of the tele-iconograph, Banham’s automobiles). I am not arguing that these devices or strategies of acquisition produce forms of knowledge; rather I am arguing that what we think we want to know as authors of architectural thought often entangles us with things that rarely appear in the final outcome of our thought experiments.

Such things that precede or move alongside writing appear from the very start in architectural theory.

For example, the origin of modern architectural theory lies in the consideration of Roman and Greek classical architecture. Authors of this early architectural theory often developed a host of strategies and structures to ascend, dangle from, and surround ancient classical buildings. To measure the antiquities of Athens, the architectural theorist Julien David Le Roy literally built buildings around ancient buildings to measure them more carefully. Such literal “building” techniques that enabled careful examination, exploration and measurement are essential, but virtually unvisualized, features of architectural writing focused on ancient classicism. The image above by Henry Parke of a student climbing a ladder to measure a Corinthian entablature, and the image below by Piranesi, are a couple of the small handful of images I know that directly depict some of this para-theoretical activity. Through these images we see a structure involved in understanding the past (ok, it’s just ladders in these instances); but in the Parke image we also see the seeming risks involved in this act of architectural exploration and the “aha” that the architectural thinker experiences as they enter, what for them, was a previously unexplored archive. 


All works of architectural theory and history contain activity that lurks behind writing. This site is in part about making those images (past and present) appear a bit more visibly.

I’ll be writing more about case studies in this aspect of architectural theory in future posts.


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