How Architectural Theory Improves Buildings

‘Art’ and ‘craft’ are often very easily confused, but they are in fact two entirely different expressions — and they each fulfill their own specific functions in society. ‘Craft’ can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to certain artisanal vocations, as well as the smaller creative projects people do from time to time. However, the underlying characteristic of all craft is that it has with a predetermined function and purpose. If someone paints a ceramic bowl, it’s because they can later use that bowl to eat from or as a decorative ornament. The quality of any craft is directly proportional the artisan’s level of skill and experience.

Craft, in the Context of Architectural Theory

craft items

Art, in the Context of Architectural Theory

‘Art’, is understood as an intrinsic human expression. It doesn’t have to serve a purpose or even have a function. A painting, for example, may evoke emotion or it could just be the artist’s impression of a landscape – but it is impossible to categorise it, as the experience of it is different for every individual. Art is the abstract reflection of one’s soul – so it is incredibly difficult to determine whether art is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Unlike craft, the quality of art has no limits — certainly not the artist’s level of experience. The first painting someone ever does could still evoke more emotion than a painting done by artist with years of experience. Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”. This is true to art, but it is not at all applicable to craft.

Art Gallery

Architecture blurs the boundary between art and craft – making it an exceptionally sophisticated profession. It is artistic in nature. Regardless of the client’s brief, an architect’s design is their own personal expression. Instead of paint, charcoal, and clay, architects create ‘art’ through the manipulation of light, form, and space. However, in most cases, architecture has a predetermined purpose and function – which is usually to create spaces that positively impact their occupant’s mental well-being. For that reason, it is relatively easy to distinguish the good architecture from the bad – but what constitutes good architecture?

Good architecture is the result of disposition, experience, hard work, and most importantly – theory. Theory is the basis of all architectural work. Without theory, buildings would simply be a collection of rectangular spaces that have been glued together. Theory encompasses the reasoning behind every architectural element – including light, space, form, structure, hierarchy, and materiality. If architects didn’t have acute understanding of each, buildings would be nothing other than decorative caves for people to sleep in. This is why theory is so heavily prioritised at Architecture School.

Adhering to Theory Makes for Better Buildings

If an architect designs a building without using lessons from previous masters, it will almost certainly be unsuccessful. If it is successful, it is merely luck. Architecture is an ancient practice, and today architects can draw from a wealth of knowledge that has accumulated over centuries. This accumulation started as far back as 3000BC, and architectural thought has only been further challenged and refined since then. Vitruvius taught the importance of rational purity and proportion, Gothic Architecture imparted ideas of symbolism and detail, Renaissance Architects (such as Michelangelo) revolutionised structure and perfected symmetricity, and Modern architects liberated architectural thought and space design. Today, architectural theory is important for sustainability practices, technology, and expressive form-making. These lessons are invaluable to architects, as their application can drastically improve any project.

Theoretical knowledge allows for a far more in-depth understanding of context. With a good theoretical background, Architects can design buildings that effectively and appropriately respond to their surroundings. When there is an enhanced understanding of climate regions and material properties, buildings can be designed in sustainable, eco-friendly ways. With a knowledge of architectural history, Architects can design buildings that respect the vernacular architecture and historical building traditions in the surrounding areas.

zaha hadid building

There are countless benefits to applying theory in the design process, so be sure to find an architect who possesses an expansive theoretical knowledge. They will build upon and compliment your ideas in unimaginable ways. Without theory, practice is meaningless – and conversely, theory is useless without practice. Architects should consistently exercise their theoretical knowledge. If they do so, the built environment could change people’s lives in the future.


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