Reading List : Theory

Here are a list of 30 books I picked for an assignment for the second year students for the ‘Theory of Architecture’ class (WCFA Batch 2020) . I have been intending to do a list which could become a sort of a starter set, if at all anyone is (still) inclined to read ‘theory’ books.There is general apprehension of theory being ‘cerebral and elite’ (1), both in profession and academics.This assignment is to soften that apprehension. The structure of the assignment is borrowed from an assignment I did as a student at CEPT under Prof. Sebastiano Brandolini. (Link  to the earlier post describing the framework). So I picked up books which fall into a wide spectrum ranging from phenomenology to ‘form’-al to basic analysis and which has the possibility to feed these 20 questions in diverse ways. One could also argue that some of these are not ‘theoretical’ enough – giving an opportunity to discuss in the class first-of-all what is ‘theory’ anyway. I feel ‘theory’ is somehow placed on the opposite deep-end of ‘experience’ in the spectrum of knowledge. Even though the student might not be inclined towards the book initially, the framework allows him/her to explore the overall structure and get an overview by reading parts of it. A sort of ‘case study’ of books.

Question no. 1 begins with a sharp note in that way – “Why does a theorist make a book rather than something else?” When the question is asked to diverse books like – Thinking Architecture and say Complexity and Contradiction – we can have a rich discussion on what made Zumthor and Venturi write a book – when they both practised architecture, in the ideology they intended to. One could argue that if Zumthor’s ‘Thinking Architecture’ is even a theory book at all? To me it is a ‘theory’ book, because it is articulating perception and memories and relaying it across space and time. Zumthor’s book can also be a response to Question 19 “Does such a thing exist, as an anti-theory book? “

Question no. 14 can be revealing, particularly for a mixed range of books we have listed – “Is it possible to spell the differences between: a theory book, a history book, a monograph, a handbook, a catalogue, an illustrated book, an interactive book?”. S,M,L,XL checks all these boxes, and hence radical in a way on what can theory book can do and cannot do. The book weighs 2.7 kgs and is 1376 pages long. An exaggeration on the physicality of a so called ‘theory’ book but still explored its format in eccentric and accessible way. 

Question no.12 “What does the cover actually say? How do the different editions vary?  reveals some interesting ideas of the different variations of the canonical ‘Modern Architecture : A Critical History’ by Frampton. The final chapter has been evolving till the recent 5th edition (2021) from the original first edition (1980) reflecting the deep and critical reading of Modernism and evolving the proposition of Critical Regionalism. There are dedicated sub chapters to less discussed counties like Peru, Chile and Bangladesh. Mary McLeod observes that “Frampton’s writings – a mixture of history, criticism and analysis – have inspired architects, especially those practicing outside of United States ( in places where the notion of “regionalism” or “locale” may have more resonance and meaning than in the states” (2) . It was this inclination from the beginning made Frampton to explore works of (then) less known works of architects like Siza and Barragan. This thread of thought has evolved fully in the fifth edition by including distinct interpretations of modernism across the world. 

In some ways the “the mixture of history, criticism and analysis” in varying proportions has been the DNA of the various books listed. In the class we discussed the multiple possibilites of interpreting architecture though these books. All 20 questions are not equally relevant to all the books. The sub-selection of the 20 questions will already reveal something about the book. The questions and the comparative analysis between the books provides an engaging platform to talk about what is ‘theory’?

The assignment shared with students (Click on the image to view larger)
The list of 30 books – each student picked up a title (Click on the image to view larger)
Here is a delightful moment from the class (WCFA Batch 2020, B) where everybody (almost everybody!) had managed to issue and bring the book to the class with some homework done. If you are a full time faculty, one would appreciate how rare these moments are. And if you belong to small tribe of history and theory faculty like me, this is a day of celebration!

Notes :

(1) In the introduction to the book ‘A Primer on Theory in Architecture’, Karen Cordes Spence has a detailed argument on this point

(2) In an essay ‘Kenneth’s Frampton Idea of he “Critical”‘ by Mary Macleod in the book ‘Modern Architecture and the Life World: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Frampton’ edited by Karla Cavarra Britton and Robert McCarter.