The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

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fall 2008

ARC 386K:
Theory of Architecture I

William O'Brien, Jr.
David Heymann


The Theory of Architecture sequence in the School of Architecture is distinct. It begins, in Theory I, with recent buildings, followed by a history of canonical texts in Theory II. Theory III, then allows you to pursue your own interests more precisely. Central to the curriculum is a basic premise: one benefits from having an understanding of how buildings carry meaning before one discusses what kinds of meaning buildings carry.

The conceptual centerline of this course is the proposition that theory is not, at first, something applied to a building. Theory in this course (and to be clear, there are other conceptions of theory - and to make matters yet more interesting, the two professors teaching this course have different takes on theory) is what one forms when one attempts to cohesively order the sensate condition of inhabiting a building: an explanation of why, elicits a framework of meaningfulness. Your intelligence seeks to give order to the knowledge of experience - that order is the main kind of theory in this class. It is worth noting that it will be far more important for you to listen to your instincts than to trust what the architect says.

The first aim of this course is to have you look at buildings, imagine their inhabitation, and to value their complex singularity. This is theory as a verb: to theorize. When you progress into Theory II, you will have an idea of how written theories make the jump to the inhabited framework of experience that buildings offer. Theory so conceived has a primary agenda: to explain a building to itself. This differs from a second type of theory that you will encounter in architecture school: explaining buildings to each other as proofs of cultural tendencies.

The second aim of this course is to initially explore the major directions that architecture, as a cultural activity, has taken over the past ten to twenty years. In so doing, the course seeks to encourage you to link your singular understanding of artifacts to larger cultural developments of the present day, to ask: why is the meaning I sense in the building actually meaningful? We are going to look closely at twelve to fourteen recent buildings, and study approximately forty more. You will see that “value” is clearly an important component of architectural work, but “value” is evolving constantly: a moving target, it proves difficult to adequately describe.

The past two decades differ from the full century before in that the recent past has not been ruled by the sorts of dogmatic theories and movements that to a great degree defined the 20th century. There is no common agreement about where recent architecture has gone, much less in which ways it should be considered meaningful. We will be looking at different arguments about meaningfulness. Each of the buildings chosen for the course is exemplary of certain primary concerns present in architectural discourse. The list is only partial, and, it reflects the interests of the instructors (which - to remind you - is the basis of the studio agenda as well: the instructors confront you with their agendas in an attempt for you to define your own).


The primary readings for this course are the buildings themselves, in published form. Up to five types of types of readings may be given for each building: (1) drawings and photographs of the building in question; (2) a written description of the building, site, client, etc.; (3) an essay placing the building or its point of departure within a general critical context; (4) images of up to three other buildings that are engaged in similar issues - what we are calling “reference buildings”; and, sometimes, (5) an essay, while not necessarily about the building, which expands and explores its critical context.

We will post the images (which may include websites), and most of the readings, on a SOA server for you to access. There are three books that you will need to buy for this course (they should be available at the Coop across the street). You should note that you will have read most of these books by midterm. They are expensive, but worth it - these are basic readings that you really should own:

Rafael Moneo: Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects. This is the primary text, written by a great architect and teacher. Though it covers the work of eight contemporary architects, its primary purpose in this course is to give you a basic appreciation of the work that immediately precedes the present by a half-generation. Moneo’s chapters serve as a perfect counterpart to the course: each describes the horizontal development of the architects’ work. In contrast, we will be working in a sense perpendicular to these writings, plumbing each building not as a proof of the architect’s intentions, but as a specific framework of experience that in turn suggests how meaning is ordered.

Herzog & De Meuron: Prada Aoyama Tokyo. This little jewel is pricey, but extraordinary. It is perhaps the best book out there that describes a design process; and also that describes the curious dispassionate-ness of the design process that so many architects use today (compared, to say, The Fountainhead).

Rem Koolhaas: Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. The last real attempt at an architectural manifesto. You can’t move ahead without ingesting its argument (and it is a fun read), which is far more serious than the apparent perversity of the text seems to suggest.

You will familiarize yourself with the building and the reference buildings before class. The class will be divided into discussion groups and you will be asked to provide “minutes” of your discussions. There will be an open question posited in order to prompt dialogue and debate. You will be asked to project yourself into the building under examination and to operate as detectives might; searching for evidence, anomalies and seeming inconsistencies. The evidence will then be compiled, providing the basis for class-wide discussion as we attempt to reconstruct each buildings conceptual-underpinnings. Our reconstructions will then be compared with writings about the building in order to map out internally and externally developed theoretical models.


Your grade for this course will be assigned on the basis of:

  • Paper 1: Analysis in 2 Parts 30%
  • Paper 2: Tentative Manifesto 30%
  • Participation 30%
  • Minutes 5%
  • 10 Beliefs, 1 and 2 5%

The first of two primary assignments for this course - an analysis paper of a recent building - will be broken into two parts and spread across the semester. During the first half of the semester, you will be fore-grounding the formal organization of the building; during the second half you will be fore-grounding its inhabitation. In total, the paper will consist of a written analysis (4,000 - 5,000 words) and graphic analysis of a building not included in the class. The second primary assignment will be in the form of a tentative manifesto in which you’ll summarize your own developing point of view (500 - 1000 words). Beyond this, there will also be a short assignment at the beginning and end of the semester, asking you to write down ten things you believe about architecture. A substantial portion of the grade is based on class participation in the discussion. Attendance is mandatory. One class session is the equivalent of two normal classes, so two absences will constitute a letter grade drop, and with three absences you will be stricken from the roll.

There are two instructors for this class. William O’Brien, Jr. will teach the first half; David Heymann will teach the second half. Because of our schedule teaching in Italy, there will be a two-week gap at mid-semester when we have scheduled a field trip, and a joint class with the other section of Theory I, taught by Larry Speck. Each of the instructors is responsible for roughly half the semester. The best way to get in touch with us is by email: wobrien@mail.utexas.edu, and heymann@mail.utexas.edu.

Theory I Schedule [pdf]