History and Theory of Architectural Practice

Who is the architect?

This course considers architectural practice from social and historical perspectives, and it charts changing definitions of the architect with respect to shifting cultural contexts and political economies. In so doing, the course expands critical awareness of the forces that have shaped contemporary architectural practice, and it invites speculation about alternative forms and formats of practice that are even now emerging.

The course will first review the framework of world traditions that have contributed to the formation of “the architect” as both symbol and individual personification, a mediator within the cultural imagination between social vision and technical know-how. Competing and complementary ideas of the architect emerged, historically, from both the top-down authority of owners and the bottom-up craft abilities of builders, and then merged in the middle with the architect as intermediary agent between the other parties’ respective ends and means.

The perspective of the course will then shift to the context of North America to consider the specific formation of the U.S architectural profession. European colonial assumptions were gradually supplanted by affordances of a nascent American democracy to yield, by the middle of the 19th century, a particular vocational manifestation of a rising professional ideology. The architecture profession that unfolded between the end of the Civil War and the aftermath of World War II institutionalized new models of corporate identity as well as mechanisms of social closure and market control – through professional organization and university education; through state regulation, examination, and licensure. As a result, the definition of the architect was significantly narrowed as compared to the foregoing, laissez faire model of unregulated titular claims.

Two extended case studies focus upon the material culture of American architectural practice – its tools, documents, methods, divisions of labor – as a means of unearthing the embedded ideological assumptions of the profession. Critical consideration of The Handbook of Architectural Practice (1920) illustrates how specific tools and assumptions of U.S. architectural practice evolved and functioned as mediators between and among clients, architects, and builders. Likewise, a social history of Ramsey & Sleeper’s Architectural Graphic Standards (1932) examines the profession from the bottom-up, from the standpoint of the architectural drafter, to provide insight into ongoing dynamics roiling the ranks of architectural labor. Together, these case studies demonstrate ways in which the standardization of the architecture profession both issued from and advanced processes of standards formation in American society at-large.

Finally, in consideration of the constant revolutionizing of architectural practice that the historical record shows, we will conclude the course by speculating about emergent trajectories of architectural practice in light of changing tools and technologies and shifting matters of concern.

The course will be conducted through dialog during each weekly session. A topical focus upon commonly assigned texts will be contextualized by framing lectures and then elaborated by student-led responses and discussions.