Design Action Studio for Research, Architecture, and Urbanism

Critical Post-Critical

Critical Post-Critical

by Gabriel Fuentes

In “After Theory,” written for Architectural Record’s June 2005 issue, Michael Speaks—architecture critic, professor, and dean of Syracuse University’s School of Architecture—attacks architectural education’s failure to “recognize the fundamental nature of the challenges confronting architecture in a world increasingly dominated by technological change and marketization,” insisting that while schools have adequately instilled digital competency, they have “largely failed to develop an intellectual culture that would enable students to make the best use of these skills in a marketplace that puts such a high value on innovation.” Theory, he claims, handicaps innovation by advancing Enlightenment ideals of ultimate truth and by splitting thinking from doing; that is, by asserting that “manifestos guide political action; that architectural theory guides architectural practice.” In a post-theoretical world, architectural theory must give way to pragmatic frameworks capable of engaging our market-driven world horizontally rather than resisting it from above via anachronistic models of thinking (e.g. Deconstruction or Marxism). Architecture must operate, as Stan Allen writes, “in and on the world,” not as commentary about the world, as if both operative modes were mutually exclusive. 

In an earlier article written for Architecture + Urbanism (A+U), Speaks situates theory in America as the byproduct of French and German philosophy (an American philosophy lite) filtered into academia through comparative literature and into architecture by a disgruntled Neo-Avant-Garde obsessed with the failures of their fathers; that is, by the unfulfilled promises of early 20th century modernism. As a “weapon of the young,” such “portable” and “fast philosophy” enabled architects post-68 to read the world as text and to guide practice through universal principles and prescriptive manifestos. Criticized by American literary critic Stanley Fish, such “T”heory—always abstracted from existent practices—was thus “subordinate to the contingencies of practice” and could only yield atheoretical (i.e. pragmatic) consequences. In other words, theory neither liberated nor damned practice from above. But contra Fish, it did produce “real practical consequences” for architecture, even if projected from within. Architecture’s semiotic project, for example, had very real practical consequences during the 1980s and 1990s even if, as Manfredo Tafuri and Fredric Jameson had feared, it worked with and against the status quo by simultaneously enabling critique and advancing “capitalist (read American) attempts to transform everything into commodities” ( i.e. simulacra).


To his credit, Speaks recognizes that the architectural vanguard has failed to adjust to a cultural shift that David Harvey calls flexible accumulation; that is, a mode of capitalism that resists the long-term and large-scale rigidity of industrial capitalism (read modernism) by operating flexibly and ephemerally within the patterns and processes of contemporary network culture. In other words, a kind of capitalism that operates in the shadows—channeling, organizing, and reassembling the “chatter” of these networks to continually pry open the new: new services, new products, new business models, new sectors, new consumption patterns, new markets, and indeed new architectures. Such practices, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Empire, mark a transition from a disciplinary society to a society of control, one that leverages the biopolitical as both the source and site of innovation.

But while otherwise sharp, Speaks’s argument for “post-theoretical” practices is neither “new,” “anti-theoretical” nor “post-critical” (a term applied to him by George Baird that he, in any case, denies). To be sure, Speaks “resists, negates, and attempts to create alternatives” to the established modes of architectural thinking and practice promoted by K. Michael Hays and Peter Eisenman. In other words, he is critical of a particular kind of criticality, namely, the kind that searches for an “unattainable (utopian) essence of architecture” through negative dialectical strategies that resist capitalism and attempt to overturn it—i.e. the Neo-Avant-Garde’s Autonomy Project. He counters this Project with “innovative” practices that work “with the existent (capitalism included) but unknown in order to discover opportunities for unpredictable design solutions.” In his theory of atheoretical practice, architecture engages the world affirmatively by resisting resistance (Oppositions anyone?).

While sharp, Speaks’s argument for post-theoretical practices is neither new, anti-theoretical nor post-critical.
Figure 1:  Michael Speaks, "Design Thinking" Lecture, Berlage Institute, 2009.

Figure 1: Michael Speaks, "Design Thinking" Lecture, Berlage Institute, 2009.

Figure 2:  K. Michael Hays, Elliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Figure 2: K. Michael Hays, Elliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Figure 3:  Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey Professor of Practice, Yale University School of Architecture.

Figure 3: Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey Professor of Practice, Yale University School of Architecture.

In “Notes Around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism”—written for Perspecta 33 (2002)—Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting also argue that “disciplinarity has been absorbed and exhausted by the project of criticality,” advocating instead “projective” practices that, contra the critical project’s “hot” dialectical autonomy, are capable of “cool” instrumentality. Like Speaks, they assume we must abandon “old” questions of critique, representation, and signification in order to address “new” ones of speculation, performance, and pragmatics. In positioning “criticality” as the projective’s Other, however (and they have since denied this), they fall victim to the very mode of criticality they critique; that is, they build an argument for the “projective” using the oppositional strategies of the “critical.” In doing so, they unwittingly expose architecture’s double-agency, its desire to pursue old questions within new systems of meaning. For just as building can never be theory, architecture will always maintain relative autonomy, even in its instrumentality. It is a hard discipline in a soft world, one of interventions and Projects. “The question is,” as Reinhold Martin writes, “which realities (of that world) you choose to engage with, and to what end. In other words: what’s your project?”

Figure 4:  Robert Somol, Director and Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture

Figure 4: Robert Somol, Director and Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture

But if the affirmatively critical voices of the so-called “post-critical”—add Sylvia Lavin’s call for “cool” and unapologetically fashionable architecture—are not properly anti-theory, they are in fact anti-History (the “H” is significant, as I’ll argue in a moment). For if, as Allen asserts, “theory’s importance is now a historical rather than a contemporary matter,” then history has no place in the kind of contemporary design practice they advocate. Crudely put, if theory is bad, and theory is also history, then history must also be least in theory. If the new architecture is to exploit its instrumentality, if it is to operate flexibly within the “chatter” of contemporary networks, if it is to become part of Empire, then it must shed all traces of theory’s retrospective baggage; that is, it must stop obsessing over the failures of its father(s) and it must abandon fiction and representation as modes of architectural production. Hence a retrospective obsession with history and failure transitions into a projective obsession with contingency, instrumentality, and becoming; the former consciously withdrawing into the interpretative space of text as a mode of resistance to the world, the latter fluidly absorbed by the patterns and practices of the world. 

Citing Alberto Perez-Gomez, architecture professor Arie Graafland writes that this “obsession with instrumentality” rages unabated in architectural practice and almost always underscores the “leading edge” positions. He continues,

The contemporary “obsession with instrumentality” encourages fashionable architectural projects that are oblivious to their cultural context, to their intended programs, to their historical roots, to ethical imperatives and to our experiencing body. Although Perez-Gomez is correct, in my opinion the problem is that today’s architectural practice is no longer on the level of historical consciousness, or even managerial and organizational level as Speaks suggests, no longer on a cognitive or historical level, but on the level of a software-driven flattened out aesthetic reflexivity.

This “obsession with instrumentality” and “software-driven flattened out aesthetic reflexivity” is in fact symptomatic of a different kind of historical consciousness, one not only very aware of an increasingly flattened 21st century world but also of its own historical moment after the end of History.