Research Structure: theoretical framework, object, questions
I understand the method to be the use of a general theory or theoretical perspective as a lens through which we can access to the knowledge of reality. Thus, if we can say that a theory is a body of concepts, its hierarchy and relations between them; a method will be the mode of use of these concepts for purposes of analysis, and of modest contribution to a theory. For me, it’s impossible and even irresponsible not to have a sufficiently clear understanding of the theories through which we understand reality with the intention of advancing some knowledge about it.
In developing a general theoretical framework I came across with some theories that I thought as extremely useful for the purposes of a research centred on the built environment and architecture. I have to say that I have been deeply disappointed with architectural theories on this matter. There are some relatively recent architectural theories that have proven to be outstanding, for instance, deconstruction, phenomenology, semiology to name a few that derive from philosophy and not architecture proper, though their interpretation by architectural theorists could be subject to critique. If we look back we can also encounter iconology, pure-visibility, formalism, and so on. In my view, all these theories for the analysis of architecture might have useful concepts, but none of them can, by itself, give an account on the real process of production of architecture. And I argue that this is mainly because we cannot explain the origin of a work of architecture solely on account of its formal structure or the ideas on the architect’s mind. In other words, I think that architectural theory is insufficient to analyse the phenomenon of architecture as a social product.
My aim is to use three theoretical perspectives for the analysis of the built environment and architecture:
Pure Architectural Theory / Phenomenology: By ‘pure’ I refer to theories that attempt to construct an ontology of architecture, that is, an understanding of the fundamental foundations of architecture beyond historical and contingent understandings. I think that the phenomenological approach follows this path through its focus on human perception, human action and the body. Key authors: Borchers, Van der Laan, Perez-Gomez, Bachelard, Pallasmaa, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Lefebvre.
Critical Social / Spatial / Cultural Theory: Critical Theory is a very wide field, starting from Marx, Weber and Freud, to Western Marxism and the Frankfurt school, to Cultural Theory and Cultural Studies. More recent theories focus on the problem of space as it often had been neglected by more classical approaches. These theories come mainly from critical geography. Key authors: Adorno, Jameson, Eagleton, Zizek, Ross, Soja, Gregory, Lefebrve, Harvey, Tafuri.
Political Economy / Historical Materialism: It has to do mainly with Marx’s outstanding critique of classical political economy, French utopian socialism, and German idealism. The theory of historical materialism provides a frame for a scientific analysis of society through a dialectical method, focusing on processes of change, inner connections, and contradictions within history. Key authors: Marx, Harman, Kuusinen, Harnecker, Mandel, Kliman, Lefebrve, Harvey.
Still, there are two other theoretical fields that are part of the research. Both belong to architectural theory, and their role within the first stage (analysis) of the research will be peripheral as they would take a more active role during the second stage (program):
Contemporary Architectural Theory: it groups the theoretical developments of architects, architectural critics, and architectural historians, mainly of the twentieth century. These include the theories of the avant-gardes, the modern movement, Russian constructivists, late modernism, and postmodern theories as represented by approaches from phenomenology, semiology, structuralism, deconstruction and post-structuralism. Key authors: Giedion, Pevsner, Zevi, Le Corbusier, Norberg-Schulz, Venturi, Rossi, Tafuri, Eisenman, Tschumi, Vidler, Frampton, Sola-Morales, Tafuri, Aureli, Leach, Fernández, Angélil, Pallasmaa.
Project / Design Theory: those architectural theories that focus on its internal properties and methods, specifically methods of projection, that is of thinking and develop and architectural project and its design. These include different methods employed by practising architects as well as the theories that inform such working procedures. Key authors: Borchers, Van der Laan, Suárez, Rossi, Eisenman, de la Cruz.
Object of study
The initial object of study was constituted by the relations between twenty-century architecture and capitalism. But on account of being perhaps an object to wide to cover in one year research, I think in several other logical possibilities.
First, I want to be clear in the fact that there’s always the possibility of choosing between a theoretical thesis and a historical one. In my view, a theoretical thesis deploys mainly a logical argument, thus its object of study is not concrete, but abstract –i.e. the object of Capital was not nineteen-century England, but the capitalist mode of production as a total system. Perhaps a purely theoretical thesis is more suitable for a PhD, because it aims at producing and contributing new knowledge (theories) for humanity, thus requiring highly complex thinking, dedication, and experience. Whereas a Master thesis aims to receive new knowledge first and then present it in a critical and deep way. So, what is the role of the MPhil thesis? Clearly it has neither the depth nor the extension of a PhD, but also is meant to be more developed than a Master thesis –that is why it is usually part of the research degrees and not taught degrees. We could fairly say that the object of a Master thesis is a more concrete one, be it historical specific, monographic, technical, and so on. So, for me, the MPhil research stands between a highly specific object of study –sometimes too specific I claim– and a more general object.
If the relations between architecture and capitalism in general are to be studied as a more abstract object rather than historical, I run the risk to aim too high. And I do agree with Umberto Eco when he says that the topic has to be reduced to manageable dimensions, because the thesis is not to show that one knows everything but rather to demonstrate a clearly stated hypothesis with an also clearly defined object.
If we look at this same topic from an historical perspective we can narrow it down to a manageable period of time, namely the second half of the twenty-century. And we could continue specifying it with all kinds of contingent properties such as geographical specificity, social situation or period, a specific movement or social group, and so on and so forth. But, do we not run the risk of being perhaps excessively specific, thus loosing the general frame altogether? Following Eco, I should work on a manageable panoramic thesis (general-particular), reduced to a fair measure, without being strictly monographic (only particular). These are some possibilities for specificity that I think not to be excessively particular:
- The different modes of relation between postmodern architecture and late capitalism.
- The role of postmodern architecture in the reproduction of global capitalism.
- The changes in post-war architecture in relation to the transformations of capitalism and politics.
- The changes in post-war architecture seen through the spatial logic of capitalist accumulation.
- The function of architecture in the accumulation of capital. The role of postmodern architecture in the advent of late capitalism.
- The role of post-cold war architecture in capitalist accumulation and crises.
Regarding the designation of the object of study, Eco recommends that this should be a recognizable object, defined in such a way that is also recognized by others. This poses the first task of the research in being able to define its own object, though this does not imply that it should be a material object. But it should be sufficiently specific to avoid too ambitious aims, and at the same time sufficiently general to avoid oversimplification and concreteness.
The order of the questions is not accidental and is not going exclusively from general to particular; rather they are organized in accordance to the subsequent scheme established by de index structure, which is the structure of the analysis, presentation and deployments of the arguments.
- What are the different programs with which architecture has responded to the major changes in capitalist development?
- What is the role of architecture in the reproduction of this social system and its concrete modalities?
- What have been the different modes of relation between architecture and capitalism throughout the twenty century?
- What should be the role of architecture in facing major instabilities and injustices in the cities produced by capital?
- How a work of architecture affects our perception and social relations?
- Where lies the political dimension in a work of architecture?
- Is an emancipatory practice of architecture possible? What prevents architecture from engaging in social and spatial transformation?
- Can architecture play a role in social transformation? What would be this role and how it would be played out?
- What are the possibilities for developing a vision of architecture that resists and challenges the built environment that capitalism has produced?
- How to develop possible alternatives to the current relation between architecture and late capitalist societies?