How Pratt’s Architectural Theory Leaders Are Inspiring the Next Generation of Critical Thinkers
The question is often raised—such as in the recent Theory’s Curriculum program hosted by e-flux Architecture: why teach architectural theory? While theory was part of most architecture programs from the 1970s to 1990s, technology is now foregrounded in many schools, and theory courses are frequently eliminated.
Theory was never cut from the curriculum at Pratt Institute. Instead, it has been strengthened by members of its faculty, including Catherine Ingraham, Sanford Kwinter, Manuel DeLanda, and Meredith TenHoor, who are leaders in their field. At Pratt, an architectural theory discourse is vital not only for the history of the discipline and practice but also for the complex interactions of architecture with other contexts. This complements the rich knowledge of architecture that students are offered in design studios, so they understand the history of ideas that have contributed to the practice of Western architecture for centuries.
“How can we educate Master of Architecture students to ask questions of the discipline or profession that could not have been imagined?” David Erdman, Chair of Graduate Architecture and Urban Design (GAUD), asked in his column for the Educating for the Future series on Pratt.edu news. “To do so requires some adjustments to graduate education, which has been predominantly technologically focused and knowledge-based.” The theory coursework complements other initiatives in GAUD, such as “New Architectural Contexts” on understanding architecture within all the qualities of cities rather than separate from them and “New Architectural Mediums” on how architectural design interacts with all the senses.
Each graduate architecture student takes a History-Theory sequence of three required courses. The subjects in these courses can range from the ecological impact of architecture to its philosophical and social histories. A different professor instructs each of the History-Theory courses. All three are influential thinkers with an international presence, yet each has a distinct approach.
Catherine Ingraham, GAUD Professor, teaches the first course in the sequence: “Six Crises of Representation in Architecture.” Ingraham was hired in 1998 as Chair of Graduate Architecture and in that role, which she held until stepping down in 2005, she spearheaded the establishment of a new Master of Architecture program. Before coming to Pratt, Ingraham served as the editor of the architectural theory journal Assemblage from 1991 to 1998. She has actively published articles, essays, and book chapters on theory and authored Architecture and The Burdens of Linearity (1998) and Architecture, Animal, Human (2006).
Ingraham’s course concentrates on six essential “crises” in history that were transformative for architectural thinking on its complex path toward modernity and modernism. These periods stretch from the invention of perspectival representation in the Renaissance to our own time, in which new media is altering our powers of visualization. “Theory goes on being interesting, in spite of the flow of time, because it is connected with time, not in the historical sense of reconstructing the past, but more directly as a speculative practice,” Ingraham wrote in 2000 for Assemblage. She also said that theory finds and formulates connections between diverse modes of thought and action and allows us to question received ideas.
The second course in the sequence is “Design, Knowledge, and Context” taught by Sanford Kwinter, GAUD Professor. Kwinter’s background is in comparative literature and the myriad subjects which he explores include those of design and science such as thermodynamics and biological morphology, all pushing the limits of thinking about architecture. As a theorist, he has extensively written on the evolution of cities, ecology, and consciousness in relation to spatial perception in books like Architectures of Time: Towards a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture (2001), Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture (2008), and Requiem: For the City at the End of the Millennium (2010). He is a co-founder of Zone Books, an independent publishing company, which he started with designer Bruce Mau and theorist Jonathan Crary.
Kwinter’s course examines architectural context from two main perspectives: the environment and perception. Centering experience and knowledge as the crucial problems of architectural design, the course surveys a global and historical range of theories. These include fields beyond architecture and design, such as evolutionary theory and neurobiology, and the philosophy and practices of navigation and world-making. “The important thing is that the architect generally recognizes that as important as building may be, it represents but the pragmatic side of a more extensive intellectual practice—the physical application of strategies and hypotheses developed in response to a wide array of social, historical, and epistemological givens,” Kwinter wrote in 2003 for Harvard Design Magazine.
Manuel DeLanda, GAUD Adjunct Professor, teaches the third course in the sequence, called “Materiality and Cities.” With a focus on urban history and the dynamics of cities, DeLanda’s career spans architecture, philosophy, and art. He worked in experimental film in the 1970s and '80s, later moving to the then-emerging possibilities of digital media before concentrating his work in theory and philosophy. His diverse publishing includes War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), and Philosophical Chemistry: Genealogy of a Scientific Field (2015).
DeLanda’s course enhances the students’ studies on history by shifting to perspectives on architecture with attention to the material culture of cities. Students analyze urban building and design through specialized structures, whether hospitals or military fortifications, as well as the impact of events like quarantines, transportation, war, and the rise of industrial production. “How do animals perceive their material environments?,” DeLanda asked in an essay for DOMUS. “This question is intimately related to another one: what opportunities for action are supplied to an animal by its environment? The complementarity of the two questions points to the fact that when it comes to animal perception it is the interaction of organic bodies and the materiality of their surroundings that matters.”
Alongside these courses, GAUD promotes wider discussions on architectural theory through public dialogues and innovative publications that have included the student journal TARP, the Pratt Journal of Architecture, and InProcess. In 2017, GAUD launched Pratt Sessions, a new publication that presents architectural ideas in a novel way, joining transcripts from public conversations held on campus with completed and speculative work by the featured architects and designers, all responding to critical contemporary concerns. These reflect how theory is important in discussing issues ranging from climate change to working in rural areas that are quickly urbanizing. The next Pratt Sessions will be on November 7 and November 14.
Image: Sanford Kwinter, Manuel DeLanda, Meredith TenHoor, and Catherine Ingraham at the “What Does (Can) Theory Do” GAUD symposium on April 4, 2019 (screenshot from video)