The question of the current state of “history/theory” is, of course, now a fully historiographic issue. One has to remember that there was no such thing as “history/theory” as a specialized discipline prior to the late 1970. There was, of course, a field called architecture history, but it was still rather tightly associated with art history. As to the history courses taught in schools of architecture after WWII, these were mostly taught in a rather ad hoc way and often allied with studio. What “theory” meant in the pre-1970s days was mostly an informal amalgam of ideas associated with architecture’s long association with proportion—with Rudolf Wittkower's Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism from 1949 being one of the key readings—or with function—as in Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941). What the “history/theory” moment of the 1980s accomplished was to bring these strands to a close while hoping also to renew the starting point of conversations about history and theory within the architectural curriculum. In this it largely succeeded with the emergence of PhD programs that increased their legitimacy, especially in tenure-track-oriented institutions.
All this means is that today, one can no longer think of history/theory as outside of the academic imaginaries of the history of its own formation. Unfortunately, the history of “history/theory” is not really prepared to self-reflect. With that in mind, I propose two initial observations:1) the “theory” part of history/theory was not one thing, but several, and 2) that the “theory moment,” if I can call it that, had a relatively short shelf-life. In the name of a false sense of clarity, these two quite simplistic observations can be expanded into a few hypotheses. Each hypothesis needs serious expansion, or at least a lot more explanation, but on the whole, they are an attempt to sketch out some ideas in the fuzzy space of architecture’s disciplinary self-reflection.
Within the theory moment in the 1970s and early 1980s—and it was a moment, certainly not a movement—it was hoped that the architecture school, in the broadest sense, could become a site where a particular type of creative and intellectual energy could be formed. There were some successes for sure, but we were all too optimistic. There were too few players anda large array of issues—geopolitical in scale—quickly overwhelmed the system. It is now obvious that architectural schools—front and center to some of the leading geo-political issues of the day—are institutionally and intellectually underequipped to deal with the world of the twenty-first century.
To make matters worse, many elite schools decided to follow the neoliberal model of labor by tenuring only a few people and farming out the rest of its curriculum to hired guns who had little vested interest in—and no power to—transform the curriculum. This meant that entrenched attitudes prevailed and that young blood remained at the inconsequential periphery. It was a system that produced a fake sense of vibrancy around the supposedly fast-moving field of contemporary architecture. The negative consequence was that the complex intellectual issues of the discipline had no ground on which to sustain themselves apart from a token professor with a PhD in the history of modern architecture. No wonder theory seems to be collapsing, leaving the burden of critique in the ever-optimistic realm of something now know blandly as “contemporary architecture.”
So, maybe we should be worried less about its presumed death of history/theory than about the broader health of architectural education. Architecture schools today can still produce stuff that is called “architecture,” and they can easily go through the motions of teaching “history” and “theory,” but any certainty around the meaning of the word “architecture” is lost. Is it a building by KPF? Is the rebuilt Parthenon? Is a single course called “Architectural Theory,” placed arbitrarily in an otherwise jammed curriculum even remotely adequate to the title? Maybe they are all just symptoms of a type of activity that is more scandal than architecture.