Architectural theory is the act of thinking, discussing, and writing about architecture. Architectural theory is taught in most architecture schools and is practiced by the world’s leading architects. Some forms that architecture theory takes are the lecture or dialogue, the treatise or book, and the paper project or competition entry. Architectural theory is often didactic, and theorists tend to stay close to or work from within schools. It has existed in some form since antiquity, and as publishing became more common, architectural theory gained an increased richness. Books, magazines, and journals published an unprecedented amount of works by architects and critics in the 20th century. As a result, styles and movements formed and dissolved much more quickly than the relatively enduring modes in earlier history. It is to be expected that the use of the internet will further the discourse on architecture in the 21st century.
There is little information or evidence about major architectural theory in antiquity, until the 1st century BCE, with the work of Vitruvius. This does not mean, however, that such works did not exist. Many works never survived antiquity, and the burning of the Alexandria Library shows us a very good example of this.
Vitruvius was a Roman writer, architect, and engineer active in the 1st century BCE. He was the most prominent architectural theorist in the Roman Empire known today, having written De architectura, (known today as The Ten Books of Architecture), a treatise written of Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. Probably written between 27 and 23 BCE, it is the only major contemporary source on classical architecture to have survived. Divided into ten sections or “books”, it covers almost every aspect of Roman architecture, from town planning, materials, decorations, temples, water supplies, etc. It rigorously defines the classical orders of architecture. It also proposes the three fundamental laws that Architecture must obey, in order to be so considered: firmitas, utilitas, venustas, translated in the 17th century by Sir Henry Wotton into the English slogan firmness, commodity and delight (meaning structural adequacy, functional adequacy, and beauty). The rediscovery of Vitruvius’ work had a profound influence on architects of the Renaissance, adding archaeological underpinnings to the rise of the Renaissance style, which was already under way. Renaissance architects, such as Niccoli, Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, found in “De Architectura” their rationale for raising their branch of knowledge to a scientific discipline.
Throughout the Middle Ages, architectural knowledge was passed by transcription, word of mouth and technically in master builders’ lodges. Due to the laborious nature of transcription, few examples of architectural theory were penned in this time period. Most works from this period were theological, and were transcriptions of the bible, so the architectural theories were the notes on structures included therein. The Abbot Suger’s Liber de rebus in administratione sua gestis, was an architectural document that emerged with gothic architecture. Another was Villard de Honnecourt’s portfolio of drawings from about the 1230s.
In Song Dynasty China, Li Jie published the Yingzao Fashi in 1103, which was an architectural treatise that codified elements of Chinese architecture.