Theses Doctoral

A Productive Misunderstanding? Architecture Theory and French Philosophy 1965 to 1990

Berankova, Jana

In this dissertation, I investigate connections between French philosophy and the theory of architecture from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. In the mid-1960s, many architects became acutely aware of the crisis of modern architecture embodied in the failings of social housing, the routinized corporate modernism of the postwar period, and the commodification of design. They questioned the principles of the Modern Movement and emphasized the “arbitrary” nature of the relationship between form and function while turning to French structuralism, semiology, and post-structuralism for potential answers. My period of study spans from the the period of political uprisings of the 1960s to the advent of digital design in the early 1990s.To date, little in-depth research has been done on the close relation between French philosophy and architecture in this period and its role in foreshadowing postmodern developments.

My dissertation addresses this gap by presenting case studies of the theoretical work of six different architects: Aldo Rossi, Alan Colquhoun, Mario Gandelsonas and Diana Agrest, Bernard Tschumi, and Peter Eisenman. These case studies share a common thread: a preoccupation with structuralist and poststructuralist concerns with language. However, concepts such as “structure,” “event,” and “meaning” often have different meanings for each of these architects. Thus, my project could be described as a history and criticism of architectural theory—one that focuses specifically on the dissonances and contradictions present within the theoretical writings of these architects, while examining the polemics and discussions between them. I consider their built work only to the extent that it helps to elucidate or challenge theoretical concepts.

Thus, in my case study on Aldo Rossi’s writings, I interrogate the analogy between the structuralist concern for articulating discrete and finite linguistic units and the latter’s notion of “type” and urban morphology. In the chapter on Alan Colquhoun, I discuss the influence that the work of Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Ferdinand de Saussure had on his reflections about “meaning” and “convention” in architecture. In the case study on the work of Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas, I examine the extent to which their understanding of “theory” and of “ideology” is indebted to the work of Louis Althusser and trace the influence of Roland Barthes, whose seminar on S/Z they attended in Paris before moving to New York in 1971. Likewise, I analyze the role that thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and the Tel Quel circle in the late 1970s, and Jacques Derrida in the early 1980s had on Bernard Tschumi’s writings on the “polysemy of meaning” and on the “event.” Finally, I examine Peter Eisenman’s collaboration with Jacques Derrida in the 1980s questioning Eisenman’s eclectic appropriation of Derrida’s philosophical concepts.

Besides elucidating this significant period of architecture in which many of the fundamental principles of modern architecture were overturned, in the conclusion of this study, I discuss briefly the “post-critical turn” in the architectural scholarship of the past two decades with the hope of challenging its basic assumptions. My hope is to contribute, through its critical reevaluation, to theory’s renewal.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
McLeod, Mary Caroline
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 23, 2023