We have been taught that the word "architect" comes from the Greek and means "master builder". But perhaps it is not that simple. The term "architect" also occurs in Greek drama, where it describes someone who leads others in ordering actions.

Architects today still largely see themselves as the profession was defined in the 19th century, says Alberto Pérez-Gómez. But architecture is not about producing images. It is a performing art.

Architectural design is usually identified with the production of novel and striking visual images that, nevertheless, seldom result in a built environment capable of revealing a true sense of the inhabitants' place in the world. The result is usually shock and short-lived amazement: one more tourist attraction, an identifiable brand for an institution, or a fashionable destination. Given this prevalent situation, the consideration of potential alternatives towards the creation of more meaningful environments is compelling.

From the Serbian pavilion at the 12. Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010. The exhibition ”Seesaw Play-Grow” was designed by ŠKART. Photo: IHA.

The experience of architecture is never merely spatial, and yet what passes today for architectural design is often no more than a manipulation of geometric spatial concepts. Indeed, our lived world is rich in sensations and emotions that arise from our bodily actions and engagement in the world. Perception is never a purely passive reception: it is action, and the motility of our embodied consciousness implies time.1 Our lives are in this sense fundamentally deployed in a temporality that accompanies our pre-reflective bodily motions and intended actions, and which is also a lived spatiality. This interweaving of lived time and space, together with its bearing on significant experience and the construction of meanings, tends to be ignored by conceptual and objectifying design practices. I will endeavor to unearth alternative possibilities by following the analogy between architecture and the performing arts that happens to be present in the depths of our Western architectural traditions. Since performance is by definition a temporal event, whose meanings are therefore impossible to paraphrase beyond their experience, this framework offers a fertile ground to meditate upon architecture.


The origins of architecture in human cultures are closely related to ritual: as propitiatory and mimetic object-making (as in the case of an altar for sacrifice or a tomb), and as place-making for the deployment of rites, which came to include theatrical performances, particularly in the European traditions. Architecture is fundamentally characterized by its capacity to frame such events, rather than by a particular style, materiality or design method. While ritual action and the manifestation of the divine through human artifacts were common in traditional cultures, they are arguably less common today, though by no means impossible. As sociologist Roger Grainger writes: "the great danger which ritual avoids is the danger of the confusion of man and God."2 Ultimately life is uncertain, and our self-conscious rational ego controls very little. Yet it is obviously difficult for a modern man to be able to affirm, with the confidence of the Medieval Japanese poet Yoshida Kenko (ca. 1233–1350), that "the most precious thing about life is its uncertainty."3

If one may dream of an architecture capable of revealing to others a meaningful world, one less flat and nihilistic, one must reconsider the origins of architecture as the space of participatory performance. Vitruvius describes his understanding of the origins of architecture in a few insightful paragraphs at the beginning of his second book of De Architectura.4 He understands this "space" as a clearing in the forest that makes possible language and culture, one that will eventually become the political space of the city (the polis, the urbs). His story starts with a spark from heaven, one generated by the wind in a storm: it is a gift whose origin is the divine breath of nature. The spark lights a fire that the first humans manage to maintain and domesticate, giving themselves a "dwelling." Indeed, architecture offered a clearing that was also an epiphany of the sacred - the gift of a place for human situations to be enacted in time - capable of further disclosing through significant action the appearance of a sacred world.

Ancient Roman theatre of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Bernard Gagnon/wikimedia.

Vitruvius' position in the early Roman Empire is an echo of Greek cultural accomplishments, which included the transformations of ritual into the dramatic plays of the Classical tradition (ca. 5th C. BCE) identified by Aristotle as the first poetic art. As Lisa Landrum has demonstrated in her doctoral dissertation, the term "architect" identified specific dramatic characters that lead others in acts toward the instauration of order.5 The call "to architect" appears in works such as Cyclops by Euripides and Peace by Aristophanes, plays that reveal the cultural roots, connotations and expectations associated with the person of the architect and his actions, a term that would eventually (a few centuries later) give its name to the Latin discipline of Architectura. This understanding adds a new dimension to the more conventional understanding of the architect as "master craftsman," which has been taken for granted in most histories of architecture. In these plays, the "architect" appears as a hero and legislator who opens a clearing for political and social order, a public space (both physical and political) as a site for collective orientation, which is not invented or created, but drawn from the pre-existing orders of culture and the cosmos.

Not surprisingly, Vitruvius speaks of the architecture of the theatre as a cathartic event, not as a mere "building" or aesthetic object. Drama in Greek and Roman theatre was experienced as a tight weaving of temporality and spatiality that aligned human action with the purposeful movements of the cosmos. Participating in the emotionally charged direction of the plot, the spectators grasped answers to fundamental human questions and attained a heightened self-understanding. In his Poetics, Aristotle posits mimesis as the basic function of art: the sense that life presents to the artist and which the artist "re-presents" through the patterns and forms of the medium.6 Rhyme, rhythm, eurhythmy, and harmony are merely attributes of the underlying sense that the spectator recognizes in the event, as a universal ground in the possible but improbable plot of the tragedy framed by the theatre building.

Architecture becomes an image

Thus, I have tried to argue that at its origins, the dramatic dimension of architecture is central to its intended meaning. This condition continues through the Christian Middle Ages, and only begins to transform during the Renaissance, once architectural ideas start to be identified with the visual images of painting. Urban elevations, for instance, attain an unprecedented importance as part of the work of the architect.7

"At its origins, the dramatic dimension of architecture was central to its intended meaning. This condition only begins to transform during the Renaissance, once architectural ideas start to be identified with the visual images of painting."

Indeed, it is only with the advent of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline in the 18th-century that the architectural project starts to be identified with the representation of systematically related orthogonal projections, potentially becoming an autonomous "work" for disinterested contemplation, associated with the other "Fine Arts." This eventually opens the possibility to conceptualize an architectural project as the objectification of a future building in the fully mathematical (and reductive) space of 19th-century descriptive geometry and axonometry.8 Almost in tandem with this latter transformation, however, Claude-Nicholas Ledoux recognized towards the end of the 18th-century the need to imagine a set of poetic and political programs as part of his project for his ideal city of Chaux, resonant with the emerging orders of the modern world precipitated by the French Revolution. Chaux expressed with forceful clarity the original condition of architectural meaning in a social context no longer bound by a transcendental politics.9

Plan of la Saline de Chaux. Claude Nicolas Ledoux, 1774. Photo: wikimedia.

In this sense, Ledoux's work may be recognized at the inception of our more contemporary explorations of architecture as performance. Every building project arises out of a narrative vision of life towards a new social contract, in stark opposition to both functionalism and all self-referential formalisms. Explorations of this nature continued into the 20th-century under many guises, often inspired by the artistic avant-garde, as it became conscious of the limitations of the retinal image (in the work of Marcel Duchamp, for example), and by the work of cinematographers who clearly understood the spatio/temporal nature of lived experience. In recent architectural practice, the masques of John Hejduk are notable examples in which intended programs (or narratives describing the life of the inhabitants) are a constitutive part of the poetic image.

John Hejduk’s installation ”Security” in Oslo, 1989. Photo: Helene Binet.

Hejduk's masques are never merely optical or pictorial form: they involve the temporal experience of a significant action.

One might argue as a conclusion that architecture may indeed recover its "original" dimension as performance as long as the program is understood not as a list of parts with square footage, but as a promise for a meaningful (political, public) life issued from the architect's imagination (both rational and emotional). 19th-century functionalism reduced the program to a list of parts to be organized as a diagram and "resolved" like a puzzle in plan, the resulting form of a building being a mere extrusion whose meaning would automatically follow. Such buildings were deliberately intended (and "read," in the competitions of the École des Beaux Arts, for instance) as touristic visits for a voyeur, in a linear sequence of unshifting scale. In contrast, architecture as performance privileges the importance of expression in the intertwinement of use and form, drawing their meaning from the recognition of their resonance with genuine, historically generated cultural practices. The experience of such architecture is participatory and never linear: a space for the performance of habits and actions that resist technological reductionism and may yet reveal the presence of the sacred.


There is another important (and related) sense in which we may speak of architecture as a performance. As a highly complex operation, architecture involves the collaboration of many people with diverse conceptual and manual skills. This obvious condition has lead some to question the ongoing cult of the architectural ego, and to ponder upon the fallacies of our system of "star architects." Similar considerations have also lead to the "spreading out" of responsibility for the outcome of a project, exonerating the architect from his direct ethical accountability – a dangerous position that will be addressed in the conclusion of this paper.10 In any event, the common assumption is that architects design or "make drawings" (today digital representations), while others actually build. Part of this assumption is that the actual work of the architect, his or her authorial "genius," resides in such representations.

From Roland Joffé’s film ”Vatel”, 2000.From Roland Joffé’s film ”Vatel”, 2000.From Roland Joffé’s film ”Vatel”, 2000.

From the opening of Arena Bekkestua. Architects: b+r arkitektur as. Photo: b+r/Nina Cathrine Haugen.

However, it is easy to demonstrate that prior to the 19th-century architects generally understood their "work" and ethical responsibility to be kindred to "performance," including the "actualization" of buildings, gardens, ephemeral structures, fireworks, wonder-producing machines, etc. – all works of architecture insofar as they all framed the possibility of cultural orientation. Not only the building of such works, but even their continuing maintenance, their "durability" (Vitruvius' firmitas), was the architect's responsibility. Perhaps Alberti was the first to suggest the more modern alternative of displacing responsibility in his 15th-century architectural treatise. Even more explicitly in a famous letter to Matteo de Pasti he asks the resident architect to avoid changing the "music" present in his drawings for S. Andrea in Mantua.11

"Orthogonal architectural representations acquired the same status as perspectives: symbolic of God's light on earth and of a link between the architect's mind and the divine mind."

Trompe l’oeil ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo, 1694. The ceiling is completely flat. From the Church of Sant’Ignazio, Rome, by Orazio Grassi, 1626. Photo: Bruce McAdam/wikimediaIllustration from Pozzo’s treatise on perspective, 1693. Photo: people.vcu.eduAndrea Pozzo,1642-1709, self-portrait. Photo: wikimedia

After the Renaissance systems of architectural representation became increasingly more precise and reductive. The assumption of perspective as a central, even paradigmatic architectural idea, appears explicitly in the theoretical work of the Baroque Jesuit architect and painter Andrea Pozzo, first published in 1693.12 Orthogonal architectural representations acquired the same status as perspectives – in other words: still symbolic of God's light on earth and of a link between the architect's mind and the divine mind, and never conceived as technical sections in Cartesian space or purely optical emulations of a presumed retinal image like in the 19th-century – yet capable of fully describing a "project" to come.13 The final shift that resulted in our own reductive assumptions came with the teachings and writings of Jean-Nicholas-Louis Durand at the turn of the 19th-century. In the wake of the French Revolution and the secularization of the political realm, this writer and teacher at the École Polytechnique (a model for all school or university-based architectural education to come), asserted instrumentality as the only (scientifically) unquestionable value in architecture and architectural drawing: the efficiency and economy of the design operation, leading to functional buildings. This theoretical framework makes "architecture as drawing" possible: the production of buildings by school-educated "professionals," potentially executed by others (or in our own days, by a robotic machine), through precise notations. This technological practice is in sharp distinction with an architecture performed by expert architect/builders educated through apprenticeship, endowed with conceptual and manual skills that were traditionally the manifestation of embodied wisdom. Indeed, Durand emphasizes the futility of rendering and color in all forms of architectural drawing, he teaches his students that the use of precise ink lines and absolute precision are indispensable. Drawings focus on the building as object/form, on its geometries and dimensions deployed in the space of descriptive geometry. All additional "information" was deemed irrelevant to meaning.

The delusions of drawing

Let me reiterate: prior to this moment of transformation that sees the beginning of a modern paradigm for representation, architects drew and built models, but the artifacts produced were never reductive. The process of construction "performed" the work of architecture as a translation of intentional, symbolic traces: mostly plans and elevations, and also sections that revealed the "shadowy depths" of the building to come. Such performance was its fulfillment, the architect was deemed responsible for its meaning and emotional effect, despite the complexity entailed in such translations. Furthermore, it was generally acknowledged that the work "gained" in richness in the process of translation from drawing, to physical model, to building. Significantly, this situation in architecture is analogous to musical practices in which, as demonstrated by the eminent musicologist Lydia Goehr, most musical works produced by composers prior to Beethoven's time in the early 19th-century were invariably dedicated to a "function" (a party, a dinner, a funeral), conceived therefore for a specific place (a hall in a palace, a performance space, a garden – but never an ubiquitous theatre), "authored" (or co-authored) by the client, and only accomplished in performance, preferably conducted or played by the composer himself.14 No one assumed the musical work's autonomous existence on a piece of paper, as a score, just as no one would have assumed that architecture existed as an idea represented in a set of drawings.

Elevation of Sorbonne College chapel, Paris. Jacques-François Blondel, 1752-1756. Photo: wikimedia.

Drawing by Jean Laurent Legeay, circa 1770. Photo: wikimedia.

"This reductive redefinition of the role of the architect was later institutionalized by the École Polytechnique and the École de Beaux-Arts in the 19th-century. The work of architecture thereafter existed as drawings."

Under these conditions, apprenticeship was the real education of the architect, with the few exceptions of the weekly readings in the Académie Royale d'Architecture in Paris and J.-F. Blondel's relatively short lived money-making school in the mid-18th century. At the time of Piranesi (ca. 1750's), Jean-Laurent Legeay started to teach his Parisian students, which included many of the now famous "revolutionary" architects of the next generation, that to make architecture the architect must provide a fully comprehensive picture of the future building, including an aerial perspective and a full set of drawings and specifications. This redefinition of the role of the architect was later institutionalized by the École Polytechnique and the École de Beaux-Arts in the 19th-century. The work of architecture thereafter existed as drawings, intended as instruments that might dictate with utter precision their execution in the world of experience (exactly like a score by Beethoven or later composers, filled with modulation marks and metronome readings expected to be followed with utmost precision by the interpreters, regardless of the physical conditions and particular circumstances that made possible the works' performance). This created the delusion that the Cartesian spaces in which the design was conceived (the three planes of the newly invented "descriptive geometry") were homologous with the spatialities in which our lives take place, and that the meaning of architecture is fundamentally dependant on the geometry of its forms and spaces. The same assumption led to the institutionalization of the "optical image" as the proof of architectural accomplishment, evident in the obsessively sophisticated "presentation" renderings of the École des Beaux-Arts in the nineteenth century, and today present in the seductive photography and intricate computer-generated images that frequently appear in our professional journals and internet publications. The continuing loss of conceptual and manual skills is further encouraged today by current technological tools like CAD and Revitt, which produce drawings meant to be unambiguously fabricated by robots (or robotic workmen), thus reinforcing the formal conception of architecture as a tectonic object. These are the objects that have come to constitute the contemporary physical environment, the post-industrial city, mostly the actualization of idealities cut away from the natural world and irresponsive of cultural contexts and materiality. However novel, the result is a world perceived as mostly void of meaning, a world that produces nihilistic and frustrated architects, inhabitants who fail to find meaningful orientation in their lives, and craftsmen turned into manual laborers.
Fortunately for us, out of the same juncture that postulated the aesthetic nature and the autonomy of the work of architecture and led to its consideration as primarily "tectonic" and detached, rather than "scenographic" and participatory, emerge also other possibilities. These are particularly crucial to architectural education and to more enlightened practices, as long as it is understood that education is not ever to be a simulation of practice. At issue is the nature of the theoretical project and its legacy for modernity (a mode of poetic making that is both participatory and critical of present cultural conditions) that saw its inception with the work of Piranesi's Carceri etchings (around the same time as the teachings of Legeay).

From the Carceri series: ”Imaginary Prison XIV”. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1774-1761. Photo: obieg.pl/wikimedia.

Emerging as a critique of the banality of perspective, perceived by Piranesi as already incapable of representing the meanings and enigmas effectively present in lived depth, his Carceri demonstrate the possibilies of the poetic image as an embodied image, in stark contrast with the optical (reductive) image that emerges triumphant in modern efficiency-driven practices from the teachings of the École Polytechnique. Piranesi's understanding of poetic making is resonant with the critique of Cartesianism present in the work of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, who argues for the origin of human nations in poetic artifacts and products of the imagination. Ledoux's projects for the city of Chaux mentioned in the previous section, with their poetic programs, are also part of this tradition that continues into our own time, both in practice and in education.

Giovan Battista Vico, 1668-1744. Photo: universalis.fr.

The ethical function of architecture

In conclusion I would like to close the circle and call attention once more to the architect's thoughts and deeds, considering another aspect of the analogy that complements previous observations. I alluded to the architect's pursuit of social order in classical dramas, a kind of "architecting" that is prior to "building," and fundamental in that it represents the discipline's ethical function in culture. We may not be actors in an ancient Greek play, but this insight is crucial for contemporary practice. Through his/her life work, the architect ought to seek the confluence of beauty and the common good. This "performance of a function" in society – function understood as the "office" one holds in life, one's architectural calling – can be described as a plot: a life told or narrated, and it necessitates conceptual and bodily skills that must be continuously cultivated.

"The architect pursued a social order in classical dramas, a kind of "architecting" that is prior to "building", and fundamental in that it represents the discipline's ethical function in culture."

Indeed, a good practice emerges from a constant development of skills and study, seeking understanding of crucial cultural questions that affect our discipline and may be germane to any projects at hand, drawing from history (for stories), and new perceptions from heightened skills, always asking the questions anew when confronting a new project, rather than repeating a formulaic "style." In this way "performing" architects may truly contribute to society, their acts and deeds constituting an appropriate praxis, a political position driven by ethical concerns. Particularly crucial to open up the possibilities for dwelling in a technological world, architects must recognize their work as much more than a specialized formal or technical pursuit. A philosophical orientation is important, one buttressed by a knowledge of the history of the discipline that demonstrates, through example, the manner other architectures have managed to answer to the fundamental questions of being human in different times and places.

From the construction of Klong Toey Community Lantern in Bangkok, a Tyin tegnestue project. Photo: Tyin tegnestue.

Amphitheatre at Delphi, Greece. Photo: wikimedia.

The constant development of skills involves an understanding of making that transcends representation as a means to an end. The deep interconnectivity of artistic expressions has been discussed in many registers, ranging from psychoanalysis to phenomenology. It is sufficient to recall, for example, the important role that a constant and deliberate practice of painting played in the development of Le Corbusier's architectural ideas and their maturation. Architecture is "performed" in such acts of making that can reveal a poetic image, a metaphor embodied in drawing, multidimensional objects or other narrative media. Such meanings are "found" through making and not deliberately "created," and are therefore the primary vehicle for architectural production, the first responsibility of "form giving" that drives our discipline.

"The second aspect of this ethical quest, seeking the cultural and political relevance of making, involves the language that the architect speaks to articulate his or her position here and now."

The second aspect of this ethical quest, seeking the cultural and political relevance of making, involves the language that the architect speaks to articulate his or her position here and now, in view of specific tasks or commissions. This demands a serious accountability that can only be drawn from the depths of a historical understanding, one that has to be continuously cultivated and must encompass the whole depth of our local traditions, and the way these relate to the Western philosophical and scientific narratives whose outcome is our technological world. Nietzsche outlines the sort of history required in his essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life."15 History is inevitable in a world where all religious and cosmological certainties have vanished, and yet it should not lead to imitation or resentment, but empower us and feed our creative vitality.

From this perspective, the work of the architect should be valorized as a life-long trajectory with a discernible plot, the performance of a public function – in the Latin etymology of this last term – a process driven by ethical imperatives, by a sense of compassion for others and our shared human heritage, rather than be judged through some subjective aesthetic merit attributed to fashion or novelty applied to a particular work.

  1. The questioning of the conventionally accepted notion of perception as the passive reception of stimuli by a subject emancipated from an objective world (the Cartesian dualistic model), was a central concern of 20th century phenomenology. The same line of questioning has been taken up more recently by neuroscience. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (New York, 1962), and Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge MA, 2004). 

  2. Ibid., p.p. 28–29. 

  3. Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, trans. G.B. Sansom (New York, 2005), p. 5. 

  4. M.P. Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, trans. I.D. Rowland and T.N. Howe (Cambridge UK, 2001), p. 34. 

  5. Lisa Landrum, Architectural Acts: architect-figures in Athenian drama and their prefigurations (unpublished), McGill University, 2010. 

  6. Aristotle, Poetics [1447a]. 

  7. An early example from the 15th century is the work of Bernardo Rossellino in Pienza. Elsewhere I have discussed the implications of the associations between painting and architecture made evident in the early treatises by Alberti, Filarete and Piero della Francesca, among others, as well as the important differences between the two disciplines' tools of representation. Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise Pelletier, Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge (Cambridge MA, 1997), pp. 16–68. 

  8. Ibid., pp. 281–316. 

  9. Claude Nicholas Ledoux, L'architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, de moeurs et de la législation (Paris, 1804). 

  10. This is also a topic I discuss extensively in my recent book: Built upon Love; Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics (Cambridge MA, 2008). 

  11. The letter in question is dated November 18, 1454. For additional information see Joan Gadol, Leon Battista Alberti, Universal Man of the Early Renaissance (Chicago IL, 1973), pp. 111-12. 

  12. Andrea Pozzo, Rules and Examples of Perspective Proper for Painters and Architects, etc., 1st. English trans. (London, 1700). 

  13. See Alberto Pérez-Gómez, "Questions of Representation: the poetic origins of architecture," From Models to Drawings, eds M. Frascari, J. Hale and B. Starkey (London, 2007), pp. 11–22. 

  14. See Cynthia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works; An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (New York, 2002). 

  15. In Friederich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations (Cambridge, UK, 1983). 

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