thinking about architecture, doing research, writing essays, monographs, reviews and other sorts of texts, and knowing why; a guide for all students of architecture.


By: Jacob Voorthuis




Purpose: What is this thing?
The purpose of this collection of notes is twofold. Firstly, I hope to explain in what way the history and theory of architecture is useful to the designer. Secondly, I hope to provide students who want to “read” and understand buildings, or who want to investigate particular themes in architecture, with a systematic approach to their task.

It is not a full guide to writing scholarly dissertations. For that I would recommend Umberto Eco’s guide to writing dissertations. Nor is it simply about using the English language effectively. For that I would strongly recommend Alain Hamilton’s witty book on Writing Matters.[1] The first, though eminently accessible, is focused on scholarship and the second, although written for architects, is primarily concerned with their use of language. Both are extremely useful. This book takes another approach, its goal is to find the link between looking and communicating what we see. It is a guide to help you set the scene for making the right decisions. For students in architecture, where the link between theory and practice is serviced by the ability to look and see, such a guide would, I hope, be found useful.


Why do I need this?

Let’s begin with a cliché. You are not at a school of architecture to get a diploma or a degree, you are at a school of architecture to get an education. We must not confuse teaching with learning, achieving grades with education and a diploma with competence.[2] A diploma might get you a job but an education will let you keep it and enjoy it.

There is no one truth in architecture, no single right or wrong. On top of that there is so much good architecture. That architecture has overcome the complex problems of functionality, structure and delight. The exciting thing is that this thing called quality is both rare and inexhaustible. It is rare when you look around you, but inexhaustible in it potential. Because of this wealth in possibilities it is doubly important for the architect to be articulate, even if only in his own mind. The architect must be able to question his task effectively and with some sophistication. Having found his solution, he must be able to argue and work out each step of the design to its successful completion. And when the design is finished he must convince the client.

Contrary to popular belief, designs do not speak for themselves, certainly not to people who have never learnt to read them properly. Images present too much information at once. Images have an extraordinary depth, a depth that affects everyone, but is articulated and used only by a few. It is the job of the architect to draw the mind of his audience to focus on those qualities of his design that matter.


How are we going to go about this?

We will begin by asking two questions: What is theory? and What is history? Funnily enough, that is relevant. We will find that the answers to those two questions share some interesting characteristics. Then we will discuss description, what it means, how it helps, and how to do it. Then there is a short and necessarily sketchy look at thinking, just to shake up “the little grey cells”.[3] After that I will discuss the building of arguments and doing research. I will look at the more formal aspects of setting up and structuring essays, monographs, book reviews and manifestos. I will discuss style and the use of English in a general way, with a short list of practical hints. A useful bit on plagiarism precedes a chapter on the documentation and notation of sources in bibliographies and footnotes. I am proud of that bit. As an experienced marker of essays, I would recommend it to you, it might surprise you. Towards the end I have added a thing on presentations.


This collection is a practical guide. I have made it as short and as schematic as possible. The text is arranged in short blocks, almost like aphorisms. I have left out introductory rambles and edifying quotes and I have been sparing with examples. This last I have done for a good reason. Examples of a particular issue can set the mind to the model and thereby allow the student to bypass the understanding of the principle of which the model is only one instance. Any issue can be resolved successfully in many ways. I want you to explore what I have said and find out for yourself what I mean by it. If that is slightly harder, it is also more rewarding in the end. There is no short cut to learning. It has to be done by the student. I have only provided examples where the model is sufficiently generic and where the possible variants of what is being explained is minimal, such as for example in the notation of sources. Here we go.


[1] Umberto Eco, * & Alaine Hamilton, Wrting Matters, RIBA Publications, n.d. (1988)

[2] Ivan D. Illich, Deschooling Society, New York, 1971, p. 1

[3] A favourite phrase of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.