N. John Habraken (john@habraken.org)

Forms of Understanding:

Thematic Knowledge and the Modernist Legacy



Chapter in: The Education of the Architect, Post Renaissance, Post-Modern. Martha Pollak, Editor. MIT Press, 1997.

Advances the concept of 'Thematic Knowledge' as a knowing of environmental form shared among a social body of lay people and professionals.

There are five sub-chapters:

''The loss of Common Ground' argues that, although a profession is assumed - almost by definition- to nurture a specific knowledge, the architectural profession does not give any articulation of it. A lack of specifically shared knowledge resulting in the lack of a commonly shared vocabulary.

"Of all the professional fields, architecture is where the virtue of a knowing-by-doing is most readily accepted.......In engineering, medicine, and law it seems easier to forget that the (formal) knowledge base as such is not enough. In architecture, on the other hand, we may ask what, exactly, the knowledge base is beyond which the architect must reach to be a good professional?

''Avant Garde: A Means of Survival' examines how Modernism, rejecting all precedent, forced the profession to redefine itself on an ideology of self-expression and individual achievement.

"The romantic image of the artist who is different persists among professional and lay people today. It is based, not on shared knowledge, but on a shared belief; a joint identification with ideological overtones. As for peer group comparison, prestige is no longer achieved by becoming a first among equals, but by remaining different: by being, literally, incomparable. To the avant-garde ideology the common ground is an obstacle to success.

''The Quality of the Ordinary' points out how ordinary environments have emerged, grown, developed, and blossomed for millennia without having been designed in the way we understand that term today. Professionals of all kinds were involved, no doubt, but they were the product of this environment as much as the environment was theirs.

"Where in the past the special was the product of everyday practice honed to perfection, now daily practice is a domesticated version of innovative engineering and design. Where first the special grew from the ordinary as a plant grows from fertile soil, now the ordinary is a reduction of what is achieved in the special building, broadcast on a massive scale."

'Thematic Knowledge' embodies innate socially embedded environmental knowing, it constitutes the self evident, and this knowledge refutes the idea that environment is mainly a professional product.

"Now that we assume that our built environment, in its ordinary wholeness, is a professional product, thematic knowledge can no longer be taken for granted. We have lost the innocence that comes with the self-evident. The implicit way in which thematic knowledge presented itself in the past is no longer sufficient. It now must be understood and cultivated with deliberation to be effective again.

'Forms of Understanding', finally, seeks to define some concepts that help us know environment the thematic way: types, patterns, systems, and styles all being shared ways of knowing form.

"We should study modern architectural history as the slow, but certain emergence of a new body of patterns and types. In doing so, we may find a rich sediment of already common forms and spaces - perhaps even the beginning of a new vocabulary - deposited over time by experiment and innovation. We should advance theories about the nature of such 'forms of understanding' and their role in society. Because it is by these forms that environments prosper and professional competence must be measured."


; to bibliography overview...to short list....to prof.list.....to comprehensive list

[Forms of Understanding]