In praise of theory

The disciplines of the field of Representation have a great quality which becomes a fault, and namely: they are shared. The teacher in architectural design draws and represents, where by the first term I refer to the invention drawing and by the second to the coded geometric model. So does the teacher in architectural survey, indeed, he does not only create projects, he also surveys. And so on, I could mention almost all the disciplines that form an architect, except for, maybe, the mathematics.

This characteristic of our science could lead to a great advantage: the possibility to easily interact with any other field of study of engineering and of architecture, in order to develop interdisciplinary research. But this opportunity is not well utilised, because of a fault, which is what could be called ‘the other side of the coin’. This fault consists in a widespread prejudice which says that the disciplines of the field of representation, exactly because they are shared, are also within reach of those who practise the disciplines without better studying them, relying only on the knowledge gained during the formative studies.

If to this prejudice we add the bad habit of not collecting information on the results obtained during the researches carried out by other research units, maybe in the room next to ours, then we have completed the picture of a hidden underestimation of our scientific and didactic contribution within the field of the respective schools.

There is only one, among the disciplines of drawing, which easily avoid the malevolent prejudice that I mentioned above, and this is descriptive geometry. I believe that the reason for this depends on the still vivid memory that the colleagues have of how abstract and ‘difficult’ this science is. In other words, they look back on and respect the dignity of the discipline which is made of its History and of its Theories. These are the elements that makes it become a ‘science’ in all respects, even more than the specific contents, which time certainly has erased from the memory of those who do not cultivate it anymore, and of who have maybe even not being practising it for many years.

The History and the Theory identifies, therefore, a discipline and give it the right to exist in the academic world.

This reflection made me consider, more in general, the condition of the disciplines of representation, therefore also, and first of all, of geometry, but then also of drawing and architectural survey. Because my first feeling is that the related theories, which should give scientific ground, dignity and identity to our disciplines, are somehow or other suffering.

All, in fact, have suffered from the assault of time, which has created profound changes in the composition of university curricula and epochal transformations in the technologies in use. Of course I here refer to the computer revolution.

During the foundation years of our schools, descriptive geometry was taught in two full-year courses, composed of sixty lectures each lasting two hours. The first course was of a purely theoretical character, the second was application oriented. With the advent of the information technology, that is, since the 1990s, on the tables of both architects and scholars could now be found machines, which, apparently automatically, were capable of carrying out plans and elevations, perspectives and axonometries. At a first sight it seemed that these machines trivialized the issues dealt with in the theoretical corpus of the representation methods. We asked ourselves, then, whether it still made sense teaching the descriptive geometry of the nineteenth century; whether it was possible to retain it, at least as education to improve reading and understanding of space; or whether we should renew it, profoundly.

Drawing, too, did suffer a difficult identity crisis. The lectures were organised in two annual courses, but it was as if, during those years of transformation, the manual dexterity of the designer of architecture had nothing to do with the research and therefore with the academic world. And this happened in Rome, too, where there were teachers like Luigi and Fausto Vagnetti and, even if only for a short time, Gaspare De Fiore. It really seems unbelievable. But none of the younger teachers did cultivate the drawing ‘from life’, the ‘figure’, the daily practise of the line and the watercolour. The nobility of the discipline was searched for elsewhere and the free hand drawing skills, which are first of all skills of the intellect, were lost.

So today we stand speechless before the bright beauty of the envois.

Is it possible that there is anyone among us who, in these ‘academic’ drawings, only sees the expression of great mastery? I do not believe so; I instead believe that we all are conscious of how much ‘Theory’ is necessary in order to achieve those results: we are talking about a Theory of the selective power of the drawing, about the analytical reading of the object, the effects of the light on the bodies and about how to reproduce these using a scale of greys that is bridled by Lambert’s Law.

Drawing later developed other theoretical fundamentals, thanks to a few who explored the difficult territory of the philosophical and linguistic abstraction, but it lost, at least at the state of the art, those of the classical tradition.

Finally the survey. Survey is a younger discipline, founded, I believe, by Giorgio Cento at the University in Genoa, when survey was, still, a collection of rules and empiric expedients. It was later developed, as is well-known, by Mario Docci and Diego Maestri who, stimulated by the writings of Luigi Vagnetti, departed from its historical roots. And this referring to the origins gave proof of a method, in the research, which unfailingly leads to innovative results.

Perhaps because it is so young, and so empiric, survey was better than all the other disciplines in dealing with the aggression of the digital technologies: an aggression that was not punctual, limited in time, but in continuous and rapid evolution. It was a kind of guerrilla, provoked by the machines against the books and the abstract thought. But survey took up the challenge, and was able to take advantage of the technological products, with spirit of adventure and started, courageously, to elaborate the related theories.

Nevertheless, as the products of the technology remain children of the related applications, thus also the Theory of survey remains, for now, linked to the technology, almost merging with it.

Different, in my way of seeing it, is the path to follow, but it is not easy to show the way. I believe that survey should, as geometry did, put the tools that have taken the place of the measuring tape or the analytical stereoplotter, at the centre of a class of abstractions that are peculiar to their issues and not of the problems of this or that technical device. The well-known question of the interpolation of point clouds, with geometric entities described mathematically, is a good example of the incompleteness that characterizes the theory of survey.

Let me use an example to make this concept clearer.

The point clouds are an outcome of the modern technology. The theoretical problem that currently is posed in the researches on the theme concerns the way to translate these experimental data into models and drawings useful to the documentation, as well as to the restoration. I think that the research which focuses the way should not come ahead of the research which focuses the why. Just so, established a general rule, we can decide whether to carry out or not the interpolation which transforms the discrete experimental data into a continuous description made of geometric entities. And this choice will be conscious of having introduced the subjective data of an interpretation of the shape, into a process which starts from the objectivity of instrumental measures.

Then, maybe, it will be clear that the architectural survey needs some analysis and control tools of its own. And that to interpolate a point cloud, collected on a classical building, it is necessary to have interpolation models that are different from those currently available and specific to the architecture, like the generic surfaces of revolution, the ruled surfaces and those developable are.

It is therefore worth to celebrate a praise of the Theory.

In times like these, afflicted by every sort of crisis, ethics and economics, and by the necessity to be practical, in the research as well as in the formation, someone should write this praise, to assure that a value, on which the tradition of our universities is founded, as well as the scientific progress, should not be lost.

Someone should courageously praise that part of the scientific research that does not have economic interest and that does not have an immediate spin-off of any kind. And the theoretical research should not be depressed, as we have seen it done, in Europe, with the Horizon 2020 project.

In times like these, in which knowledge is passed on by means of the eyes, and the words are more and more contracted, reduced to the role of a simple caption, someone should claim the importance of the style, because the beauty of the text is also the beauty of the thought, and the light of the one is also the clarity of the other.

In our schools of architecture, where the triennial degree courses directed towards a practical formation have gone through a rapid decline, someone should recall the importance of the abstraction. In fact, to abstract means to express a general rule, which is capable to resolve many and varied application problems. And to learn an abstract solution means to come to know the innumerable solutions that are ascribable to it.

Because the Theory is the orderly whole of these abstractions.

And because the theoretical knowledge distinguishes the simple application of a learning, from the possession of that learning and from the capability to develop it.  As the theoretical knowledge distinguishes the scientist from the professional, and all that is research from what is professional practice.

Moving on to the specific of our disciplines, we now ask ourselves: is it really possible to develop and to renew the Theory of the sciences that fall under the Representation? And how?

I think that this is possible in various ways, two of them above all very efficacious: the first is the study of the History of the Sciences that belong to us; the second is a process of generalization of the application problems, which we metaphorically could describe as a ‘distillation’ of the Theory from the cases in study.

To theorise is therefore a way to work, a behaviour that, as we already said, distinguishes the approach of the researcher from that of the professional. Because an application, pure and simple, is profession; whereas an application from which derives a theory, through a process of abstraction, is research.

Finally, I would like to recall the simple rules that are at the basis of the scientific experience. This is such when:

  • it is founded on the comparison among hypothesis (theory) and verification (experimental);
  • it is repeatable (thanks to a detailed description);
  • it is brought to public knowledge through the press channels or digitally in an international field.

Each experience that has these requirements can contribute to the development of our Theories.

The theme of this XXXIV Conference of the Teachers of the representation disciplines is all focused on the Theories of the field of representation, with the hope that in this difficult transition phase of the Italian University and, consequently, of our scientific Community, the works here collected may contribute toward the process of identification of our disciplines and of our Cultural area, that was auspicated at the beginning.