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The Bartlett School of Architecture

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Prof Adrian Forty

Prof Adrian Forty

Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture

The Bartlett School of Architecture

Faculty of the Built Environment

Joined UCL
1st Oct 2014

Research summary

My first book Objects of Desire (1986, still in print, and now translated into four languages) came out of my early and continuing interest in the part that artefacts, including buildings, have played in the social and mental life of societies.  In the 1990s, I started looking at how people mediated their knowledge and experience of buildings to each other through language, and on the fluidity of the relationship between architecture and language:  this work culminated in my Words and Buildings (2000), since translated into Italian, Japanese and Chinese.  After this, my attention turned to the fabric of building, and I began a project on concrete, to which I was attracted partly because of the inconsistency and contradictoriness of much that was said and written about this remarkable substance, now second only to water in terms of the quantity consumed every year, and partly because of the absence of any coherent account of its contribution to modernity.  The book Concrete and Culture, to be published in early 2012, and is the first study in any language to attempt an account of concrete as a global medium, and to offer an account of its role in the formation of twentieth century consciousness. My aim is to shift the study of a 'material' away from purely technical considerations, and towards its part in arguments about humans' relationships to each other and to the 'natural' world.  While my research has been closely concerned with the work of architects, who have carried the primary responsibility for 'interpreting' concrete, it is not exclusively architectural, but has also deals with the uses made of concrete by politicians, entrepreneurs, artists, filmmakers, and writers.  Work on this project has given me the opportunity to extend the range of my research to a global scale, to a degree unusual amongst architectural historians. 

Teaching summary

Education

University of London
PhD, Architecture | 1989
Courtauld Institute of Art, London
MA, History of European Art | 1971
University of Oxford
BA Hons, Modern History | 1969

Biography

As a student of History at Oxford, encouraged by my tutor Theodore Zeldin, I became interested in what the ordinary person takes for granted.  This question has remained with me throughout my career, and I have returned to it again and again.   Further study in the History of Art led me to think about the relations between people and the material artefacts that surround their lives.  My first job was in an art school, where I taught students of design, and I rapidly became aware of how much design teaching tended to assume the absolute authority of the trained professional in matters of taste. When shortly after I moved to the Bartlett and started teaching architecture, I was similarly struck by the way professionals arrogated control over everything to do with buildings, and ignored the extent to which architecture came about through continuous negotiation between the owners, users, producers, and designers of buildings, a process in which designers were by no means always the dominant party.  My book Objects of Desire set out to explore these issues in relation to the world of consumer goods, though its argument was no less applicable to architecture.  This book became a classic;  still in print and widely read, it introduced a new dimension into the study of design, showing how it could be understood as part of social processes.

In the early 1990s, I started to look at the verbal discourse of architecture, and at the ways in which architecture was communicated through language.  Contrary to the often-stated view that drawing was the primary medium of architecture, it was clear that architecture has always been reliant upon verbal language, and that the capacity of language to communicate architectural ideas has been hotly contested.  This led to a historical study of the formation of a critical vocabulary of architecture, and an attempt to understand its constant flux.  The resultant book, Words and Buildings, was a pioneering study of the vocabulary of architectural discourse, considered in historical terms.

In the early 2000s, partly in response to a fixation with 'materiality' that had developed in architecture during the 1990s, and the supposition that materials had absolute and determinate properties that could provide principles for architecture, I started to look at one material, concrete, with the intention of showing that far from being absolute, materials are the products of social and historical processes, and vary according to the time, place and circumstances of their production.  This work became both a critique of what I saw as a misplaced faith in material as the foundation of architecture, but more widely, an exploration of the consequences of the remarkably rapid global diffusion of concrete.  This research gave me the opportunity to give my work a much broader international scope than is common amongst architectural historians.

Over the last five years, I have concentrated upon supporting others' research, and promoting collaboration:   the presidency of the EAHN was an opportunity to promote more, and more fruitful, international collaborations.

Publications