‘I myself do not believe in explaining anything’, wrote Shel Silverstein. It seems that architecture is always looking to explain itself. Definitions of architecture seem almost common knowledge; ask a bartender, biologist, computer scientist, economist, legislator, birdwatcher, quilter or scientist, each of whom analogises their field with respect to architecture. And several within the profession can themselves define architecture's limits quite elegantly. Most recently Steven Holl defined architecture as consisting simply of abstract, use, space and idea. However, seeking a rationale or explanation for architecture – its role in society, its impact, its value – remains an open debate. This debate has consumed the field, in academia and practice, for centuries. It suggests a dire insecurity.
Shifts in architecture's self-perception and self-explanation often relate to formal styles. Any text on architectural history covers these styles, from Neolithic to contemporary, including accompanying sub-movements such as, for the early modern category, Expressionist architecture, Art Deco, and the so-called ‘International Style’. Each style is often imagined a product of, or reaction to, a preceding style, and much the same can be said of accompanying trends in the explanation of architecture. This essay, and its underlying argument, is itself a reaction to the current state of affairs.