Jeremy Till

Frames of References


Published in Stoa Issue no 7, 2023.


My personal set of references is spatialised in the five-storey tower that rises through the house that Sarah Wigglesworth and I designed in 1996 (ill. 1). It is a vertical library with, at the top, a desk for writing that looks out over London. Next to the desk is an empty bookshelf. The idea is that one climbs the library tower picking out books that look relevant for that day’s work and place them on the bookshelf. Whether one actually reads them on the day is less important than just having them there as potential sources, osmotically transferring their inspiration to the page on the desk.

We designed this tower, and its accompanying ritual, before the internet allowed knowledge to flow irrepressibly. This inferred, at least then, that the words on the page on the desk might only be as good as the references taken up the tower. This puts a lot of weight on what books we have collected during our life. As we climb the tower, books are arranged in crude categories, the measures of which hint at the way our intellectual and design lives have been, and will continue to be, formed. From the bottom, in terms of metres of shelf:


Cookery books:                                   1.6m

Landscape design:                              1.2m

Urban design                                       1.4m

Art books                                            4.4m

Travel                                                  5.5m

Architectural monographs                  4.5m

Architectural theory                            6.2m

Critical theory, climate, philosophy   5.8m

Architectural types                             3.1m

Architectural history                           3.5m

Own publications                                3.7m

Feminism                                            1.5m

Art theory                                           1.2m

Fiction                                                 14.4m

General history                                   2.2m


Given that our library is variously a collection of passing taste, various obsessions, impulse buying, duty, youthful idiosyncrasies, set texts, and so on, anything that relies on the library is built, perhaps, on shaky ground. However, rather than see this openness as a weakness, I have argued in Architecture Depends that these contingent foundations for architecture are inevitable. Architecture depends on multiple externalities and needs to accept this openness as something to work with rather than a threat to be closed down. In this light, our library is as good as a source of reference as any, on the understanding that references are only prompts and not rules for action. As prompts, they are there to suggest, inspire, give ethical sustenance, expand horizons, and provide examples of previous work and thinking. The designer/student then takes all these prompts and situates them within the particular project they are working on. This draws on Donna Haraway’s «situated knowledge» which disrupts any notions of universalised knowledge by adjusting the prompts to the given situation rather than imposing them as strictures[1].

However, the Eurocentric history of architecture and architectural education has proceeded not through references as prompts but as rules. Vitruvius’ Ten Books, which astoundingly is still harked back to as an ur-text, is a straightforward set of bossy admonitions and prescriptions. It is an approach that has been passed down through various historians, theoreticians, and architects, continuing to this day with typological approaches – though by now the accompanying lists have generally been rinsed of the other disciplines, such as music and history, that Vitruvius called upon as part an architect’s knowledge base. The result is the establishment of a very limited canon of references to particular buildings, books, and theories. The canon might differ somewhat from university to university, region to region, nation to nation, but what remains common is the way that the various canons circle around a body of primarily architectural references. The history of architecture is in reality a history of the consequences of power, politics and, in Barnabas Calder’s extremely convincing version, of energy[2]. However, in the detachment of architecture, its history becomes a world unto itself.

This containment of architecture unto itself is symptomatic of the discipline’s tendency to marshal its boundaries, keeping external dependencies at bay so as to give a semblance of control and a sense of professional authority. The resulting disavowal of outside influences is accompanied by an abrogation of political and social responsibility. How else is it possible for architects to justify working within the most extreme political regimes unless they have denied the political consequences of their own work? In a still more extreme line of removal, Valerio Olgiati calls for a non-referential architecture, in which «architecture goes astray if the enrichment of buildings is to be sought by means of recourse to the extra-architectural»[3]. It is only after drawing the blackout curtains to the world that one can shut out the antisemitic ravings of clients such as Ye.

One also finds a sense of detachment in architectural education, where limiting the range of references is still more impactful, because the rituals and protocols of architecture are firmly set during the formative years at university. If the first-year history course is a chronological survey of European architecture starting in Athens, then that is what the students will draw on for their project work. This educational genealogy is a self-perpetuating system that is very difficult to break, as tutors recycle what they themselves learnt all those years ago, marginally updating with some new contemporary sources. The situation is exacerbated in those schools that tend to appoint their own – the best graduates – as teachers, creating the architectural equivalent of inbred families with strange rituals and formal tics that only its members really appreciate, but which the students have to accept as a version of the truth.

The restriction of references within the architectural profession and education is convenient in maintaining systems of authority, but also constructs a massive blind spot. A bag of Eurocentric, usually patriarchal, formal references is simply impotent in the face of the complex externalities that the world now faces. This self-inflicted weakness has allowed architecture to be appropriated by other dominant forces for their own ends, most obviously through its commodification by the international development industry. Hence the rise star-architects who wrap the demands of global capital in sleek forms in a guise of innovation, but actually of supplication. And hence the cover of so-called sustainable architecture to greenwash projects that materialise extractivist and neo-colonial regimes, from airports in Saudi Arabia to beach resorts in Brazil[4].

With its reliance on a limited repertoire of references around form and technique, the profession finds it difficult to offer points of resistance or disruption to these externalities, let alone to provide positive engagement. Talk of beauty, taste or style counts for nothing when faced with the intersecting crises of climate breakdown, rising inequalities, democratic deficits, and ecological breakdown – these architectural terms suddenly seem very fragile. A collection, say, of architectural monographs, theories of types, or assemblies of exemplary plans and sections – these all feel impotent as models to face the various states of environmental and social collapse.

It is climate, in particular, that highlights the deficiencies of architecture clinging to a limited range of references. At the moment, the standard response to climate change is to call on sustainable techniques. However, these are at best only very partial technocratic fixes to a problem so great that it resists solving along the standard lines of experts picking off, and then band-aiding, the symptoms. Sustainable architecture situates architecture outside of climate, and in this denies its complicity in the breakdown – a complicity based on architecture’s endlessly extractivist operations[5]. What if instead of treating architecture as outside of climate, one saw that architecture IS climate. This is the formulation of our research collective MOULD, one that situates architecture firmly within the febrile forces and conditions of climate breakdown. In its entanglement with climate, it does not pick off symptoms but has to engage with the causes, including its own contribution[6].

In the face of these outside crises, architecture’s retreat into its own set of internalised references is a signal of its potential irrelevance. It is time, therefore, to urgently turn outwards and grapple with the causes. This is not a mission of “enrichment” but of engagement. To find any point of resistance and agency within these forces, one has to understand what is creating them and this means expanding the range of references. Take the exemplary work of the French architects Lacaton & Vassal. Their work resists the default mode of most architecture – namely designing something from scratch in the pursuit of the new. They are famous for marshalling political, economic, and technical references, and then intervening in them. Only then, they do get to the work of architecture (as it is normally understood) with the brilliant manipulation of soft plans and sections to create the luxury of space out of modest means.

Faced with an expanded field of references, it is easy enough for any of us – student, professor, architect alike – to get lost, particularly in the endlessly branching networks of the internet. This means finding some filters and frames because, otherwise, one descends into a relativist morass where anything goes. It is tempting here to use other people’s filters, and maybe turn to one of my favourite lists of references, Michael Sorkin’s 250 Things an Architect Should Know[7]. Sorkin’s list is wonderful because it ranges from hardcore architectural obsessions to the soft touch of skin. Though very broad in their reach, the 250 things do not throw the baby out with the bathwater; specifically, architectural references weave their way through the rich cultural weft. Running through the list is an overwhelming sense of curiosity, as if architecture can be refreshed and informed by the strangest of things.  Everyone should look at it and ask: «why the hell did he include that?», because in answering that you build your own version of the richness of space – space, that is, as a social, political, and ecological set of relations.

However, Sorkin never meant his list to be used as a definitive statement nor as some form of curriculum; he was continually updating and playing with it[8]. Instead, it should be read as a provocation, a plea to architects to open their horizons while still retaining an anchor in terms of design operations. It is also an invitation to form one’s own list of references. The very idea of being definitive is something that he would rightly have resisted because it repeats a form of authority and with it a return to a prescriptive mode of pedagogy. Caught in the midst of climate breakdown we all become vulnerable. This is not a time to assert certainties or to make lists to be diligently followed, to claim genius, to stamp the feet of authority – because we are faced with conditions that far exceed what the individual can manage. Education should be founded on the asking of questions with open answers for students to find themselves, rather than the imposition of a fixed curriculum and determined set of references.

One still needs a filter for all these overlapping external forces in order to make sense of them and avoid being overwhelmed. In the spirit of mutual openness, it is best if any list of references is co-created between students and tutors. This was a technique developed by Kira Salter in the Graphic Communication Design programme at Central Saint Martins, in an initiative she called the Living Reading List, in which students and staff uploaded references to an online platform in relation to a specific project. Each reference was accompanied by a short explanation as to why it was, thus filtering down to the specifics of the project. This method encourages “generosity and reciprocal learning” so that references are not seen as static, closed, modes of instruction but as a shared, living, resource, acting as a hybrid between a list curated by the tutor and the vastness of online resources[9]. The result is more diverse than a typical university reading list, reflecting as it does the motivations and interests of the individual students combined with the expertise and experience of tutors.

Having compiled a living list of references, the next step is to work out the order in which they might be used in a project. Given that all architecture is  some form of conversation with the public, it is important that the context of that conversation is established first. This means turning to the broader cultural, political, and environmental that every project engages with, and informing those conditions through close critical readings. It is here that intentionality acts as a further filter, avoiding the relativist trap in which references might be chosen at random. Acting with the intent to transform those external conditions into something better is based on the making of choices as to which references are most relevant and useful in achieving that end goal. When the shape of that intent is clearer, then the more architectural references are brought into play. No building is produced as an isolated moment of pure newness; they are always a development of what has come before, and so an awareness of previous architectural formations is essential. This is not a matter of slavishly repeating typological or formal tropes, but of understanding how particular spatial configurations empower certain social relations. I often say to students that when drawing a line on paper or a computer screen, their first responsibility is to understand the spatial conditions that it is constructing, and not what aesthetic or formal effect it is representing. The reading of architectural references is therefore not a tracing of patterns and styles, but an act of projecting the spatial imagination to understand the vibrant social relations that might play out within the bare lines of architectural representation.

Returning to our library tower, the vertical stacking of references reflects a move through a mix of what might be described as normatively architectural to broader cultural references – though by now you will understand that the lines between are very blurred because the constitution of space gathers all types of references. Our mix of books reflects our values, curiosity, and inspirations; yours will be different. The important thing is to keep that mix of references open and evolving so that anything that comes out of it is situated within, and responsive to, external contexts. The frames of references for architecture are multiple, opening up views to the potential of new spatial worlds.







[1] Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, in Symians, Cyborgs and Women, Free Association Books, London 1999, pp. 183-201.

[2] Barnabas Calder, Architecture. From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, Pelican, London 2021.

[3] Valerio Olgiati and Markus Breitschmid, Non-Referential Architecture, Park Books, Zürich 2021, p. 3.

[4] See the proposed six-runway airport by Foster and Partners in Saudi Arabia, which aspires to LEED Platinum sustainability rating, and Bjarke Ingel’s disingenuous explanation for meeting with Bolsonaro, the neo-fascist president of Brazil – that it was to promote a «sustainable» resort in the north-east of Brazil.

[5] For more on architecture’s complicity in climate breakdown see Jeremy Till, Architecture Criticism against the Climate Clock, in «The Architectural Review», 6 April 2023. [accessed 11 April 2023].

[6] MOULD, Architecture Is Climate. [accessed 11 April 2023].

[7] Michael Sorkin, 250 Things an Architect Should Know, Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton 2021. Also online at

[8] This comes from Christina Serifi, who studied and then worked with Michael Sorkin for some years.

[9] See Kira Salter’s online lecture Curriculum Activisms at, from 5.25 to 12.45.