creative-intelligence practice | dumb practice and dumb theory

This dyad is from architect and academic Stan Allen, from his essay “Practice vs Project” in 2000. 


Stan distinguishes between ‘dumb’ projection, and ‘creative-intelligent’ practicing – distinguishing between a way of practicing that is a slave to projects-imposed-from-elsewhere (whether habit/tradition/prior practice or theory/grand schemas/utopias), versus a way of practicing that deals in the contingent moment of practice (drawing on prior practice and theoretical ideas/schemes, but only in so far as they help deal with the local, and never as something to impose from without).

The dumb happens in two ways: dumb practice and dumb theory. 

Dumb practice is imagining that its best to work just from our intuitions – just do it: just practice, no theory, no forethought, no reflecting. The problem with this, says Stan, is that all the traditions and regulations we find ourselves connected to will end up hindering whatever it is we are attempting to meaningfully create, without us being aware of it. Our making is, in the first instance, a moulding of skills, habits, tastes, memories, observations and so on, handed down to us and imposed upon us in different ways. Stan calls this non-reflexive unplanned approach ‘dumb practice’. The dumb practice of architecture can but only inherit forms and protocols that have come from elsewhere (via traditions and regulations). This is just too distant to the immediate concerns of the current circumstances the architect is working on—the current site, client, desires and so on. Thus, the architectural formations produced by dumb practice can never be specific-enough, and open-enough to the local contingencies of the moment.

Apparently architects and architecture schools got wind of this dumb way of doing architecture, so they raised up theory to counter this: theory as the project which architecture must head towards. Instead of vague intuitions and practice, we have highly cognitive, theoretical forethought. At the very least, I reckon it gave architecture lecturers something to do in the 80s and 90s when they were desperately trying to look like liberal arts professors, given the great waves of university-isation of art, design and technical schools in countries around the world. I know of one professor who would get so excited in telling us: you must embed practice in theory! The problem with this ambition, Stan says, is that the theoretical project ends up repeating the very thing that makes dumb practice dumb: it comes from elsewhere. As a model of what has happened before or an outline of some hoped-for future, the theory-first approach misses out on the contingencies of the architectural site and creative process. Which is to say, it is not specific to our circumstances, and Stan’s name for this is dumb theory.

What are to do instead? Is there another way? 

Stan thinks so, and he calls it: creative, intelligent practice
Such a practice deals with things specifically, both the contingencies of the local moment as well as all the traditions, regulations, hopes and desires that need to be dealt with in some way. Stan puts it like this:

It is of little use to see theory and practice as competing abstractions, and to argue for one over the other. Intelligent, creative practices—the writing of theory included—are always more than the habitual exercise of rules defined elsewhere. More significantly, practice is not a static construct, but is defined precisely by its movements and trajectories. There is no theory, there is no practice. There are only practices, which consist in action and agency. They unfold in time, and their repetitions are never identical… Tactical improvisations accumulate over time to produce new models for operation. But these new patterns of operation produced in practice are always conditional. Inasmuch as they derive from experience, they are always open to revision on the basis of new experiences, or new data.

In a nutshell: ‘dumb practice’ and ‘dumb theory’ are both dumb because they are imported from elsewhere, imposed upon the current contingent situation, or ‘projected’ onto practice, a ‘project’ to attempt to work towards (but it will always fail, because the project from elsewhere never takes into account the local, current, contingent, accidental etc). What Stan Allen calls a ‘project’ and ‘dumb’ is of course another form of fantasy: the fantasy of ossified habit/tradition and the fantasy of general, over-arching theory. And thus, as a counter to this, what he calls ‘creative-intelligence practice’ (where the practice of material making or intellectual writing) is a form of dreaming.


Stan is (probably unconsciously) paraphrasing/complimenting the work of philosopher-jazz improviser-business consultant Donald Schon and his work on reflection in and on practice (Schon I think focuses on one bit of Hiedegger’s phenomenology of practice), and Stan is also quite consciously re-working the vocabulary of Deleuze and De Certeau (which go back to Bergson).


Interesting too that Stan's diagrams of dumb practice and dumb theory are diagrams of inside-outside-ness. Whereas creative-intelligent practice is a series of interweavers lines, multiple arc-spaces if you will (arc-ing, over en-circling). I was probably quite influenced by this, once I could understand inside-outside vs side-by-side after my immersion in the practice and idea of ambience (ie, my PhD).