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He has made contributions to architectural theory, history, and design cognition bringing together scientific and humanistic approaches in a rare synthesis. Since 1975 he has been collaborating in most projects with Liane Lefaivre. In 1985 he founded and directed Design Knowledge Systems (DKS), a multidisciplinary research institute for the study of architectural methodology and the development of design thinking tools at TUDelft. Tzonis is known for his work on creative design by analogy, the classical canon, history of the emergence and development of modern architectural thinking, and introducing the idea of Critical Regionalism.
Alexander Tzonis was born in Athens where he attended The Athens College. His parents studied in Athens, Gratz, and Vienna. His father was professor of biology in the University of Thessaloniki and active in politics and in the Greek Resistance, his mother the first female chemical engineer in Greece. Tzonis studied architecture in the National Technical University of Athens and was instructed privately in mathematics and art meeting regularly with the architect Dimitris Pikionis who was by then retired from teaching. During the period of his university studies, he worked professionally as a stage designer in the theatre and art director in the cinema. (Never on Sunday, 1960 directed by Jules Dassin). In 1961 he moved to the United States as a Ford Fellow, where he pursued his studies at Yale University, briefly in the Drama School and soon after in the School of Art and Architecture under Paul Rudolph, Shadrach Woods, Robert Venturi, and Serge Chermayeff. In 1965, with sponsorship from the Twentieth Century Fund he was appointed fellow at Yale where he carried out pioneering research on Planning and Design Methodology in collaboration with Chermayeff with whom he co-authored The Shape of Community (1972). In 1968 he was invited to teach at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University by Jerzy Soltan and Josep Lluis Sert appointed assistant professor. There he taught and did advanced research in analytical design methods in association with Walter Isard and Ovadia Salama, receiving outside advice from Anatol Rapaport and Seymour Papert. In collaboration with Salama, introducing the newly developed method ELECTRE he worked out a new method for multi-criteria evaluation of architectural projects (1975). In collaboration with Michael Freeman, Etienne de Cointet, and his undergraduate student Robert Berwick, who became later professor of computational linguistics at MIT, he developed a method for design discourse analysis applied to the case of 17th and 18th century texts of French architectural theory, a project funded by the French Government carried out at Harvard (1975).
While researching scientific problems related to design methodology, reacting to the socio-environmental urban crisis of the 1960s and the inability of mainstream functionalist architecture to cope with it, he wrote Towards a Non-oppressive Environment, a critical book dealing with the historical roots and the underlying conflicts of the crisis. The book was published by Mary Otis Stevens I Press (1974) soon to be translated in six languages. Following its publication, Tzonis introduced at Harvard the critical-historical study of modern design thinking initiating the teaching of History of Design Methodology, for the first time internationally.
During the 1970s he worked also as academic editor, first with Penguin Books initiating the multidisciplinary series Man Made Environment. Because of economic difficulties of the company, in the early 1970s, only three volumes were published, among them a volume on environmental conflict authored by Anatol Rapaport (1974) and Shadrach Woods on urbanism (1975). After a failed attempt to edit a multi-volume Harvard Encyclopedia of Architecture, with Gavin Borden (Garland Publishing) as publisher, he undertook as general editor the multi-volume Garland Architectural Archives, one of the largest architectural publishing projects.
In 1980, Gerald McCue, then chairman of the Department of Architecture at Harvard, was appointed dean at the Graduate School of Design, a change that put an end to the multi-disciplinary research and analytical methods orientation of the School expanding under the Deanship of Maurice D. Kilbridge, reducing drastically the planning department, several of its members moving to the Kennedy School. In 1981, Tzonis moved to the Netherlands, appointed professor of design methodology at the Delft University of Technology (TUD) where, in 1985, he founded and began directing Design Knowledge Systems, a multi-disciplinary research institute on Architectural Cognition.
During the 1970s, in response to the rise of the post-modernism that Tzonis believed not only had abandoned the environmental and social goals of the modern movement but also lacked depth and authenticity, after spending a year in France, invited by the French Ministry of Culture, (1972–1973) working closely with the young generation of French critics and historians (Bruno Fortier), he became involved with architectural criticism. The result was a long series of publications, most co-authored with his wife Liane Lefaivre (married in 1973), now professor at the Universität für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, reflecting on the current tendencies of architecture: Populism (1975), Narcissism (1978)—both terms introduced in architectural criticism by Tzonis and Lefaivre—and rethinking the Classical Canon, leading to the seminal book Classical Architecture, (1986, 1990s). These ideas were further elaborated in books for a general audience co-authored with Lefaivre (Architecture in Europe since 1968, Between Memory and Invention (1992) (American Institute of Architects Award), and with Richard Diamond and Lefaivre Architecture in North America since 1960 (1995).
End of the 1970s, Tzonis with Lefaivre, turned his attention to rethinking Regionalism. They coined the term ‘Critical Regionalism’, to name the reaction to globalisation in architecture producing a dysfunctional, ‘flat world’ choices and pointed to an approach to architecture that while inviting an open world founded on shared values and cutting edge technology it would celebrate local cultural inventions, boost human ties, respect physical ecosystem resources, and enable diversity. The idea initiated numerous writings, symposia, and inspired projects around the world (1981, 1991, 2001).
In the framework of DKS, Tzonis and his collaborators, among them Donald Schön, investigated design creativity, analogy in design, (Nan Fang, B. S. Inanç), design biases, (Philip Bay Joo-Hwa), collaborative design, (Hoang Ell Jeng), and cross-cultural studies on design methods (Xiaodong Li, Li Yu,) producing articles, a textbook, co-authored with Ian White Automation Based Creative Design (Elsevier, 1994). Some results of these studies were presented in articles and books for the wider public: on Leonardo da Vinci (1989), Le Corbusier (2001), and co-authored with Lefaivre, Aldo van Eyck (1999) and on Santiago Calatrava (1999, 2001, 2004) whose work he studied in depth and wrote extensively about it.
Tzonis has been visiting professor at the National University Singapore, (2006–2007), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1996), the Technion, Israël Institute of Technology, (1985), Columbia University, (1974–1975), Institut 'Architecture et d'Urbanisme, Strasbourg, (1972–1973), Université de Montréal (1970–1971). In 2002 he was invited to lecture in College de France on ‘Architecture and Spatial Intelligence’.
In 2005, Tzonis retired from TUD becoming professor emeritus. In 2007, he was appointed professor of Architectural Theory at Tsinghua University. In 2012 he was named fellow at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Israel.
Creative design by analogy
While design through analytical computations not only does not obstruct design creativity but enhances it, design innovation “leaps” are mostly achieved through spatial-functional analogies, recruiting and recombining design components and design rules from a thesaurus of precedents, concrete objects or abstract theories very distant domains. Key to understand how this recruiting works is to look at design thinking through the framework of morphology, operation, performance. Design analysis and analogy seemingly rivals are complementary allies in creative design. Design by Analogy was one of the major research themes of Design Knowledge Systems leading to a number of dissertations and publications. It was the theme of a book by Tzonis, Hermes and the Golden Thinking Machine, 1990, commissioned by MIT Press to introduce notions of creative problem solving by analogy to a wider public.
The canon of classical architecture
Rather than a free-wheeling style, the Canon of Classical Architecture is a tool for design-thinking about space, through space, and organizing activities and objects within space. Emerging originally in ancient Greece, it emerged and evolved in Western Europe and spread around the world. This was the idea explored by a research program by Tzonis that resulted in the book Classical Architecture, (1986 published in seven languages including Japanese, Chinese, and Korean). James S. Ackerman wrote about the book that it ‘reveals the principles that link the great masters of the tradition from Vitruvius to Mies’. While differing in many fundamental ideas of Tzonis and Lefaivre, Kenneth Frampton described the book as ‘surely the first work in English to attempt to assemble, classify, and demystify the ill-understood legacy of classical lore’, John Summerson called it ‘a … must … for anybody who proposes to take classical architecture seriously’, and David Watkin that it ‘should be read by all students … as well as by those who still believe that the classical orders are outdated and irrelevant’. Continuing this investigation, into the 1990s, Tzonis focused on the cognitive underpinnings of the classical design rule system as well as its historical origins, publishing in 2004 Classical Greek Architecture, the Construction of the Modern, co-authored with P Giannisi. (English, French, and German editions).
Tzonis and Lefaivre coined the term ‘Critical Regionalism’ employing a concept whose origins go as far back as Vitruvius, to deal with a current problem: the need to define a role for buildings and cities in a planet that seems to be united only by the media and ‘globalization’, and divided by confrontation and competition. In this role, designers whether solving problems or exploring possibilities, should think critically – in the Kantian sense. They should overcome biases favoring imported or local choices through questioning and reflection, considering the specifics of the actual situation, the region. While welcoming what the open world can offer give a hand to interaction and exchange, they should value the uniqueness of the ‘region’, the quality of social ties, the physical and cultural resources. Clearly, this idea of regionalism draws from Mumford’s pre-WWII criticism of the International, ‘modernist’ Style and post-WWII planning. It differs fundamentally from most uses of regionalism of the past that employed the region only as a defensive or offensive concept, a political or marketing construct promoting nationalist movements, but also, not rarely, volkisch chauvinism, and folklore commercialism.
This new approach to regionalism was first presented in 1981, in ‘The Grid and the Pathway,’ an essay published in Architecture in Greece, and the same year in another essay - written in collaboration with Anthony Alofsin, a student assistant of Tzonis at that time - included in Fur eine andere Architektur In fact it was Burckhardt’s challenge the leading editor of the book, that prompted a chain of studies that lead to the development of the concept. The idea initiated an overabundance writings, – the most well known those by K. Frampton, who still remained close to the past romantic approach to regionalism – numerous debates, and symposia – the most important one the International Working Seminar on Critical Regionalism organized by Marvin Malecha and Spyros Amourgis (1989) hosted by the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona - and inspired projects around the world. The approach was expanded in several articles by Tzonis and Lefaivre, and in Tropical Architecture, A Global Regionalism (2001), a book prefaced by H. R. H. Prince Claus of the Netherlands, and Critical Regionalism, Architecture and Identity in a Globalised World (2003), a book which was also published in Chinese (2007) in a modified and expanded version to include current Chinese contributions.
The Garland Architectural Archives
The Garland Archives was a project conceived and directed by Tzonis undertaken by Garland Publishing, New York bringing out the complete archives of major architects. Among the publications: Le Corbusier of the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris (32 volumes), L. Kahn (7 volumes), (a Choice Outstanding Academic Book), Mies van der Rohe at the MOMA (18 volumes), W. Gropius at Harvard (4 volumes), Schindler (4 volumes), H. Sauvage (2 volumes), (American Institute of Architects Book Award), Alvar Aalto (12 volumes).
To promote public debate about problems related to design theory and relevant to aspects of his investigations, Tzonis conceived and organized several major international symposia. Among them:
- The German Werkbund, The Pleasures of Form and the Realities of Life, hosted by the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University among the participants: S. Anderson, L. Burckhardt, H.L.C. Jaffé, H. Milton, C. Otto, R. Pommer, J. Posener, J. Rykwert, E. Sekler, (1980).
- Automation Based Creative Design Education, at the TUDelft: An international conference in the framework of the 150th Anniversary of the university and the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture Meeting in Europe, (1992).
- Architecture in Israel, 1948–1998, a DKS symposium, T.U. Delft, (1998).
- The Spiritual in Architecture, a Symposium dedicated to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind hosted by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, under the auspices of the Royal Palace Foundation, (2000),.
- The Mediterranean Landscape, Representation Designs and Identity, (1997), and The Mediterranean City, among the participants: J. Ackerman, S. Calatrava, H. Herzberger, D. Karavan, L. Lefaivre, E. Miralles both in collaboration with Michael Levin, hosted by Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. (2002).
Complete biography at Alexander Tzonis Authorised Website
- Shape of Community, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, co-author Serge Chermayeff
- Towards a Non-Oppressive Environment, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972
- Classical Architecture, The Poetics of Order, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986, co-author L. Lefaivre
- Hermes and the Golden Thinking Machine, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
- Architecture in Europe since 1968, Memory and Invention, London: Thames and Hudson and New York: Rizzoli, 1992, co-author L. Lefaivre
- Automation Based Creative Design, Research and Perspectives, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1994, co-editor Ian White
- Movement, Structure and the Work of Santiago Calatrava, Basel: Birkhäuser, 1995, co-author L. Lefaivre
- Architecture in North America since 1960, London: Thames and Hudson and Boston: Little Brown, 1995, co-author L. Lefaivre and Richard Diamond
- Santiago Calatrava, The Poetics of Movement, New York: Universe Publishing, Rizzoli, 1999
- Aldo van Eyck, Humanist Rebel, Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1999, co-author L. Lefaivre,
- Tropical Architecture, Critical Regionalism in an Age of Globalization, London: Wiley-Academy 2001 co-authors L. Lefaivre and Bruno Stagno
- Santiago Calatrava's Creative Process, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001, co-author L. Lefaivre
- Le Corbusier, The Poetics of Machine and Metaphor, New York: Universe and London: Thames and Hudson, 2001
- Critical regionalism, Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World, Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel, 2003, co-author L. Lefaivre,
- The Emergence of Modern Architecture, London: Routledge, 2004, co-author L. Lefaivre,
- Santiago Calatrava’s Bridges, Rizzoli, New York, Co-author Rebeca Caso Donadei
- Architecture Grecque Classique, la Construction de la Modernité, Paris, London, Munich, New York: Flammarion, 2004, co-author Phoebe Giannisi,
- Santiago Calatrava, The Complete Works, New York: Rizzoli, 2004, expanded edition, 2006
- Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization,Peaks and Valleys in the Flat World, Routledge, London, 2011, co-author Liane Lefaivre
Selected articles and essays
Complete biography at Alexander Tzonis's authorised website
- "Transformations of the Initial Structure", Perspecta 12, 1969
- "The last identity crisis in architecture", Connection (Spring) 1969
- "Problems of Judgement in Programmatic Analysis in Architecture", DMG DRS Journal (Jul.-Sept.) 1974, co-author O. Salama,
- "The populist movement in architecture", Bauwelt 10 (Jan.) 1975 co-author L. Lefaivre,
- "The Mechanical vs. Divine Body. The rise of modern design theory in Europe", Journal of Architectural Education (Sept.) 1975
- “History of design as a social science”, Harvard Publication Series, 1977 co-author L. Lefaivre,
- "The Narcissist Phase in Architecture", Harvard Architectural Review 1, 1978 co-author L. Lefaivre,
- "The Question of Autonomy in Architecture", Harvard Architectural Review 3, 1984, co-author L. Lefaivre,
- "Il bastione comme mentalità", La Città el mura, edited by C. de Seta and J. Le Goff, Rome, 1989 co-author L. Lefaivre,
- "Lewis Mumford's Regionalism", Design Book Review 19 (Fall), 1991, co-author L. Lefaivre,
- "Critical Regionalism", Critical Regionalism, edited by S. Amourgis, Pomona: California state Polytechnic University, pp. 3–23, 1991 , co-author L. Lefaivre
- "Huts, ships and bottle racks: Design by analogy for architects and/or machines", Research in Design Thinking, edited by N. Cross, K. Dorst and N. Roozenburg, Delft: Delft Univ. Press, pp. 139–164, 1992. In German Archithese (May-Jun.) 1990.
- "Beyond Monuments, Beyond Zip-a-tone, Into Space/Time: Contextualizing Shadrach Woods's Berlin Free University, A Humanist Architecture”, Free University Berlin, Candilis, Josic, Woods, Schiedhelm, Architectural Association, Exemplary Projects 3, London, pp. 118–141, 1999, co-author L. Lefaivre,
- “Jacques Ferrier, a techno-recruiter among the new Cartesians”, Useful – Utiles, Jacques Ferrier Architect, edited by J. Ferrier, Basel: Birkhäuser 2004
- “Evolving Spatial Intelligence Tools, From Architectural Poetics to Management Methods”, Managing as Designing, edited by Richard J. Boland Jr. and Fred Collopy, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004
Tzonis has also published "Ten Lithographs Designed By Manfred Ibel and Alexander Tzonis On Ten Poems By Constantine Cavafy" The poems were translated for this publication by Stephen Spender and Nicos Stangos. The portfolio was printed by the Carl Purington Rollins / Printing-Office of the Yale University Press New Haven, Connecticut, 1966.
- Wilhelm Halden & Hariklia Tzoni ‘A Colour Reaction for the Detection and Determination of Vitamin D’ Nature 137, 30 May 1936. Konstantin Tzonis Elektrotaxis, Elektronarkose, Elektrometanarkose bei Myriopoden (Tausendflussler) Biologischen Station in Lunz, Niederoesterreich 18 Februar 1936
- Robert Stern ‘Yale 1950-1965’ Oppositions 4, October 1974. Alexander Tzonis ‘Recollections of Paul Rudolph’, Tony Monk The Art and Architecture of Paul Rudolph Chichester, p. 199
- Alan Powers Serge Chermayefff: Designer Architect, Teacher, London, 2001, pp 206 - 215
- "Problems of Judgement in Programmatic Analysis in Architecture", DMG DRS Journal (Jul.-Sept.) 1974, co-author O. Salama and on discourse analysis Tzonis, A. with M. Freeman, L. Lefaivre, O. Salama, R. Berwick, E. de Cointet, Systèmes conceptuels de l’Architecture en France de 1650 à 1800, Cambridge Ma.: C.O.R.D.A. 1975
- Towards a Non-Oppressive Environment, Cambridge: I Press, 1972
- Anthony Alofsin The Struggle for Modernism, New York, 2002, pp 256–269
- Since 1997 Garland Publishing joined the Taylor & Francis
- Boisfeuillet Jones Jr ‘Harvard, M.I.T. Urban Studies Get $6 Million Ford Foundation Grant’ Harvard Crimson Thursday, November 30, 1967, Richard F. Strasser ‘A Facelift for GSD, Reworking the System’ Harvard Crimson Thursday, June 05, 1980
- Alexander Tzonis ‘The lost years?’ OASE Journal for Architecture 75, 25 Years of Critical Reflection on Architecture 2008 pp 10-17
- “Die Frage des Regionalismus", Für eine andere Architektur, edited by M. Andritsky, L. Burckhardt and O. Hoffmann, Frankfurt am Main. 1981
- 5. Towards a Non-Oppressive Environment, Cambridge: I Press, 1972
- Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization,Peaks and Valleys in the Flat World, Routledge, London, 2011, co-author Liane Lefaivre
- 7. Since 1997 Garland Publishing joined the Taylor & Francis