In 1987, with the arrival of Alberto Pérez-Gómez, the School of Architecture founded the Architectural History and Theory option in the post-professional Master’s program as a platform for critical investigations of the relationship between ethics and poetics in architectural practice. Coming from the architectural tradition of phenomenological hermeneutics as developed by Dalibor Vesely and Joseph Rykwert, Pérez-Gómez shaped the history and theory option to integrate theory, history, and design thus, bringing architectural history to bear on contemporary architectural practice.
Within this framework, architectural theory was viewed not as a methodology but as a philosophical orientation. Through selected phenomenology and continental European philosophy readings, both scholars and students explored crucial issues of contemporary culture and architecture. Critical notions in architecture, such as technology, perception, theory and practice, meaning and symbolization, and history’s nature, scope, and usefulness for contemporary practices were examined and discussed through carefully selected readings.
In its long thirty-three-year history, the Master's program in its Architectural History and Theory option went through three iterations. In the beginning, apart from the overall critical point-of-view from which the concept stemmed, it was the coupling of project and thesis that made the Architectural History and Theory option exceptional. From 1987 to 2001, the History and Theory option existed in its original format. Organized in four semesters, students graduated by writing a master’s thesis after working on a studio project that served as “thesis preparation.” Faculty envisioned the studio work as a process of teasing out continuities between creative thinking and scholarship. The curriculum regularly incorporated two seminar courses on architectural history, centred on the primary sources of architectural theory in the European canon, and two seminars organized at the intersection of continental philosophy and architectural theory, including incursions into art and literary theory. Students gained skills in writing but mostly through constant oral presentations. After advancing through the seminars, the students worked on individual projects that responded to contemporary architectural issues speculative in character and creative in their expression and presentation. Usually, the final projects were exhibited and documented in catalogues.
The Ph.D. program in Architecture began in 1989 as an ad hoc program, and incoming students were asked to take seminars from the curriculum as needed. The School’s first doctoral student participated in this phase of the program, graduating in 1997. From that time onwards, approximately forty-six doctoral students took the courses and seminars offered within the Architectural History and Theory option.
From 2001 to 2014, changes were made to the configuration of the Architectural History and Theory option. Sensitive to changes in architectural education worldwide and responding to the arrival of new faculty in the School, the Master’s became non-thesis. At the same time, more concentrated research shifted to the Ph.D. program. The seminar structure remained the same, but some of the seminars became more writing-intensive. Studying for the length of three semesters, during these years, students graduated by producing a final project that resulted from a summer-semester studio. Each year, the studio was led by different experts from the field, including McGill faculty and doctoral students.
In its final iteration, from 2015 to 2020, the Architectural History and Theory option existed in a three-semester format that culminated with a “written report,” usually a research paper but also, on occasion, a project with a textual component. Overall, McGill’s Master of Architectural History and Theory option had a long-standing international reputation that still exerts its influence across the globe.