At the Turin Engineering Poly
School of Architecture
A good rule when dealing with a specific topic is to define the terms, to make sure that everybody is ‘on the same page’. So I checked the definitions of ‘culture’ on the web, a basic tool for any kind of literary research. The definitions I found were of very little help.
I will quote some of them just to show the complexity of the semantic implications of the term ‘culture’:
- the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively
- the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
- thebehaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group.
As you can see, not one of these definitions is useful to set out the terms of reference for a talk on ‘culture and architectural design’. Parts may be of some help, but luckily I found an interesting definition by Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, in his treaty Über Pädagogik, Königsberg 1803. According to Immanuel, culture is the ‘sense of living in a place in a moment’.
This definition may be worth a long debate. I like it because it is both short and ‘comprehensive’.
It covers what we need and maybe more:
Life, the meaning of life, history, times and places, reasons, motives, context. The past, the future. Poetry, problems, damnation, sadness, happiness, the morning coffee. Doubt, fear, friends, taxes, mistakes and victories, affection, loved ones, school, books, films, family – time and politics.
There could be a lot to say about each one of these topics and I leave the matter for your elaboration. I would like to say a few words on two of them, Time and Politics, which I think have an intriguing relation to our trade: architectural design.
TIME: A baffling feature of time is its relativity, not as Einstein meant it, but how we relate to it. At my age, one year is an eightieth of the life I have lived. For a twenty year old person it is one twentieth of their life. Compared to the lived life, my year is much smaller, faster, shorter than yours, 4 times shorter. My time runs much faster than yours – if time runs.
For a three year old child, one year is one third of his lived life. Remember the long summers of your childhood, those never-ending days?
For an architect, time also has another dimension: the duration of built items.
A painting, a paper, a song, last ‘l’espace d’un matin’. A house can last for twenty, thirty, one hundred or more years; a city, two or three centuries or thousands of years.
Design mistakes are cast in concrete. Cities were right when they were built, but can become wrong with time: societies, technologies, economies change. The medieval cities that Lewis Mumford loved so much were designed for people walking. Down-town Florence is an automobile nightmare today.
If built items do not become monuments, when they cost too much to be maintained, when they become obsolete, useless or dangerous they must be demolished.
We must learn to demolish obsolete parts of cities to rebuild them (or not rebuild them) in a way consistent with contingent situations.
Here is a short paper I have previously written about ‘time’:
POLITICS: Politics is where philosophy meets history, or where history meets philosophy.
Out of the catch phrase, politics is where ideas, the vision of the world (weltanschauung), culture are challenged by reality. Or where they challenge reality, everyday life, future, money, people, stupidity. The city is the place where the ‘sense of living’ is particularly intense, meaningful and sometimes violent.
Those in charge of designing cities, or parts of cites, cannot escape politics: the condition, the help or the threat of it.
Even if you are not interested in politics you have to deal with it – every day, every hour – so, you might as well take very good care of it. Be informed, be aware, study, learn and listen. Be There. You have a very specific responsibility here: your family is spending a considerable amount of money to educate you as members of the so called ‘ruling class’; you are investing your life; the government is investing its funds for the same purpose. If you do not do your part, somebody else will and when things go wrong you will have no right to complain.
Bad things happen when good men do nothing.
It is not by chance that the trade of the politician is similar to the trade of the architect.
They must both tackle problems, analyze them, express them, find tools, design solutions, put them into practice or have somebody else do it, manage them in time and face the consequences, whether good or bad.
Solutions generate problems that must be expressed, analyzed, and solved.
Here is something I wrote a few years ago, about the crisis of ‘politics’ around the World:
Elected delegates in a democratically run state must decide and must command: it is the precise mandate of a legitimate ‘democracy’. If this does not happen, cannot happen or is in any way challenged, what will follow is annihilation of institutional responsibilities, betrayal of governing authority, anarchy; the failure of institutional government.
The situation today, after years of continuous aggression against the concept of representative democracy, is that the mandate issued with the vote to the elected representatives has been invalidated and, as a consequence, the concept of ‘delegated command’ became a negative spurious one.
Making decisions and implementing them through a proper appointed chain of command is now tainted by a negative and hateful image, something that must be fought against.
To close my short introduction on ‘culture’ I will just add a corollary to Kant’s definition: ‘culture is a tool to use knowledge’.
A few definitions taken from the very useful (and perhaps sometimes dangerous) Wikipedia:
- a field of knowledge having to do with the practical applications of science and industry, or the inventions and methods of solving problems that are produced through research in these areas. … a particular method of solving practical problems that comes out of research in science and industry;
- the practical applicationof knowledge especially in a particular area
- a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technicalprocesses, methods, or knowledge
Whereas this is the definition adopted by the Turin School of Architecture in their syllabus:
The term ‘technology of architecture’ covers all the tools used in the building process: design, construction, use, maintenance and demolition.
Software, hardware, computer programs and applications, communication and control tools, paper, pens, pencils, printers, ink, bricks, concrete, stones, steel, cranes, lifts, carts, packing, gutters, industrial manufacturing processes, hammers, screwdrivers, screws and so on. Also the workers at any stage of the building process are ‘technology’ with their contractual conditions, standards, safety rules, strikes, mistakes and language.
This complexity is the result of 60 years of disciplinary evolution. In the fifties the discipline dealt with building details and components design (roofs, carpentry, masonry walls, window frames and jointing, gutters, foundations, drainage, waterproofing details).
During the Sixties and Seventies the performance concept dominated the discipline: component performance as a response to user requirements, quality control and testing, performance standards and specifications were the keywords.
From the eighties on, energy and environment became the leading concerns of technology teaching in schools of architecture. Climate and building, climatology, energy conscious building design, environmental sustainability, energy saving technologies, passive behaviour control, solar energy integration.
Present teaching trends deal with Building Information Modelling, Life Cycle Costing, eco-sustainable materials, digitalization of design processes, biomimicry, demolition recycling.
The specific problem of architectural technology teaching is that, because of the fast pace of innovation in materials, components, industrial processes, site logistics, energy management tools, we have to face an odd dilemma: to teach things which within a short time span will not be true or will not even exist, or to teach things we do not know because they do not yet exist.
We chose a third option: to teach problems and not solutions.
Biology, physiology, metabolism, physical conditions of men and women, anthropology, do not change quickly. Requirements dictated by the biology and physical conditions of users are a reasonably stable reference system: it changes very slowly in time.
Thermal, visual, acoustic comfort, applicable mechanical force, fatigue, physical dimensions of the human body, vision, hearing, risk and danger awareness, clothing are all clearly quantified stable parameters.
Tools to match the system of requirements with a consistent system of performances are instead subject to a great variability. Materials, shapes, operation, manufacturing processes, assembly and setting out are constantly subject to innovation, substituted and modified.
Houses today are very similar to houses built ten centuries ago (foundations, walls, roofs) but nothing in their production is the same – materials, building process, component manufacturing.
If we consider the speed of technology innovation, houses we build today will not be very different from the houses that will be built in twenty years from now, but nothing in their production, materials and building construction process will be the same.
Problems will be the same, solutions will be different.
Two specific problems initiated the transition of architectural technology from the confined disciplinary areas of building details to today’s multidisciplinary design continuum: energy and environment, which are trans-disciplines related to a number of fields of knowledge: geography, history, economy, industrial processes, building physics, heat transfer, building climatology, HVAC equipment, fuels and their conversion, users’ physiology, users’ activities. Each one of these fields is a source of suggestions for the formal design solution of the artefact. Each field interacts with the whole of the design sequence.
- a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made;
- to plan and make decisions (about something that is being built or created);
- to create the plans, drawings, etc., that show how (something) will be made.
From the late Seventies and early Eighties architectural design has conceptually changed. A holistic approach based on a wide set of suggestions is now the structure of the design process. In schools we still see the old names of the disciplines (Architectural Design, Technology) which only stand for the history of the discipline but not for what is actually taught today.
Today architectural design is a continuous integrated process.
The knowledge of the problem, its analysis, its expression as a narrative and finding the tools for the technical and formal solution are a whole continuous process.
A continuous hic et nunc …
In a team with a set of different capabilities to cover all the problems implied by the specific task, there is no need to organize a ‘creative’ stage in the process to deal with the formal definition of the artefact. The attempt to set up such a stage is an idea that, for years, has hindered the development of the holistic integrated design and the design teaching practice.
This is not to deny the responsibility and the function of a creative action for the formal definition of the item or artefact. The point is that such a responsibility is spread along the whole design process and, by necessity, must be shared by all the areas of knowledge related to the process: an input potential that cannot be the task of a limited specific area.
The formal design suggestion is fed by every qualified area and stage of the process from the setting out of the design task, the choice of technology tools, the definition of the structure and the first assumptions for the building solutions.
All these moments, stages, qualifications, conditions suggest the intuitions that will lead to a technical solution of the design problem, a solution which will imply new problems that will need analysis, expression and response in a self-feeding repetitive set of thought cycles. The process can be regarded as a mysterious black-box where we do not know what comes first and what comes after. Any attempt to enlighten the fertile obscurity of the black-box will lower the potential of the design continuum.
Energy and environment play a complex role in the black-box of the design continuum because they are trans-disciplines crossing many areas of the current organization of knowledge: astronomy, physics, mathematics, economy, history, geography, thermodynamics, thermal movements in walls, materials, spaces, structural engineering, materials science, climate and climatology, sociology, expression and communication.
Energy and environment demand a complex, holistic approach, and they shaped the design process into the cyclic continuity which is its current feature, both for architectural design practice and for its teaching.
The boisterous growth of the energy & environment condition in all the fields of enterprise played a role in this development together with the powerful role that technology has acquired in the last thirty years in all the processes dealing with territorial settlement and land equipment, industrial and manufacturing processes, infrastructure and building. All these trends imply suggestions to architectural design which are now the dominant input flow in the design process compared to the fragile privilege of the isolated creative assumption.
There are many design sequences proposed by schools to organize the design process, methods and diagrams. They are all useful with the proviso that they must be ‘run’ many times and not necessarily in the same order. This is one of the many:
- Definition of the context at various scales and extensions – history, geography, environment, climate, land, territory, urban, social, time, economy.
- Definition of users, users’ profile, activities, manufacturing, industrial and building processes, maintenance, demolition.
- Spaces and interaction of spaces.
- Networks and equipment.
- Operational simulations.
- Energy simulation (space, time, enthalpy).
- Cyclic iteration of the diagram, cross checking.
For each stage of the sequence there are sophisticated computer programs available that the young students probably know better than I do. These tools will grow in the future, both in quality and sophistication, which is not always necessarily a good thing: they have to be used in a wise and culturally aware way.
The proposed sequence is absolutely subjective and can be set out to serve various needs and priorities. It does not contain a creative stage or step: such a step does not exist because the creative function is spread throughout the process in a pervasive and ineffable way from A to H, I, L, M.
The equation that must be solved, if we can actually talk about a ’solution’, is complicated. The relationship between available tools and vision, which of the two feeds, or is fed by the other, is an interesting mental journey. To set a hierarchy, to say where is the priority is not only impossible, it does not make sense and in fact limits the range of plausible options.
Are the nails the solution when you have a hammer or is the hammer a solution when you have nails?
This is the interesting incipit of an internet site ‘121 definitions of Architecture’
- There are at least as many definitions of architecture as there are architects or people who comment on the practice of it. While some embrace it as art, others defend architecture’s seminal social responsibility as its most definitive attribute.
- To begin a sentence with “Architecture is” is a bold step into treacherous territory.
This is followed by the 121 definitions and I will quote here the first 12 and their authors::
- “Architecture is definitely a political act.” – Peter Eisenman in Haaretz
- “Architecture is unnecessarily difficult. It’s very tough.” – Zaha Hadid in The Guardian
- “Architecture is by definition a very collaborative process.” – Joshua Prince-Ramus in Fast Company
- “Architecture is a way of seeing, thinking and questioning our world and our place in it.” – Thom Mayne in his Prtizker Prize Acceptance Speech
- “Architecture is the art and science of making sure that our cities and buildings actually fit with the way we want to live our lives: the process of manifesting our society into our physical world. – Bjarke Ingels in AD Interviews
- “Architecture is merciless: it is what it is, it works or doesn’t, and you can clearly see the difference.” – Jacques Herzog in a lecture at Columbia University
- “Architecture is always related to power and related to large interests, whether financial or political.” – Bernard Tschumi in The New York Times
- “Architecture is a good example of the complex dynamic of giving.” – Jeffrey Inaba in World of Giving
- “Architecture is too complex for just one person to do it, and I love collaboration.” – Richard Rogers in The Guardian
- “Architecture is the most powerful deed that a man can imagine.” – Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos in Volume
- “Architecture is an act of optimism.” – Nicolai Ouroussoff in The LA Times
- “Architecture is an artificial fact.” – Mario Botta in Perspecta
Enough to think about!
The design continuum, from the initial cultural framework, through the various steps described and any other step which could be established for every specific project, will draft the narrative that will lead to the eventual architectural solution. This is my tentative definition:
- The interpretation of the suggestions and the choices for their built expression are the task of architecture.
To specify criteria, limits, rules or models for this operation is impossible on account of the assumption of design as a continuous process from the cultural definition of the context, to the finished building.
The narrative or the narratives of the architectural solution stem from the whole process and cannot be abstracted, isolated or defined in a separated stage.
There is no ‘creative moment’ or place or stage where ‘formal choices’ are cast as we have decided in a purely rational way for the centuries of architectural history, when we defined style, eras, movements, fashions, customs (gothic, renaissance, baroque, liberty, MM, neo-liberty, postmodern, deconstructivism).
That has never been the case.
Architecture has always been the deep, pervasive result of a continuous design process.
This opinion of mine is not an absolute issue, neither is it something new, and the discussion with those who have a different standpoint is always quite interesting.
There are situations in which a brilliant designer takes the lead in a specific moment of the design process and actually conceives the architectural solution of the building. Possibly a fantastic architectural deed. My assumption is that, even in that case, the conceptual idea is rooted in the whole design process and took shape in a pervasive continuous way. The brilliant operator, the ‘genius’, has been the unaware interpreter of the holistic conception.
The debate and confrontation on this matter will never end.
The ‘transition’ of architectural design.
The long and winding road of the design process to the present holistic conception of the ‘design continuum’ was also the outcome of the evolution of the specific discipline ’architectural design’ in the syllabus of the Schools of Architecture. The discipline today is generally called ‘environmental design’ or something even less specific than simply ‘architectural’.
Before 1965, when (at least for the European School of Architecture) we were still taught ‘Building Construction Details’ (i.e. gutters, carpentry, masonry, lintels, windows and joints), Architectural Design was the queen of the Syllabus and Architectural Design professors were the ‘noble class’ of the schools. The real ‘top guns’. ‘Building Construction Details’ was an instrumental subject, the humble servant of the queen Architectural Design, a role that nobody dared to question.
The Modern Movement (Athens Charter, CIAM 1933) dominated with its ‘diktat’ built and taught architecture between the two wars and immediately after WW2. But over the years those ‘absolute truths’ wore out in the schools and in practice, as Charles Jencks’ diagram (Architecture 2000) shows well.
Theoretical thinking about ‘architectural design’ is now much more complex and the ‘dogmatic truths’ are now softer, fuzzy, articulate, negotiable. Consistent with the complexity of the real world. So is the teaching of ‘architectural design’ which has lost its grundrisse and has merged with the continuum process described in this paper, thus learning a new freedom now being explored with very challenging results – and some disasters.
One has to seriously question the reason for all the names and labels found for the recent trends and schools (neo-this and neo-that, post-this and post-that), typical of the development of theoretical thinking during the last fifty years on the issue of ‘architectural design’: the desperate stress to fetch new ‘foundations’, theoretical references, new grammars and new syntax, justifying the existence of a ‘creative moment’ where the form of architecture is defined – the ineffable creative moment
Once the diktat (delusion) of ‘form follows function’ was lost because it was not consistent with the complexity of history, environment, technology and of the sense of living in a moment in a place, the debate eventually landed on the shores of the ‘design continuum’, to its freedom of options and suggestions.
If I had to say when the specific disciplines began to shift to the design process continuum I would point to energy and environment as the catalysts of the transition. So between 1973 and 1980, it was during those years, after the game changing 1973 energy crisis, that the schools of architecture in Italy started to organize ‘multidisciplinary design seminars’ to respond to the transition with an appropriate teaching shift. Maybe unconsciously (some of them), but not by chance.
This is now the vibrant stage of design proposals that cannot be framed in a specific theoretical design paradigm (rational, functional, structural, neo-this, neo-that, post-this, post-that, regional, international, deconstructive).
The ‘manifesto’ (charter) of today’s architecture is ‘no manifesto’ (no charter).
“Architectural design” today is well established in the design continuum, in the prairies of the free and fertile eclecticism, no labels, no coquettish trends, no dogmatic stances.
There is the chance that in a few years this whole problem will be packed up into a fantastic algorithm capable of profiling ‘the sense of living in one place in a moment’, the specific contingent situation, the intimate sentimental condition of the designer, of his client, history, economy, technology simply by listening to the voice of the man and to his sigh (sic!)
I do not want to deal with the general issue of Freedom, a topic which has been dealt with by philosophers over a few centuries and is a debate which is always challenging. I would rather deal with the freedom of the designer when he moves on the path from the ‘narrative’ to the architectural solution.
According to Immanuel Kant freedom is ‘a feature of our will by which we can act not bound by natural causes’.
Our culture, physiology, ideology, as it shapes up, grows, changes must be the tool with which to understand the suggestions we receive from the design trail, the tool with which we transfer them into a tale: the narrative which will eventually lead to the final architectural design. It takes shape slowly at the beginning in a vague way and then becomes clearer and clearer; like the sketches that we draft while the feelings induced by the various design stages become images.
This is a magic process impossible to analyze that I would like to deal with while closing my lecture today. But as with any magic thing it’s not easy to describe.
A few years ago I was having dinner with friends in Canada and one of the guests was Mark Strand, a laureate poet by the Congress of the USA; a tall, slender, handsome man (1934-2015); Professor of English Literature at the Columbia University (N.Y.), and highly appreciated and loved by Marina, our hostess. I said something which was misunderstood and clearly irritated the poet who did not speak to me for the whole evening. This is what I said, ‘We are all poets, some of us write poetry’, a serious misunderstanding because my line was not intended to be offensive at all. In fact it was the acknowledgement of the outstanding gift of those who are able to express, in writing, the poetical intuition of the many, but writing it is a gift possessed by only a very few.
To explain my concept here is an example, and I use a poem by Mark Strand, as a late acknowledgement and apology.
The narrative: Wherever I am, I am not the place where I am, the place is not me, I am what is not the place. When I walk I displace the air that will fill up the volume of my body while I proceed. We all move for some reason. I move because I do not want to break up things around me.
And this is the poem:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
The title is ‘Keeping things whole.’
We are all architects – some of us design architecture.
The difference between the narrative and architecture is the problem of our schools. The dire statistics tell us that in a class of students there may be 3, maybe 5, very rarely 10 per cent of ‘geniuses’. For them the school is just a tool to use (the library, the computers, dialectic exchanges…maybe some of the teachers) but in fact they could do without the school at all. These students can come to know without being taught, or almost so.
The school has to deal with the 97, 95, 90 per cent of the others and form them as good professionals. Geniuses fly, but the others must be able to run, or at least walk.
Mistakes by geniuses can be catastrophic as when fliers fall. Mistakes by walkers most of the time can be corrected with limited damage. Good walkers can go a long way.
To the genius league do not belong those who think they do – the most dangerous kind.
So we have to prepare good walkers, capable of safely, if not successfully, walking the line between the narrative and architecture.
This is the ineffable area of intellectual freedom. Great thinkers have always been free, so have great leaders. Intellectual freedom has always been the key to any outstanding achievement.
Trends, schools and top guns in the profession supply ‘recipes’, roadmaps, instructions. The number of followers is the rate of success.
These are all substitutes for the free subjective intuitive process, for the transition from the narrative to architecture.
When I went to school in Turin, architectural design was taught inviting the student to ‘go on, proceed’. The invitation came with encouraging or discouraging comments. In hindsight this method, or accidental choice, made some sense: working, and working, and working on things is a way to go.
Freedom for architects is in the conditions defined for the process (history, culture, climate, time, context, energy, environment, economy, technology) and in the way these conditions are interpreted, dealt with, and solved in the process.
A tool to be free is knowledge. To know to be free. Wissenschaft macht frei. To know how to do it, how you can do it, how you can do it better, differently. The more you know the freer you are. The more you are able to use what you know and to transfer that knowledge to others in the process of thinking and doing.
Knowledge comes from information and from our ability to process it. The filter with which we process information, whichever way we get it, is our culture – the sense of living in a place in a moment.
How do we protect ourselves from information, how to sieve it, censor, cut, check, embrace, support it? Oddly there are no classes on such a subject throughout our high schools and Universities; odd but not accidental.
So design freedom is the ability to identify and define limits and constraints and to move within those limits using them as a means of expression. From these conditions we draw the suggestions while we proceed on the design path and we write the narrative that will eventually lead us to architectural choices.
Translating the narrative into built architecture is a course to which we may apply Heidegger’s intuition of the Waldwege or the poem by Antonio Machado Caminante no hay camino. Heidegger’s woodsman does not need a path. He walks through the woods because he knows where he is going. Machado’s ‘caminante’ does not need a trail: the path is set out by his own steps. His own footprints are the trail.
Caminante, son tus huellas
El camino y nada mas;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace el camino al andar ….
Caminante, no hay camino,
Sino estelas en la mar…
The woodsman knows where he wants to go and walks through the woods without any trail: his knowledge is the trail. Machado’s ‘caminante’ his own steps become the trail: his culture, his knowledge shape the trail while he walks.
To listen to the sense of living we must be free. The question is: free from what?
From useless noise, from platitudes, from commonplace ideology, from modish recipes, from cut-up jeans, from screaming talk shows, from demagoguery and other religions – whatever seems to be the sought-after sense but, in fact, it is not.
In the slide show for the presentation of this lecture I quoted Daniel Libeskind a well known ‘archistar’ in the current world profession.
Most of his buildings irritate me for the blatant arrogance and disrespect for context, history, local and site culture – the very rape of the ‘Genius Loci’. The only functional requirement acknowledged is the striking visibility to exploit the image and the financial return for hosted activities needing publicity to the limit of physical provocation. I must admit that some of his works are spectacularly impressive, but I believe that walking in an urban-scape populated by his oddly shaped, pointed, sharp monsters could be more of a nightmare than a pleasant experience. It is possible that in medieval cities the presence of gothic cathedrals was as disconcerting for our ten times great grandfathers.
But what Libeskind has done (more than Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster) was to blast the acceptability paradigm of public and private clients.
Now if we want to call back to our un-livable, lethal cities the Gods of the Forest (cfr Lewis Mumford) we will have to make extraordinary decisions for architecture, infrastructures, equipment and urban lands; hyper-things that today we can barely imagine. This is why the surreal hyper-buildings designed by Libeskind can be useful: instead of the surreal monstrosity sought for purely formal reasons, extraordinary features will be suggested by the techno-enviro-energy-paraclimatological reasons needed to make the vast urban catastrophes work like forests: produce energy, purify air and water, contain the climate disaster. Pensile gardens as suggested by Luciano Pia’s buildings will not be enough. We will need large scale green structures; objects that may be formally even more stunning than Daniel Libeskind’s pointed urban monsters.
For sure there will be contradictions.
From here I do not seem to be able to go any further.
Also because to go further may be dangerous and in some way I could harm your own freedom.
At the Turin Engineering Poly
School of Architecture
 According to the official definition of the adopted Italian syllabus ‘architectural design’…’is the analysis of logical and artistic approaches within the development of an architectural project as far as formal choices are concerned (composition of volumes and spaces) and the aggregation of architectural elements, as well as in the identification of solutions which integrate function with form. The field of application relates to any scale of design, from interior design to town planning. Architectural design is closely related to history of architecture, to the study of styles and of their qualifying criteria.’ (my translation, lm).
 cfr. Giacomo Chiesa, La prassi progettuale esplicito-digitale e l’approccio prestazionale, in “Techne”, 13/2017.
 Antonio Machado, Proverbios y cantares, XXIX http://www.rinconcastellano.com/biblio/sigloxx_98/amachado_prov.html
Credit and acknowledgement
for the editing of my English translation to
Miss Wendy Charnell
I received two comments which I think can be quite interesting , one from Doug Kelbaugh and one from Kip Harris, here they are:
I read it quickly, like all reading in our media-saturated lives.
A few comments.
It’s remarkably comprehensive and broadly literate.
Last paragraph is no good, a familiar cop out.
Nothing wrong with curtailing freedom, which often has enslaved architects as much as its liberated them. The mandate to be new and different – obligatory creativity and invention – became the curse of modernism. Still is for the starchitects.
Climate change is qualitatively different from the chronic problems that have always faced humanity. The last 10,000 years of superb conditions for our species to grow and prosper are over. The Holocene has irreversibly given way to the Anthropocene. The planet will do fine, but humans will not. It’s not just Environmental problems on steroids; it will unravel in compounding, difficult-to-predict ways, with our socio-geo-political fabric being the most fragile. We’re likely to see unprecedented die-off, in the billions, techno-breakthroughs notwithstanding. (There will be marvels but typically in the-little-too-late-category.)
Quote the usual suspects less. They are part of the problem, the ancient regime. They still are stylists, aided by digi-design, which is seductively, stunningly beautiful but another cul-de-sac if it’s allowed to rule rather than serve designers or to ormote a future whose time has past.
The young, bottom-up, hands-on designer-builders and the community-oriented architects are now key. Frugal, low-energy, smaller, leaner architecture is needed. Nega- rather than mega-. Nega-trip, nega-watt buildings and urbanism. Walkable, bike-able, mixed use, transit-served cities. (Autonomous vehicles only make sense if they are shared; otherwise VMT and congestion will go up.)
Cities are our last, best hope, because they reduce carbon footprints per capita compared to suburban and rural settlements in developed countries, while reducing birth rates in developing countries…not to mention their higher productivity, creativity and social mixing. But they are more fragile and brittle than less complex towns and rural areas in crises, and they are getting hotter twice as fast as the countryside or planet as a whole. They must be cooled down with brighter albedos, less waste heat and more vegetation, mainly street trees (not more bosco verticali, which are too expensive to build and maintain). The future ain’t what it used to be.
I’m happy to send my latest book manuscript on these very issues if you like.
Btw, you’re still a good, clear thinker and writer.
Happy New Year,
Doug Kelbaugh FAIA
2018 Topaz Medallion Laureate Emil Lorch Collegiate Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
2000 Bonisteel Blvd.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2069
M: 734 358-9587
H: 734 827-2259
Enjoy the typos and spellcheck.
Many thanks for the copy of your thoughtful and elegant lecture. It is an honor to be invited back regularly to provide a bit of wisdom from outside the academy.
I found in my architectural education that there was far too much theory, taught by instructors who had never run an architectural office nor built anything larger than a home for their mothers and far too little of the nitty gritty on how the business and practice of architecture actually works. It is of little practical value to be able to dream up design solutions, sketch them endlessly, talk about them seriously, and publish them for other paper architects. The really hard part is getting that glimmer of an idea into a structure that functions beautifully.
I’ve been looking on-line for a phrase that I thought T.S. Eliot wrote: “…lyric poets either die by the age of 17 or learn how to write.” I must be wrong about who said this, since I can’t find it, but I think that the sentiment is correct. The dreamy students in my architectural class (many of whom could draw and think with skill) either became illustrators or now work for advertising agencies. The few who graduated and actually ran an architectural office for more than a year or two were maybe 5% of the original class. Maybe they are the ones you think would have been able to forge a career without the benefit or hinderance of an architectural education. I actually benefitted from going back to architectural school. What I learned was how difficult it is to hold so many parameters in mind at one time, that the nature of practice is that you work on multiple projects at one time and must learn to define the project clearly so that you can pick up the pieces when you return after a journey somewhere else, and that collaboration (in the sense of all opinions being equal) doesn’t work. You say:
“There are situations in which a brilliant designer takes the lead in a specific moment of the design process and actually conceives the architectural solution of the building.”
You think that this is the exception. I think it is the rule. I know this sounds romantic and in keeping the “genius theory” of architecture but in my experience it is necessary or the project never gets off the ground. Without an overarching idea, good buildings do not happen. They either become copies of previous works or collections of chaos. In my office, one or maybe two people worked on the initial stages of a project until a specific direction or a cohesion of the parts came together. Then more people could be added as there was a shared understanding of what the project was about. I realized that I had lost control of a project once it grew beyond about 70,000 sf. It was no longer possible to hold that many issues, concerns, priorities, materials, needs together in my head. It was at that point when I was running a project instead of designing it. When I could no longer could walk into a room under construction and know where the light switch was or how the ventilation worked or exactly what could happen in that room, I knew my role had changed. I had become an initiator and the client’s interpreter and that things would happen in the building that I should not have allowed to happen.
I once had a conversation with Barton Myers, an architect now working in Los Angeles and living in Santa Barbara who is recognized as a leader in the design of steel houses and theaters, about how to organize an office and what the role of the “design leader” was. He responded that he thought that designing a building was much like directing a film. It takes about the same time, the end product costs about the same, and it requires the same number of people or consultants. He thought that his role was more of an organizer of the all of the disparate trades together. But beyond organizing, he role was that of the decider. Sort of like George Bush. In the end, one person must make the decisions about what stays in, how goes out, and what is important.
For years, I was uncomfortable calling myself an architect. I was a draftsman, a design assistant, a project manager but never an architect. It wasn’t until I had no one over me making decisions that I became comfortable using the title of Architect. I use it sparingly. In a similar fashion, I never refer to my role in making photographs as that of an artist. I’m an artisan practicing a craft. Now and again, I might be able to create a good photograph but I don’t fool myself that I’m an artist.
P.S. I forgot to mention that my notion of architectural practice is undoubtedly a result of the structure of my office. The principal in charge was also the principal designer. There was no production department. The principal in charge supervised the construction documents. People who had worked on the project in the design stages moved into production. So a person who had helped with the design of a theater would be involved in the construction documents of the stage, seating, rigging, etc. Very old school but it meant that the people detailing the seating layout knew all about the theater (what the audience was about, what was performed, when was it used, was it multi-functioned). The principal in charge would often red line the drawings and talk to the person doing the detailing about what the proportions were based on and the overall design intent. Much of this happened with the architect either side by side with the draftsman or across a table from him doing sketches upside down on the prints. The computer changed much of that and much was lost. Part of what was lost was learning how to think on paper and how to hold many things in the air at one time. I remember asking someone on my last project to draw a section through that part of the building. She was unable to do so without pulling up five or six drawings and then could not draw it by hand. It used to be part of your DNA.
This is a bit long winded for the first day of 2018. Enjoy the year.