Life & much, much more

Architecture and what makes good design

Given that my third year in architecture is about to begin, I wanted to talk a bit about what I judge to be “Good Architecture”. I’ve talked a bit about selfish architecture before and I want to expand on this.

Good architecture cares about other people and disregards our own subjective wants. I was first introduced to this idea back in the 2011 Flux Student Architecture Congress in Adelaide during a presentation by a New Zealander named Andrew Maynard. He switched to a new slide – split into two pictures. The left showing a picture of a typical Zaha Hadid shelter in her signature style, and the right showed the ubiquitous German bus stop.

Zaha Hadid vs the German Bus Stop

Andrew points out each picture and asks which is the better design? The winner, of course, is the bus stop. Why? Because of the following news headline: “Fake bus stop keeps Alzheimer’s patients from wandering off” ([source]/source).

These fake bus stops were put outside Alzheimer clinics. Previously, when patients were distressed, they would try to escape the building. The staff would then have to alert the police to track them down and bring the back. Now, they would see the bus stop, and sit there – waiting for the bus that would never come to bring them home. The staff would leave them to calm down, and after a while approach them and say kindly, “It looks like the bus is running late. Would you like to come inside for a cup of tea until it comes?” To which they would agree, calm down over some tea and biscuits, and forget that they were trying to leave.

This understanding of human needs and care for all parties (staff, patients, and society) is the hallmark of good design. It is in contrast to designing a prison to keep the patients inside, and in even greater contrast to Zaha Hadid’s socially-devoid self-indulgent form manipulations.

Unfortunately, folks like Zaha Hadid are worshipped and highlighted in our education, yet I can’t even find a name to attribute the bus stop to. You just need to look at the names of architecture firms to see the egotism – just notice how many are named after the architects themselves or their initials.

Become a better architect. Don’t be selfish.

Dion Moult

I've been developing software for well over 10 years, work as an architect (not the computer kind, the regular sort), and am classically trained as a pianist. I try to do the right thing when I get the chance in my field, such as through contributing to open-source communities and promoting sustainable living.

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  1. I’m all for good/altruistic architecture, but the fake bus stop outside the Alzheimer’s clinic seems really scary to me!

    It’s a very paternalistic view (that the medical staff must know better, that they could keep a patient from leaving their facility). “Paternalistic architecture”? :P
    I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a clinic against my will though I’m not too sure if that’s the best decision if I’m an Alzheimer’s patient.

  2. Don’t worry, it’s not scary at all! Alzheimer patients have a form of uncurable mental “dementia”. This causes them unneeded stress, the inability to think straight, and of course most famously, memory loss.

    To combat this, they need strict attention, with a regime of daily activities to alleviate their pain. Normally this is carried by a caregiver, but if there isn’t one (ie. all their relatives and friends are dead, as is the case with most older patients) – then their only chance for treatment is in a clinic.

    Allowing a diagnosed patient to roam free without any home or caregiver will cause themselves huge amounts of stress and pain as they realise the world they thought they lived in no longer exists, and may experience aggression, exhaustion and delusion. Only constant care can help them, especially in advanced stages. In fact, AD is one of the most costly diseases to society.

    As a result, a stress-free way to keep them in a clinic rather than the alternative of having police track them down and having to design a prison-like clinic is excellent design – as it allows the clinic to do what it does best – minimise stress on patients, not increase it due to security measures.

    Hope that explanation helped.

  3. This has many parallels to UCD, User-Centered Design. When I studied visual communication I realized how important it is to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use it. Great article, Dion!

  4. “I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a clinic against my will though I’m not too sure if that’s the best decision if I’m an Alzheimer’s patient.”

    Have you ever been in personal contact with an Alzhieimer patient? My grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for over 10 years and believe me, the disease is progressive and the patient slowly becomes entirely dependent on the caregivers. It is impossible for an Alzheimer patient to be independent. They slowly lose their brain functions one by one.

    Alzheimer patients in an intermediate to advanced state cannot, and I mean absolutely cannot, live a normal life without support.

  5. Erik, this is slightly different from user-centered design in that in considers the needs of more than the people in the building, but society in general as well and any other stakeholders which depend on the programme.

    The classic example illustrating this complication is “How do you design a jail?” Do you cater for the security guard’s needs, the prisoners, society, government?

  6. Nicely said Dion. Seems like some folks here failed to recognise that you were merely using the bus stop deign as a pointer to something being functional. Functionality, correctly applied, will serve people well, the point you’re trying to make. It has purpose, and in this case ‘people’ in mind. In my opinion simplicity tends to be king, always. Thanks for your insights.

  7. Thanks Ruan for your comments :) You are perfectly right. Functionality with respect to people and society’s needs are what I place as the highest importance in a design.

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