Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis pt 4: Timeless frameworks, and where do we go from here?

In part 1: Architecture is not a Profession, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society.

In part 2: The Foundations of Architecture, I talked about what architecture is currently based upon, and how to unify these into a governing framework that encompasses all architectural ideologies based off Vitruvius.

In part 3: Goals, ethics, and the people element, I placed the framework within society and introduced aspects of a professional ethical responsibility to serve other people.

In this final conclusion, I talk about future proofing the efforts of an architectural profession, and hint at what where we go from here. What did this (very long) series conclude? Now what have we learned? What can we now set out to tackle?

The final element: Resolving timelessness

The architectural framework has addressed a need for a foundation as well as the need for professional goals. There is still one thing missing: the ability to solve these goals.

The world is complex. As architecture is a justified solution to a predefined problem using the world as its medium, many of architecture’s goals will also be complex.

Complex goals take time to solve. There isn’t much use in introducing a framework to solve larger issues if we don’t have time to solve these issues past a certain number of years or generations. We need time to understand the nuances of the world, test our solutions, and figure out where we went wrong.

This does not suggest that time is all that is needed to work the world out, if that is possible at all. It merely suggests that prolonged effort may be a good thing towards achieving goals.

To support complex goals that may bridge theories and allow us to carefully consider when we choose to advance a theory, I propose a final element to bind the first four. I propose time.

The word time refers not to itself, but its effects. This may be impermanence, permanence, change, conditions and their propagation.

  • It is encompassing. It is based upon time, the flip-side of built form, which is equally a universal constant for all built forms.
  • It is descriptive. It does not dictate an effect of time or a belief of how time works, but simply an awareness of its existence.
  • It is agnostic. As people and built forms all are part of physical phenomena, they are all subject to time, regardless of psychological belief.

Again, many theories have already considered time, such as metabolism, who felt the urgency to adapt, Nazism, who modeled a 100-year Reich after Roman’s “eternal classical architecture”, and sustainable architecture, who thought about future effects. Theories which are neo, post or somehow reactionary or a revival towards an older theory or even future-looking are all addressing issues of time. All consider that time happens.

The reason time binds the first four is because it helps us frame the era where theories are valid. It makes us state exactly how universal our proposals are trying to be. This influences theories to be seen not as standalone items but as part of an ongoing process. This awareness of a larger process helps share traits across theories that tackle the same goals, giving us a little push towards spending longer on a goal before giving up.

Nature of a framework

The final framework: firmness, commodity, delight, ethic and time is nothing new. By definition it has to have existed, been practised and seem blindingly obvious to the profession in order to work. This is the final proof of its validity as a binding force to the profession and to its three outlined characteristics.

Although the framework is presented rather dogmatically, it is designed to be extended and interpreted by its users. The only restriction is in the way it is extended: in the form of theories which state their position on each of the considered elements before elaborating into detail.

If extensions of the five elements are considered, they should be considered being well aware of their goals. For example, this framework differs from the original intentions of Vitruvius, and the later famous extensions by Alberti. Whilst Vitruvius tells how buildings are built, and Alberti tells how buildings are to be built[1], this framework’s goals falls somewhere in between. It is created neither to establish a new discipline or open a new epoch, as Alberti did, nor to be a custodian of tradition, as Vitruvius did. It is a guide between the two to solve an existential crisis.

As a guide, the framework is designed into architectural education. Instead of assuming a guidance of inspiration and genius, a framework provides a rational base. This ensures not only that architects are theorising and building, but join the two in a way that they are in full intellectual command of what they are designing[2].

Current architectural mentality - a timeline of ideologies

The current mentality. A time-focused view with each theory dominating. This model creates periods of existential crises.

A new view based on a framework, where ideologies are linked to society and seen as assets - strategic tools to use.

Architecture’s foundation – a framework to achieve goals. Theories are no longer marked as irrelevant after a certain time period, but may be reapplied depending on the society. Existential crises can no longer exist as long as everything is described against the framework.

Architectural discipline is its true value: as a tool and indicator to help define architectural goals that are larger than individual theories. It converts theoretical argument into a greater synergy across the profession.

A framework is also a declaration. It declares an understanding that we cannot predict the world, but can’t ignore it either. Even if we choose to ignore elements in the framework, it will have to be a conscious decision.

Finally, perhaps the most important nature of a framework is its communicability. Its simplicity allows it to be understood by those outside the profession and quickly empathised by those entering it. This concreteness helps form the basis of any abstractions used in the industry and distils it to useful, beneficial applications. Because we can once again connect to society on disciplined, measured and focused foundation, we can once again serve it as a profession.

Where to from here?

With an army of theories at our command, hundreds of tested implementations, and a framework to generate new ones should we need to, the only thing left is to actually define goals.

The question is, does architecture have a political meaning? The answer is, self-evidently yes. Should architects, like Le Corbusier or anyone else, today, try and change the world? The answer is also yes. Should architects have a blindness to who the client is? The answer is no.

Ricky Burdett, London School of Economics[3]

While the framework cannot prescribe goals, I can propose some as an individual. But what long-term, with high ethical standards, widely recognised, measurable, focused, disciplined, world changing goals are appropriate for the needs of society and the interests of others?

[The eight Millennium Development Goals] form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions.

United Nations[4]

Is it possible? Certainly not at the current state of the industry. Not with focus on theory and undisciplined schisms. Not without foundation. Not without society oriented goals and time to solve them. But perhaps it could be, just perhaps, if we became professionals.

  • [1] Alberti, L. B., Rywert, J, 1988, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, typeset Asco Typsetting, Hong Kong, printed USA.
  • [2] Breitschmid, M, Architecture \& Philosophy: Thoughts on Building, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
  • [3] Barbican Five Points for An Ethical Architecture, Architecture Foundation London, viewed 4 October 2012, http://vimeo.com/29281095
  • [4] Background, United Nations Millennium Development Goals, viewed 20 October 2012, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/bkgd.shtml
Life & much, much more

Say no to selfish architecture

Oh dear, it’s been quite some time! Things have been astoundingly busy I’ve not had the time to touch the computer. However before we return to regular programming, there’s something I’d like to get off my chest.

Architecture is Selfish.

Architecture is an extremely old profession. However despite having such a long ancestry, it is still difficult to define exactly what architecture is.

In this regard, it is similar to the art industry, whose primary focus was initially representation and communication, but has long since devolved into abstractions that have left people similarly confused as to what art is. But that is another story, and is a challenge I will leave for another time.

I come today with the claim that architecture has and is growing towards a generation of selfish vanities, but before I do that, I need to attempt to answer the age old question of what architecture is.

Architecture is a justified solution to a predefined problem using the world as its medium. To be a master architect it is your job to be intimately familiar with the world in all of its nuances, and to be able to put it together into a solution which can be communicated and executed with results. This is not easy – the world is infinitely complex and to say its interactions are unpredictable is a vast understatement. To be able to master it completely is probably impossible, but it doesn’t mean you can’t win as many battles as you can on the way.

Having the world as its medium means three things:

  • Architecture extends across many, if not all industries. It is a saying that an architect needs to know a little about a lot – a form of a jack of all trades whose real ability is in the selection of trades. Architects need to be trained from the beginning to be exposed to other industries.
  • We cannot predict the world. We have to train ourselves to be sensitive towards behaviors and interactions. We won’t be perfect, but it’s better than not trying.
  • There are plenty of audiences to cater to. A well justified architecture needs to first filter what choices are relevant and prioritise the many interdependent aspects that make up the world. Justification has an audience, and knowing the audience is half the battle.

I hope, then, that I am alone in my experience of [undergrad] architectural education, which apparently doesn’t recognise the world as its medium.

Architecture in Education

In the undergraduate university, design is shifted into a dull detail whereas form, theorising and philosophy have been granted the “big picture” pedestal and requirement towards architectural fame: ie. you can’t be famous if you don’t have a charismatic philosophy.

Philosophy, or at least western ones, has the trait of “construction” – of adding a layer of imbued meaning or interpretation with increasing layers of complexity until it is taken as a truth, and then subsequently built upon again with another layer until it moves back into a subjective phase. Bonus points if your new layer is a reinterpretation or a controversial new direction.

For architecture, this means we are taking the already infinitely complex world scenario previously described and adding even more complexity on top – and the further up the abstraction tree you climb, the more you worry yourselves with incredibly irrelevant and in some cases, plain wrong, ideologies. Even worse, it is encouraged to add our own to the pile of abstractions rather than the opposite – stripping away constructions to get closer to what is -dare I use a dangerous phrase – an absolute truth. Architecture already presents itself with a fiendish problem without us having to add imaginary ones of our own.

Abstractions are a waste of time

Architecture has enough problems: a complex medium – to understand the world as its medium, unpredictability – problems revolve around people, and justification – how to confirm solutions. The only way to solve these issues is to look away from yourself and start learning about the worlds of other people. Architecture is not designed for the architect and never should be! Architects should design for the smile on other people’s faces, not their own.

It was worrying, then, the focus in my education on ideas like “what I thought”, or “what I felt” and then having it passed through the roulette board of critics. This is not what architecture should be – it should be a caring, empathising industry whose professionals aren’t those who are worshiped for their ideas but instead those who are able to appreciate the ideas of others. The real questions should be “who feels what, who thinks like this, and why are we listening to this who?”. With all the focus on “I”, we train ourselves to treat the architectural problem as an enemy with which we are at a constant war, whereas we should treat that world, our world, as our friend and ally. A proposal which doesn’t account for those most affected by it is a bad proposal.

This is why it is so important to be trained from the beginning to listen to others and to experience the worlds of other people. Not to make funky shapes or listen to arrogant philosophies and definitely not to make your own. Forms are getting easier to imagine with technology helping us, structural solutions are speeding ahead, and theories are a dime a dozen nowadays – the real issue is knowing how to empathise. It’s only from a young training that we can bridge the chasm between ourselves and the people around us.

I’ve come up with a few simple tests as to whether or not your architecture is selfish. Most architectural proposals have a concept – an overarching objective which governs all the decisions in the design process and the benchmark. This is the design equivalent of business’ mission statement. There is a lot of work put towards accurately defining this concept and then communicating it to others. A good concept is normally one which is loaded with meaning which can be extracted throughout the project. The tests are as follows:

  • Have you understood the complex medium of the world? If you have, you should be able to tell your concept to a bricklayer and they would understand the importance of why they are laying bricks. If you understand it well enough, you can present it simply enough.
  • Are you catering to unpredictability? How good can you predict a rant about a bad day in the life of your audience, and does your concept solves at least half of those issues?
  • Is your concept justified? Justified concepts can be re-communicated: somebody else should be able to present the concept on your behalf without any loss in key information.

And finally, to combat the common denominator – does your architecture care? Can you confidently say that introducing this building into the lives of the people who would be most affected by it improve their lives and make them happier?

The actual implementation is a separate issue – it turns into a benchmarking game whose expertise still extends beyond the role of the architect but is relatively straightforward to orientating your conceptual goals.

The TL;DR

Architecture’s solution defines a world for other people. If we can’t be bothered to understand how others see the world first, our solutions will never be more than a hit and miss. This is not opinion – this is an ethical responsibility of a professional.

I don’t want to be a selfish architect.