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.

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.