A non-cop-out post

So. It's that time of the semester that I have to get down to my biggest fear: Design Concept.

I'm really excellent at producing high quality work, once the design part is rounded out sufficiently. In fact, the longer I work on something, the more ideas I get. Unfortunately the bulk of my REALLY good ideas about a project happen like 6 months after I've finished it. And by that time I'm far too lazy to go back and re-design, or fill out missing parts. While I like to believe that all these good ideas get stored up in my head for later or sink in or add to my process of coming up with design concepts, when it comes down to pre-design conceptualizing, I suck.

It seems to me that there are two general bookends to the spectrum of design.

First is what I'll call 'contextual' design. This is a process where you examine

  • What already exists on site 
  • This is heavy on analysis like building and material typologies, 
  • Transportation routes and existing paths
  • How the environment acts on a site
  • Uses and functions of surrounding buildings, 
  • The history and overall morphology of a site, 
  • The socio-economic census data.
  • From this information you propose a design which will complement or improve what already exists

The pros about this are that by familiarizing yourself with the history and morphology of a site through time, you can use the main influencing factors on what's already there to come up with a concept for the future of the site and what SHOULD be there. You are more likely to be sensitive to how people already use the space, or what they need and want for the future. The cons are, all this analysis can come across as statistical and more like a formula for a design 'solution' to some kind of urban/design 'problem'. It also removes the architect as a key figure in control of design.

 

The second method is the 'Independent Design' method. This is where you

  • Have an awesome idea for some superkul sculptural-lightbox thing (or whatever)
  • The design is conceived of seperately from the site and its conditions
  • But it looks so flippin' cool you can hardly resist your desire to build it
  • It is based more on ideas than direct material or functional influences
  • Afterwards you can find lots of justification for why it should go on site
  • The architecture changes the site radically instead of being influenced by the site.

Pros are, you can work through certain themes your entire career while just changing the media and location. For example, like Calatrava you might be trying to find a way to push the limits of structure, and how that structure is conceived has nothing to do with where your site is or what's around it. You are somewhat more free to think of architecture in terms of pure principles rather than having a melange of data tell you what it wants or needs. If the architecture is good, it seems to fit in regardless of the context. Cons: you can end up with insensitive architecture that is pushing an ideal rather than reality; egotistic architects develop a style that becomes so well-known that people want a copy in every major city, and you end up with 'faddish' architecture that has no real meaning for the place or people.

 

One thing that is present in both courses is a heavy dose of post-justification. In the first instance, you can say that the architecture 'had' to be a certain way because of x influences. It's almost as if you were not designing anything, but were just guiding things to their logical conclusion. It's very difficult to argue with this idea of architecture, unless someone is willing to go through exactly the same analysis to see if they come up with something different. You can end up with quite boring architecture this way. It seems that the architecture was forced on itself rather than being specially designed; 'The other buildings were concrete, so I had to use concrete.' The architecture is afraid to stand out.

In the second instance, you can use abstract ideas to justify your design of something so different. Instead of taking from direct imagery ('the roof is shaped like the sails of the ships that sit in the harbour on the site'), you can take from the realm of concepts, which are equally hard to argue ('The library contains books which contain precious knowledge; the library is therefore a 'diamond' and its form will derive from 'diamond-like' qualities).

Of course there are plenty of positions in between what I consider as two opposite approaches to design.

One Danish firm I like, BIG, does a fairly good job of drawing from both the context and strong concepts. And the reason it works is that their concepts are not physical qualities like 'light' or 'shape', although those certain do figure into the designs... The concepts are more guiding principles, like 'realistic carbon neutral housing.' From this one can come up with endless design concepts, which are both variations on a theme and sensitive to their context.