Is it enough to be an architect focused on concept?
More often than not, design decisions based on a concept rule if you are hoping to be a critically acclaimed architect. Your building must be saying something political. It must challenge. It must engage in discourse. I did not always know that.
At U of Oregon, I was taught by Bill (“William”) Kleinsasser that architecture is about meeting human needs. That resonated with me – it put words to some thoughts in my 19 year old head. I believed our chore as architects was to find human needs and then wrap them in architecture. Here are some of the needs he taught us to design for:
-Insideness (enclosure, security)
(William Kleinsasser. Synthesis 9. Eugene, OR: self published, 1999 p 228.)
His list is a little funky. It’s sometimes hard to know if these are needs, needs above greater needs or the solutions to needs. But you get the idea. These needs also aren’t physiological needs. The needs Bauhaus used to guide the design of worker housing - light and air – after being cooped up in smoky slums near factories were very much measureable and physiological.
Kleinsasser also wisely didn’t assign them to either psychology or spirituality. They don't make sense because you made them make sense. They are just needs you understand after years of building self-knowledge by patiently watching your feelings and mind at work as you experience architecture.
Later at UC Berkeley, I studied that architecture was media instead of a container that met a person's needs. We talked about buildings as if they were big TVs. We learned from semiotics to understand all designed things as books that present messages. Additionally these messages that all designed things held were to be understood in the terms of the cognitive connections they catalyzing in us through gender and cultural associations.
That made architecture live vividly in my mind but did nothing to illuminate my experience of a building or how to design good experiences. It was all about designing good messages.
I miss Kleinsasser’s idea, although I enjoy both perspectives – architecture based on human needs and architecture as presenter of concept.
Few writers have captured the necessity of architects to explore their own consciousness better than Alain de Botton in his book “The Architecture of Happiness”. Here’s a quote ( NOTE: De Botton is both a good writer and horrible at it. I’ve rewritten the quote. The original will be at the bottom of this post).
“To design means forcing ourselves to unlearn what we believe we already know. It requires us to patiently take apart the mechanism behind our reflexes and to acknowledge the mystery and stupefying complexity of needs we are seeking to meet behind every day gestures like switching off a light switch or turning on a tap.
“No wonder so many buildings don’t satisfy. They provide sad testimony to the arduousness of self-knowledge. No wonder there are so many rooms and cities where architects have failed to convert an unconscious grasp of their own needs into a reliable understanding for how to satisfy the needs of others through design.”
His words have brought my thinking into crisp focus. It’s not enough to study semiotics. It’s not enough as an architect to be singly focused on the communication of concept.
An architect has to be focused on human needs and can only partly understand without understanding their own.
Here, maybe, is Koolhaas coming to the same conclusion,
“I think one of the important evolutions is that we no longer feel compulsively the need to argue, or to justify things on a kind of rational level. We are much more willing to admit that certain things are completely instinctive and others are really intellectual.”
This is the next step in design. The ability to simultaneously handle methodologies for design that once seemed counter to each other is becoming the high art of the architect.
Here is de Botton’s original text from page 247 of his book “The Architecture of Happiness”.
“To design means forcing ourselves to unlearn what we believe we already know, patiently to take apart the mechanism behind our reflexes and to acknowledge the mystery and stupefying complexity of every day gestures like switching off a light switch or turning on a tap.
“No wonder so many buildings provide sad testimony to the arduousness of self-knowledge. No wonder there are so many rooms and cities where architects have failed to convert an unconscious grasp of their own needs into reliable instructions for satisfying the needs of others.”