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Sunday, February 6, 2011


I wrote this for the AIA KnowledgeNet (American Institute of Architects) but thought that some in the city design and planning community might be interested.

Aspiring attorneys are graduating in numbers that cannot be absorbed and, according to The New York Times; their law professors are beginning to ask if the opportunities justify the expense? They worry that students in debt will become dissatisfied alumnae claiming that benefit only accrues to the educator. This is a recipe for decline they wish to avoid, and I assume that other professions share their concern. These comments address architecture and city design.

Design decisions matter but we should ask why, since the demand for service is in proportion to the perception of need; and architecture has had difficulty convincing the public that its priorities are equal to theirs.

In my opinion, architects have been trained to solve problems, not define them. Programming is considered an owner responsibility or an additional expense; but a program of requirements is an essential springboard. The evaluation of design options, or solutions, is considered a creative exercise; while system design is stressed in school rather than system assessment. For instance, an architect’s ability to calculate the size of a reinforced concrete beam has negligible value. His or her ability to evaluate structural system options, attributes and related costs can establish leadership direction. The engineering team is there to calculate the sizes and connections required. In other words, if architecture is about leadership and strategy, then it is about problem definition, option evaluation and the logic of design decisions. The rest is tactical execution, and I think we all know that strategy without tactics will leave us stranded on the beach; and tactics without strategy will leave us in confusion.

After problem definition, an architect reconciles complex functions, systems and related costs within an envelope of energy conservation. The objective is shelter construction within the place created and the neighborhood involved -- without overdevelopment -- if the client agrees. It does not end with the place and neighborhood, however. Each must contribute to a city design strategy that provides shelter for activities without consuming the face of the planet. This involves protecting the natural environment from excessive encroachment while also protecting public health, safety and welfare within the built environment using physical, social and economic solutions. The arrangement, intensity and appearance of physical solutions to shelter social and economic activities will indicate the success achieved. Some will be fine art and all should represent a level of quality that says we are here to stay -- within the limits of our intuitive ability and natural welcome.

A majority may believe in the goal of life within limits and still be concerned about the strategic design options that produce shelter intensity, activity relationships and economic stability. If they agree with the goal however, design must be prepared to respond with the knowledge required. This may involve a sea change in priorities, research and assessment to serve the demand, which also implies a better return on investment in professional ability and continuing education.

In other words, design matters because of the problems defined and the decisions made. The result is strategy based on a goal. Tactical training must be equal to the objectives specified. Advances depend on the intelligence available and the communication involved. Appearance will reflect the success achieved, and may produce benefit equal to fine art for those who recognize these rewards.

            For a more detailed discussion, see “Examining Architecture”, "City Design with Space" and "The Variance Trap".