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Tuesday, June 14, 2011


            Explaining design excellence to a skeptical public will require a better explanation of decisions. It is one thing to introduce students to the architectural language of inspiration and quite another to measure excellence on a scale that will convince the public. The public expects an explanation in return for commitment and does not believe it cannot understand.

            Progress toward excellence, however, implies a goal. The current design award goal appears to be recognition within the profession. This means that awards are understood by the initiated but public benefit is met with skepticism. If architecture wishes to bridge the public-private gap, it must explain its decisions to a public that depends on shelter for survival. This will require a new system of measurement based on a vocabulary and language that can explain and defend its decisions.

            If Louis Sullivan still remains in our pantheon of heroes, form and appearance still follow function, but we have reversed Sullivan’s priorities. Functional excellence involves plans, sections, details, systems, context, specifications, contracts and budget; but these decisions have been too difficult to explain. On top of that, plans are being claimed by interior designers in the name of interior architecture; systems are chosen by engineers; context is left-over land assigned to landscape architects; and budgets are the Achilles’ heel of the profession.

            The warm and fuzzy world of artistic opinion may be a catalyst but it is not a solution. It must be accompanied by a foundation of knowledge that convinces the public we can make a positive contribution to their daily quality of life. We live in context and survive in buildings. An architect who is forced to sacrifice context for development capacity introduces intensity that is not a public benefit. We only need to look at the tenement targets of social reform and public health for proof of this axiom. The public lives in a context created by architecture, however. The language of context is intensity, and it is composed of design components that can be measured. Intensity is calculated from these measurements and predicted with the help of design specification templates in forecast models. It represents one measurement of our quality of life, but it’s like taking blood pressure without the knowledge required for interpretation, since an abstract idea requires extensive research to connect it to reality. Architectural intensity is blood pressure without knowledge, and research represents the next step in a long history of architectural adaptation, in my opinion.

            Context is the relationship of building mass and pavement to open space. Project open space has been a commodity that remains after building area and parking requirements are met. It has been an after-thought, but design that ignores context and intensity is not a public contribution. This is a dilemma and an opportunity that requires leadership with a vocabulary and language that can become an adequate foundation for artistic expression.

            Form and appearance without function and context is incomplete. Sullivan and Wright have always been correct. Organic form follows function, but both are determined by natural responses to context that we call adaptation. These are design decisions. In the natural world context is given and responsive decision is a scientific mystery being unraveled from an infinite puzzle. In the artificial world of shelter we are expected to define sustainable context and adapt to its parameters with design decisions. It’s a tall order but a worthy goal.

            Architectural form emerges from decisions based on opinion; but artists take their knowledge to the grave and leave inspiration. We stare in wonder at their talent but should be standing in a museum where context respects accomplishment. This is the gallery approach to architecture, but architecture has never been a painting or sculpture controlled by the artist’s intent.

Sullivan and Wright were inspired by organic appearance but could not explain the design decisions that led to form and function. They could only theorize that form followed function. Artistic choice was based on opinion. They left organic decision to be unraveled by science. The modern period became inbred. It theorized that form was a product of industrial function. Natural function became an obstacle to overcome and form followed invention. Speculation has responded with sprawl as populations grow across the face of the planet.

What seemed infinite was visually confirmed as a small gift in black space protected by a thin film of atmosphere at risk in 1969. The Natural Domain became an environmental asset to be preserved and the Built Domain began to emerge as both a resource and a threat to survival. The built environment continues to expand the boundaries of our Built Domain and the intuitives among us sense the presence of a predator, but it is the predator of past practice that has always devoured those who fail to adapt. Some are raising their heads in alert but there is no place to run. There is only one certainty in this situation. The planet knows how to adapt without permission. We can only guess at the right path to follow with the help of accumulated knowledge. An educated guess resides in the world of instinct, intuition, imagination and inspiration. It permits us to contemplate abstract paths that some call evolution. Memorization records what is discovered and calls it knowledge that is passed to future generations.

            Sullivan was on the right track but our attention has been distracted by industrial invention. Protection of natural context, however, will require an understanding of shelter intensity options. In architecture and planning, shelter context will result from intensity decisions within the limits of an artificial world called the Built Domain. These decisions will directly affect our quality of life and relationship to a natural partner that does not compromise with ignorance.

The design components of intensity can be measured, forecast and catalogued. Knowledge emerges when the physical, social, psychological and economic implications of intensity measurements, options and decisions are understood. Design decisions can then be explained, and policies established, to adapt shelter demand to a limited Built Domain with intensity options that do not sacrifice our human dignity and quality of life.

We have been building with abandon as if the Natural Domain did not exist, but the Built Domain must be limited to protect the source of its survival. Shelter within limits, however, will require a much better understanding of intensity options as populations grow. The alternative is encroachment that forces the Natural Domain to respond with forces beyond our comprehension.

We communicate with an architectural language of fine art that is not equal to the challenge. We may convince ourselves but cannot convince others of public benefit and design excellence with this strategy. The public will not believe until we can explain, and its sustainable future hangs in the balance.

Architecture emerges from context with intensity but much of it is compromised because it does not control the land. It adapts to an owner’s program, who considers context a “taking” when it interferes with his interest. The result is unexpected intensity, stress that cannot be measured and sprawl across the planet.

Design excellence is currently measured with the yardstick of opinion. If public benefit is an architectural objective, the goal will have to be clarified and benefit will require a new measurement system. At the present time, education and research leave us with little more than opinion. This is not knowledge in my dictionary. Form follows substance. Substance is knowledge and decision that can improve our quality of life within sustainable geographic limits. If the definition of a Built Domain and the accumulation of intensity knowledge sound quixotic, then we are at a fork in the road.

The language of intensity is based on design component values used by embedded equations to forecast development capacity options. These are intensity options that can be compared to the context measurement of existing component values and evaluation of the conditions represented. Decisions produce intensity and context. In architecture, the context of a single flower enhances the garden but cannot compensate for a field of thorns, even though it may make a delightful photograph of contrast. This means that architecture has a larger mission if it chooses to take the assignment and confront past practices.

My impression has been that architecture wishes to measure design excellence and claim public benefit. Claims based on opinion without measurement are not equal to the challenge, but architecture has a choice. Its foundation of philosophy can continue to be taught to students who graduate with pattern language and opinion, or collaborative research can begin to evaluate the physical, social, psychological and economic consequences of intensity decisions that will shape our quality of life and sustainable future.  

Design creates context and intensity that architects have not measured and cannot control. Control is only granted to those who prove they can perform in the public interest. Style is a benefit, but intensity will define our quality of life within limits that will be imposed if not defined. This is a challenge for the profession. It is not a task for a practitioner who can only apply the tools of the profession. We need new tools that will make it possible to measure design excellence. At the present time we have little more than the yardstick of opinion.

If I have made myself clear, design excellence awarded on the basis of opinion will have a difficult time convincing the public of substantial benefit. Design is actually decision that adapts to context and constraint. Intensity is a design decision that responds to context and constraint. It can be measured, evaluated and forecast; but it has not been an architectural target nor a city design plan. It has been a response to land ownership limitations and free enterprise objectives that have largely ignored or manipulated intensity and stress in both the Natural and Built Domains.

When architects express a concern for the Built Domain and demonstrate that they understand intensity options, they will begin to address context in the public interest with a measurement language that supports their arguments. Design award evaluation will then leave knowledge for future generations in addition to symbols of cultural achievement. From this standpoint, design excellence is not a product but a collection of decisions represented by a product that has successfully adapted. Our task is to identify success with the collaborative measurements, evaluation and knowledge required. The final reward will be continued survival with dignity; and it will be granted, not given, without explanation.

AUTHOR NOTE: I’m always afraid of being too ambiguous. Architecture needs to assemble educators, professional offices, allied sciences and allied professions into a collaborative research center to create tools that can improve the performance and decisions of its practitioners. Knowledge will require public funding and decisions will require public support. When public benefit is apparent research grants and collaboration should be available. The issue is the context, function and form of shelter that can protect the public health, safety and welfare within a limited Built Domain. Intensity options are the key but they have physical, social, psychological and economic implications that are not understood. They can be measured, however, and evaluation can build knowledge that combines with form and appearance to establish another period in the evolution of architectural solutions to the problem of shelter, but within new constraints.

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