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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Land is a Critical Design Element

My correspondence with Patrick Quinn, FAIA has proven to be a rich source of inspiration and I’d like to relate the following for all to consider. It refers to my essay, “Improving the Argument for Architecture and City Design”. Mr. Quinn's note has been placed at the end. 

Dear Patrick,

I’m afraid there is no language substitute for the creative back and forth that leads to schematic architectural design decisions; but schematic design is not the first phase, or the critical phase, of architectural design. I understand why you say this, based on the history of architectural education and emphasis, however. Your letter is very helpful in reminding me to make a point that is crucial to an argument supporting the public benefit of architecture and city design. 

Architectural design does not begin with programming and schematics. These involve the architect-client interface. There is a silent partner in the room. It is the ineffective and disorganized zoning ordinance that has been our best effort to organize architectural decisions as they accumulate to form cities. It dictates the development capacity of land without understanding the role open space plays in this definition. 

Design begins with the land. I’ve tried to explain the role of open space in, “Replacing Density”, and “The Limits of Shelter Capacity”. Open space in all of its forms is actually the key to survival, since it begins to define development capacity. The Natural Domain is entirely open space. It is the area needed to sustain all life on the planet, but it has not been outlined. I’ve called the land remaining, “The Built Domain”. The Built Environment can only expand within the limits of a Built Domain if all life is to be protected.  

The Built Environment is comprised of four divisions: Shelter, Movement, Open Space and Life Support. This classification is further developed in Appendix A of my book. The Open Space division of the Built Domain contains agriculture at one end of the spectrum and project open space at the other. When open space is specified throughout the spectrum of land use categories in the Built Domain, shelter capacity is a function of the land remaining, the architectural design category chosen and the design specifications adopted. Design specifications include a project open space percentage and building height decision. The entire specification defines the intensity that can be achieved on a given land area. These specifications will determine our future ability to shelter the activities of growing populations within a limited Built Domain. The connection is presently abstract because development capacity evaluation and specification is not linked to city design, shelter capacity, architectural programming and the schematic design that follows.  

I’ve encountered clients with program requirements that would not fit on the land they owned, even when intensity was dialed-up to sacrifice all vulnerable open space. In fact, excessive multi-family intensity within permitted density limits started me on this quest early in my career. I knew density and floor area ratios permitted too much, but opinion does not prevail when argument confronts profit with intuition. 

Design is based on logic, but this logic begins with development capacity evaluation for land within a Built Environment. This environment cannot be permitted to sprawl beyond the limits of its Built Domain. Now that development capacity can be accurately predicted, architectural programming will have an adequate frame of reference and schematic design will follow. When architecture and city design acknowledge this sequence, they will begin the research needed to persuasively establish the wise use of land; the shelter it can provide; and the public benefit that accrues with this knowledge.

Thank you for the best testimony I have read when you wrote: "All of the buildup is basic common sense and calculation based on logical options...." I would have been gratified if you had not continued with, "... setting the stage, as it were, for the critical phase which will involve the crucial (schematic design) decisions on which ALL subsequent ones will be based." Schematic decisions are tactical building decisions. My intent is to set the stage with strategic architectural decisions that I believe are crucial. These involve the development capacity of land; our ability to predict and evaluate many shelter options in the time it would take to sketch one; and our ability to provide shelter for growing populations within limits that protect their source and quality of life. This will set the stage for schematic architectural design with decisions I have called the architecture of city design.

For more on architectural benefit, please see, “The Public Benefit of Architecture”.


“Dear Walter,

Thanks for letting me know of your website. I am flattered to have been quoted at length.

Everything you write in the tables 1-4 makes sense except for one thing.

You leave the most critical decisions, those that arrive at "Schematic Design" up in the air and this fundamental phase remains as a "to be decided" category in your logical scheme of things.

All of the buildup is basic common sense and calculation based on logical options.... setting the stage, as it were, for the critical phase which will involve the crucial decisions on which ALL subsequent ones will be based.

What the profession needs is language to enable architects to be more efficient in getting through that initial stage which forms the basis of all subsequent work….”

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