Search This Blog

Monday, January 2, 2012

Shelter, Survival & Design

***Please see my latest book, The Science of City Design: Architectural Algorithms for City Planning and Design Leadership, on in both e-book and paperback versions.***
If Louis Sullivan remains in the pantheon of architectural heroes, his observation that form follows function remains as well. This observation applied to the organic functions of nature, however; and “organic architecture” became a poetic analogy for Sullivan’s ornamentation and the appearance of shelter created by Frank Lloyd Wright. It remains relevant however, because it represents an intuitive glimpse into the future.

The benchmark for excellent design in nature is survival. The benchmark for excellent design in architecture WILL be survival as populations grow and we attempt to provide shelter within a Built Domain that does not threaten its source of life – The Natural Domain. Organic architecture is a tall order for a profession that is struggling to define excellence in traditional practice, however. The symbiotic goal is clear but progress will require an increasing ability to explain how the context, form, function and appearance of architecture contribute to the goal. The difficulty is magnified when a beneficial quality of life is also specified for populations that currently sprawl to survive without considering the consequences.


Excellence in architecture has been defined with site plans, floor plans, elevations, sections, details, life support systems, specifications, contracts and budget; but these components have made no organic contribution and have been difficult to explain beyond the time involved to design, the cost involved to build and the client satisfaction produced. As a consequence, architecture remains an artificial creation imposed on a natural world.

We cannot fully explain design excellence from the organic perspective of Sullivan and Wright until we can measure the symbiotic contribution of architectural decisions; but we have only begun to recognize the ladder of knowledge required for evaluation and explanation. We can begin climbing by learning to explain the logical process of problem definition, evaluation, and decision in a format that facilitates public explanation, since it is the foundation for architectural context, form, function and appearance. The key words in this sentence are evaluation and explanation. Calculation is primarily engineering.

The evaluation of shelter options based on problem definition is architectural design. At the present time, this is often an intuitive effort learned from experience that reduces the odds of repeating success across the entire profession. The first step, then, is to build the knowledge and tools that will permit efficient forecasting and evaluation of options. Decisions must become symbiotic solutions for survival. At this point context, form, function and appearance will be evaluated for excellence from a different perspective.


The world of artistic opinion will remain hypothesis for architectural design -- until it can be supported and defended by a foundation of organic knowledge. This achievement will convince the public that we can make a positive contribution to their sustainable future. Opinion is instinct, intuition and hypothesis. It can lead to knowledge but it dies with talent and has difficulty repeating success.


We travel through context and survive in buildings. An architect who is forced to sacrifice context for 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 language of context is intensity, and its vocabulary includes design specification components that can be measured. Intensity is calculated from these measurements. It can also be predicted with the help of embedded equations in the design specification templates of forecast models.

Intensity represents one measurement of our quality of life and ability to provide shelter within a symbiotic Built Domain, but at the present time it’s like taking blood pressure without the knowledge required for interpretation. A measurement requires extensive research to connect it to reality. Architectural intensity is a blood pressure reading without a frame of reference. This frame of reference represents the next step in a long history of architectural research. It began with the strength of materials and has spun-off entire professions until its success now shelters its greatest challenge.

Context is the relationship of building mass and pavement to open space. Project open space is a commodity that remains after building, parking and miscellaneous pavement areas are provided. It has been an after-thought, but design that ignores open space produces random intensity and potential over-development. Open space now represents a dilemma and an opportunity within a limited Built Domain.

In other words, intensity is the measurable context of place. A single place is created by architecture. A collection of places is created with the architecture of city design, and city design is a public priority that combines land use allocation with architectural intensity to protect our health, safety and welfare within a limited Built Domain. (Welfare in this context means physical, social, psychological and economic benefit to an entire population.)

Form and Appearance

Form and appearance without an explanation of context and function will produce incomplete shelter solutions from an organic perspective. Sullivan and Wright were intuitively correct. They were simply limited in their ability to pursue the analogy they drew. Organic form follows function, and both are determined by a response to context that we call adaptation and natural selection. These are design decisions in the natural world. Context is given and response is a mystery of infinite proportion being slowly unraveled by science. In the artificial world of shelter we are expected to define sustainable context and adapt to its parameters with city design decisions. It’s a tall order but an essential goal.

Architectural form presently emerges from design decisions based on opinion.  We travel to stare in wonder at exceptional talent but should be standing in a museum. This is the gallery approach to architecture, but it has always been more than fine art.

Sullivan and Wright were inspired by organic appearance but could not explain the natural design decisions that led to its form and function. Organic theory was opposed by industrial theory and the modern period of architecture emerged. It theorized that form was a product of industrial function. Natural function became an obstacle and form followed invention while speculation responded with sprawl.

What seemed infinite was visually confirmed as a small planet 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 a threat to survival. The Built Domain continues to expand its presence and the intuitives among us sense the presence of a predator, but the predator is past practice. It has always devoured those who fail to adapt. Some are raising their heads in alarm 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 research and evaluation. Fine art is the voice of intuition, but the language of survival is knowledge built on its foundation.


The design components of intensity can be measured, forecast and catalogued. This means that the physical, social, psychological and economic implications of intensity measurements can be studied. This in turn can improve future design decisions intended to shelter activity within a limited Built Domain.

Architects attempt to balance intensity with open space to produce desirable context, but much of it is compromised because they do not control the land. They serve an owner who may consider open space a “taking” when it interferes with maximum development capacity. The result is unexpected intensity, stress that has not been measured and sprawl across the planet.

The language of intensity is based on a vocabulary of design component values. They are used by embedded software equations to forecast development capacity options. These are intensity options that can be compared to the context measurement and evaluation of existing conditions. This means that architecture has a much greater role to play in city design if it chooses to take the assignment and confront past practice. The alternative is continuing encroachment that will force the Natural Domain to respond with natural selection.

Design Excellence

Design excellence is currently measured with the yardstick of opinion. If a convincing explanation of public benefit is an architectural objective, a new measurement system will be required. At the present time, education and research leave us with little more than opinion. This is not knowledge in my dictionary. Form must follow functional knowledge before we can achieve symbiotic, organic goals within a limited Built Domain.

My impression has been that architecture wishes to measure design excellence using public benefit as one criterion. Claims of benefit based on opinion will not be equal to the challenge. Collaborative research is needed to evaluate the physical, social, psychological and economic consequences of intensity decisions. This is a challenge for the profession. It is not a task for a practitioner who can only apply the existing tools of his or her profession.

If I have made myself clear, design excellence evaluated with opinion will have a difficult time convincing the public of substantial benefit. Intensity can be measured, evaluated and forecast; but it has not been an architectural topic or a city design plan for economic stability. It has been a response to land ownership limitations and free enterprise objectives that have magnified its impact. 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 research and measurement that supports their design arguments. From this standpoint, design excellence is not a product but a collection of decisions represented by a product that has successfully adapted to its organic responsibility. 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: Architecture needs to assemble educators, practicing offices, allied sciences and allied professions into a collaborative research center to create tools that can improve the performance and decisions of its practitioners. Research will require public funding and decisions will require public support. When public benefit can be explained, research grants and collaboration should be available.

The public issue involves the design of shelter. This includes its context, function, form and appearance within a limited Built Domain. It is the only way to protect the health, safety and welfare of growing populations from natural selection. Intensity options are a key but they have physical, social, psychological and economic implications that must be understood. This is the argument for research and the benefit will be nothing less than symbiotic survival. Fine art will bookmark the success achieved for future generations. 

Portions of this article were excerpted and edited from my book, Land Development Calculations, ed. 2, and its attached forecasting software, Development Capacity Evaluation, v2.0 published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment