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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Symbiotic Goal

Architecture is being advertised as fine art. This goal appears to be project-oriented and owner-specific. Public benefit appears to be a disposable objective, a weak claim and an unintended consequence of building display on the land available. I am not denigrating the effort. I am simply exploring the public relevance of a goal I have assumed. In my opinion, if broad public recognition of benefit is desired in this scenario, the goal must be adjusted to reflect the desire.  

In architecture "design matters" but it’s not a goal. It’s a statement of fact with a misunderstood term. Design refers to a thought process that leads to policy decisions regarding direction, function and result. The public impression of architecture, however, has been built around the term “fine art”; and the problem-solving, policy-making efforts of “design” have suffered by association.

Fine art ignores engineering while architecture has not recognized the difference between engineering policy and practice. For instance, the evaluation and choice of mechanical and structural systems is policy. The sizing of a duct or beam is practice.  

Architects are not practicing engineers. They synthesize diverse information from many technical disciplines to present project policy options and strategic definition. Correlation depends on creativity, knowledge and tools that are the foundation of credibility and persuasion.  One of these tools involves development capacity forecasting and intensity evaluation. It is based on the fact that open space offsets development impact to produce a measurable level of intensity, and the conscious provision of open space is a significant public policy decision within every architectural project. This is not too difficult to argue because open space can weave a city together with a commodity of acknowledged public relevance and benefit. It has been ignored in the past because it's an arbitrary requirement when there is no ability to predict its development capacity implications.

Design and production are terms that do not convey the importance of the policy decisions involved. Design decisions have been related to fine art. Production implies the absence of policy decisions during a process that requires more, not less. 

Imagine Roosevelt, Marshall, Eisenhower and Patton. In this analogy Roosevelt is the owner. Marshall and Eisenhower are design and production. Patton is construction. Design and production would be ambiguous references to the policy and strategy decisions of Roosevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower. Construction is more clearly related to the tactics of Patton, but his objectives were only part of the policy and strategy required to achieve the allied goal. I’d like to suggest that our goal is a symbiotic future supported by the containment of sprawl and the vocabulary of intensity.  

As a student, I was puzzled by the title of Sigfried Giedion’s classic book, Space, Time and Architecture. My professor, Rudolf Frankel, gave no explanation but named his master’s program City Design long before Edmund Bacon wrote Design of Cities. I have since come to believe that Giedion, Frankel and Bacon were attempting to say that city design is architecture over space and time, and that architecture is shelter served by movement, open space and life support systems. We are now realizing that its expansion must be contained within sustainable geographic limits without excessive intensity. In fact, intensity and land use allocation will become the language of city design; and architecture will refine these plans with tactical design to achieve each strategic objective.  

I have also come to believe that intensity is a feasible leadership vocabulary for the measurement, evaluation, and expression of city design policy; that intensity is the foundation for more detailed architectural decisions; that intensity plans must be codified to repeat architectural success over generations; that intensity does not threaten artistic freedom; that fine art will continue to flourish within intensity parameters; that this can only proceed with the support of public policy and law; and that the public relevance of architecture is linked to city design policies for a symbiotic future.


Architectural intensity per buildable acre is the relationship of gross building area and pavement to project open space. When unbuildable area is included it reduces the intensity calculated but increases the actual intensity experienced within the buildable area that remains.

Project intensity is further influenced by the presence of a city’s movement, life support, and public open space systems. A population’s awareness, understanding and allocation of land use activity and intensity will determine its ability to achieve and monitor physical, social, psychological and economic stability. The survival of a city’s population will depend in part on its ability to limit the encroachment of intensity into its source of life -- The Natural Domain.

I have written about city design in many essays and offered the concepts and tools of intensity measurement, forecasting, evaluation and regulation in the first and second editions of my book and software.

The Architectural Office

At the project level, architecture is based on a free enterprise format associated with competition and natural selection.

So where are we going with this concept of natural selection in architecture? Let me suggest that the answer is not as simple as the one from free enterprise. A reduction in offices and employment is distracting our attention while contributing to the chaos of sprawl. For those unfamiliar with the term, sprawl means an inability to contain shelter, movement, open space and life support systems within a limited built environment that protects its source of life.  

We are now living in the Age of Sprawl. This can only be considered the path to a symbiotic future if we recognize the threat in time. This is currently beyond the scope of private practice, but expanded business opportunity awaits the introduction of new tools and comprehensive leadership equal to the threat. 

Leadership begins with a question. In this case the question expresses the intuition of many. It asks why buildings have become cities of sprawl and if this is the path to a sustainable future? Sprawl is a symbol of competition seeking dominance. It is based on consumption that is a recipe for starvation, not survival. From this perspective competition is a primitive, territorial concept and Darwin’s theory of evolution actually describes a correlation of forces that we barely comprehend, but that improves the chances of survival over time.

Faith in chaos is fatalism that can lead to extinction. It ignores responsibility – and responsibility is a mandate we are expected to define with the gifts we have been given. We understand the term, but have yet to equate it with the natural correlation we must emulate to survive with the knowledge of science and the vocabulary of intensity.

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