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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The First Priority of Architecture

Architecture is a building, or collection of buildings, providing shelter that often includes exterior pavement and project open space. It is supported by the Movement, Life Support and Open Space divisions of the built environment and displaces its source of life -- the Natural Domain. 

Architects appear to be searching for a definition that distinguishes architecture from buildings by emphasizing fine art, but fine art is not the first priority for shelter in a world that demands symbiotic correlation from all living functions.


Evaluating architecture with opinion is a fine art tradition, but it does not address the problem of shelter composition and context for growing populations within symbiotic limits. This is not only a first priority for architecture and city design, but for us all.


The appearance of architecture can only be judged, but the composition, intensity and context created by the relationship of building mass and pavement to project open space can be measured. These project characteristics combine with a city’s land use allocation, movement, open space, and life support systems to determine its physical, social, psychological and economic quality of life. Architectural appearance symbolizes the culture, talent, and knowledge that led to the decisions adopted; but we are not even close to the knowledge required for shelter appearance to indicate symbiotic awareness and achievement.  


Architecture has not emphasized symbiotic land use allocation, building composition, and context design regulations in the face of a speculative desire for maximum development capacity at minimum cost; but the issue of shelter for the many activities of growing populations has sustainable public consequences it is qualified to address. 

The symbiotic allocation mentioned in the previous paragraph has several decision-making layers. The first involves the amount of land allocated to the Built Domain and the land that remains for its source of life, the Natural Domain. Within the Built Domain, allocation involves land designated for shelter, movement, open space and life support. Within the Shelter Division, it means the allocation of land for activity, intensity and open space that can protect a growing population’s quality of life and economic stability. Within a single Shelter Division project, it means the allocation of land to accommodate building cover, parking cover and project open space. The addition of building height produces building mass (volume) that combines with pavement and is offset by open space to produce project composition and intensity. The final design of composition produces the context we experience. Within each building, energy is allocated to mechanical systems that serve spatial allocation for building activity, but energy conservation is the closest we have come to considering symbiotic relationships with the source of this energy. In the end, architecture is about the wise use of land and resources for shelter. Form follows function that respects the symbiotic law of Louis Sullivan’s poetry. This is when architecture will bloom in many ways, and some will be judged fine art.  


Symbiotic science is beyond my level of competence, so I’ll stick to the architecture I know and the city design that will lead activity allocation, shelter intensity, composition and context design. The visible shape of these decisions has been commonly referred to as “urban form”. 


An architectural project falls into a design category represented by a forecast model. The model is like a musical instrument with a fingerboard called a design specification template. Each topic in the template is a string of the instrument. The values assigned to each topic are notes in a score. The score for each instrument combines with the talent of the musician to determine the quality produced. At this point, however; the instruments are new; solo performances suffer from scores written by the audience; and symphonies have not been written by qualified composers and executed by conductors in control of the orchestra. Is it any wonder that we have dissonant sprawl threatening our source of life? The symphonies we call cities have grown into an embarrassment that is emerging as a threat to the survival intended. A great solo performance without a score has been called architectural fine art, but we cannot survive on fine art when accumulated knowledge and awareness are required to sustain success over generations. 

When architecture can define symbiotic land use allocation and resource consumption within a built environment that improves the quality of life for growing populations, it will advance to context design contributions in the public interest. This is a goal that will distinguish future architecture from centuries of previous building effort. 


Architecture has a long history of correlating knowledge to produce combined contributions that are more than the sum of their parts. This is another point in history when it can choose to create new disciplines similar to its previous engineering contributions, or follow with the lack of coordination this implies.


AUTHOR NOTE: If this essay has retained your interest, you may also be interested in software entitled, Development Capacity Evaluation, v.2 that is attached to my book / manual entitled, Land Development Calculations, ed.2. They were published by The McGraw-Hill Companies in late 2009 and are available on

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

John Muir, Louis Sullivan & Architecture

Competition seeks dominance. Correlation is enforced by a power that demands coexistence. Compromise is human recognition that domination threatens correlation and survival.

This comment was prompted, oddly enough, by a Ken Burns documentary on PBS about John Muir. Muir was a naturalist and preservationist whose relationship with Theodore Roosevelt paved the way for Yellowstone, Yosemite and the national park concept of natural preservation. He believed human settlement must be separated from natural preservation because its competitive advantage and lack of symbiotic awareness prevented coexistence.

Muir’s opinion was opposed by Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forestry Service. Pinchot believed that natural resources could, and should, be managed for long term sustainable commercial use. He also believed that forestry was tree-farming, and that farming the environment would produce the “greatest good for the greatest number”.

Recovery from a harvest does not reproduce the world that is confiscated, however; and we are only beginning to realize that our dependence on this world is greater than our dependence on the farm. In fact, the Muir-Pinchot disagreement serves to illustrate that we live in two worlds. The Built Environment includes farming and is a bee hive within a Natural Domain that is its source of life.

The argument came to a head when Roosevelt was asked to balance the political interests involved. Muir could not prove that extinction was a possibility and Pinchot could prove that farming produced benefit. The result was a decision that reflected the balance of environmental power and awareness at the time. Roosevelt chose to support efforts to dam the Tuolumne River as a water reservoir for San Francisco. This flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Unfortunately, the Hetch Hetchy was considered equal to the Yosemite Valley in natural significance. The wisdom of this decision will be reconsidered when the world is no longer considered a farm.

Pinchot advocated the “greatest good”, but it was a one-sided definition that ignored CORRELATION and cut through interactive environmental relationships. The result in this example was domination of the San Francisco Bay and extinction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. This wasn’t farming. It was confiscation with consequences that will only be revealed when knowledge improves awareness and prediction.

We are still unable to define the words “sustainable” and “symbiotic”. This fills debate with sound bytes written to influence rather than persuade; but more are beginning to question “the greatest good for the greatest number”. They are beginning to realize that a “world without end” is not an infinite place for “the greatest number” and survival is at risk when the “greatest good” ignores its source of life.

The answer is somewhere between Muir and Pinchot, but I favor Muir until we reach the level of awareness Pinchot called “sustainable”. We all know we’re not there -- yet.

I believe the shelter capacity we provide within symbiotic limits will define the quality of life we achieve and the population we can sustain. This is organic awareness and it challenges our ability to adapt. I’ve written Development Capacity Evaluation software and the manual Land Development Calculations to help with the evaluation of architectural options. They are based on the belief that the survival of form and function depends on correlation with its source of life, and that the Modernist movement over-simplified Louis Sullivan’s famous quote to suit a limited aesthetic objective. Sullivan said, “…That form ever follows function. This is the law.” In other words, a flower blooms when its functions are correlated with its source of life.

We must correlate our place within the gift we have been given. If we do not adjust to the forces that surround us; our growth and competition for dwindling resources will simply produce extinction. Neither Muir nor Pinchot advocated this outcome, and both were searching for alternatives in a culture of compromise that must respect an uncompromising universe.