Sunday, August 28, 2016

Response to Known Purposes and Needs

Mercado Municipal de São Paulo by FlaviaC (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

It’s time for another installment from the late T. William (Bill) Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook Synthesis. I’m always happy to feature excerpts from Synthesis here on my blog. Bill’s legacy is too important for me to allow it to become forgotten. 

As I’ve mentioned previously, Bill would never see Synthesis widely published. I attribute this largely to Bill’s penchant for incessantly overhauling the manuscript. He never appeared happy with the book, believing it could always be improved. Ironically, I find its earlier incarnations far richer than the later editions, albeit less cohesive and ordered. 

A recurring theme in Bill’s writings is that buildings should enjoy long and varied lives—that we should design them to be adaptable and resilient over time. For example, imprintability and changeability—the notion that the best places gracefully accept constant refinement and reshaping by their occupants. Or precise ambiguity—the power of spaces to evoke, but not dictate; to help, but not limit; or to be particular, but not closed. He also challenged the common practice of designing precisely to suit immediate needs without regard for how those needs might and are likely to change in the future. In the following passage from my earliest edition of Synthesis, Bill speaks more pointedly to the need for us to approach the design of buildings from this mindset. 

Activity Families and Families of Use
  1. Because people are unpredictable, a space intended for a particular use will sooner or later be used in ways not anticipated. 
  2. Because people seek perfection, a space intended for general use can be successful only if the uses to which it is put are sufficiently related in regard to need for equipment, physical characteristics, experiential impact, and connections to other places and things. 
  3. While human activities are hard to predict, they can be expected to form patterns or come in sets; and while accommodation of particular activities tends to invite environmental obsolescence, it is possible to organize space in anticipation of changes forecast by any one activity with the situational family of activities.
The first statement above implies that, no matter how definite its planned use, every space will at some time have to accommodate some unplanned use. For example, a family bathroom could and probably will double as a baby-dressing room, dirty laundry collection point, towel and linen storage closet, small library, sauna, maybe a darkroom, and maybe even more. 

The third statement above implies that the unplanned uses will probably all be related, or come in a family or set. For example, the bathroom described above probably never will be used for food preparation or sleeping. Spaces for particular uses tend to be used for more, but within limits, because each original uses establishes a family of uses. 

The second statement above implies that a space for unspecified uses must to some extent be changeable; and the several uses to which it is put to use must to some extent be adaptable. If complete changeability of space were possible, any use could be perfectly accommodated. On the other hand, if the character of any use could be changed to fit the limitations of a space changeability would not be necessary. Since it is unlikely that either could ever happen, the success of a space for unspecified use depends upon the developed interface between the changeableness of the space and the adaptableness of its use. 

For example, a space with a sloping floor is not as changeable as one with a flat floor. Similarly, a single space cannot successfully accommodate both a basketball game and a string quartet. The fixed-or-flat floor example demonstrates relative changeableness. The single-space example demonstrates the incapability of specialized or spatially demanding activities to adapt to spaces which were not made particularly for them. 

It would seem then that a space can be successful only for determined families of uses. Since some of those families might be very small and exclusive, some spaces must be highly particular and designated. Conversely, those spaces whose families of use are broad can be loosely fitting and relatively undesignated. 

To repeat, if we are concerned with the quality of human accommodations, particular-use spaces tend to want to accommodate more, and unspecified-use spaces tend to want to accommodate less. 

On the other hand, if we do not consider the quality of human accommodation, particular-use spaces can become particular to the point of being machines and unspecified-use spaces can become general to the point of being inexact, improperly equipped, or chaotic. 

And since spaces for particular uses and spaces for unspecified uses both accommodate facilities of related uses, they are alike. 

In the design of spaces for people it would seem important to always consider the nature of the activity—families to be accommodated rather than the single use or several uses which may be first and most easily identified. This simple expansion of responsiveness would cause the making of new kinds of space which are not either-or accommodations but instead balanced combinations of support for families of use, some known, some anticipated. We could then have spaces that be closer to what we need.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Let’s Fix Construction


I’ve said it before: Change is a constant in architecture and construction. If anything, the pace of this change is accelerating. We all struggle to keep up with the latest developments in an effort to remain competitive. Our success is contingent upon how quickly we adapt in an environment buffeted by forces largely beyond our control. Survival of the fittest is a maxim always in play. And as I’ve also expressed previously, the ability to communicate effectively is increasingly a valued commodity in the business world. This is especially true in the fast-changing construction industry where so much is typically at stake and placed at risk. 

The pace of change and the industry’s struggles to keep up with and address the problems it must confront have brought us to what may be seen years from now as a watershed moment: Do we resist this change or do we embrace and leverage it to fix what ails design and construction? How will those of us who will help shape its future—architects, engineers, specifiers, contractors, subcontractors, facility managers, building products manufacturers, building officials, and others—respond? 

One person who’s decided to take the bull by the horns and act is Eric D. Lussier, CSI, CDT. Eric is the current president of the Construction Specifications Institute – Vermont Chapter and a trusted advisor with Precision Athletic Surfaces. He recognized the construction industry is, in many respects, “broken” and in need of repair. He’d heard the same stories and seen the same disappointing outcomes time after time. Channeling his inner Albert Einstein, I imagine he invoked the famed physicist’s dictum: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Eric pledged to do something different. 

The new website letsfixconstruction.com is Eric’s response. It is a page where positive, forward-thinking, collaborative problem solvers from all disciplines can come together to share information, experiences, and solutions to the problems we face in architecture, engineering, and construction. Eric’s premise is that we cannot fix construction if we fail to talk candidly about our concerns. He firmly believes (as I do) it is by sharing our knowledge, openly communicating and encouraging collaboration that we clearly identify the root causes of problems in our industry and work toward solving them. We both also believe healthy communication starts when everyone has an equal seat at the table, such as the one set by CSI.

Eric wisely enlisted the help of none other than the queen of the CSI Kraken, Cherise Lakeside, CSI, CDT, immediate past-president for CSI Portland and current national chair of the institute’s Practice Area Curriculum Committee. Cherise in turn called upon Kraken Nation to rally around Eric and support his project. I heeded the call and am now a Let’s Fix Construction contributor. Others who have done likewise so far include Cherise, Keith Robinson, Elias Saltz, and Vivian Volz; I expect many more will join the movement. So far, the topics discussed have ranged widely, from what product manufacturers are doing (or not doing) right, to whether subcontractors are being heard, to the importance of providing feedback on project specifications. The content is thoughtful and born of many cumulative years of experience and frustration. 

While still in its infancy, it’s clear the website is already generating a buzz. During the first four days after its inception, over 500 unique visitors viewed Let’s Fix Construction. I’m sure this number has only grown exponentially since then. Those of us who have and will be contributing content recognize a groundswell of interest and are hopeful it truly will become a go-to forum for everyone in the architecture-engineering-construction industry to discuss the most intransigent problems we face and their possible solutions. 

Would you like to contribute a post for the Let’s Fix Construction blog? If so, let Eric know by emailing him at letsfixconstruction@gmail.com. He’s looking for content that speaks to experiences, ideas, and solutions—not merely a litany of complaints. He wants knowledge contributors. Being positive and forward-thinking is a plus. Case studies detailing issues and how they were resolved would be excellent. If you do furnish content, you will be credited and listed on the site’s Contributor Page. Once the list of contributors has grown beyond a certain number, Eric will issue specific topics for all to speak to. 

Are you a writer in the construction industry? Speak your mind, share your wisdom, and help mend our flawed systems. As Cherise always says “Go Big or Go Home!” Now’s the time folks. Let’s come together and #FixConstruction!  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Murals of Eugene

 
Colorful street murals have transcended their guerilla art and graffiti roots to become a broadly accepted, mainstream means to tell the story of a community. Eugene, lagging behind Springfield and even Cottage Grove in embracing murals, seems to finally be awakening to their rich possibilities. Spurred by the prospect of the 2021 IAAF Track & Field World Championships coming to Eugene, the city has embarked upon the 20x21 EUG Mural Project to install twenty new murals around town before the event. 

The mural project is bringing world-class muralists to Eugene. Last month, Brazilian duo Acidum Project kicked off the 20x21 project with a stunning new mural on the side of Cowfish Dance Club at 62 W. Broadway, and Brooklyn-based artist Beau Stanton is currently making his mark on the back wall of the McDonald Theatre. Get updates at 20x21 EUG Mural Project.

This coming Saturday, August 20 the Lane Arts Council is leading a bicycle tour of murals located throughout the Whiteaker neighborhood and downtown Eugene. The tour will feature 17 installations, with several of the artists on site to speak about their work. Included among the stops will be the unique opportunity to see Beau Stanton at work on the McDonald Theater mural (you can also see Beau speak on August 17 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art). The bike tour will also visit other new murals in town, including the Cowfish mural by Acidum Project and one by Ila Rose Art at the Whiteaker CarPark lot. The tour organizers expect Ila Rose, Kari Johnson, Jordan Schaefer-Limbach, Ron Lafond, Valentina Gonzalez, Hans d’Hollosy, Jim Evangelista, and Beau Stanton all to be present to speak on behalf of their work during the tour.

The tour will travel approximately 2 miles by bicycle and will be led by 20x21 EUG Mural Project Committee Member Paul Godin. Sponsors for the tour are the Cultural Services, City of Eugene, John A. Wolfe, PC of Speer Hoyt, LLC, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, First National Taphouse - Eugene, and the Cascadian Courier Collective

Because of a conflicting commitment, I won’t be able to join the bike tour but I do look forward to taking the time someday soon to visit as many of the murals as possible. Because they are so unique, and the best are so attuned to the local vibe, street murals are effective place-makers. They can often be achieved with relative quickness and little expense. The best positively impact their surrounding neighborhood, bringing life to what may have been a listless and moribund public realm. They have the power to engender community pride and a collective sense of identity through modest means. This is why I find them fascinating. Visit the Eugene murals: join the Lane Arts Council bike tour on Saturday, or do like I plan to and simply seek them out on your own at your leisure. I expect to be delighted by what I see and I bet you will be too.

What: 2016 Eugene Murals Bike Tour

When: Saturday, August 20 at 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM

Where: Tour begins at the Whiteaker CarPark South (5th Alley and Blair Boulevard)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Worst Buildings of the Last 125 Years

For its upcoming special 125th anniversary issue in September, Architectural Record convened an independent panel to select the best 125 buildings of the last 125 years.(1)  But for a list of BAD buildings, the magazine turned to its readers to each identify up to five of the worst buildings constructed since 1891. August 10 is the deadline, so I submitted my picks before it was too late.

As Thumper says in Disney’s animated classic Bambi, “If you can’t something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” My wife, too, thought speaking ill of the work of other architects is simply being unkind. “Why tempt karma,” she said suggesting that what goes around comes around. I know how hurtful it would be if someone thought a project I was involved with is deserving of being labeled as the “ugliest” or “worst design ever.” I don’t like to upset anybody. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist. May karma be kind to me.
 

The world is full of ugly buildings, but the majority of these comprise what Kriston Capps, staff writer for CityLab, referred to as “the dark matter of our built universe, the stuff we hardly detect that surrounds us in every direction.” In a 2014 article for Slate.com, Capps asked rhetorically “Why focus your hate on stellar architecture, the buildings designed for people to see, when the universe is filled with so much work that’s built not to be noticed?” The answer, of course, is because so much of the architecture we do shine a light on is of dubious merit despite (and perhaps because of) the aesthetic pretensions behind their conception. In my mind, they’re fair game. Accordingly, the choices on my “worst” list are all prominent, highly visible buildings rather than chunks of the banal and easily overlooked “dark matter.”

Photographs alone cannot fully and accurately represent the three-dimensional reality of any building or place, so I confined my worst buildings list to only those I’ve actually visited in person. The fact I’m not especially well-traveled profoundly circumscribed my choices.(2) Even so, my picks are like selections from a “greatest hits” compilation, most already appearing on other published lists of bad architecture. I guess this means ugly is universally recognized. Not all of these lists are exclusively the product of architects like myself, so my profession’s sometimes inscrutable criteria for what constitutes good design isn’t necessarily swaying them.

Here’s the list of the five buildings I consider worthy of the “worst” tag. Each of my selections is accompanied by a quote from someone who, like me, decided it to be deserving of public derision and scorn:

1. Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle – Architect: Frank Gehry

 

Experience Music Project Museum (photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

“It's hard to understand what Gehry was trying to do with this building. It boggles the mind. When it comes to ugly architecture, Gehry is one of the usual suspects. He's been making ugly, stupid buildings for a long time and he's still doing it. But this was the worst. This is where he jumped the shark.” (Dario Zapata)

My take: The EMP is just bad, bad, bad.

2. Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Building, London – Architect: Terry Farrell


The SIS Building (photo by Tagishsimon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

“It’d be easy for James Bond to hide on that roof: he’d have his pick of hulking concrete slabs, characterless green glass, and jagged rotundas behind which to suavely crouch. The Ugly Truth: While designing the intelligence headquarters, which opened in 1995, British architect Terry Farrell had to deal with extensive government requests, like removing windows and adding moats (yes, really). So the many eyesores supposedly exist for safety reasons, with cameras lurking behind every nook and cranny.” (Bunny Wong)

My take: What’s a Mesopotamian ziggurat doing in the middle of London?

3.  Boston City Hall, Boston – Architect: Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles
 

Boston City Hall (photo by Daniel Schwen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
City Hall is so ugly that its insane upside-down wedding-cake columns and windswept plaza distract from the building’s true offense. Its great crime isn’t being ugly; it’s being anti-urban. The building and its plaza keep a crowded city at arm’s length.” (Paul McMorrow)

My take: The biggest issue I have with Boston City Hall has less to do with its aesthetic than it does with the fact its construction necessitated destruction of an established neighborhood with a strong sense of community.

4. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. – Architect: Gordon Bunshaft

The Hirshhorn Museum (photo by Postdlf licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

"[The building] is known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign... It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine 'brutalism' a positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden." (Ada Louise Huxtable)

My take: The form of the Hirshhorn blindly ignores its setting on the National Mall, relying upon its sculpture garden to mediate the relationship between the building and the vast public open space on its doorstep.

5. Portland Building, Portland – Architect: Michael Graves 

The Portland Building (photo by Steve Morgan, via Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) 
 
"It's not architecture, it's packaging. I said at the time that there were only two good things about it: 'It will put Portland on the map, architecturally, and it will never be repeated.” (Pietro Belluschi)
 
 
*    *    *    *    *    *
 
Let’s see how many of my choices end up on Architectural Records worst buildings list. I’m setting the over-under at 4.
 
Eugene has more than its share of, in the inimitable words of Otto Poticha, FAIA, “butt-ugly” buildings. Thankfully, the majority of these are not likely to stand the test of time and eventually will be replaced with newer and better designs. I have a great deal of faith in my colleagues in the Eugene architecture community and am confident a day will come when “Eugene” and “butt-ugly” will never again appear in the same sentence together.
  
(1)  2016 is Architectural Record’s 125th year in publication.
 
(2)  I grew up in British Columbia, Canada. The only other Canadian province I’ve been to is Alberta. I now live in Oregon, and once lived in California. I have additionally visited Washington, DC and the following states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Abroad, I’ve been to Mexico, England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, and Italy.
 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Praxis Portland 2016


Portland CSI is hosting an unprecedented 2-day concrete symposium August 26-27. Representatives from the specifications community along with industry professionals will lead presentations on the subjects of slab construction, polishing, and performance-based specifications, as well as roughness average demonstrations. After decades of challenges within the concrete construction industry, this educational events series brings transparency, clarity, and accountability to the concrete construction process. 

The event will include panel discussions, hands-on contractor training/certification, and up to 8 AIA credit hours of classroom learning:

FRIDAY - AUGUST 26TH
  • Water Is the Why: Hydrophobic Concrete 1 AIA LU
  • Healthy Concrete Systems: Defending Design Intent 1 AIA/HSW LU
  • Panel Discussion: Concrete & Flooring Issues - Closing the Gap 1.5 AIA LU
  • CSDA ST 115 Certification Course 2.5 AIA LU and CSDA Certificate

SATURDAY - AUGUST 27TH
  • Polished Concrete Quantified 1 AIA/HSW LU
  • Panel Discussion: Concrete & Flooring Issues - Closing the Gap 1.5 AIA LU
  • CSDA ST 115 Certification Course 2.5 AIA LU and CSDA Certificate

Find the full event schedule here: http://www.praxiseventslive.com/

Registration and fees: http://www.praxiseventslive.com/#!register/okox8

What: Praxis Portland Concrete Flooring Symposium

When:  August 26-27, 2016

Where:  Walsh Construction, 2905 SW First Avenue, Portland, OR  97201

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bread and Butter

I’ve led a charmed professional life. When I eventually retire and reflect upon my career, I’ll enjoy recounting my involvement with some really significant and challenging projects. These include world’s fair pavilions (for Expo ’86 in Vancouver, during my time with Bing Thom Architects); a competition-winning civic center (for Oceanside, CA, while working with the Urban Innovations Group under the design leadership of Charles W. Moore); and the Eugene Public Library, the Springfield Justice Center, and Lane Community College’s Downtown Campus, among others (all since joining Robertson/Sherwood/Architects in 1988). All of these notable design commissions are ones any architect would have yearned for. 
 
As substantial as these important projects may be in my portfolio, my good fortune as an architect has also involved a lot of work that is far less prominent. These include minor renovations, facility assessments, accessibility improvements, building envelope repairs, and no-nonsense space planning exercises. These unassuming projects actually comprise a sizable share of Robertson/Sherwood/Architects’ work and annual billings. They’re our “bread-and-butter” assignments—prosaic, everyday problems to be solved, but no less important to us or our clients than any of our larger jobs. 
 
RSA is a small firm in a relatively small city, so we cannot afford to eschew routine work that may appear outwardly tedious or uninteresting to some architects. Our practice needs to be diverse. We avoid over-specialization simply because there aren’t enough jobs in any one project type to go around in our market. We embrace most every commission, no matter how modest, because each one helps to pay the bills and keep our doors open. These everyday projects also present us with opportunities to sharpen or expand our skills, learn through experience, and grow as professionals. We fundamentally approach all of our bread-and-butter work with the same enthusiasm we bring to our more conspicuous efforts. 
 
Application of the new exterior coating in progress on Olive Plaza. Western Partitions, Inc. was the contractor for the exterior improvements.
 
An excellent example of these mainstay jobs is our recently completed Olive Plaza Seismic Upgrade & Exterior Improvements project. Christian Church Homes of Oregon is the building’s owner, and Viridian Management is its operator. Olive Plaza is a 12-story tall, HUD-subsidized apartment building located in downtown Eugene. It accommodates low-income seniors and individuals with physical disabilities in one-bedroom, self-contained apartments. The project involved increasing the building’s capacity to withstand earthquakes, and also the application of a new elastomeric coating and replacement of sealants to secure its walls against water infiltration. RSA’s duties included bringing on board a structural design consultant familiar with the shortcomings and idiosyncrasies of Olive Plaza’s lift-slab construction, developing a prudent and cost-conscious solution to its problem with leaky walls, assisting with the selection of a construction manager/general contractor (CM/GC), and generally shepherding the project from beginning to end. 
 
The new exterior color scheme for Olive Plaza is meant to provide "disruptive" camouflage, breaking down the building so that it appears less massive.
 
We helped assemble an excellent project team: Miyamoto International (and particularly Miyamoto principal Bob Glasgow, SE) provided world-class structural engineering expertise; Carole Knapel of Knapel & Associates ensured the project successfully navigated HUD’s labyrinthine financing and approval processes; and Chambers Construction (led by project manager John Wright and site superintendent Mel Taylor) fulfilled the duties of the CM/GC in exemplary fashion. 
 
One of the hundreds of new column to slab connectors designed by Miyamoto International. The connector provides enhanced lateral force resistance.
 
Fiber-reinforced polymer strips tie different areas of the floor slabs together.
 
Undoubtedly, the biggest factor in the project’s success was our client. We’ve worked with Christian Church Homes and Olive Plaza for many years. Over those years, we’ve helped them address a variety of improvements and planning projects, in addition to the seismic upgrade and exterior repairs. A constant throughout every project has been how absolutely enjoyable it has been to work with the key people associated with Olive Plaza. To a person, they have been a delight. They’re appreciative of the skills and expertise we bring to their projects. They’re preternaturally good-natured. Their amiable ways rub off on everyone they interact with, not only the residents but also every vendor or contractor with whom they conduct business. 
 
We derive a great amount of satisfaction from working with good people. Good people make even the most challenging and seemingly banal projects a pleasure. If anything, our decision to accept a bread-and-butter project comes down to who it is we will be working with and for. 
 
Members of the Olive Plaza team gathered for an end-of-project celebration.
 
I remember when I first realized much of the work done by architects is anything but glamorous. It happened during the time I worked for the Office of Facilities & Campus Development at the British Columbia Institute of Technology between my sophomore and junior years of architecture school. My job involved interacting with the architects hired by BCIT to carry out exactly the same types of projects I now manage with Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. I was taken aback by the realization architects had to deal with such lowly concerns as reconfiguring the access to a laboratory storage room or determining whether three employees could fit comfortably within an office initially intended to house only two. Really? Was this my future? I would soon learn the answer is, yes, it very much would be. I would also find that within the humblest of projects lies a kernel defining the architect’s role for any undertaking, large or small. 
 
In many respects, bread-and-butter projects are no different than the big, high-profile jobs coveted by every architect. After all, like any prestigious project, bread-and-butter jobs demand creative problem solving and an ability to see the big picture. They require a commitment to providing the best possible client service. They require translating real-world needs into functional, beautiful solutions. With every bread-and-butter project comes the opportunity for us to demonstrate our professionalism, talent, and ingenuity. 
 
At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I take pride in doing a job well, no matter what that job might entail. All of the ingredients necessary for my professional satisfaction are present in every project I am involved with. It’s a matter of bringing the correct perspective and a positive attitude to the table. Far from being tiresome, I find our “bread-and-butter” work truly meaningful and highly gratifying.
 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Architecture is Awesome #12: Ordered Complexity

Aftnn Rooftops of Prague. Photo by Ben Godfrey [http://aftnn.org/gallery/ source] {{cc-by-sa}} licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license.

This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture. 

Architecture is nothing if not complex. Even the simplest of buildings is assembled from many thousands of interconnected and related parts that must work together to successfully address a myriad of concerns. A harmonious work of architecture is a system within which those many components correspond with and complement each other, generating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. A harmonious work of architecture is furthermore inextricably part of the systems around it, which include its immediate environment and the world beyond. A great design is at once comprised of recognizable wholes, is whole itself, and connected and consonant with many others as well. 

At its best, architecture maintains a tantalizing balance between comforting order and bewilderingly artful chaos. Our finest buildings evince organization and elicit wonderment. They are dense with purpose and meaning, sublimely intricate and impeccably structured. They work well. They betray an undeniable complexity. This is true even when the architect harnesses that complexity to achieve works of transcendent simplicity, calm, and serenity. Whether sumptuously extravagant or austerely minimalist, architecture is fundamentally a manifestation of ordered complexity. Great buildings exist at the edge of chaos, just as life itself does. 

Complexity can arise from the simplest of design circumstances. These circumstances often pile upon one another and appear overwhelming (and often are). There’s so much to consider. Buildings need to shelter and protect their occupants from the elements. They need to stand up and resist the forces that would bring them down. They need to operate efficiently and economically. They must comply with a multiplicity of arcane codes and regulations. And they should be aesthetically pleasing too—of course! 

There can be a fine line between surrendering to the complexity of a design challenge or exploiting it in the service of architecture. It’s a line navigated with skill by the most gifted architects. These architects understand that design is not a simplistic, linear activity. They understand it to be a living process, wild and wooly, and complex in its behavior. These skilled architects are adept at recognizing the simple and beneficial patterns that underlie the complexity of successful buildings and places. 

The process of design is a means to manage the many variables at play at the outset of any project. It begins with a definition of the problem to be solved. Patterns emerge with each iteration. Most every building may be a prototype, but the iterative nature of the design process allows the architect to probe and test, to help make sure the design is headed in the right direction and to validate concepts before any earth is turned. The emergent properties of the design solution reveal themselves as the generative process unfolds, on occasion in surprising and sudden ways. The design seemingly arises in accordance with natural laws, its order resembling an evolving ecosystem rather than a crude machine whose plan the architect has willfully imposed. The architect’s task is to successfully manage complexity and the unfolding of the design process. If done properly, the result can be a profound and deeply adapted building full of life, one that is inextricably tied to the systems around it and healthful for the ones it contains. 

The issue of complexity is of increasing concern to architects. Change is happening so fast in our world it’s hard to keep up. The profession’s work is ever more challenging and difficult, and its responsibilities and duties to society increasingly crucial. Pressing issues like dwindling resources, climate change, social inequity, and accelerating advancements in technology are mounting exponentially. Nevertheless, the architect’s typical skillset is one eminently suited to the task. Assuming he or she is open to the possibilities, bringing order and meaning to complex design problems should come naturally. Exercising humility by embracing the power of emergent self-organization increases the likelihood of a project’s success. 

Looking at ordered complexity in this way, we begin to appreciate the possibility of a truly organic approach to architecture. Treated as complex, adaptive systems, more of our buildings would occupy the creative threshold between order and chaos. How AWESOME would that be?

Next Architecture is Awesome: #13: Teamwork