Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Commitment and Response

In the course of writing my previous blog entry (A Case Study – Part 4:Locus Amoenus) I had reason once more to think of what I learned from one of the best teachers I ever had: T. William (“Bill”) Kleinsasser. Doing so, I spent a lazy summer Sunday revisiting many of the essays and class notes Bill compiled to form the basis of his book Synthesis.


Bill defined the process of design as a search for the order of systems. He believed architects should avoid linear or additive decision-making processes and strive to study many levels of forces simultaneously. Above all, he understood that the act of designing required consideration of every objective as early as possible, followed by iterative design cycles based upon the organizational implications of those considerations.


Bill’s audience was primarily limited to his students. Synthesis would never be widely published. As far as I can tell, his legacy is virtually non-existent on the Internet. It would be a pity if his work simply became lost to time. Therefore, I will occasionally feature some of Bill’s writings here on my blog. I haven’t contacted his family for permission to do so but I trust they would not mind.


The following is an excerpt from Synthesis dating back to 1967 regarding design process. Bill’s words (with the notable exception of the gender bias which was characteristic of the day) remain as timely and applicable now as when he wrote them forty-five years ago:


When we make buildings we may be prevented, by the repeated and pressurized act of building-making, from remembering or realizing that our first responsibility is the reinterpretation and reintegration of human needs. In this act we make, or discover, the order of systems; the systems in our case being accommodations for people. Therefore, I think that design is best defined as the process we use in our never-ending search for the order of systems, that order which exists at all levels of systematic organization and which disciplines every system within our experience, man-made or natural.


The systems we are concerned with are those which respond to the needs and activities of people and which develop their capacities to respond, feel, and wonder. People are complex, their activities are complex, and their context is complex. Processes used to search for and manifest of this kind of system must be processes which recognize this complexity.


One process which is often successful in this search is one that balances anticipation and action, permits full capacity to judge, and allows the consideration of simultaneously interacting forces. It also recognizes that most decisive, generative experience must come to us as personal discovery, strengthening confidence and harnessing imagination. I call this the process of commitment and response. For an architect, presuming some knowledge about the problem and an open, searching, questioning mind, it begins with an idea (or ideas) naively conceived in response to as much of a problem as is understood at the time. If the idea is expressed, the expression becomes a commitment which will evoke response, illuminating mistakes, omissions, poorly understood parts, and organizational defects. It will also evoke feelings, the manifestation of its own power and importance outside of its rational basis.


The process is cyclical. It begins with a naΓ―ve conjecture about the order of the system, which immediately suggests a better, more informed, more inclusive conjecture, which in turn evokes another and so on. Each restatement about the order of the system will include more information than the last and each response will be made on the strength of more understanding. The process stops when the conscience of the designer causes it to stop. If we learn to use other committing and responding devices which have greater memories, greater capacity for information storage, and are less fallible than the human mind, perhaps the process will not stop short of perfection. Or maybe we will find that perfection isn’t what we thought it was.


There are several things that make this process of commitment and response work:


First is the first commitment. Nothing is harder (especially for a serious and conscientious student who is unfamiliar with the design processes) than to make a commitment which seems to be premature. It seems exactly what he should not do. It seems reckless, superficial, even childish. But, in fact, because it is tentative and intended only to extend the designer’s power of insight, it cannot possibly be wrong. Its purpose is to evoke, to develop the designer’s point of view, to increase his expectations, to enlarge the scope of the problem. The response seeks to perfect, to eliminate redundancy; to achieve, with a minimum of means, maximum interaction and interdependence.


Second, the designer must strive to make commitments and responses which are based on the relationships among as many parts of the problem as possible; that is, they must be comprehensive.


Third, each commitment must be in a form appropriate to the status of the aspect of the problem being dealt with. Sometimes this may be a model, a word, sometimes a sentence, sometimes a sketch or diagram, sometimes a full-size mockup of spatial sequence.


The trick is to put the commitment in a shape that will allow the designer to use his powers of analysis and judgment, whether they be intuitive or intellectual, the result of experience or research. If the response is so committed, the designer will be inclined to respond again, continuing the process. Being aware of this, he will probably respond with greater freedom and self-assurance. The more he disciplines himself to do it, the better he will get.




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