Portland Japanese Garden (my photo)
I’ve remarked before about how timeless so many of the essays on architecture written by Bill Kleinsasser are. The following piece, which Bill wrote in 1968, is no exception. In it, he looks to systems theory as an approach to design and problem-solving. Design is nothing if not an exercise in organizing complexity. Bill recognized this decades before the application of systems and complexity theory to architecture became fashionable in some circles.
At this juncture in my professional life, I’ve accumulated enough experience and wisdom to increasingly appreciate the breadth and comprehensiveness of the theory base for architecture Bill taught generations of students. It continues to be my honor to share his words with readers of SW Oregon Architect.
A Definition of Design
Design can be defined as the process used to search for the order of systems. In the design of buildings and places for people, the systems are those environmental elements and frameworks which the designer and others have determined to be necessary and appropriate for the situation. They should not only support use but also evoke human response and involvement. They should provide multiple meaning.
First, some thoughts about systems: A system is a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole, i.e. a particular unit formed by the special relationships among a group of items or subsystems. If one item is removed or changed, or a new item introduced, the whole is changed. Each item within a system is affected by all the other items; conversely, every new or changed item affects the entire system. And since systems are always parts of larger systems, the structure of any system is affected by the larger system of which it is a part. Therefore, no system can be correctly analyzed or designed without consideration of the larger systems of which it is a part, as well as and at the same time the sub-systems of which it is made up.
The systems that concern us as architects are those which accommodate the needs of people and embody the ways in which people relate to and depend upon their surroundings.
Many human characteristics and conditions are related to this. People have predictable size and shape, sensitivity and responsiveness, biological structure, patterns of movement and activity, need for engagement or involvement, need for diversity of experience and self-identity, and the ability to change with changed position and accumulated experience. When people with all of these characteristics and conditions come together with that which exists and that which tends to exist (whether man-made or natural, place or institution), there is an implicit order-pattern which suggests that buildings and places for people should be made in ways that respect this order-pattern, rather than in ways that are casual or arbitrary (no matter how innovative). In this sense, buildings and places for people can be thought of as being generated by forces.
It is possible to note several things about these forces:
- They are both operational (having to do with actions, equipment, and quantities) and experiential (having to do with perception and comprehension)
- They affect both the inside of what we make and the outside, since both comprise our environment
- They are based upon specific conditions (differences among people, actions, and needs) and upon general conditions (things people share)
- They are based both upon things that change and upon things that do not change
- Sometimes they seem to be inevitable and forced upon us
- Frequently, they are anything but inevitable and require much hypothesizing, testing, adjusting, and retesting
- They act simultaneously and with changing strength
- Being complex and never obvious, they us constantly to judge (an act which can be either informed or naïve)
Given that design is a matter of using our judgment to resolve a myriad of complex forces, we should use both intuitive judgment and intellectual judgment, i.e. we should feel and think.
Given that we try to resolve forces that are interacting simultaneously, we should avoid linear or additive decision-making processes and strive instead to study complex, multileveled interactions.
Given that the more we know about systems the more complex they become, we should use processes that cause our comprehensions to grow as the projects grow.
Given that in the course of design we must rehearse and judge reality through media, we should understand the capabilities and limitations of those media so that we will not be victimized by them or unable to read them.
Given that the significance of what we do is linked inescapably to human desires and needs, we should have precise understanding of those desires and needs. We need to know how to add to the experience of living, increase man’s psychological stature, heighten the action of ordinary life, and make built homecoming. We need to know the ranges of choices that are necessary in a place, or the right degree of freedom to choose, or the structure that will successfully establish the choices. To gain these understandings, we might have to seek aid from other areas of study, might we not?