Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Framework of Considerations

Cloister of Eberbach Abbey, Germany
(This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
The following passage from Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook Synthesis outlined his belief in the need for an inclusive, always-to-be considered structure of true architectural principles: a coherent theory base (and value base) to help architects make genuinely good places for people. 
Throughout his teaching career, Bill’s faith in his hypothesis never wavered. He was convinced of the need for an emphasis upon commonly understood frames of reference. In particular, he impressed upon his students the essential importance of developing physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people. 
Bill often expressed a disdain for others who dismissed the notion of such a structured approach to design. He zealously preached the need for a comprehensive yet concise framework of considerations that could be adjusted or changed when necessary, and that could be used again and again in design. He rejected the view that the use of such a framework would reduce intuitive effort or otherwise impair creativity. 
Looking back, I am convinced of the rightness of Bill’s approach to design education. Many designers flounder outside the safe harbor of time-tested design principles. Synthesis provided Bill's students with an easy-to-understand and fundamental way to approach design. It was his singular contribution to architectural theory, one which remains as applicable today as it was when he was with us. 
Experiential Support
In the design of man’s surroundings, it is not enough to respond exclusively to technological theory, constructional expediency, economics, dimensional requirements, academic organizational principles, and other relatively measurable guidelines. This kind of design leads at best to impersonal surroundings and at worst to surroundings that are inhumane. 
The most essential objective of environmental design is the development of physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people; that is, the development of conditions that will provide opportunities and meanings that people will need daily through time and continuously through space—conditions that will explain themselves to people, evoking physical, sensual, and intellectual response. Experiential supportiveness in the man-made environment is aimed at helping people develop to their full potentialities as human beings. 
An environment which is experientially unsupportive is an environment where there is little variety and choice (people are forced into this or that), where too much is fixed (people can effect little and will feel ineffective), where isolation (instead of community) is the rule, where experience is fragmented and connections are difficult (connections to nature, to other people, to activities and events), where there is too little of the richness and eventfulness that encourages people to discover new patterns and to renew themselves. An experientially unsupportive environment leaves out much and is limiting. It does not add to the meaning of life. It is apt to contribute to depression and hostility. 
For many people today, the man-made environment is experientially unsupportive. Many facilities and options that should be there are missing or inaccessible. Many spatial characteristics are restrictive and constraining. Misfits are caused constantly by change, inflexible rules, poor definition of requirements, failure to recognize opportunities, and sameness. 
This deficiency exists because we lack a well developed, universally accepted, humane value-base for environmental design. People are unaware of what is missing and what the man-made environment could be like. Designers do not have the theory base to know what to do. Supportive design is more the result of good luck than informed intention. 
Without a humane value-base, environmental design is vulnerable to practices that are self-defeating. For example: 

  • The man-made environment is usually developed in large chunks and discontinuously, both in time and space, as if each piece had to be auspicious and autonomous, or as if each had to be done all at once and once and for all. This practice has caused much negative contextual impact. It has also spawned the habit of not developing spaces with the richest experiential potential: those between buildings. 
  • Economic and technological considerations often dominate and distort humane development instead of facilitating it.
  • Experiential character is determined by land-value formulae, technical convenience, codes, and arbitrary budgets, instead of by careful, thoughtful consideration of the supports and opportunities that will be needed by people as time passes and circumstances change.
  • Often the users of the environment are not consulted about their own places, causing immediate misfits and alienation.
  • Often the environment is designed to suit first purposes and first users only, causing rapid obsolescence.
  • Often users who wish to stay in new places (or must stay in them) have no way of adjusting or changing them, which causes them to seem impersonal and out of control.
  • Often models and lessons which explain the success or failure of similar places are not used, causing repeated mistakes, frustration, and loss of trust.
To establish the value-base for environmental design that we do not now have, we must demonstrate environments that embody experiential response. We must find ones that exist and we must make new ones. To be able to do this, we must develop criteria for analysis and design that are experientially specific, detailed, and comprehensive.
To aid in the generation and organization of such criteria, a framework of considerations about human environmental needs over time is required. While imperfect at any moment and ever-changing, the framework will allow designers to consider many aspects of man’s relationship to the environment and to form many related ideas for design. The quantity and quality of the ideas will depend upon the experience, knowledge, time, and heart of those who do the considering, but the framework—because of its comprehensiveness and its many sub-frames—will expand substantially the design base of all who use it.

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