Saturday, February 13, 2016

Imprintability and Changeability

A tenet Bill Kleinsasser held to throughout his long teaching career is the notion that the best places gracefully accept constant refinement and reshaping by their occupants. Others—notably including Stewart Brand and Christopher Alexander—have spoken of how buildings should be allowed to adapt over time to changing uses and circumstances, not to mention their own, inevitable physical deterioration. Bill’s perspective focused not only on the macro scale of a building’s life span, but also how amenable it may be to the micro scale of far more immediate and fleeting needs. Bill believed architecture should be able to welcome the scruffiness and unpredictability of people’s lives. In his mind, truly supportive architecture could not be too precious or exacting simply because if it were it would be too impersonal. He preferred malleable, loveable architecture, especially when pretense or hubris were uncalled for. The following excerpt from Bill's textbook Synthesis expands on this theme. 
We feel that our places belong to us (are part of us) if we can shape them to suit our purposes and personalities. Through many acts of personalization (which need to continue through time) general spatial conditions become particularized, more appropriate, and more meaningful. Buildings and places should be made to accept and invite such personalization; they should be made to be imprintable and changeable. 
People have always needed to shape their places to better suit their purposes and personalities. There is widespread evidence of this in all societies. Needs and purposes are too diverse and too unpredictable to be accommodated well by places that cannot be changed. Also, places become more personal if their occupants can shape them again and again to suit themselves. It is important for places to be able to accept change, to invite it, and to maintain opportunity over time. 
The most inclusive form of initial imprinting is building something yourself. One of the best experiences of my father’s life was building his own house (with my mother’s help) and making it the way he wanted it. It took fourteen months of hard work (at age 67 and 64) but has remained a tremendous source of satisfaction and pride. 
The problem is this kind of imprinting is not always possible. When it is not, conditions should be established to allow as much continuing imprinting and change as possible. Some conditions which have worked include:
  • Moveable parts
  • Parts and surfaces that are receptive to (that in fact suggest) change
  • Organization of sub-spaces so that many spatial combinations are possible
  • Establishment of small enough and rich enough sub-spaces so that individual people may identify with them, select them, use them, and return to them
  • Establishment of public and semi-public places where imprinting is obviously okay
  • Establishment of (or preservation of) diversified and richly suggestive spaces (including many fine sub-spaces) that engage the imagination and invite involvement (both physical and cerebral)
  • Establishment of places whose use has not been overly specified, but which do contain helpful cues and characteristics for multiuse
  • Establishment of a precise abundance of space (but not wastefulness)
  • Storage space of many types and of ample quantity
  • Establishment of other opportunities for collection and display of personal symbols and treasured items (including furniture)
When we feel that we possess a place, we feel that it is ours, that it is right, that we want to be there and remain there.

Usually, if we use places much or if we stay in places for long periods of time, places become part of us no matter what their physical character. We possess them through longevity of association. When this is the case, even though the places may be inadequate and unsupportive, they have become ours and are, in measure, us. And even though we feel the inadequacy of the places and even the need to change them (in fact, we often do change them), we nevertheless are reluctant to give them up or accept any criticism of them. The need to possess the place we use and inhabit is very strong indeed. 

But, when we attempt to design possessible places, we cannot assume “longevity of association.” The objective becomes to make places that immediately invite more complete possession by those who use and occupy the places. To accomplish this objective, our places must be changing, surprising, ambiguous (capable of being interpreted in many ways), complex, intriguing, fascinating, mysterious, magical, and they must offer choices: 
  • Choices of preconstruction elements and organization 
  • Choices of post-construction conditions and arrangements (the options of making places and changing them must be offered in many degrees; some people can do much for themselves but others can do little) 
  • Choices of things to do (by means of what our places allow or invite us to do); choices of paths to take 
  • Choices of places to be (through recognition of potentialities of places)
Possession cannot exist in a barren or impoverished context, nor can it exist within a threatening context. Balance is the problem. Some places need to be explicit in their supportiveness. Others need to be implicitly supportive and capable of many interpretations and many uses. 

A designer could strive to make the following: 
  • Places that suggest uses or modes of use, evocative places in which people can discover possibilities on their own 
  • Places that are incomplete in the sense of allowing many ways for people to finish them or change them (and varying in degrees of difficulty and required commitment or investment) 
  • Places made with people; that is, allowing users to participate in the design of places from the start 
  • Places that are measurably or dimensionally compatible with the purposes, sizes, and states of mind of people 
  • Places that offer a wide range of physical changeability
The need for diversity and choice in the built environment comes from the inevitable collision between the relative permanence of what is built and the changing circumstances surrounding it. Activities, purposes, values, and people all change. The changes range from minor, inconsequential ones to those which seriously erode the very foundation of what has been built. Because of this, the built environment must be able to flex—to accommodate what is new. One way to accomplish this is to build in diversity and choice. By providing an open, opportunity-rich framework at the outset—one offering many possibilities and many suggestive cues—it is possible to establish longevity, thus sustaining both the usefulness and the meaning of the place over time.

WK / 1981


Amy jo said...

Randy, Thank you so much for all that you do to keep the work and memory of Bill Kleinsasser accessible, and alive. He was a very special person in my education as well. I don't think I have seen before the picture you included with the article and would love to know more about it, Bills relationship to it, possibly, for a lil talk I'm giving on Monday.
Thanks Again,

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Amy Jo:

I'm sorry I didn't respond before your talk this past Monday (I just saw your message today). I presume the picture you're referring to is the photo accompanying this blog post. It doesn't have a direct relationship to Bill at all, other than it illustrates a couple of aspects of imprintable and changeable spaces (space that is not overly specific, organization of subspaces such that many spatial combinations are possible). The photo is actually of one of the projects designed by my office; it is the interior of the Welcome Center at Black Butte Ranch in the Oregon Cascades.