Sunday, July 17, 2016

Architecture is Awesome #12: Ordered Complexity

Aftnn Rooftops of Prague. Photo by Ben Godfrey [ 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

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