architecture : theory and strategy

a mission statement for architecture

object article for the 'research by design conference' subject a mission statement for architecture date august 2000 words 2120 pages 3 author christiaan weiler ref research by design conference, tu delft nl, august 2000 ref projects (realised) / twd conflict collage

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In the past decades architecture redefined itself over and over again. The question “what is architecture” has been asked and answered so many times, it sometimes seems rchitecture has lost its elementary purpose. To protect the profession from oblivion, it is necessary to return to its essential skills.
In part the increased public interest is to blame for the confusion, as it increases the number of questions asked. In part, the general ideological confusion in the broader intellectual debate is to blame. Architecture has been addressed on the issue of this confusion. A self-awareness and the following soul-searching, can be a good thing, but it can also lead to an identity crisis. A third factor that influences architecture’s direction, has been the arrival of virtual space. The question whether architecture and virtual space are similar has becomes important. When do we apply atomic space, and when do we apply ‘neuro-sensorial’ space?
Architecture has always had its place somewhere between the practical and the spiritual. This allows for a wide range of possible applications of the skill. So wide in fact, it seems necessary to try and find a core business for it. Architecture 'resembles' many things in many ways, but the paramount question has become what architecture's unique properties are.

Architecture as Art
When we look at the architecture of Venice, and the way it came to be what it is now, we are seduced to gaze at its beauty. At first impression one might think Venice is an incredible example of artistic architecture. But the splendour of Venice is much more a result of the labyrinthical urban organisation, than of the mere architectural style applications. The water management is the essential distinguishing quality and identity of Venice. The original fishersman’s settlement had attracted so much trade due to its succesfull fishing techniques, it needed to expand to host more activity. The city had to grow despite the poor building conditions in the shallow water laguna. These inevitable canals were not made by artists, but by engineers. The liberal politicians, whose task it was to supervise all the urban activity, allowed no religious institutions within their city, in order to cater to traders from all over the world without internal conflicts. They placed their monasteries and chapels, and even the military, outside the city limits.

Venice owes its canals to its natural conditions, its density to its strategic geopolitical location, and its urban plan to its politics of trade. From the will to control rose an architectural masterpiece, so intricate, beautiful and mythical, one could almost call it art. Yet art was not pursued. Practical problems were solved, and solved very well. (ref: prof. Marco Venturi, Venice University)

Architecture as Science
For economic survival, now on a global scale, cities to this day need strategies that will ensure their economic position. Cities that manage to attract the attention of tourists, will eventually attract political and economic attention. Large sums of money are being invested to create succesful international profiles. In Bilbao, previously a “sleeping” industrial city, the intended economic impulse was given with a very precise and compact injection of architectural effort. An unprecedented attraction had to be realised, in order to get international attention. Frank O Gehry was asked to design the Guggenheim Bilbao. He delivered an architectural solution to the problem. The new Guggenheim is now called an international landmark. It is the masterpiece Bilbao needed. Regardless of the angle you look at it, the museum resonates with luxurious materials and hi-tech solutions.
It is clear the Guggenheim museum was built by a virtuoso. The delicate control of materials and details show how construction technology has been pushed to unprecedented levels. Nothing has been left to chance and each part must have been modelled and tested before execution, with scientific precision. The enormous economic added value of the museum, brought together in one single piece of architecture, motivated the willingness to spare no expences. The creative freedom of an architect may never have been greater.

Architecture as Craft
Architecture is not a science. The scientific strive for empirical truth and purity is allowed to take forever. This is not quite the case for building projects that have strict time schedules. Architecture is not a science, because scientists research the world’s possibilities and leave implementation to other parties, such as industral companies. When presenting architecture as a science with the corresponding need for scienctific proof, its intentions might become too rigid. One even risks being exposed as a fraud, when confronted with other projects that prove differently.

Architecture is not an art either, because it serves a practical purpose. Its practical performance can fail, and this is unikely for an art object. Architecture is not an art, because it's not free to be whatever its creator says it is, or what the audience wants it to be. Architecture must meet so many conditions, it is never autonomous. When architecture is presented as an art, it introduces the risk of being too subjective - or even abitrary - for the public to understand. This can paralyse the subject of functionality.

Architecture is a craft. This can best be understood through the synonyms ‘vessel’, ‘vehicle’ and 'carrier’. Architecture transfers the spacial wishes of one, to building instructions for another. It is a bridge, an agreement. It is a compromise in which time, money and quality meet. Some might consider this a sell out, but in fact, once this is understood, an architect should be able to define his or her position in these negotiations and take responsibility. Architecture is not built for its own purposes, but in someone's commission. A stack of construction drawings is the direct result of negotiations between all parties involved, and is itself part of the contract.

A Business Mission with a Social Policy
In the Netherlands, the legal status of the architect is similar to that of a lawyer or notary. The Encyclopædia Britannica gives the following explanation to these professions:
Lawyer: one trained and licensed to prepare, manage, and either prosecute or defend a court action as an agent for another and who also gives advice on legal matters that may or may not require court action. Notary: also called notary public, public official whose chief function in common-law countries is to authenticate contracts, deeds, and other documents by an appropriate certificate with a notarial seal. Architect: no entry.

Uncertainty about the purpose of the profession has lead to a marginalization of its role in the construction business. ’Artistic’ architects are sometimes regarded as useful marketing tools, but often also seen as annoying construction partners. In the meantime, hundreds of kilometers of European coast line are being developed for tourism, with very little architects involved. A leading Dutch news paper released a profile on the national issue of public housing for the 21st century (NRC dd 25-05’00), and not one architect was mentioned.
If architects want to play a serious role in developing cities and buildings, they must define and defend their responsibilities in the project team, to ensure performance standards for any required structure. Specifically the non-technical standards should be their focus of attention. A quote from the portuguese architect Carilho da Graça in PROTOTYPO #001 januari 1999:
Q: Won’t architecture become absent in the world we live in (that way)? A: My point is exactly the opposite. Architecture can only exist in a space of clear social profitability. There’s a huge gap at te moment between architects and societies. It will keep getting bigger if architecture, instead of dealing with its own substance, insists on the schizophrenical withdrawl of reality through the creation of abstract contents or the imitation of exterior subjects. [..]

All of an architect’s contributions can be evaluated according to specific standards. The design-process should be appropriate for reaching the agreement. The design result should be appropriate for the building conditions. These processes and conditions must be the object of research continuously. If not, architecture will fall behind in the fast-developing world of this time.

TWD, A Proposal for a Design-Method for Present-Day Architecture Application

Current Design Conditions
Whether architecture is applied for research or for design, its ultimate goal is to prepare for construction. But as the tasks become more abstract, so does the project context. The given information is increasingly preliminary and provisional, the design process is increasingly dynamic, and the desired result must be more and more omnipotent.

New Design Phases
Within these conditions, architecture must maintain it’s own course, and this requires new tools. New meaningful foundations for design must be developed in a time of ideological poverty. The improvement of communications can serve as a starting point. At the earliest phase of the project, a common goal must be agreed upon. This goal must be abstract in order to be adaptive, yet specific in order to communicate.

TWD © Engine
The TWD Engine has been developed from the idea that commissioner and architect are equally responsible for the eventual building. It collects their approaches and locates the conflicting subjects in their communication. Solving this conflict will be the common goal.
The TWD © Engine consists of 3 documents:
1. The TWD © Questionnaire: a frame for discussing any architectural design.
2. The Conflict Collage ©: a collage/diagramm of the discussion, and the conflict in it.
3. The Lower Design ©: a key design which visualizes the essence of the chosen concept.

TWD © Questionaire
The main goal of the TWD © method is to find out what subject is crucial in determining the design. A field of subjects has to be described, from which one will appear to be the most important. This field is set up with a questionnaire which is a clean inventory of wishes and intentions. The questions deal with various features of space. The two participating parties (commissioner and architect) fill out the same questionnaire. The space in the examples is ACCESS-area. It’s performance is described along five functional qualities: flexibility, openness, privacy, compactness and presentation. The other 3 spaces of the questionnaire are: MAIN-, TRAFFIC- and SERVICE- area. From the comparison of two fields (commissioner’s and architect’s), the conflicting subject will appear. Presented here are only five questions of twenty:
1. Must the building be accessible for various types of transport at various times, or is there only one type of access? (flexibility / access)
2. Does the entrance of the building require an open communication with the adjacent spaces, or does it stand alone? (openness / access)
3. Is the access to the building the priviledge of a designated group, or is it open to the general public? (privacy / access)
4. Should the building be accessible at only one certain place, or should access be possible at various places? (compactness / access)
5. Is there a reason to pay extra attention when developing the access areas, or do these areas require only a basic care? (presentation / access)

Conflict Collage
In the earliest phase of the design process, an impression is made with the data form the questionnaire. This makes it easier for both parties to discuss design matters.
The visualization is a collage in two layers. For the first layer of the collage a database of image-series is consulted, and the relevant selection is shown. For example, the functional feature ‘FLEXIBILITY’ is visualized by furniture of a varying flexiblity.
A second layer is added: a gray-scale filter. These gray-scales make it possible to show a specific value for each image in the collage. White leaves the image intact, black turns the image to negative. Each gray-scale represents the extent of conflict in a certain subject.
The result is a collage that is a diagram simultaneously. It visualizes the field of negotiation, the either agreed - upon (positive) or conflicting (negative) subjects and the hierarchy of importance of the subjects in conflict.

The Lower Design
After the crucial conflict in the negotiation has been identified in the collage, it is translated into a spacial design. It fixes a model for the architectural quality of the whole project in a small but crucial part of the project. Other data can remain flexible.
The Lower Design is a tool for probing a physical context. It can find an urbanistically valuable coherence, without completely re-projecting the larger urban fabric. It is an extremely compact, three dimensional notation of a spacial solution, with a direct implementability. As soon as it finds an optimum, all remaining 3D mass can crystalise into a definitive shape.

TWD © - Nothing form this document may be copied or distributed without explicit prior permission form the author. cab42, C.A.B. Weiler, Rotterdam 300800