Most student projects start from what is called a ‘design concept,’ what used to be known as a ‘parti.’ These are often abstract ideas, narratives or stories that are meant to drive the project and sometimes (incorrectly) determine its meaning. A good design concept should consist of three elements: a take on the brief or program, a take on the site or context, and an architectural idea. So, for example, if your concept is ‘to demonstrate man’s desire for knowledge’ your project is likely to become overly metaphorical if not simplistically symbolic. If your idea was ‘to transform the site into ‘x’ by considering the brief as ‘y’ through the idea of thresholds’ you immediately give yourself more concrete aims to achieve. This approach achieves a number of things:
a) You establish a hierarchy of aims. The site can be used to test a brief, or vice versa. An architectural idea can be used to push the limits of a site or brief. And so on.
b) You work in an integrated manner rather than considering brief, site and the architectural idea (or concept) as separate problems to address.
c) It prevents your project from becoming mono-thematic.
Having ‘a take on’ something means having a position on it. Briefs and sites are never neutral constituents. To make a project on a site is to transform the site, therefore you should have an intention or idea about what that transformation will achieve. To cast a brief or program into form means to structure, order and organise it spatially and again you need to know what you are trying to achieve there. The architectural idea is a device that helps you achieve those aims.
Where does an architectural idea come from? This is a more complicated issue. In an academic environment it may be something you are trying to learn about (light, systems, materials, particular qualities of space, etc.). At a certain point you may be challenged to defend your architectural intentions and this may require generating the idea from research into the brief or site (or both), from theoretical concerns, historical issues, and so on.
Source: This is a method I developed to help my students in their project development. It was partially derived from Ciriani’s notion of ‘3 reasons’. It largely sprung, however, from seeing student projects based on purely abstract ideas turn into visual caricatures of the idea and never developing into more complex and meaningful projects.