The building is the concept / non-linear design

I recently answered a question on Quora about problems with finished student design problems. My answer there is adapted here to interlink two issues – the idea of concept versus building or proposal and the problem of linear design.

I abandoned linear design long ago. This is the idea that you work from the most general to the most specific, from concept to building then to detail, from large scale (urban/site) to small scale (building/room/detail). Although it was initially a reaction to the amount of time students wasted trying to develop ‘concepts’ or doing endless site analysis, in time it proved to go deeper than that. Much of the stalling over concept and site analysis was really procrastination, putting of getting to a building because this is perceived to be the hard bit and students were understandably eager to put that off. However, this approach also freezes over into a belief – that you cannot design (or start design) without a concept or without site analysis.

I’ve implemented a couple of exercises that help the student get out of this trap and rethink what a concept is and where it comes from. In one exercise I ask students to come back with a building proposal section two or three days after the first site visit. I always ask for these to be in scale and to be a building section, not a sketch, concept or massing strategy. These sections are always bad, naïve and based on preconceptions. But they are also based on intuitive responses to both brief and site. They are about something the students sense about the place, its people, history or their own responses to those things. With some of that brought to the surface we can then move on to site, program and precedent research that is relevant to the students’ project intention. The first section also makes immediately clear what they do or don’t understand about the site (views, overlooking, rights to light, ground conditions, drainage, access issues, parking, etc.). The first section, and every subsequent one, along with later plans, models and 3d drawings are part of the simultaneous analysis of site, program and design strategy. It is also simultaneously analysis and design. And in this way project concepts and ideas emerge, they are not imposed and derived from isolated acts of thinking, drawing and data gathering.

Another exercise is to start designing by focusing on a human scale ritual, event or routine and developing an architectural fragment around this. Again, this is done in scale and with material and structural ideas included. This approach foregrounds program development, analysis and ideas about human inhabitation. Like the exercise above it makes clear at an early stage what intentions are viable and what type of research is needed to support the student proposal. Projects are then built up from discreet elements into a larger whole. For example, if a threshold is critical to the idea of a project then one can conceive of a site and building strategy that enables a particular type of threshold and arrival sequence. Again, building ideas and concepts are developed rather than proposed at the outset.

Procrastination is avoided because from the start students are designing via their building rather than abstract visualisations, massing models or sculptural gestures. Solutions to pragmatic problems can be made part of a project strategy rather than something to ‘be solved’ later on. It is true that in professional practices most countries spell out design stages and phases (from programming to schematic design to design development and construction and so on). This has to follow a linear format for administrative reasons. It is not a formula for design.

Two important conceptual issues and a third pragmatic one are addressed by this approach. The first is that we disrupt the fiction of linear design. Good architects work at various scales and level of development simultaneously; they can think about materials and details at the same time as site strategies. The most visible example of this are the drawings of Carlo Scarpa, where plans or sections are littered with various sketches in the margins that correlate different scales and stages of design.

The second issue is that it encourages students to believe that ideas are best explained and demonstrated in a finished product (normally a building, but in school it is a set of final drawings). The building isn’t something separate from its concept and concepts don’t live in concept drawings. Therefore the best way to test the validity of even the most abstract concepts is to draw up your building proposal as early as you can and as often as you can, even when it is a lumpen, ill-formed, and confused mess. When you begin to see your ideas in the stairs, windows, room layouts, movement patterns, wall thicknesses, in cross-sections and in floor plans then you have started to make your idea clear as architecture rather than as symbols of an idea. Layering on details, particularly fiddly ones, or embellishing drawings of an undercooked scheme is like decorating a bland cake. It may look nice but it won’t taste good.

Finally, on the pragmatic front, this approach leads to much fewer issues with completing projects. You will always have a building to hand that you can draw up. And you will spend more time developing the very think that gets examined in the end – the project proposal.

However, you need the support of your tutor and this may not be forthcoming. There is indeed a culture out there that keeps suggesting major design revisions right up to the end of the project. And this is often because they themselves are looking for that magical fully-formed solution that perfectly captures an idea. Nevertheless, most tutors want students to drive their own projects and to be self-motivated and proactive. If it’s up to you, don’t fall for the myths of linearity and for the idea of project follows concept.