Architecture plays an important role in the way we think, interact, and live. It constitutes each street, city, and society at large. It is almost impossible to ignore Architecture, rightly said by Renzo Piano during his 1998 Pritzker acceptance speech, ‘You can put down a bad book; You can avoid listening to bad music, but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house’. This aspect of architecture makes it a socially dangerous field as it is imposed on society. It imposes total immersion without giving the user a chance. This, in turn, makes it an extremely serious responsibility.
We need to consider this as our duty; to develop buildings and surroundings with meaning which can foster positive communication that can, in turn, nurture a healthy society. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us; Winston Churchill had the right thought in mind as we ponder about the effect of architecture on people. To create such a positive environment, we need to determine what elements to factor in our design that can truly provide meaning. The easiest way to translate this is to figure out what would make the building unique and specific to that place.
Context and concept are two factors that, if taken seriously, will provide processes that can be followed to arrive at a unique building with meaning. Imagine a world where every place we visit is identical! Every house to be in the exact same floor plan; identical colors, materials, and patterns in every city! We would get bored too soon with our surroundings, and yearn to escape; except, even if we go to the other end of the world, everything looks the same! How frustrating would that be?! This is just one reason why we should have unique identities for a place, creating meaningful architecture that the people can relate with.
Our human way of understanding is often based on context – we tend to try and understand the background scenarios before we attempt to make a decision, on what to do next or on what to believe. We can prove the validity of context through many examples; one of which is the Ebbinghaus illusion. This optical illusion demonstrates how we interpret and evaluate what we see and experience based on what is around – context.
Buildings do not exist in isolation. They are part of a larger social fabric, conceived to inspire, support or house a range of human activities. They are a response to the socio-cultural, economic and political needs of the society, offering development opportunities. Context, then, in architecture is simply the external elements that influence the building and site. These elements can be categorized into two – physical & non-physical. Neighboring buildings, road networks, land contour, water table systems, are examples of the physical elements of context; while the political, economic, social, and cultural factors are non-physical factors.
Assessment of context gives an idea of what is existing before we plan to introduce a new component to it. Buildings are but one element of the collage, a piece of the overall jigsaw puzzle. A proper study and analysis of context can determine the architectural style, selection of building material and site layout to a large extent. An effective introduction of a building should see an improvement of the local circumstances, urging development and positivity, with minimal disruption of the existing ecosystem. Various issues such as economic, even racial, stratification can be affected, altered and therefore changed by architecture.
Concept, on the other hand, is the idea that makes the building what it is. It is the notion that provides a purpose for the building; one of the few things that remain constant from the inception of design to its complete execution. It can also be described as the inspiration, intent or philosophy that forms the backbone of the design. It can be developed from an absurd new thought or derived from the context and the design brief – a programmatic concept respecting the surroundings, weaved seamlessly into the existing fabric of the site.
A strong concept gives clear direction for each step during the design phase. The concept should be consulted for every design decision; every aspect of the project should be driven or derived from it. This, then, will stop the designer from wandering off into never-ending design directions and tangents, which can dilute the original intent. It brings richness to the design; making the building coherent, relevant, interesting, and thus successful. A well-crafted concept can embody an identity that communicates the intended message to its environment.
Uniqueness, integral for every building, can be achieved by analyzing and translating concepts and contexts. Both these factors ensure that we produce the apt design product for a particular place, encouraging a positive change for community living.