Architectural history (as the history of art) has a lot of affinity to -isms, from Cubism and Brutalism to Modernism and Futurism. The preaching such as “Form follows function” and “Less is more” served as the guiding principles of buildings built during the 20th century. These rigid principles are used for historical references or aesthetic purposes rather than being an ideological framework. Over a while, architects started to understand that several other factors (apart from these principles) lead to good and efficient architecture, and these factors vary from one organization/firm to the other. This has led to the diversion from standard rules and frameworks, paving to the rise of Pragmatic design in architecture.
What is Pragmatic design in Architecture?
Pragmatism is dealing with things sensibly and realistically. It is a way that is based on practical over theoretical considerations. It is often defined by what it is not. It has no fixed notions, and it does not fit a particular style. The definition of pragmatism in architecture, as Dewey says, is to steer away from the necessities and impressions that buildings make and to look at the facts and consequences they create for their users. It focuses on making things over design thinking.
Pragmatic design in architecture is still a topic of discussion and has no definite answers. And so, there are many misconceptions on Pragmatic design in architecture. The misconceptions of pragmatism concerning Dewey’s principles are as follows:
1. Pragmatism is not Breaking Rules
Pragmatic design, a diversion from standards, is not breaking the existing rules or traditions. It is framing new rules by asking questions on the existing norms. For example, the Libeskind museum, a Gehry concert hall, or a library by Zaha Hadid are not pragmatic, as they are “different”. At the same time, most of the architectural ideas, formed without ‘reflective inquiry’ leading to stable and permanent beliefs, are not pragmatic. It is rather a result of architects’ finding shelter in previously successful designs, without questioning the relevance to the specific project and the consequences they impose on their users.
Pragmatic design in architecture is the process of discovering realities through interaction with the built environment. It insists on understanding the intentions of the place and its users and responding to those intentions. What makes pragmatic architecture is the recontextualization of pre-specified data and guidelines to a specific project, with the socio-cultural impact of the buildings in mind.
2. Pragmatism is not the Validation of Facts
Pragmatism is often misconceived as the validation of facts. For example, an energy-efficient building is validated as net-zero and certified as the best building. A 5-star LEED rating validates the building as a sustainable and green building. These building strategies, regulations, and technological codification, as justification for design, do not define pragmatic architecture.
Pragmatic design rejects the idea of fixed, eternal structures, and laws that are considered to be continuous occurrences. It proposes the buildings be validated by the post-occupancy evaluation that is specific to the occupants and the environment.
3. Pragmatism is not Functionalism
There is a belief that pragmatic architecture is achieved through logic, functionality, and economic efficiency. The importance of function in architecture was emphasized by Louis Sullivan’s “Form follows function”. Peter Eisenman introduced the concept of post-functionalism, which essentially rejects functionalism in architecture.
Functionality has always been a concern in architecture. The form can still follow the function. But pragmatism insists that the statement can hold only if the definitions are blended to societal needs and cultural beliefs. It should encompass the behavioral and psychological relationships between human beings and the built environment. For example, the function of an office building is not just to accommodate 20 cubicles each 10 feet wide by 10 feet long, restrooms, a pantry, and lighting and air-conditioning. The function of an office building is to provide 20 people the environment to work together, interact, and to encourage these people to feel motivated to complete the tasks assigned to them. The function of this building is to represent the company’s image in a way that makes the employees feel connected and dedicated to the company’s purpose, and the building’s function is to relate to the people that spend 8 hours a day inside it, to respond to their lifestyle, beliefs, and needs.
4. Pragmatism is not Optimization
The concept of data scapes defines an approach to architecture that rejects aesthetic sensibility, style, and taste in favor of selected functional parameters that define form. These data scapes include performance criteria such as people, density, air conditioning, lighting design, ventilation, and structural and material considerations. This approach of parametric optimization is misinterpreted as pragmatic design.
According to Dewey, who defined Pragmatism, things depend on human interaction with them in terms of purpose and preferences. It is how the humans interact with the space and the response of the spaces to the humans which define the optimization of an architectural space. The pragmatic design is the one that emphasizes the relationship of humans to spaces, colors, and textures, and other psychological factors.
5. Pragmatism is not Non-Aesthetic
Pragmatic design is always considered purely functional and non-aesthetic. The purpose of a design is to mold the consumers’ emotions to what the space or the functions being performed require, or to the moods that the space was supposed to set. The space fulfills its pragmatic purpose by setting the mood for the activity to be performed. In this process, it fulfills its aesthetic purpose by initiating the senses by being conducive to what the consumer brought to it in terms of emotional states.
It needs to embrace aesthetics and emotions by acknowledging the interaction of man and space. Architecture should be based on “pragmatically aesthetic” or “aesthetically pragmatic” criteria to be truly functional. Neither aesthetic nor pragmatic needs can be fulfilled without the consideration of both these needs simultaneously. Fulfillment of the pragmatic requirement in its holistic sense will automatically fulfill aesthetic requirements, and fulfillment of aesthetic requirements is a step in the realization of holistically pragmatic designs. Parallels may be drawn into home economics and consumer sciences to follow a similar process in evaluating consumers’ responses to various products to identify if functional criteria are fulfilled through meaningful interaction between consumer and product.
- Philipsen, K., 2014. The Architect in an Age without “Isms”. [online] Archplanbaltimore.blogspot.com. Available at: <http://archplanbaltimore.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-architect-in-age-without-isms.html>
- Raghuraman, A., 2018. Pragmatism in Design & Architecture. [online] Linkedin.com. Available at: <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pragmatism-design-architecture-adithya-raghuraman/>
- misfits’ architecture. n.d. New Radical Pragmatism. [online] Available at: <https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2014/05/16/whats-in-a-name/>
- Thakur, A., 2007. Making a Place for Pragmatics in Art and Aesthetics in Architecture. [online] Phea.org.pk. Available at: <http://phea.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/N07-2.pdf>
- Boxer, S., 2000. The New Face Of Architecture (Published 2000). [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/25/arts/the-new-face-of-architecture.html>