For most students of architecture – and even seasoned architects, at times – the idea of problem-solving in architecture can seem very daunting and chaotic. Be it an individual client’s requirement for a densely functional home on a tight site or a large public building that will have to cater to varied demographics, the basic challenges remain the same. The key to deciphering an optimum solution invariably lies in one of the foremost skills that are taught at design schools across the world – analysis. The art of analysis is better learned by practice than from classroom lessons.

The analysis of a problem should always be guided by the following two objectives:

  • To understand the multiple threads that create the problem;
  • To identify and address each thread, independently as well as a cog in a larger system.

A good solution stems from a systematic deconstruction of the problem, aided by a good dose of critical thinking. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘critical thinking’ as ‘the process of analyzing information in an objective way, in order to make a judgment about it’. So what are the objective questions that can set you thinking in the right direction? Here’s a simple and infallible pyramid to get you straight to dissecting that mind-boggling problem!

At the base of the pyramid, as the foundation of all chaos, lies the most pertinent question – ‘What?’ What is the problem? It is essential to define the problem with utmost clarity, before attempting to arrive at a solution. Answering this fundamental question is half the hurdle crossed.

At the next level is the process of understanding ‘Who’ is truly affected by the defined problem. Understand your participants/ occupants/ victims, their needs and ambitions. Understand that irrespective of every one possessing distinctly individual traits, the problem affects each one in a certain way. Identify this pattern; a single common way in which all the victims are tied together in the problem at hand.

Pyramid of Architectural Problem Solving - sheet 1
Image 1: The Pyramid of Architectural Problem-Solving

At the base of the pyramid, as the foundation of all chaos, lies the most pertinent question – ‘What?’ What is the problem? It is essential to define the problem with utmost clarity, before attempting to arrive at a solution. Answering this fundamental question is half the hurdle crossed.

At the next level is the process of understanding ‘Who’ is truly affected by the defined problem. Understand your participants/ occupants/ victims, their needs and ambitions. Understand that irrespective of every one possessing distinctly individual traits, the problem affects each one in a certain way. Identify this pattern; a single common way in which all the victims are tied together in the problem at hand.

Once the people and their motives are identified, it is essential to determine the context of the problem. The area/ zone/ locality becomes the third most crucial player in the process of problem-solving. Try and understand ‘Where’ the problem occurs.

This eventually brings us to the time component. ‘When’ does the problem occur? Is it seasonal or diurnal? Is it triggered during a particular time or is it a persistent issue? Answer this with accuracy.

Once these four basic questions are satisfactorily addressed, the semblance of a solution starts showing up at the horizon. This is the time for you to once again bring the unraveled threads together and answer the ‘Why?’ Why does the problem occur? What causes the people, place and time to be affected in such a manner? Is there an external trigger? Build the questions up objectively until you stumble upon the root cause of the problem.

At the very pinnacle of the ‘Pyramid of Architectural Problem-Solving’ lies the ‘how?’. How can you solve the root cause of the problem? Are there precedents that were effectively addressed? Are there existing solutions that can be adapted with relevant modifications? How can you provide such a solution that does not bring with it a host of adverse consequences?

It is this pinnacle of questioning that eventually leads to what we churn out as design. Your design will be a coherent, well-fleshed out synthesis of the elements that you have painstakingly analyzed. The design will resolve ambiguities, address the problem from all angles and bring order to the scenario. After all, the basis for all human quests is logic and order!

Mira Ramakrishnan
Author

Mira Ramakrishnan is an architect and interior designer based out of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. She adores the works of Loos & Kahn, and strongly believes that educating the client is the first step towards creating quality spaces. And her cherished tool is writing - about architecture, design and everything in between.

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