Learning how to design is a deeply intimate affair. For starters, it requires you to recondition how you think and unlearns all that you have taken for granted throughout your life. Then, it questions who you are and more importantly – who you want to be.
Much of my architectural education has revolved around answering the intimate question of ‘how to design’. On my first project, I felt like a lost child being asked to find her way back home; I kept looking around for signs indicating that I was on the right track. Each project since has been a new lesson on the elusive subject known as the ‘design process’. In explaining all that I have learned on this subject, I’m inclined to briefly refer to the art of storytelling:
Theorizing the process of writing fairy tales, George Macdonald argued that there is a set of laws by which a new world begins to exist. He referred to these as the armature of creation, structure that lent plausibility to the imagined worlds. These laws, he proclaimed, were determined by the creator to bring harmony and proportion in the creations.
Simon Unwin claimed that these laws of creation were not limited to stories and were prevalent in all manifestations of creation – even architecture. He defined these laws to be the guidelines of the design process, self-defined parameters that enabled architects from time immemorial to make decisions that would otherwise seem arbitrary and whimsical.
In architecture today, these laws of creation are disguised under the blanket term of ‘design principles’. In my experience, understanding what these principles can be, how to define them for yourself, and what it means to design by them, leads you to uncover your distinct design process.
So here is a glimpse of all that I have discovered and learned on my journey to uncover my ‘design process’:
“Imitation is a method of assimilation”
My exploration of these principles has been largely imitative, inspired by countless architects and their works. Emulation is a two-step process that requires you to analyze the design decisions made originally and incorporate them within a new context. Many would say that there is no greater learning in architecture than to interpret another work of architecture and emulate it. Interestingly, with each passing project, the architects that I admire and attempt to emulate vary.
Drawing: A Form of Thinking
“To draw oneself, to trace the lines, handle the volumes, organize the surface… all this means first to look, and then to observe and finally perhaps to discover.”
A professor once told me that drawing is a form of critical thinking – what you draw is what you interpret. I had no idea what that meant for the longest time, drawing had always been a mere presentational tool. It was only until I first attempted to communicate architectural ideas that I felt the need to draw. Now, I firmly believe that architectural ideas cannot exist only in words. Not only is drawing an integral tool in designing and thinking, but it also assists in observing and understanding architecture. It acts as a cognitive tool that translates raw data from your experience of architecture into a deeper understanding.
“Architecture frames the lives and activities, possessions, and beliefs of people. And as people occupy, inhabit, use, perform in the space of buildings, the various
kinds of architectural space relate to them and affect them in different ways.”
The first principle that I came across in my architectural education was that human experience is central to every aspect of design. Looking back, in my first year, I had approached the subject from a purely visual perspective; my design process prioritized the visual experience of the occupant over their needs and comfort. This yielded a photogenic building that hardly served its purpose of framing lives.
As I have grown as an architect, I have learned about the distinct ways in which architecture molds human experience through its sensory nature.
“Has the ground some fault or special virtue, or several? In any and every case the character of the site is the beginning of the building that aspires to architecture.”
The relevance of responding to the context in the design of buildings is the second principle that I explored on my journey. This goes far beyond the physical and the geographical – the cultural, political, and social context are equally relevant and often ignored aspects that need to be taken into consideration. As an architect, the reminder that I am not working in a vacuum was an important learning for me and has deeply impacted my designs.
“A brick knows what it wants to be.”
Tectonic thinking was a hard concept for me to grasp. I would say that the role of materials and construction techniques in the design process is highly undervalued. Notably, this law of creation is as old as the idea of architecture – tectonic thinking is when the method and material of construction have an impact on the geometry and concept of the building.
I have only recently started paying attention to the ‘nature of making’ and employing it as a creative tool. This has drastically altered the chronology of my design process, with the materiality of the building impacting much more than just the visual aspect of the final design.
Identity and Architecture
“I have tried all my life to run away from the Nordic tradition. But I realize that it is difficult to run away from yourself.”
Many would claim that instilling identity in architecture is a by-product of contextual design and they might be correct. But I would argue that the identity of architecture stems from diverse decisions that we take both knowingly and unknowingly. At the smallest instance, this boils down to awareness of the self.
Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in Venice introduced this broader definition of architectural identity to me. The design of the Pavilion explores Nordic tradition through Fehn’s personal experiences.
The Element of Time
“Architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement”
To design for a single moment of a single day is to design poorly. Time, as an architectural dimension, is frequently overlooked in the design process. I, for one, have often been caught in the act of designing a space without considering the varying amount of natural light it would receive through the year.
But how a building age is an aspect I am still learning to consider in my design. To incorporate its aging process within the design and make provisions for its adaptability in the future is to work with the element of time.