The very first technical, yet design-derived word one would hear of in the architecture school would be context. So what exactly this so praised word, context, actually means. There lies in art in perceiving it, like perceiving the tangible and the intangible catalysts. The catalysts which define the subjective success of the architectural artwork, either in terms of it being a masterpiece or in terms of a center-minded lunatic piece of work, the context plays an important role in determining the essence of a structure.
To simply put the word in place, Contextual architecture can be described as the set of factors governing any and all design decisions made, may it be in favour, or against it. one of the most tangible and easily seen definitions of context is the physical setting in which the project is to be designed. May it be a historic context or a modern developing one, two well-known and distinct design methodologies to it can be summarised as, to gel it all in the surrounding, or to make it stand out. This can be achieved on many different levels of detailing as well.
Response to Contextual architecture: On similar guidelines
Considering the big picture, it is a response that follows the existing language of the immediate physical setting around it. It is rather a response than replication, breaking the very first and obvious image of similarities, lays a school of thought for adapting the existing elements and redefining them through a different perspective of design.
The James Simon Galerie, by David Chipperfield Architects, the entrance to the existing museum complex adds a definitive character for itself but follows the existing design principles. The massing is kept in good proportion to the existing one, avoiding any overpowering display of the new structure. Matching the plinth level is one of the samples of such a design approach. The prominent and the most experienced space of the structure; the colonnades are continued in a simplified manner, matching the rhythm of the surrounding structures. These principles are also followed in the detailing levels. This style of designing adds context to it, blending it in itself and the other way round.
Response to Contextual architecture: Another end of the spectrum
A total contrast to the previous one, this design pattern opposes the surrounding architectural language. It may take place as a result of the need to go with the current market trend, or simply to stand out from the rest.
One of such examples, for the market trend as a priority, can be seen at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. A classic example of how an unplanned and non-sensitive design approach leads a historic monument to lose its value. The development surrounding the Jantar Mantar complex is the mid-rise and high-rise ones, with more of a modern material palette to serve their architectural identity, the historic monument is no longer able to function to serve its original purpose of defining time, as the natural light patterns are highly altered by the newly built context. Such examples do indeed help in preventing further damage by allocating strict guidelines for any similar future scenarios.
The other part of this domain, to stand out was majorly noticed in the rise of modernism. The era where a need for minimalism was often further advocated by breaking the existing characters. These trends can still be witnessed in the current day situation, where it is more about the architect than the setting.
The other face of Contextual architecture: Social context
Many of the times, an architectural context can be more of an intangible one, making it difficult to comprehend, as no direct connection can be seen between it and the structure built. This can be defined as a social situation driving the design decisions for a given project. A strong political or cultural moment or trend is capable of doing so. As it being intangible, quite abstract designs are witnessed because of it.
These are at times criticized as architect-centered designs rather than a response to the immediate setting. One such example can be seen in China. The CCTV tower by Rem Koolhaas is said to be describing the economic status of the country. The architecture through its bold and gigantic, yet un-stable character tells the story of the unstable economy faced by the country. The unsupported edges of the design speak more than just being a structural and architectural masterpiece.
On similar lines, there are varied definitions, which can be termed as context. Each of its prominences is defined by the project which is to be built in it, and vice-a-versa.