“….the open space here, due to its central location, naturally invites people to sit down and interact…” says a famous designer about their work.
“….due to the novel technological advancements in construction creating this stark, dynamic form, the development is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually….” says another, about their architectural creation.
“….the massing, form, and space letting in light and air are all man needs….” claims yet another.
It has undoubtedly become a habitude for the Design and Architecture community to idolize such ways of layering a piece of architecture on and on with words. Rhetoric is as indispensable a skill required for a contemporary architect and designer, as drawing or visualizing, or problem-solving. Whereas, once a project is realized, we hardly pay as much attention to whether or not people use spaces as we claimed.
True, although our works do have a magic of doing what we claim they do, then to what degree is it actually achieved? There have been instances where such claims made by really successful and famous architects have gone rather invalid, as reality did not turn out as they had foreseen.
Of course, spaces, architecture, and design are highly subjective, but are we slowly nearing a point where we are exploiting this factor? What happens to the authenticity of our discipline and our canons, if stupendous claims are what we make? Let us throw some more light onto these issues to deliberate them further.
(In simple words, “Canon” refers to the books, drawings, works, ideas, theories, etc.. that are recognized by critics, scholars, and peers which make Architecture a “discipline”, from a mere profession.)
Bare Architecture: What does it say for itself?
If not for our words to clothe our works, a single piece of Architecture can express and incite a multitude of notions in the minds of the spectator. Ideally, it is not for the Designer or the Architect to influence how any observer would perceive the design, considering the fact that our canon depicts the discipline to be noble and of high reputation.
Besides, it is certainly not for us to lean towards just a desirable side of a subjective facet in any work of design; architecture can be perceived as a functional piece of art to inhabit and use, and as such, could elicit a diverse variety of responses, emotions and the like.
Instead of steering subjectivities to our will and wish, it would make more sense to analyze and understand what space would mean to people from a common user’s perspective. Let us examine this through one such typical real-life scenario:
In pursuit of comprehending the Architecture and the function it houses, the common user navigates around. They see the walls, the floors, the roof, and ultimately their unison – the space created by these elements.
Sometimes, the user just doesn’t see the space at all; sometimes they are just interested in the form, the material, the texture, the visual and tactile notions of each of these elements, and what they make them feel. Sometimes, they don’t use space as it is intended to be, but find their own means to, in unforeseen ways.
Space communicates with them in their own language, rather than what the designer gave it and intended it to. Where the Architect has created a huge mass of exposed concrete to be true to the material and create an expression, the common user may see emptiness, monotony, and a state of lack of life. Where the designer has inserted tall, Herculean towers along an urban avenue, as a way of expressing their prowess in design, the common user may feel out of scale, intimidated.
Rhetoric may be of help to the canon, but in praxis, Architecture speaks for itself; if only we design, being mindful of what actual impact space has, rather than claim it to have one.
Origins of the Rhetoric Culture
There has been considerable debate about the way a piece of Architecture is talked about in the canon. The nature of such written works could be diverse, ranging from commentaries and critiques to accounts that venture dangerously close to advertisement: such texts glorify every aspect of the design talked about, hardly giving any space for the reader, the observer, or the spectator to form their own views about the subject.
It ultimately rests on the shoulders of the writer of the piece, whether to write a commentary, remaining neutral in their approach to design deliberation; or to advertise, safely preventing the reader from building up a perspective.
It might be safe to assume that this is one of the origins of the rhetoric culture. A designer or an Architect picks it up right from academia: with design school being a place for learning much of the professional jargon, it goes on perpetually all the way through professional life.
In some cases its effects are well pronounced, with designers sometimes not being able to present an unbiased outlook of their works; they weave layers and layers of eloquent narrative, that the Architecture ceases to speak for itself. This, at times, is fuelled by peer conversations at the studio, where presenting one’s work without an exaggerative narrative is simply impossible.
All the while here, the rhetoric steers the subjectivities of human agency and behaviour to its stead, building up an ideal, flawless façade, wrapped without imperfections.
Design and Human Agency
Sociologically and philosophically, agency refers to the capacity of human beings to act independently and make their own, free choices. Architecture and Design have long been critically acclaimed for their capabilities to shape human agency and behaviour, for common good.
The influence of spaces on human well-being, and the associated factors affecting it have long been deliberated, and to an extent, it has been quite possible to realize Architecture with such competence.
Agency, again, is governed by an almost innumerable amount of factors – each preceding and succeeding the other with sequence, feedback, and reflexes that create varying degrees of complexity in thought and action. Likewise, the role of space in governing human agency is equally complicated, with no one single factor inviting an individual to use a space or vice versa. This understanding of agency might explain how people, in general, are attracted to certain spaces more than others.
If we were to extrapolate the same ideal further to understand this behavior, we might observe a set of patterns in the kinds of spaces (for example public, urban space) that people use more: in other words, they have physical attributes like ease of accessibility, contextual significance, cultural markers, and so on.
Attempting to manifest these aspects as a design intervention would certainly draw people to it; conversely, it is also noticeable that there is a good number of such design inserts in cities that do not function as expected.
Especially in a country as India, we see densely crowded spaces like chai points and chhat junctions that are just not architecturally designed or thought about, but are still hotspots for interaction, conversation, and gathering; facts as these sometimes make us rethink our fundamental dogmas about urban space inserts.
A rather lesser-known example along such lines would be the design of open spaces in the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, by veteran Indian Architect B. V. Doshi. The open spaces he crafted for students, amidst different blocks, are comparatively less used as students preferred hanging out in their hostels; not because the design had an issue, but that the hostels had better Wi-Fi coverage.
When factors as these take up significant roles and govern human agency, design just takes a backseat; the same stands true for other well-designed urban inserts that cease to operate efficiently over time.
It might now make more sense to tone down our ways of steering subjectivities as we pleased. That space can aid and support human behaviour is evident. That space can create or break human behaviour all on its own, is questionable.
What more could the Design Community do?
A smart, sensible way forward would be to ensure that narratives or works talking about design are only descriptive, documentative in nature, and stating objective facts over subjective claims as much as possible. It is the reader, the viewer, and the spectator who are supposed to build perspectives, not the conveyor; doing otherwise would only render the account biased, short-sighted, and superfluous with sheer ambition.
In a world as fast-moving as ours, and during times as changing as now, Architects, Designers, and everyone creative shall re-commence focusing on things that matter more, things that make life better for all on earth, and things that are not exploitative of subjectivities.
If it were only possible to objectify the subjective!
- Gusevich, Miriam – The Architecture of Criticism – A Question of Autonomy (1991)
- Wikipedia – Agency (Sociology)