With the humongous amount of existing work and the exposure we get through the internet, is it practically possible to be original design? Imagine a chef trying to create a new dish. With the magnitude of existing cuisines and dishes, what is the probability of him creating an original delicacy? Chances are high that he will create a fusion or tweak an existing recipe as per his creativity. Thus, we arrive at the questions that have haunted the artists since times immemorial – Is there anything like original art? If some creativity is introduced in copied art, can it be called original design? Should you be feeling guilty for just imitating your favorite artist? Is taking inspiration from existing art unethical? Originality and creativity play a vital role in art-related fields yet most artists agree that if credits are given to the original work, there is nothing wrong with copying. But when it comes to architecture, where would you give credits for the references you used while designing? What if the references are only used to a small extent or are modified? Whether referencing in architecture is ethical or not is subjective.

Is there anything like the original design - A perspective on referencing in architecture
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“Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso

Building on pre-existing ideas is always better than starting from zero. With many prevalent ideas, it would be a waste to start from scratch every time. Isn’t this how progress is made? Taking an example of the most basic architectural unit – a house. When humans started realizing that they needed shelter from the natural adversities, they used the naturally formed caves. Slowly, new materials and techniques were invented and we started making houses and evolving them. The interesting part is that while the technology, materials, and forms evolved, the basic concept of a shelter and the structure remained the same; we found ways to make it more durable, aesthetically pleasing, and convenient.

To get the perspectives of different architects on this subject, we asked them some questions. When asked whether they use references while designing, most architects replied with a yes. The majority of them use references during the initial concept or detailing stage. Ar. Vivek Pai, the founder of Sustainancy Consultants Pvt. Ltd., uses references for detailing and believes that it is ethical provided that the source is acknowledged. While Ar. Jesal Vora who is now pursuing an MBA in real estate and infrastructure says that there is nothing wrong with getting inspired. She believes that there is nothing like an original design as all the designers seek inspiration from some source, be it other designers, artists, or nature itself. An anonymous architect said that whether we believe referencing is ethical or unethical, we don’t have a choice but to plagiarize. This is because we, consciously or subconsciously, are always gathering information from what we see and experience in our day-to-day lives. And this information gets translated into our ideas and concepts. This makes it impossible to acknowledge all the sources we have been inspired by.

Research has proven that traditional and vernacular architecture have sustainable features and they provide an environment that positively impacts psychology and behaviors. But in the quest for originality, modern and contemporary architecture never analyze and learn from the past. Traditional materials and design are no longer feasible with the changing time. However, using those principles along with modern technology can lead to better designs for the environment and the users. Copying without thoroughly evaluating and understanding the source is unethical. But studying the existing buildings and developing or modifying the principles further to match the design and site requirements is a positive process. It helps with evaluation rather than alienation. An analogy of this process with the research process is useful. Researchers gradually build on the existing research and it is with the small findings that are taken further that they reach monumental conclusions. These conclusions remain a work in progress because they keep getting developed.

But, despite all this discussion, one of the most important factors that a layman uses while evaluating a design is originality (1). This was the conclusion of a study that evaluated only the building facades. This shows that users prefer a variety of forms and uniqueness in the visual aspect of design. Thus, merely copying the form and pattern of someone’s design is neither preferred nor considered ethical.

It can thus be concluded that references can be beneficial instead of unethical if the design is a solution to questions relating to the site, users, and the environment rather than merely a visual pattern. Architects should be motivated to take inspiration from good designs instead of running behind the impossible concept of originality. Getting inspired by something and recreating your own adaptable version of it is the ‘art of copying’.

  1. Ghomeshi, M. Nikpour, M., & Jusan, M. M. (2012). Evaluation of conceptual properties by a layperson in residential façade designs. Evaluation, 3.

Masum is an architect who loves learning new things. Besides working in mainstream architecture, she has researched the psychological impacts of architecture. What fascinates her the most about architecture is how it encompasses knowledge from various fields and never ceases to provide exciting unexpected niches to explore.

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