Thursday, 29 November 2012

Designing Conversations

As architects we strive to maintain a professionally independent and holistic view of the process of architecture. This is to serve and assist the local and larger communities within which we operate. Codes of conduct set out by governing bodies such as the ARB reflect this aspiration but serve only as a minimum standard of behavior expected of those using the title of architect.

The architect, like the client they work for and all those who will experience a built piece of architecture, belong to a community that informs and shapes its own physical environment. All of us are engaged in this process of creation, whether we are aware of it or not. On an individual level, our own cognition and perceptual processes fuel our personal and subjective experience of architecture. Our thoughts, belief systems and cultural ideologies weave a complex and intricate web of perceptual filters that interprets an external reality into subjective experience. Our behaviour and the way we respond are extensions of this experience. This process is the way we exchange ideas with our environment, thus shaping it. It in turn shapes us, continuing a complex reciprocal relationship.

 This model of experience illuminates architecture and our physical environment not as inert spaces that we occupy but rather spaces created by our occupation[1]. It is an intimate and cyclic relationship between people and space, human communication and architecture. Our environment is inseparable from the way we perceive and use it.

 This insight leads us to realise we are ultimately responsible for our own experience. We are continuously constructing our own realities and creating our environment. The polymath Gordon Pask recognised this intimate relationship we have with our environment describing the interaction as a conversation, operating with the same mechanics as a dialogue does in language[2]. To Pask communication and conversation differ. Communication is a linear process of information going from A to B, in a rather passive way. Conversation operates at a deeper level, is participatory and active. It is a looping, recursive and iterative process between two or more cognitive systems, distinct perspectives or individuals. Most importantly conversation requires understanding and agreement over the concepts and ideas, which are shared between individuals. The result of conversation is a new perspective to both individuals.

 Pask considered architecture as one of the fundamental conversational systems in human culture and that we are observing beings who construct our view of the world by interacting with it through conversations. With this perspective Architecture reveals itself as a time-based phenomenon, which relies on the unique construction of the observer. Viewing architecture in this light begins to place the architect in an interesting position not simply as designer of physical form and aesthetic but as system designers, designing systems that grow, develop and evolve[3].  A building is a living entity, a system which operates within a larger system (e.g. a city, human society) and it is these larger systems that the architect also designs.

 A conscientious architect, like Pask, cannot view a building in isolation but will consider the wider context (physical, social, cultural etc.) with the deeper understanding that a building is only meaningful as a human environment. Our built environment is simultaneously serving us and influencing our behaviour[4]. Our buildings are not static but are growing, living and evolving. As an architect it is imperative to recognise our role and responsibility in the development of our society’s conventions and traditions.

 We are becoming more aware of the importance for architects to design with provision for unknown future uses and the evolution of a design. The ecological crisis that we are currently facing reflects our civilization’s avoidance of meaningful conversation with the natural environment. Ensuring our built environment converses sensitively with the ecological cycles that govern our planet is an urgent activity that all of us share responsibility in. As architects, city planners and engineers we are in fortunate positions that our professions can make a significant impact within these conversations.

 Our cities will survive long after us and will carry with them our intentions and negligence for future generations to inherit. Buildings, which are ill conceived lack consideration for their entire lifespan and fail to recognise the interconnectedness between our cities and our wellbeing. A built environment that is conceived to be static and non-conversing perpetuates social division, financial deprivation and ecological instability.

 The architect is an enabler of conversation; not only between buildings, their inhabitants and the natural environment, but also between the numerous forces and mechanisms, which shape and influence the built domain. Clients, stakeholders, consultants, politicians, planners, contractors, public user groups, heritage and conservation groups and numerous others must all converse effectively with each other and themselves to achieve common goals that are beneficial to all. This is often a difficult process. Shared and common objectives are often ill defined, lack wisdom and holistic thought. Short-term economic and political agendas all too often take over a conversation reducing it to one-sided communication. The architect has a duty to maintain professional independence within this process. He is to ensure integrity whist providing a service for his client, but also remembering the higher service to the larger conversations of our cities and planet. Considering the wider context within which we build and ensuring conservation is one of the most fulfilling aspects of architecture, bringing more meaning and depth into our work. Sharing this outlook with our clients, and all those involved in building procurement is essential, as is being open and receptive to the ideas and perspectives that others also bring to the conversation.

 There have been many architects who have recognized architecture as a dynamic process, which is given meaning by its occupants. The visionary architect Cedric Price, who would have been involved in discussions with Pask at the Architectural Association, explored architecture’s potential to nurture conversation. Price, although building very little in his life became one of the most influential architectural thinkers of the last century. In a series of unrealized projects, Price presented architecture as a dynamic process between user and building.

 Fun Palace (1961) in collaboration with theatre director Joan Littlewood, embodied conversational philosophies, and sought to provide a building that was defined by the changing desires and needs of the users. The project embraced optimism for current technology to provide a flexible and responsive architecture. Consisting as a kit of parts, a structural grid of steel lattice columns and beams provided a frame within which dynamic elements such as hanging theatres, activity spaces and cinema screens could be assembled, moved and taken apart as required[5]. The result was playful, free spirited proposal defined by the activities of the users. Focusing in on the time based nature of architecture paved a way for subsequent architectural thinking and expanded the potential of architecture as a social catalyst.

Plan of the Fun Palace illustrating dynamic elements
Buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris clearly echo philosophies of Price’s work. Rogers and Piano’s competition entry was the only scheme to divide the Beauborg site into two halves, with one half being entirely given over as a public piazza.  The building itself strived for an inherent flexibility through spacious floor plates uninterrupted by services and vertical circulation. The strategies employed recognise conversational ideologies by placing human activity at the heart of the scheme. The public piazza, which continues to attract performers, museum goers, and a multitude of public life, has served to regenerate and revitalize a once forgotten part of Paris. The users of the piazza continually re create it through occupation and use. This conversation between inhabitants and environment becomes an enjoyable spectacle in its self, which in turns attracts more users. A successful public realm such as this is a place for the city to become aware of itself.

The city becoming aware of itself at the piazza of the Pompidou
In London, Denys Lasdun (who also worked with Cedric Price) designed the National Theatre at the south bank, which can also be seen as a functioning conversational system. One of the great successes of the National has been its dynamic dialogue with the public. The building’s concrete landscape provides large floating terraces which serve to reconnect the site to different parts of the city, such as providing access from the top of Waterloo Bridge to its underside, and offering intimate views across the Thames. This increased connectivity facilitates pedestrian movement encouraging human interaction. This increased animation allows the terraces themselves to become stages for public life. Often the events outside of the building, such as the recent Inside Out festival, are as popular as those that are contained within.

Floating terraces and public realm weaves in and out of the National Theatre allowing external performance spaces to emerge

Recognising architecture as a dynamic process, operating as a conversational system makes it impossible to view a building in isolation.  Often a client will make a set of stringent demands based on financial and political imperatives. If these obscure a holistic perspective of how our buildings will operate within the larger context, then our architecture will fail to participate in meaningful conversation, perpetuating social disparity and ecological imbalance. As architects we have a civic responsibility to ensure our buildings are capable of such conversation and have the potential to empower human activity.

[1] Walter Benjamin, One Way Street, 1924
[2] Paul Pangaro, Cybernetics and Conversation, 1996
[3] Gordon Pask, The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics, Architectural Design (39) September, 1969
[4] Ibid
[5] Canadian Centre for Architecture,

Friday, 24 August 2012


I recollect a summer vacation in New York City a few years ago and witnessing a stunning sunset as it aligned with the city’s uniform grid, framed by Manhattan’s vertical sky rises. People took to the streets blocking traffic to photo the astrological urban phenomenon.

Every year Manhattan’s distinct uniform grid layout (as does any city with this patterned master plan) lends itself to becoming an astrological calendar. Sunsets begin around May and last for a few months, on a clear night the uncluttered western horizon of NY provides the perfect backdrop to this spectacle.  Over the years it has become something of mini solstice gathering, with the public halting the city’s incessant movement for a few moments to witness an everyday wonder that so often gets forgotten and missed in an urban context.
These spontaneous gatherings, not organised or corporately funded, occurring in the one the world’s busiest metropolises, in a place not designated for public crowds is poignant. It reminds of the importance and innate wonder of sharing such an experience. The ancients recognised this and deliberately utilised it for worship, politics, and to disseminate ideals. In contemporary society, our busy lives and fragmented cities obscure, much of the natural phenomena we unconsciously yearn for. When however these same cities unexpectedly assist a natural spectacle, we are forced to stop and reflect. The urban henge reminds us all of our shared cosmological journey and thus serves as an important opportunity for human connection.

Thanks to for reminding me of this event.


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Michelangelo's Repertoire of Invention

I first came across these images of Michelangelo’s designs for fortified defenses around Florence on the blog of Lebbeus Woods. They are hugely compelling visual documents, which only but hint at Michelangelo’s enormous repertoire of invention.

Michelangelo was commissioned by the Florentine Republic to design these bastions in the early part of the 16th Century. At this time Florence was under the threat of attack from the Papal armies wishing to restore the Medici family to autocratic power.* When the attack arrived, the city’s defensive wall had been strengthened by Michelangelo’s fortifications. As a result Florence was able to defend herself for close to a year against a supreme army. Florence succumbed to the military might through an act of political treachery in 1530. *

The geometries of these drawings derive from their very practical purpose, allowing structural defense from the incoming missiles of the attackers and allowing retaliation from the defenders.

On their own they radiate a complex beauty and power. As an architect looking upon these drawings, the forms look almost contemporary not something expected from the renaissance epoch. The top image here is particularly powerful, as begins to hint at the mechanics of Michelangelo’s genius. The plan appears to be drawn in ink with the masterly control of superfluous brush strokes. Interestingly it lies on top of a set stunning and sensitive figure studies. Other sketches in this set also create a superimposition of the architectural solution atop of the figurative study. Here is an interesting point to depart into a conversation on the interwoven links between the depth of Michelangelo’s anatomical understanding and his engineering faculties.

For me these sketches from the great renaissance masters illustrate the importance of fluidity within architectural thought and discipline. It could be argued, that the diet of intensive observational and anatomical drawing that the renaissance period cultivated develops a powerful non verbal understanding of mechanical and structural principles. Lebbeus Woods, argues that it is Michelangelo’s extreme precision and dexterity with free hand line (no doubt a result from his latent genius and hard graft refining this skill through observational drawing) that allows him to be so courageous and inventive with the forms explored in these sketches.

These sketches, largely unseen amidst the multitude of masterpieces from Michelangelo, are just as inspiring. They remind us of important faculties we possess as humans, and the latent potential of imagination fused with perseverance and dedication.


Monday, 13 August 2012

Primitive future: The Improvised spaces of Sou Fujimoto

Nest or Cave?

Sou Fujimoto recently posed this question at the opening of his lecture at the GSD Harvard. He eloquently explains his concept of a ‘nest’, which implies a space that has been specifically prepared for human habitation.  A cave is the opposite of this: a naturally formed space, which to be used for dwelling requires a creative act on behalf of a human. The cave alters the behaviour of its occupant by offering no clear way in which to use the space. Although to some degree this ambiguity is inherent in all spaces, the cave is completely undefined. He calls these creative acts of appropriation the beginning of architecture.

Within the cave the body needs adapt to the space to meet its needs. As the body adapts, the space takes on a new subjective and temporal definition, unique to each occupant. A harmonious relationship is established between the body and space. The ambiguity of the cave offers a surprisingly flexible architecture, and it is this idea that Sou Fujimoto has explored in much of his conceptual and built work.
His buildings and experimental homes create spaces within spaces that blur into one another and have no definite boundaries or pre determined routes through them, requiring the user to create their definition through use - akin to the cave or a natural setting. In Primitive Future house Fujimoto explores an architecture that begins to relinquish prescribed spaces.

In his work the Wooden House project we see these ideas manifest into their first built work, Fujimoto explains:

'I thought of making an ultimate wooden architecture. It was conceived by just mindlessly stacking 350mm square. Lumber is extremely versatile. In an ordinary wooden architecture, lumber is effectively differentiated according to functions in various localities precisely because it is so versatile. Columns, beams, foundations, exterior walls, interior walls, ceilings, floorings, insulations, furnishings, stairs, window frames, meaning all. However, I thought if lumber is indeed so versatile then why not create architecture by one rule that fulfills all of these functions. I envisioned the creation of new spatiality that preserves primitive conditions of a harmonious entity before various functions and roles differentiated. There are no separations of floor, wall, and ceiling here. A place that one thought was a floor becomes a chair, a ceiling, a wall from various positions. The floor levels are relative and spatiality is perceived differently according to one’s position. Here, people are distributed three-dimensionally in the space. This is a place like an amorphous landscape with a new experience of various senses of distances. Inhabitants discover, rather than being prescribed, various functionalities in these convolutions.'

 For me it is interesting to consider the importance that Japanese Zen traditions place on the rituals of the everyday, and use this for illuminating the context within which Sou Fujimoto works. For example making a cup of tea in a traditional tea ceremony is highly a refined meditative exercise involving precise controlled movements and a heightened sense of awareness of the body in space. This awareness of the body is a key aspect to many Zen practices and is often viewed as a gateway to spiritual insight. When we inhabit or navigate an undefined organic space we seem to naturally become of aware of the body as we search for ways to adapt and utilise the space. It is this heightened state that Fujimoto refers to as the primitive conditions of harmonious entity.
House NA develops these ideas further . 21 floor plates at varying heights connected via stairs and ladders create a house with a gradation of spaces that flow into one another. The home offers a unique dwelling experience, emulating a nomadic quality and sense of movement that echoes habitation amongst trees.

“The intriguing point of a tree is that these places are not hermetically isolated but are connected to one another in its unique relativity. To hear one’s voice from across and above, hopping over to another branch, a discussion taking place across branches by members from separate branches. These are some of the moments of richness encountered through such spatially dense living.”- Sou Fujimoto