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,