How do you design a building?

Faced with an unfamiliar area, scientists automatically do a library search to bring themselves up to speed with the latest peer reviewed articles on the subject.  All conclusions are seen as tentative until new evidence or a better hypothesis comes along to accommodate and explain the facts that are known at that time; it's called the scientific method.

How do architects proceed when they are asked to design a new building? 

A recent article in 'The Conversation' came to the conclusion that architects' understanding of people (and by extension the way buildings are used by people) was mostly based on subjective observation and untested assumptions and that less than 16% of designers reviewed any available literature as part of their normal practice before commencing design.  There is a need, the article suggests, for 'Evidence Based Design' beyond the scope of any one designer's personal experience.

So if most architects don't do any research how do they proceed?

In my experience most architects of some experience and a normal level of architectural arrogance would probably argue that their 'problem solving' design skills allied with their previous experience of the particular building type, the limits imposed by the client's brief and budget (suitably fleshed out in discussion) the size, shape, contours and orientation of the client's site in it's urban context, allied with an understanding of current local government planning and building controls are all that's needed to design a building. 

During their training most architects will have had exercises to design different building types like offices, apartments, schools, theatres, art galleries, sports stadia, factories, airports and hospitals, and during the course of these exercises may have been lectured by a practising architect who had direct experience in the particular type in question, and they may even have been taken to inspect a similar building if there's a good one easily available. 

And in the normal course of their lives most architects would have used a Post Office, been a patient in a dental surgery and shopped in a shopping centre so they are not completely unfamiliar with many different types of buildings even if they may never have actually designed and built one.

If the building in question has some sort of important technical complexity (like a large hospital or houses a specific industrial process) the client will automatically have employees who will specify exactly what is needed to satisfy their technical requirements and then ensure the design incorporates their requirements.

Architects asked to design a block of apartments may even spend a Saturday afternoon checking out the latest interior tricks in new apartment interiors that are for sale.  To suss out the opposition like this might well be a prudent marketing move.

But only a few of them would start by making a library search on their computer the way a scientist would.  My old master Harry Seidler kept files of cuttings from architectural journals of buildings he liked or that seemed to work particularly well, to serve both as an inspiration and to assess the ways different concepts had played out in their final designs, and I have continued his practice.  Albert Einstein once explained modestly that if he had seen so far it was because he had stood on the shoulders of great men, and this was Seidler's attitude also; he would have seen this as simply learning from other people's experience.

In the same way one might study similar buildings to see how well they have worked. Visiting similar buildings and finding out from the owner or operator what would improve the design in the light of their experience might be helpful shoulders to stand on.

Commonsense 'research' like this is not that common among architects however. Instead there are many architects who think it sullies their unique creative abilities to see what has been done before and who firmly avoid studying other people's buildings. 

Seidler would have disagreed with this 'unsullied' approaches and once asserted in a down-to-earth way that, 'Architecture is not an inspirational business, it's a rational procedure to do sensible and hopefully beautiful buildings; that's all.'  He would have found the idea of copying totally abhorrent but he accepted that you could always learn something from others, even if it was what not to do!

When I was asked to design a new domestic passenger terminal at Sydney Airport for the domestic carrier TAA (later to become part of Qantas) I suggested that my client provide tickets for myself and the interior designer David Forbes to inspect and learn from the spate of new terminals that had been built in the previous decade in the USA. We had already designed and seen through to completion a new terminal at Brisbane airport so we had previous experience with the same client.

TAA Terminal
TAA Passenger Terminal, Sydney (since demolished)
Clarke Gazzard Architects

We did a whistle stop tour of terminals where new people mover systems had been installed, flying into an airport, being given a tour of inspection of the terminal by the airport manager before getting a flight on to the next airport.  In the end it was decided that a people-mover system was not justified for a small terminal like ours but it gave us much greater confidence that we knew what we were doing in all other design aspects of the terminal.  Alas this innovative terminal was demolished after 25 years to make way for a much larger 'shopping centre' terminal.

In the same way I usually managed to see the most interesting buildings of all types in the countries I was visiting on my annual holidays in order to get a first hand sense of how well they worked, so this is also clearly research of a kind.

However it's a problem that the literature that architects can consult does not bear comparison in terms of tough minded usefulness with the way scientific work is peer reviewed and published.

First there are the monthly magazines.  The Australian Institute of Architects publishes AA (Architecture Australia) every two months and most major buildings end up published and reviewed in AA with plans and sections as well as photographs.  As the name indicates the content is Australian.  The reviewers are usually 'publish or perish' academics, some are better than others and many of them write in an in-language called artspeak that most non architects have difficulty interpreting.  Most of them confine themselves to supportive description and interpretation and there is little hard criticism. AA automatically goes to members of the AIA.

There is also one stylish commercial architectural magazine published in Australia. AR (Architectural Review Asia Pacific) is also bi-monthly and the content is not confined to local buildings.  A recent issue contained two Oz buildings, two buildings in Singapore (one by an Oz architect and one by a Dutch firm) and a building in Shenzen in China by a European firm, and the writing is better.

The Architectural Review (AR) published monthly in London is arguably the best journal in the English-speaking world.  The writing is more pointed and they are prepared to take-on and criticise big name architects, as they did recently with Renzo Piano and his buildings built in too close proximity to Le Corbusier's church at Ronchamp.

Most architects get all of these journals.  However they all tend to deal with what one might call the overall architectural aspects of buildings, they reinforce awards and the status quo, and critical judgements on how well any building might break new conceptual ground are usually lacking.

The growing role of the social sciences in what is being called Evidence Based Design is also interesting.  I have written previously about the Richards Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania designed by Louis Kahn (see The Separate Realm of Louis Kahn').

A careful study 'Human Nature in Architectural Theory'  by Robert Gutman, an eminent social scientist, examined the conflict between Kahn's idealistic view as the building designer of how scientific research should be carried out, and the users who had to use this building and their rather more down to earth needs.  This sad story illustrates both good and bad aspects of architectural practice but is otherwise not that much help.  And while some social science research is worthy and necessary, crossing t's and dotting i's, much of it is not of immediate or practical use to the designer; it's a different discipline after all! 

Another earlier article 'Healing Spaces'  was written around the idea going back to the Greeks that the environment can have an effect on how quickly sick people recover, has finally been found proven by a team of scientists in a carefully controlled experiment, although the actual way the immune system does achieve improved health, is still a matter of hypothesis and does not concern architects. 

And we have to tread careful.  A study by Oscar Newman called 'Defensible Space'  about vandalism and violence in urban housing estates in the United States purported to come up with a series of design rules, and architects and planners lapped it up.  This study was given a lot of credence by authorities for a while, but has since been found wanting in terms of it's methodology.  Although very interesting in terms of it's approach it needs much more work to satisfy scientific integrity so we could trust the conclusions in the design of buildings.

The surveys in The Conversation article quoted at the beginning also showed that only 5% of architects ever went back after 12 months to learn from the way their buildings have been used in practice,  

On a mundane level of course, most of the time when something goes wrong in a building the client probably says 'what can you expect from bloody architects,' and if it's not major the way it was at Richards, either fixes whatever isn't working as best they can, or lives with it.  Architects are usually never made aware of what didn't work and why, so there is no chance for the scientific method to apply and our experience and understanding to be broadened! 

To counter this there's a technique called Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE), where the architect goes back a year after completion and talks to everyone, the workers, the cleaners and the maintenance people as well as the foreman, the managers and the tea lady (if they still exist) in order to understand how well the building works from their different viewpoints, susses out the issues and makes suggestions to solve any problems. Clients never want to pay for this service of course, it may only take a day or two but it all adds to the architect's job cost at a time when fees levels are being eroded so it isn't used much.

I POE'd once on a small building that had been altered to be a community theatre-dance workshop space, and found that a new manager, hired after the building had been handed over, had completely changed the brief we had been given and the way they were using the building, and as a result some of the things we'd done didn't make much sense or work very well.  It was all easily fixed but if I hadn't made an inspection they would have lived with it for the rest of their lives saying 'bloody architects', and I would never have known to watch out for this sort of thing in the future!

And lastly there's history! 

If you are an urologist you may or may not be interested in the history of how your area of medicine developed to its present level of scientific sophistication. Even if you are knowledgeable it doesn't impinge on your day-to-day practice and your work.

But it's not like that with architects.  If I were asked to design a Bank for example, my thoughts would turn to bank buildings I have admired, buildings that are part of the immortal tradition of architecture.  Carlo Scarpa's Banca Popolare di Verona  with its elegant detailing for example, the great atrium space in Norman Foster's Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Kowloon and the way the building meets the ground with it's feng shui angled escalators, the spaces in Sir John Soane's Bank of England in the City of London reminiscent of Roman Baths, and the proportions and detailing of the main banking chamber  in Otto Wagner's Post Office Savings Bank in Vienna with it's glass roof. 

On the other hand my inspiration may be an aspect of some other building type (not a bank) that I admire, but that has some aspect that might seem relevant and desirable in the building in question.

Probably, none of these aspects will be directly relevant to the bank building I will be designing.  I doubt that there will be escalators as my building will probably be much smaller than Kowloon, but the comparisons elevate my thoughts and focus my mind on the fundamentals of architecture as I embark on this brave new design. 

I might start setting a few abstract goals in my head; for example to try and achieve the quality of day lighting present in Otto Wagner's banking chamber. 

As for details my general attitude has always been that the best details are those you don't notice, and I've always tended to follow Balzac's advice in this regard. He said something to the effect that the artist must be like God, present everywhere in his work but not seen.   Yet some buildings like this Viennese bank, are largely defined in a wonderful way by their idiosyncratic detailing. Something to think about; perhaps I should stop being so timid about the details of this bank ? 

Otherwise I would proceed in much the way I have described at the beginning, but with the past looking over my shoulder, aware I will be judged by the powerful tradition I am part of as I try to draw strength from it.

When I reread the above it might sound a bit pompous and how well anything actually flows into the building's immune system from history is uncertain.  But at least it's a motivating force not to be blasé about the mystery of design, and good to be reminded there are ancient architectural forces at play other than the normal dogfight about regulations and costs.

Swetic Korzeniewski , a valued colleague who had the privilege of studying with Kahn for a year, points out that talking about designers in the abstract as though they are basically all the same is misleading, and rightly objects that a mystic like Lou Kahn can't be compared with the designer of a Walmart store, or that they even went through the same design process. 

Swetic excuses Kahn over the problems of glare in the Richards building, claiming that there was a general lack of understanding of glare in many other great modern buildings of the time, citing Mies's Farnsworth house and Johnson's glass pavilion as examples.  And he rightly points out that the way Kahn separated the Richards building into 'servant' and 'served' spaces was a conceptual breakthrough that has been of continuing value to architects ever since. Amen to that.

The lessons of history may be hard to define but that they act as a constant brake and inspiration to serious designers is unarguable. Our unavoidable link with history is one of the factors that separate the practice of architecture from professions like medicine and law.  

And how to marry these great constants with the more mundane functional aspects is a problem that many great architects haven't always solved well. All we can do is hope to learn what we can from these glorious failures?

Don Gazzard  LFAIA
October 2014