Committee on Design

  • 1.  Measuring Design Excellence

    Posted 06-14-2011 04:38 PM
    This message has been cross posted to the following Discussion Forums: Residential Knowledge Community and Committee on Design .
    Mike Mense,
    This will not be immediately useful but the search for measurement is a watershed in my opinion that may be a fork in the road in hindsight.

                Explaining design excellence to a skeptical public will require a better explanation of decisions. It is one thing to introduce students to the architectural language of inspiration and quite another to measure excellence on a scale that will convince the public. The public expects an explanation in return for commitment and does not believe it cannot understand.

              Progress toward excellence, however, implies a goal. The current design award goal appears to be recognition within the profession. This means that awards are understood by the initiated but public benefit is met with skepticism. If architecture wishes to bridge the public-private gap, it must explain its decisions to a public that depends on shelter for survival. This will require a new system of measurement based on a vocabulary and language that can explain and defend its decisions.

              If Louis Sullivan still remains in our pantheon of heroes, form and appearance still follow function, but we have reversed Sullivan's priorities. Functional excellence involves plans, sections, details, systems, context, specifications, contracts and budget; but these decisions have been too difficult to explain. On top of that, plans are being claimed by interior designers in the name of interior architecture; systems are chosen by engineers; context is left-over land assigned to landscape architects; and budgets are the Achilles' heel of the profession.

               The warm and fuzzy world of artistic opinion is a dead end. It must be accompanied by a foundation of knowledge that convinces the public we can make a positive contribution to their daily quality of life. We live in context and survive in buildings. An architect who is forced to sacrifice context for development capacity introduces intensity that is not a public benefit. We only need to look at the tenement targets of social reform and public health for proof of this axiom. The public lives in a context created by architecture, however. The language of context is intensity that can be measured with design specification values and predicted with forecast models. Intensity represents one measurement of our quality of life, but it's like taking blood pressure without the knowledge required for interpretation. The abstract idea came first but research made it useful. Architectural intensity is blood pressure without knowledge, and research represents the next step in a long history of architectural adaptation, in my opinion.

          Context is the relationship of building mass and pavement to open space. Project open space has been a commodity that remains after building area and parking requirements are met. It has been an after-thought, but design that ignores context and intensity is not a public contribution. This is a dilemma and an opportunity that requires leadership with a vocabulary and language that can become an adequate foundation for artistic expression.

              Form and appearance without function and context is incomplete. Sullivan and Wright have always been correct. Organic form follows function, but both are determined by natural responses to context that we call adaptation. These are design decisions. In the natural world context is given and responsive decision is a scientific mystery being unraveled from an infinite puzzle. In the artificial world of shelter we are expected to define sustainable context and adapt to its parameters with design decisions. It's a tall order but a worthy goal.

              Architectural form emerges from decisions based on opinion; but artists take their knowledge to the grave and leave inspiration. We stare in wonder at their talent but should be standing in a museum where context respects accomplishment. This is the gallery approach to architecture, but architecture has never been a painting or sculpture controlled by the artist's intent.

    Sullivan and Wright were inspired by organic appearance but could not explain the design decisions that led to form and function. They could only theorize that form followed function. Artistic choice was based on opinion. They left organic decision to be unraveled by science. The modern period became inbred. It theorized that form was a product of industrial function. Natural function became an obstacle to overcome and form followed invention. Speculation has responded with sprawl as populations grow across the face of the planet.

            What seemed infinite was visually confirmed as a smal gift in black space protected by a thin film of atmosphere at risk in 1969. The Natural Domain became an environmental asset to be preserved and the Built Domain began to emerge as both a resource and a threat to survival. The built environment continues to expand the boundaries of our Built Domain and the intuitives among us sense the presence of a predator, but it is the predator of past practice that has always devoured those who fail to adapt. Some are raising their heads in alert but there is no place to run. There is only one certainty in this situation. The planet knows how to adapt without permission. We can only guess at the right path to follow with the help of accumulated knowledge. An educated guess resides in the world of instinct, intuition, imagination and inspiration. It permits us to contemplate abstract paths that some call evolution. Memorization records what is discovered and calls it knowledge that is passed to future generations.

           Sullivan was on the right track but our attention has been distracted by industrial invention. Protection of natural context, however, will require an understanding of shelter intensity options. In architecture and planning, shelter context will result from intensity decisions within the limits of an artificial world called the Built Domain. These decisions will directly affect our quality of life and relationship to a natural partner that does not compromise with ignorance.

    The design components of intensity can be measured, forecast and catalogued. Knowledge emerges when the physical, social, psychological and economic implications of intensity measurements, options and decisions are understood. Design decisions can then be explained, and policies established, to adapt shelter demand to a limited Built Domain with intensity options that do not sacrifice our human dignity and quality of life.

            We have been building with abandon as if the Natural Domain did not exist, but the Built Domain must be limited to protect the source of its survival. Shelter within limits, however, will require a much better understanding of intensity options as populations grow. The alternative is encroachment that forces the Natural Domain to respond with forces beyond our comprehension.

            We communicate with an architectural language of fine art that is not equal to the challenge. We may convince ourselves but cannot convince others of public benefit and design excellence with this strategy. The public will not believe until we can explain, and its sustainable future hangs in the balance.

            Architecture emerges from context with intensity but much of it is compromised because it does not control the land. It adapts to an owner's program, who considers context a "taking" when it interferes with his interest. The result is unexpected intensity, stress that cannot be measured and sprawl across the planet.

            Design excellence is currently measured with the yardstick of opinion. If public benefit is an architectural objective, the goal will have to be clarified and benefit will require a new measurement system. At the present time, education and research leave us with little more than opinion. This is not knowledge in my dictionary. Form follows substance. Substance is knowledge that can improve our quality of life within sustainable geographic limits. If the definition of a Built Domain and the accumulation of intensity knowledge sound quixotic, then we are at a fork in the road.

            The language of intensity is based on design component values used by embedded equations to forecast development capacity options. These are intensity options that can be compared to the context measurement of existing component values and evaluation of the conditions represented. Decisions produce intensity and context. In architecture, the context of a single flower enhances the garden but cannot compensate for a field of thorns, even though it may make a delightful photograph of contrast. This means that architecture has a larger mission if it chooses to take the assignment and confront past practices.

            My impression has been that architecture wishes to measure design excellence and claim public benefit. Claims based on opinion without measurement are not equal to the challenge, but architecture has a choice. Its foundation of philosophy can continue to be taught to students who graduate with pattern language and opinion, or collaborative research can begin to evaluate the physical, social, psychological and economic consequences of intensity decisions that will shape our quality of life and sustainable future.  

            Design creates context and intensity that architects have not measured and cannot control. Control is only granted to those who prove they can perform in the public interest. Style is a benefit, but intensity will define our quality of life within limits that will be imposed if not defined. This is a challenge for the profession. It is not a task for a practitioner who can only apply the tools of the profession. We need new tools that will make it possible to measure design excellence. At the present time we have little more than the yardstick of opinion.

            If I have made myself clear, design excellence awarded on the basis of opinion will have a difficult time convincing the public of substantial benefit. Design is actually decision that adapts to context and constraint. Intensity is a design decision that responds to context and constraint. It can be measured, evaluated and forecast; but it has not been an architectural target nor a city design plan. It has been a response to land ownership limitations and free enterprise objectives that have largely ignored or manipulated intensity and stress in both the Natural and Built Domains.

            When architects express a concern for the Built Domain and demonstrate that they understand intensity options, they will begin to address context in the public interest with a measurement language that supports their arguments. Design award evaluation will then leave knowledge for future generations in addition to symbols of cultural achievement. From this standpoint, design excellence is not a product but a collection of decisions represented by a product that has successfully adapted. Our task is to identify success with the collaborative measurements, evaluation and knowledge required. The final reward will be continued survival with dignity; and it will be granted, not given, without explanation.


    AUTHOR NOTE: I'm always afraid of being too ambiguous. Architecture needs to assemble educators, professional offices, allied sciences and allied professions into a collaborative research center to create tools that can improve the performance and decisions of its practitioners. Knowledge will require public funding and decisions will require public support. When public benefit is apparent research grants and collaboration should be available. The issue is the context, function and form of shelter that can protect the public health, safety and welfare within a limited Built Domain. Intensity options are the key but they have physical, social, psychological and economic implications that are not understood. They can be measured, however, and evaluation can build knowledge that combines with form and appearance to establish another period in the evolution of architectural solutions to the problem of shelter within new constraints.

    Walter Hosack
    Walter M. Hosack
    Dublin OH
    24.06.07 CODAIA24

  • 2.  RE:Measuring Design Excellence

    Posted 06-15-2011 11:45 AM
    Ok, I guess somebody here needs to be the devil's advocate. It may as well be me, since I respectfully disagree with everything Mr. Hosack just wrote.

    A famous architect once told me a joke that he felt proved once and for all that form does not follow function. "If form follows function, than explain a loaf of bread?"

    I would argue that probably a great majority of the best designers in this profession know the emptiness of a form/function argument.  Even Corbu was highly leery of it. And most designers who live by that rule, are living in the world of the mundane when it comes to what they produce. Function is a verbal explanation applied to a form. But a form is not a word, and a word is not a form. Our language is, has been, and always will be, an inferior, partial, description of what is. Give it too much power, and your form will just sit there, doing very little for anybody. A real artist will beat you everytime if you want to play that game. Failed car companies have tripped over this same cliff countless times, in their failure to understand the real foundations of great design. 

    "the warm and fuzzy world of artistic opinion is a dead end." I would counter argue that real dead end is the ignorance of what artistic education actually has to offer. 'Warm and fuzzy' is a very typical phrase used to denigrate artistic knowledge, and it is a body of knowledge, like anything else. One should probably learn something about it before dismissing it. Add to that the other fallacy that all things have no value to anybody until they can be 'explained.'  What explanation will you ever find that ever completes anything? Knowledge is never so finite. You can't put it in a bottle. Have you ever asked a scientist to 'explain' electricity? Or how about the color red? Can you tell me why the sky is blue? Do you honestly believe there is any verbal explanation on the planet that can truly complete anything? Who can better answer these questions?  A poet, or a scientist? Do we honestly have to choose? No, we don't, and we shouldn't.

    Artistic education is far more valuble to this world than most understand. If you study where real breakthroughs in science come from, they are actually highly dependent on artistic thought processes. Perhaps the greatest physicist of all time, Sir Newton, was extremely creative. So few understand that science can't really move forward without creative thinking sitting gently below it's feet. They are not mutually exclusive. So those who constantly think we have to get art out of the way, so we can get down to some serious architecture, are making a grave mistake in their reasoning.

    I'll finish with another story I heard from a great architect. He had completed a large abstract sculptural piece in a new lobby of a healthcare project. A PhD child psysycologist was looking at it, and told him bluntly that his sculpture would be a complete failure, because it would frighten small children.  It would frighten them because it was too strange and abstract, they wouldn't be able to understand it. [Sound familiar?]  My architect friend looked him in the eye and said, "I disagree. I don't believe that's true at all. I don't think you know what you are talking about," which of course offended the highly educated psychologist, who just assumed a knew a lot more about the mind of a child than a mere architect. Afterall, he had research and science on his side. Who dare question him?

    When the facility opened, there were children climbing all over the sculpture, having a great time. The architect just smiled, turned to the doctor and said, "they don't look scared to me."
    Rich Farris AIA
    Dallas TX

    24.06.07 CODAIA24

  • 3.  RE:Measuring Design Excellence

    Posted 06-15-2011 03:45 PM
    I realized the error of my sentence, "The warm and fuzzy world of artistic opinion is a dead end" and amended it to read:

    "The warm and fuzzy world of artistic opinion may be a catalyst but it is not a solution."

    There are so many copies of "Measuring Design Excellence" on this site because I could not figure out how to edit the original sentence and made a mess in the attempt. The revision is more in line with Mr. Ferris' comment, but I think our opinions diverge because of emphasis. Mr. Ferris emphasizes the building as a singular accomplishment. I know the argument is that the public benefits from this accomplishment, but I believe that the public also benefits from the context this building contributes to the city. I mentioned that I believe the public lives in the city and survives in buildings. They benefit from both; but if I were trying to convince the public of architectural benefit and value, I would rather emphasize the places created than single out the building mass and pavement introduced to serve a special interest. This emphasizes intensity rather than context. The real public benefit will occur when the context and intensity of architecture shelters the activities of growing populations within a sustainable Built Domain that does not sacrifice their dignity and quality of life.   

    Walter Hosack
    Walter M. Hosack
    Dublin OH

    24.06.07 CODAIA24

  • 4.  RE:Measuring Design Excellence

    Posted 06-16-2011 09:26 PM
    To William Farris, for now I am going to take the easy way out and reply to Walter's responders.  I hope one of these days I decide that I have the time to make a careful response to Walter's words.  But, William, you are a much easier target.  Form doesn't follow function?  I wish you would give us an example or two.  The post following yours mentioned gothic cathedrals.  The only way that form does not follow function is in some rarefied semantic discussion, somewhere near "warm and fuzzy" and in that sense you are at least consistent. 

    When it comes to great designers, I agree that, most of the time, when I hear "form follows function"; what follows is neither functional nor elegant.  That is very different from thinking the concept is empty.  I am a firm believer in the value of the form follows function idea and I love the writings of Louis Sullivan.  I never have been able to see much indication of form following function in Sullivan's work.  Sometimes the useful heuristic works in mysterious ways. 

    Please clarify your rant about scientists and poets.  If you talk to a scientist you will get a good answer to all of your questions.  The scientist probably, like the great designers you talk about, doesn't think her answers are "TRUE" but she knows that the answers make it possible for her to think about the world in what seem to be more fruitful ways.  I am not sure what you were trying to say.

    Let me cut to one of my own personal issues here.  I don't think the schools focus too much on art education.  I hope never to give comfort to that camp.  The problem is, architectural education seems mostly to leave out everything else.  A good architect, a great architect, needs to solve the problem in an artful way.  But, notice, and speaking of famous architects, I once heard Philip Johnson say this (and it was in Dallas to boot), solving the problem is at the beginning of the sentence.  I think we can have both.  Instead, we have too many frustrated artist architects and not enough architects solving problems. 

    Mike Mense FAIA
    Anchorage AK

    24.06.07 CODAIA24

  • 5.  RE:Measuring Design Excellence

    Posted 06-15-2011 12:38 PM

    Alan Rudy AIA
    Sole Proprietor
    Alan Michael Rudy & Associates
    Oakland CA
    Mr. Hosack's elegant response to Mr. Mense extolls the endless search for objectification of a process whose core methodology remains largely subjective.

    I listen to a family's needs, examine the site for their home, experience the neighborhood, the community, the region, the local culture. I then impose the tools I have learned by formal education and experience and begin to create a building. 

    Like a painter, sculptor or potter, my tools can only carry me so far. If I make good use of my tools, my result is a functioning building. But if I am a good architect the building is much more. The family, in using the building, feels much more than merely a well functioning building. 

    And if asked, I offer that this family is far more able to articulate the added value that architecture brings to their building and to their life than Mr. Hosak gives them credit for being able to do.

    If there is a credibility issue today it is that our star architects in their strange quest for "unique forms" made possible by recent technology have forgotten that, as historians have long discussed, the test of a culture remains its sophistication in the integration of interior and exterior space.

    The feeling that a Medieval serf felt when approaching a cathedral and then the intense emotion elicited inside the cathedral needs no objective analysis. The architect has done his job. We can still do our job.


    24.06.07 CODAIA24

  • 6.  RE:Measuring Design Excellence

    Posted 06-16-2011 09:36 PM
    Reply to Alan Rudy, Why is there a need for, and where is, that boundary between functional building and architecture?  Why can't we understand joy and light and fit and texture and even some things we don't even have words for as part of the program?  Why not?  Where is that boundary?  What was the program for those gothic cathedrals?  Wouldn't we all be better off if the things we care about most are part of the stated program?

    By the way, we seem to work for the same families.

    Please tell us more about your idea that "the test of a culture remains its sophistication in the integration of interior and exterior space".

    Mike Mense FAIA

    24.06.07 CODAIA24