Recasting The Initial Stages Of Design Method

Although Venturi diagnosed the absence of cultural meaning in modernist architecture, he did not specify how its absence might be alleviated. His critique implicitly pointed to a lacuna in the rational design method of modernism, which prevailed everywhere in both the curricula of architecture schools and the practice of professional offices. There is nothing seriously wrong with this method except for the vacuity of the assumption that design development is merely a problem-solving process that begins with a list of functions. What it lacks are a few steps that ought to precede the accepted beginning of the method, steps that would prompt the consideration of all sorts of cultural issues.

A good source for this methodological boost is an extant comprehensive theory of creativity, one that has belonged to Western civilization since the early days of Greco-Roman culture, namely the theory of rhetoric. Most fully explicated in an anonymous treatise sometimes ascribed to Cicero, the so-called Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory, the rules of rhetoric—whether employed consciously or unconsciously— underlie many great works of Western art, from the dramas of Shakespeare to the symphonies of Mozart and the novels of Tolstoy. Of the five parts of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, embellishment, memory, and delivery— those that can help supply the missing parts of the theory of architectural design method belong to invention and the initial aspects of arrangement.

Invention involves selecting and defining the theme and identifying the purpose behind it. The relevant aspects of arrangement involve projecting the theme into the process of composition. When these stages of creative development are applied to architecture, at least as much responsibility lies with the patron as with architect, although in the best of circumstances collaboration will have been entered into from the outset. It is in the nature of things that the choice of theme, that is, the type of building to be designed, and perhaps the site as well, have been decided upon by the patron before the design process has begun. The patron also necessarily has a purpose—whether consciously articulated or not—and probably some notion of the manner in which it is to be carried out. Indeed, the extent to which those issues have already been defined will undoubtedly have influenced the selection of the architect. Consequently, the patron needs to know something about the former work of the architect and be confident that that person has the capacity to realize the purpose in an appropriate manner. But for optimum results neither patron nor architect should embark upon the project with a fixed image in mind. If the user(s) of the proposed building will be other than the client, either they or responsible representatives of their interests may (indeed, ought to) be involved in the process also.

The important issue at this point is not to start with the functional program. That should be drawn up only following a thorough discussion of the nature of the project and its purpose. The cultural role of the project must be defined after examining several different options. In that process the social and political implications of each role option must be carefully considered. In most cases it will be necessary to determine these matters with reference to an already existing context. Whatever is to be built will either complement or confront the context. Hence the purpose of the project is much more than just the housing of certain functions. The new building will necessarily make a statement about the nature of those functions and their place in the communal context. In doing so it will embody certain values and will project them upon the neighboring environment and the community. Architectural forms have a way of working this way even when the designer has proceeded without conscious intentions, never mind programmatic objectives, just as a photographer inevitably interprets a subject whether intending to do so or not. For that reason it is better to consider beforehand what values ought to be communicated rather than to discover too late that the message sent was not the most constructive that could have been devised. No matter how conveniently the various practical functions may be housed, the building will never be satisfactory unless it has first properly addressed its cultural purpose.

The theory of rhetoric defines four steps to accomplish these aims. The first is the charge, the decision to build a building of a certain type. Next follows the division into issues: What is to be accomplished by constructing this building? Who is to be served, in what manner, and at what location? What will the building express in the course of carrying out its function? To answer these questions it is necessary to lay out the alternatives, which will represent the various ways in which the purpose could be accomplished and specify the good each of them should be able to do. When these have been articulated a choice with justification needs to be made.

Ancient rhetoricians explained their theory by citing examples, and that is probably the best way to show how this enhancement of the theory of design method might be employed. Toward this end I shall take three different building types through this initial stage of planning. The first is a public library, to represent institutions that are open to virtually all comers. The second is a commercial office building, with moderate access limited to working occupants and certified clients. The third is a freestanding, private house, with access restricted to occupants and guests.

From a postmodern point of view, the alternatives for the library are degrees of impressing and welcoming while defining the nature and function of a library. If the library is defined as a collection of cultural treasures, meant to enhance the spirits of the clientele, it could be formulated as a temple of learning, which would impress and uplift, or as a palace of learning, which would impress and delight. On the other hand, if it is defined as simply a storage and circulation facility for information and entertainment, a more informal public image may be sought. In that case the library might be formulated as a factory of learning, a laboratory of knowledge, a high tech information retrieval center, a community cultural club, or even an information circus. Each definition will call for a strikingly different de sign, which will announce the intended institutional purpose and, in turn, affect the communal use of the library and also the formation of the communal self-image. Once the purpose has been defined, it is appropriate to make some basic functional stipulations, such as whether to have open or closed stacks, complete or partial circulation of the collection, structured or informal reading areas, and maintenance of nonprint resources.

For the commercial building, the alternatives depend upon how the occupants are to be attracted to lease or rent spaces and how their clientele are to be accommodated. For instance, it could be a building with a self-selected and self-assured clientele of limited numbers, who get an ego boost from the building. In this case the design could be forbiddingly stylish, dauntingly sophisticated, challengingly hip, exclusively clubby, or unabashedly ethnic. If it is for a clientele with narrowly specialized activities, the design could be illustrative of the relevant product or service or expressive of expertness in that specialty. If, on the other hand, it is to have broad popular appeal, attracting a large and heterogeneous clientele, it should be openly accessible, friendly, and unchallenging in character. It could be formulated as technically forward, culturally evocative of the region, or self-referentially witty.

For the house, the alternatives range among different types of formality and informality. Formal houses are meant to separate the occupants from the surrounding community by distinguishing them in a particular way. Such a house can be a cultural symbol, for instance a templelike design formulated in one of the classical orders, evoking cultivation and refinement. Or it might be a class status symbol, such as an additive Tudor manor house evoking the prosperity of inherited land ownership. Such a symbol could also be a strikingly sumptuous urban palazzo, bespeaking liquid wealth. Informal houses, on the other hand, are meant to connect the occupants with the surrounding community or at least with the natural environment. They usually denote a relaxed lifestyle and hospitality, as in a rustic ranch house, or a cozy domesticity, as in a cottage, or oneness with nature, as in a berm house. Or such a residence can denote participation in urban modernity, as in a high tech villa. The functional program, whether for an austere or hedonistic lifestyle or something between, will be determined in part by cultural and social definitions.

In each case the thematic choice needs to be justified by the commissioning client, whether that entity is an individual, a board of directors or trustees, or a focus group representing the community. The choice ought to be justified in terms of both the architectural (or natural) context and the values of the community. In some instances this choice may govern the choice of site as well. Be that as it may, when these four steps are taken prior to embarking upon the method prescribed by Viollet-le-Duc, it is much more likely that the resulting scheme will be culturally satisfying than if the design process begins with nothing more than a list of functions.

A poststructuralist approach to all three building types is more likely to address the history and geography of the community, drawing upon factors not immediately relevant to each building type, or not inherent in the cultural definition of the project. When creatively discerned, these factors help to define or localize the design schemes just as aptly as do traditional signifiers. As with thematic content, the focus on these factors needs to precede articulation of the functional program.

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