Friday, October 14, 2011

Jazzitecture 101.001 - Design Priorities, Spaced

Architectural Design Priorities Space

The architects' work is often seen as the design of buildings beautiful or at least enticing in their artfulness or exoticism, but without questioning what the core bits of such beauty might be. Architects possess various design tools to tackle a design which always has inherent problems to be solved. Effective designers are not those who manage to solve all the problems in a design, but rather, to prioritize the design principles thereby to select the most appropriate tools to solve them accordingly.

For most architects today, decoration or ornamentation are dispatched to the bottom of their long list of design priorities. Their job is to create and enhance spatial qualities, not the aesthetics of the forms, nor performing cosmetic surgery on structures.

The acclaimed Austrian architect Adolf Loos in fact proclaimed in 1908 that architectural ornamentation is "criminal", an avoidance principle later adopted and put into practice by some of the most renowned names in architectural history today, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan and a variety of the other masters of what came to be known as the Modernist school of architecture.

If any consensus exists about the fundamental priorities of architectural design today, it would be that they are space, function, context, program, form and symbolism, and, most likely, in that order as well.

Form and symbolism are the easiest of this sextet to describe and work with, and can be dispensed with straight off. Form is anything one can see or physically touch. Symbolism is any attempt to communicate with one's work through symbols recognized by some intended audience.

The contemporary line between program and context is much more difficult to visualize, as it is now being re-envisioned. Both program and context have been core elements of architectural design since Vitruvius' Ten Books of Architecture were presented to Caesar in the first century B.C. But their importance and mutual exclusivity have waxed and waned ever since. In perhaps simplistic terms, however, program can be thought of as an architectural project's mission statement which attempts to account for the interests of all stakeholders in the project, both those who will inhabit or directly use the completed architectural work and all those expected to be affected by the site's architectural transformation. Context then can be roughly limited to the physical qualities of the site and its surroundings, including geography, climate, infrastructure, existing structures and the local community's public and physical cultural artifacts.

In architectural terms, function covers both a work's uses and purpose, both its intended and actual uses -- and noting, now, before any delusions are allowed to further persist that buildings are merely one form of architectural works, with bridges, dams, walkways and towers being a few of the other possible types.

Important Notice:
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Though humanly usable space has always been one of the architects' primary design concerns, today, it is their Holy Grail. No "final frontier", to the architect, space encompasses everything before, beyond, above, below and beside either formal or functional frontiers. Space is the primary input and output of architectural work.

But the architect's comprehension of space is far from intuitive in populist terms. Entry-level students of architecture must generally be taught how to think about space, and learn or develop a multi-dimensional, multi-media "vocabulary" for discussing and presenting their concepts of space.

But, for us mere mortals, a slight (over)simplification of architectural notions of space might be initially helpful: first, think not of the popular singular notion of the universe's infinite space but of distinct, individual "spaces" to people and their things into or through. Or, simply think of the adjective, "spatial". This simplification can avoid some common confusion.

But this trivial little simplification still won't, and shouldn't, save one from the mind-bending meditations of architects upon even those spaces most familiar to us folks. To reboot the head space one must adopt when thinking of modern (small "m") architectural space, consider a quotation selected by Anthony Vidler, Dean and Professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union, New York, to open the essay "Dark Space" in his 1994 volume, "The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely", as reproduced in Architecture Theory Since 1968 (1998, MIT Press), compiled and edited by K. Micheal Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design:

A whole history remains to he written of spaces—which would
at the same time be the history of powers (both these terms in the plural)—from the great strategies of geo-politics to the
little tactics of the habitat, institutional architecture from the
classroom to the design of hospitals, passing via economic and political installations.
MICHEL FOUCAULT, “The Eye of Power”
Even a zealous prospective student of architecture could be forgiven for responding with one awesomely resounding, "WTF?!?" But the quotation does indeed reflect how deeply architects feel obliged to think about space, and how avidly architecture students, worldwide, have been encouraged to do just the same[1], for several decades at least.

In a study of first-year students at the Istanbul Technical University's Faculty of Architecture, Associate Professor Pelin Dursun summarized students' verbal, textual and other expressions of their emergent views of architectural space/s (Dursun, 2009). He identified at least two distinctly different ways in which architects "talk" about space. His comparisons are eloquently illustrative of the importance, passion and complexity accorded to space in architectural design.

The first way of talking about spaces refers primarily to its physical qualities and is common to architects and non-architects alike. It is readily recorded and represented, and usually takes its point of perspective from outside each space. Here, a space is described via its formal, structural and physically perceptual elements, its dimensions and other concrete qualities, such as length, width, height, surface types, lighting, acoustics, temperature, humidity, airflow, openings, openness or enclosure, even its scent. The specific people who inhabit or move through the space have relatively little impact on these properties, which are relatively static or concrete and easily described through numbers, words, visual and audio representations. One might call this objective space.

The second way of talking about a space is more subjective and conceptual and takes us into the depths of the architectural interpretation of spaces. It focuses on personal, social and cultural relationships with various spaces and types of space, how they have been experienced and remembered, how such experiences evolve or devolve over time, situations and interactions with the people who use them. Such perspectives must generally be experienced by entering spaces or moving through them. Here, space is described by analysing its dynamic and systematic relations with people, as individuals, between individuals and groups and between people and the environs of the spaces as they occupy or move through the spaces or the spaces. Such perspectives aim to uncover abstract, invisible, emotional and intellectual aspects of spaces and reveal the architectural potentials various spaces provide, along with their cultural meanings and related systems of spatial dynamics.

Architects argue we are all aware of these subjective aspects of space but they remain as ineffable as the characteristics of God, Nirvana or the Tao. We simply cannot precisely describe or talk about these characteristics directly. They must be understood via combinations of experience, intuition and reason. In text, we can at best create poetics to suggest them. Instead, through various representational media, including sketches, sections, plans, diagrams, models, photography, collages, mappings, film, video and animations, architects attempt to interpret and represent remembered or newly conceived spatial experiences, to communicate and collaborate between themselves and other stakeholders in architectural works.

In this second, subjective, social dimension, space comes alive, and contains lives within it. It grows, matures, ages, evolves, and, either sooner or later, it too can eventually die. It's lifespan depends much, but never completely, on how it was born, by accident or design. Beyond the best plans of any designer, the ultimate arbiter of the lifespan of the subjective, social dimensions of spaces will always be ultimately determined by the peoples that use them.

Even then, as the technologies of a wirelessly internetworked, satellite-videophoned global village surfing the tsunamis economic globalization accelerate the pace of social and intellectual change, to say nothing of technological change itself, few are the folks who can hope to confidently predict how we will live within, interact with, build and discard the spaces we find or create, no matter how extensive their available resources to might be.

A classic example of the unpredictability of a spatial design's ultimate usage and durability is provided in the "Home Space" example provided in a series of "30 Spaces for the 21st Century" published in the überultimate journal of postmodern CyberSpace journalism, Wired magazine. (Links to all 30 spaces at right.)

Wired introduced the "Guest Editor" for the series as such:
Rem Koolhaas cofounded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in 1975. He is also the founder of AMO, an architectural think tank and consulting firm. His projects include the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the Guggenheim in Las Vegas, and the Prada store in New York. He has won several international awards, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2000. Koolhaas is Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard Design School, and author of S,M,L,XL (1995) with Bruce Mau and Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978). He was the subject of the retrospective exhibition, Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1995.
Links to Kool'
21st Spaces
An example of short-term spatial unpredictability provided within Home Space example was particular insightful. In Home Space, Beatriz Colomina, architectural historian and director of the PhD program at Princeton University's School of Architecture, along with Koolhaas interviewed US high priestess of home-making Martha Stewart, who discussed her own home, her home-space software proposals to Microsoft's Bill Gates, second richest person alive in 2011, according to Forbes, and no stranger to either technological change or planning for it, as well as an interesting example of spatial devolution regarding a set of home spaces at Bill Gates own home.

In retort to Koolhass pointing out that Stewart widely miscounted the number of rooms while talking of her own house, Stewart obliquely replied:

Ah, but my houses, Rem, are my laboratories, so I have to have them. They are all different styles, so I can experiment: How do you cope with the modern way of living in an 1800 house, a 1925 house, a 1960 house, and a 2001 house? Bill Gates' house, for example, is totally out of date now. He built it right before wireless happened. The big tunnels for all his wires - he doesn't need any of that stuff anymore.

Just goes to show how "spacey" it can be to plan spaces even for the non-architectural cyberspatial élite.


Dursun, P., 2009, "Architects are Talking about Space", Proceedings of the 7th International Space Syntax Symposium Edited by Daniel Koch, Lars Marcus and Jesper Steen, Stockholm: KTH, 2009. 028:3.

Koolhaas, Rem, 2003, "30 Spaces for the 21st Century", Wired 11.06, June 2003, viewed 13 Oct 2001 at

Kürtüncü, B., Köknar, S.A., Dursun, P., 2008, “Decoding Spatial Knowledge and Spatial Experience”, Proceedings of Design Train Congress, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 05-07 June, 2008, vol.2.

Vidler, A., 2003, "Toward a Theory of the Architectural Program", OCTOBER 106, Fall 2003, pp. 59–74, viewed 11 Oct 2001 at Crisis Fronts,


[1] In Hays' 808-page tome are 129 instances of Foucault's name, including those in a 1982 interview with the mind-numbingly cryptic historian of ideas called, "Space, Knowledge, and Power".