OK, I am a blog novice, and this is my first attempt at this kind of thing. Most of you know that I have been awarded a traveling fellowship from the school of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The fellowship will bring me to Europe for 4 weeks beginning the end of May. To provide some background information, my original fellowship proposal is copied below. Like all creative endeavors, I expect this study to evolve and define itself throughout the process. My goal for this Blog is to record and document this experience. Look for images, sketches and analysis to be posted here beginning at the end of May. Now all I need is a passport!
FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION: How ideas shape the process and product of architecture.
Theory vs. Practice
It is often argued that there exists a division in architecture between theory and practice. There are those that argue that these two ideas are inherently in conflict with one another. That an architect’s career is a choice between the market driven business economies of an architectural practice verses the academic / architect theorist as interpreter of cultural phenomena. What if this question is the wrong question to be asking? Instead of theory vs. practice, I am interested in the exploration of theory and practice. How do the theories and ideas that architects begin the design process with ultimately affect the final product? In other words, does theory reinforce practice?
I have long believed that architecture is at its best when it is an expression of ideas. For architecture to have a depth and presence required to evoke an experiential connection, I feel it is necessary for the designer to have a clear conceptual vision, and prioritize this vision throughout the design process. Another way to phrase this is to say that as designers we must be intentional. My understanding of the importance of concept in the design process was something that I initially developed during my time as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
For the past three years, I have been teaching architectural design at a community college. I find myself repeatedly trying to convince students of the importance of developing clear and strong concepts in their work, continuing to preach the fundamentals that I myself was taught as a student. This proposal seeks to further develop and enrich my own personal understanding of the role that theory and concept play in the design process. Through an in-depth analysis of the work of several well known, conceptually driven architects, I seek to develop an understanding of the role ideas and concepts play in the design process, and ultimately impact the built environment. Does concept drive and prioritize the design process as I have so often argued?
It is relatively easy to trace the relationship between the ideas, or values of a culture, and the architecture that certain cultures produced. Architecture has always been a mirror though which to measure a society or culture, and as such often reflects the goals, values and aspirations of a particular time and place. Historically, ideas or design theories often governed entire architectural movements uninterrupted for hundreds of years at a time. In today’s fast paced, hyper-media society, there is no one governing design trend or theory. Instead, architects seem to each develop their own theories in an attempt to create an appropriate expression for our place and time.
What role do concepts and theories play in the design process in our mass-media, information latent, global society? What are the driving theoretical forces of our time? How do concepts impact the design process? And what role does theory play in the eventual outcome of the completed work? These questions will drive the basis of this study, with a goal that this study will ultimately yield some conclusions about the importance of concept or theory in architectural practice.
Several recent projects by influential and well know architects have been selected for this study. Each of the architects on this list is considered at the forefront of the profession. Most of the architects selected became well known for their theories and writings long before they built work. All have won numerous design awards and have been widely published. All have written and published extensively about the concepts and theories that drive their own work. Each architect will be individually examined through a combination of background research, and an in-depth, on-site analysis of a single work.
This research will trace the evolution of idea from the beginning of the project through completion of built form. Background research will serve as the baseline reference point. What are the theories and ideas that drive each architect’s body of work? These ideas and theories will then be cross examined against the built product. Does the built work benefit from the theoretical basis of its inception? I intend to initiate a correspondence with each architect and discuss the work personally with a design team member involved in the design process. The study will lead to an analysis of the role theory, concept, and process played in the construction of these five built projects.
Architects / Projects
Jean Nouvel: Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France 2006
Jean Nouvel’s latest work began with a vision of a “sacred wood.” Did this vision stand up to the realities of built form? How does this project relate historically to the design theories of Jean Nouvel’s work?
Bernard Tschumi: School of Architecture, Marne-la-Vallée, France 1999
There could not be a better building type for a theoretical discourse on architecture that an architecture school itself, and perhaps no better architect to analyze for theoretical substance than Bernard Tschumi. Tschumi has long been identified with his written work, from the Manhattan Transcripts, Architecture and Disjunction and most recently the Event-Cities series. Does his built work embody the theoretical substance of his writings?
Norman Foster: Free University Library, Berlin 2006
Of the architects selected, Norman Foster is perhaps less associated with architectural theory than the others. On the other hand, if there were to be only one theory for architecture today wouldn’t we want it to be sustainability? According to Metropolis Magazine, this is “Foster’s Greenest Building Ever.”
Peter Eisenman: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin 2004
There is perhaps no better opportunity for symbolic expression than in the design of a memorial, and Eisenmann has long been considered at the forefront of architectural thought. Is this memorial an embodiment of ideas ranging from his initial interest in grids through his association with Jaques Derrida and the Deconstruction Movement?
Peter Cook and Colin Fournier: Kunsthaus Graz 2004
Biomorphism, or just funky form? Is this biomorphic techno-museum a “vision of the future,” or is it the contemporary, built version of ideas begun in by Archigram in the 1960’s? Its visual similarity to the “Walking City” of 1964 is hard to escape.
Zaha Hadid: Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, Germany, 2005
Long considered a paper architect, Zaha Hadid became well know for her competition entries and stunning graphic compositions. Do her theoretical beginnings reinforce her built work?