Why the Design of a Firm’s Practice is Its Most Important Project, November 2020
“Why the Design of a Firm’s Practice is Its Most Important Project”
We established Architecture Research Office (ARO) with the belief that the design of the office was our most important project. More than 25 years later, we continue to be nourished by the environment that we have created. Across a diverse range of projects, programs, clients, and sites, our practice is defined by a consistent methodology grounded in a fundamentally relational basis of design. We strive to create beneficial connections between people that unfold in time and space at every scale of experience. Cultivating these dynamic relationships through design affirms the value of the world and elevates the quality of our place in it. Practicing in this way, in reciprocity with the constantly changing social and physical context, expands architecture’s agency. Reflecting upon our work and process, I offer these considerations for a change-based, relational design framework to make practice more impactful, inclusive, and equitable.
Context as Ecology
Before there is design, there is the context in which it is situated, which extends beyond a given site or program. Design exists within a vast network of physical and social relationships that constitute the world. This includes places that range from rural to urban, from expansive regions to intimate interiors. Countless exchanges between (and independent of) people occur in these places; ideas, histories, memories, and dreams weave through the fabric of society as well. Moreover, the boundaries between places, activities, and experiences have become blurred by the expanding virtual world and the shrinking planet. Every project has multiple simultaneous scales, from the individual to a region and beyond. Time, as the measure of experience and change, is an essential parameter as well. For these reasons, design transcends the apparent limits of a specific project; it exists within a fluid continuum.
Society evolves at moments when people, institutions, and cities experience growth or change; this is when they consider how their physical context aligns with their mission or goals (and when they might hire an architect). But design is not just about defining requirements and satisfying needs, it is a search for an appropriate expression of identity. In a complex, changing world, it is not possible to know everything; exploration helps us formulate concepts and intentions. A research-based design methodology is a philosophical approach, as well as a means of investigating specific issues and ideas. Our research is opportunistic—we blend our continuing interests with parameters unique to the project. The goal is to gain knowledge and insight. In this formulation, the architects’ expertise is directed toward asking practical and conceptual questions. Framing design as inquiry also enables design (as both verb and noun) to develop in tandem with its cultural context.
Intrinsic to inquiry is an acknowledgment of the value of collective intelligence. Complexity and the resultant vast increase in the body of knowledge have given rise to increasing specialization. This conceals interrelationships across disciplines and frequently separates expertise from action. Collaboration breaks down boundaries and helps unlock the potential for discovery. The degree of collaboration necessary in design is often proportional to a project’s social dimension. But more valuable than acknowledging the importance of collaboration itself (which has been going on for centuries in architecture) is structuring open exchanges between people to achieve results that are greater than they could achieve independently. As generalists, architects choreograph collaborative processes to gather and synthesize information. This is grounded in clear visual communication, empathetic listening, and sharing information to explain the implications of different decisions. Sometimes this is quantitative; sometimes it is qualitative.
Breadth in design transcends the notion that architects can or should design everything from a teaspoon to a city. Design is more than making similar forms across scales according to an aesthetic or conceptual agenda; it’s about the relationships between scales and how the act of design is considered differently at each scale. Breadth means assessing each project in its widest physical and social context—expanding the frame well beyond the physical limits of a site, or the given requirements of a program, or the limited goals of a client to engage all who are affected by it. Also, by addressing a broad range of sites, programs, and scales, from the body to the planet, design is part of the continuum of human experience that helps us to gain direct understanding of the diversity of space as lived. This is especially relevant in a time when actual and virtual realms are intertwined and the boundaries between work and home, public and private are blurred.
Depth in design means to develop ideas with specificity and intensity so that form, space, and material are grounded in the particular conditions of a project. For us, this frequently involves the exploration of literal depth as well—to test how a material takes on unexpected qualities that connect ideas with experience. Elaborating on the building enclosure as a primary space-defining element, we often study how surface and pattern mediate view and light through fritted glass, metal shingles, wood boards, and porous grilles. Through iterations that correlate diverse information (such as construction technology and scale) to test multiple possibilities, design intent and outcome are more precisely aligned. The goal is a layering of qualities that clarifies and enriches the final result. The depth with which the specific parameters of a project are engaged through design also helps foster innovation by pushing the limits of a fabrication process or the properties of a material.
Design the Process
The design process is almost completely dictated by a complex mix of external circumstances and protocols, including standards of practice, contractual obligations, regulatory codes, software operations, project schedules, and the client’s requirements. Notwithstanding all of these constraints, design is a construct over which we have volition; the designer choreographs the working process, setting both the overall goals and the methodology. Complexity gives rise to many possibilities that must be evaluated to determine which ideas are appropriate. In each project, the issues and questions are always slightly different. For this reason, we calibrate our design process to the specific circumstance and goals of each situation. This flexibility and opportunism imbues our firm with an entrepreneurial ethos.
Design Through Time
Ideas in architecture are understood directly through use and experience, which vary according to the scale and duration of a project. The means and ends of design are also different according to these variables. At the smallest increment of time, architecture engages human perception-like view, shaping momentary phenomena according to the movement of the body in space. Over years, architecture composes program relationships which constitute the function and identity of an organization. At the city scale and beyond, design establishes strategic systems that shape urban form over decades. Formulating design as a means of framing processes over time is a revelation that offers great potential for architecture. This shifts design toward a more direct and responsive relationship with our constantly changing lives.
Informed intuition is perhaps the ultimate outcome of the design process. We teach ourselves through design as we test ideas through comparative analysis of many possibilities. The goal is to generate productive feedback loops that help clarify our intentions. This also yields discoveries and inventive solutions. Great design is more than problem solving; it is a meaningful transformation, a creative leap that emanates from the complex alchemy of objective and subjective thought. Intuition has the power to unite disparate strands of thinking so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We strive to nurture intuition, while not being seduced by it. It is particularly exciting when an intuitive understanding emerges that is genuinely shared by a group of people involved in the design process.
Frame the Problem
Any decent architect will tell you that it is best to be involved in a project as early as possible, working with clients and others to shape the project parameters. In practical terms, this includes documenting program requirements, preparing test fits that correlate space to needs, and a host of other tasks that translate mission into a tangible set of project objectives that become the basis of design. But more than diligent number crunching is required. The designer is responsible for assessing the larger objectives, testing expectations and assumptions about the project itself. For a project in the public realm, this includes addressing those indirectly involved who may not be participants in the design process. The project brief is only an apparent limit; to achieve impactful results architecture transcends what is known, given, or anticipated at the outset of the design process. In some cases, creating strategies or designing processes are more appropriate than designing buildings or spaces.
Learning Through Design
“If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” —E.O. Wilson
The biologist E.O. Wilson’s conclusion of The Meaning of Human Existence suggests the potential for architecture, straddling science and art, to be a more vital participant in contemporary life. Uniting inquiry with imagination, these considerations form a constellation that integrates design—as both means and ends—with ever-evolving culture. In this formulation, we recognize that change itself is an essential condition through which our ideas are conceived, developed and experienced. This, in turn, makes our work impactful and helps our firm to evolve. Framing practice through these considerations will enable architects to realize our full potential as citizens as we learn through design.