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What exactly is a concept for a building? How do I get one? And how can I know if it is a good one?

Dear Student,

Thank you for asking. These three questions are really one and the same as they always occur together and in that order. I’ll do my best.

“What exactly is a concept for a building?”


A concept for a building is an idea for how a building is going to be organised. There seems to be a hierarchy to them but this is open to dispute. For example, it’s not particularly difficult to design a building that satisfies spatial allocation and connections, that can stand up and be constructed, and that also satisfies any number of performance and environmental criteria. These are all perfectly valid ways to organise a building and make any number of decisions about not only their configuration but their construction. How you rank concepts depends on what you think is important. [Paul Rudolph once said of Mies van der Rohe that his buildings were great only because they solved so few problems.]  

An architectural concept is therefore like a “vision statement” in a business plan or company articles of incorporation. Whenever you have a conflict or a problem you refer to the vision statement and choose the path more in line with it. The concept functions to define priorities and influence decision-making. It makes it easier for everything to “fall into place.” The trick is having the right one. I’ll return to this in my reply to the third part of your question.

“How does one go about getting a concept?”

The most simplistic type of concept is a concept of shape – or form if you’re at that kind of school or have that vintage of instructor. Containing a building within a volume having a certain shape is definitely a way of organising it and, in terms of efficiency of resource usage, has a lot to recommend it. This is not the same as forcing a program into a predetermined shape but, either way, hopefully not too much will be compromised. I always suggest to students that, as soon as they’ve received the brief and understand what is required, they must visit the site and, WITH THOSE REQUIREMENTS IN THE BACK OF THEIR MIND, look at the site and its surroundings. This will make it easier for them to imagine a building and hopefully provide some clues for what kind of building should be there. It kick-starts the process. 

I say this because it works for me. My concepts always seem to derive from some site condition or circumstance. Anything that ties a building to its site more strongly will make an intuitive kind of sense to important stakeholders such as clients or municipalities, not to mention the public. [In passing, this notion of a concept linking a building with its surroundings is incompatible with a notion of architecture as “abstract” planes or volumes “floating” in “space”.]

In this first example the white house was going to be demolished and a new youth refuge built in its place. There was little special about the street or the neighbours. My concept was to take a bit from each of the neighbours and design a building that stitches them together. Municipalities generally like some coherency in their streets and it’s pointless to work against it.

Municipalities also tend to like some coherency in their streetscapes so the concept for this next apartment building was to make something midway in size and time to bridge the difference between the new-build university on one side and the Edwardian semi-detached houses on the other. Hence the 1930’s proto-Modernist look.

In this next example, I had to respond to the municipality urban designer’s vision for “a London garden square”. No choice there. 

“Celebrating the agricultural history (of a small formerly rural town)” was something the local historian said in another meeting the same afternoon.  I knew I had to work with that too but it did allow a bit more scope for interpretation. 

The flagship building borrowed the profile and materials of the town’s (long lost) historic windmill and the vertical axis wind turbine was its conceptual replacement. My famous wheatfield facade was a thing nobody knew what to make of despite being everything they wanted and in spite of it being ridiculously easy to fabricate from sticks of wood.

My concept for this next project was to have an understated building that didn’t upstage Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral. I wanted the two apartment blocks to be mistaken for a municipal building – at least during the daytime as the twin curves settled into the top of the hill. Although it’s neither here nor there, to observers on trains on changing direction to crossing the River Medway to enter Rochester, the twin curves of the building would have appeared to slowly rotate about their centres. [It was pointless to draw attention to this fortuitous effect as the client would have thought it something they had to pay for and the councillors would have been suspicious of anything not defined by policy.]

These are all instances of single final concepts where the concept functions to provide a way for stakeholders to understand the project and make them feel a proposal belongs. This seems like a worthwhile thing for a student to become adept at but, in the wild, concepts are mostly as public perception management to mask private development gain. At the end of the day, the function of architects is to add value to property. 

Putting sordid realities to one side [as much as one can], this last example best illustrates how a building gets configured using nothing but one site circumstance plus a wish or two. The project was for a mixed use building comprising a mall and apartments. One corner of the site was near a metro station and the diagonally opposite corner was near a crosswalk linking to a more conventional development of apartments above shops. There was, or could be, a “desire line” as we say.

My first thought was to distribute the open space requirement across the two entrances. I forget what didn’t work but it straightened up pretty quickly though the rotational symmetry remained.

From the outset, I thought that if we’re going to have people living above a mall then I’d like them to be aware of and take pleasure from living above a mall, and also for the people in the mall to know that they are, in some sense, inside where people live. How to get the apartment and the mall to visually relate to each other internally was the new problem I set myself. Here are two proposals, both of which would require designing double-sided apartments but that was no particular problem. 

I liked the look of this next configuration but it didn’t allow the two-way awareness I was wanting. Apartment access and garbage management were also problematic. I soon fell out of love with slabs and trying to combine them.

So I decided to separate them. This led to “the factory mall” in unashamed tribute to Albert Kahn’s 1917 River Rouge Plant for Ford.

The apartment planning was an enjoyable challenge and surprisingly do-able. Although the concept of “factory” conceptually merged the typologies of apartment towers and mall box, the apartments again no longer related to the mall the way I’d wanted. There was also the conceptual niggle of smokestacks with windows.

I confess to liking the look and the geometry but reconciling the sawtooth roof with the mall layout was going to create problems unless the mall layout was also on the diagonal. As a concept, I felt the factory had run its course.

Or so I thought before this final sequence brought together everything that had gone before. The factory turned out to be an important step in the process for it’s sawtooth roof rested diagonally on a grid of columns. It prepared me for my final proposal with apartment slabs supported diagonally on the same grid. There’s the link in the first Post-It sketch.

The final proposal kept the diagonal access that had been my starting point and incorporated the two-way awareness I’d wanted. Moreover, the atrium had (circular) windows to let residents to look directly into the shopping mall anytime day or night from the corridor they use to access the rooftop amenity space. Residents could watch a mall sleeping.

This has all been a long way of saying that the choice of a concept – a way of organising your building – sets in motion a sequence of thinking that leads to a building. In this case, my building began from that pedestrian desire line and that one wish. And so now to the third part of your question:

“How can we know if a concept is a good one?”


Just as the vision statement functions to solve conflicts and contradictions, a good choice of starting point will provide clues for how to handle other aspects of the design and will provide a measure by which the success of the building can be judged.

  • Pedestrian access is not that spectacular as a concept but since shopping malls are all about footfall, it’s not that stupid either.
  • The atrium is the brightest and most open part of the mall and a quasi-public east-west pedestrian link. It is also a major orientating device for shoppers within the mall.
  • Although the atrium is fully glazed on three sides it is heavily shaded and represents only a small proportion of internal air-conditioned volume.
  • Organising my apartments along an east-west shopping mall atrium meant one long facade faced due south and was easily shaded. The opposite one faced due north and needed no special consideration. This effortless daylighting is another consequence of the sawtooth roof.
  • The low sun in the east and west suggested the oversize louvres spanning the building.

This last example probably best illustrates how to evaluate a concept and, funnily enough, is also closest to the popular understanding of “concept” as a concept of shape. The problem was for a mixed tower on a site next to SOM’s Rolex Tower on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road.

Perhaps I was prompted by the opposing rows of buildings on square plots or perhaps I was picking up some refined dignity I thought the tower had for I saw it as a king requiring a queen companion to jointly rule the street as in chess. Once that idea was arrived at,

  • my building was a complementary rose pink,
  • its structure was partially expressed as decoration and it had a rooftop tiara of streetlamps where Rolex Tower had a lightbox crown,
  • it became less rectilinear and developed a “waist” where office changed to residential,
  • the shared position in the middle of a row of buildings had meaning,
  • as did facing the opposing row of buildings, and
  • it became slightly shorter than its companion.

The concept therefore provides a way of determining and enabling people to comprehend Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size – the six primary and tangible physical attributes of a building and doesn’t necessarily work against structure, construction, economy, sustainability or energy performance. It doesn’t get better than that but let’s not be stupid. Loading a building with notions of dignity, authority and power was always going to be attractive to clients and property developers. It’s other people who value your concept, not you. 

Someone else might have generated a different building from a sun path, or a preferred view from a certain direction or directions. Me, I think it’s important to start from something concrete and that’s already there,even with speculative developments, of which Ignazio Gardella’s 1956 Casa del Zattere (below) was one. Concepts generated from the site context are unique and relevant only for their particular circumstances. Some degree of self-similarity is to be expected when similar largely problems are solved in largely similar ways. 

Somebody must have thought this an opportunity wasted for the following image representing an opposite approach is floating around the internet. This proposal isn’t designed to fit into the context of what’s already there but to find a place in the context of some global repository of architectural imagery. Concepts generated for the global image bank are all different in the same way as they mostly solve the same problem of producing something momentarily novel for the global consumers of architectural imagery. There is a greater likelihood of structure, construction, economy, sustainability and energy performance being ignored in this pursuit. Unsurprisingly, this new and intangible context exists solely in the media and whatever is left of our memories and has no links to location. It is the new normal.

The conflict then is for which context do you design – the tangible physical context and the intangible ephemeral one? Do you satisfy the reality your building has? Or do you betray that reality for the sake of a shot at global media fame? With its condescending use of “conventional” and its spurious definition of “esoteric”, this following quote by Zaha Hadid spells out the difference clearly enough.     

“I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it”
page 83 of Simon Richards’ “Architect Knows Best”

You can make up your own mind about supermarket car parks and maids and nannies taking their charges out to tire them before bedtime. My advice is not to “feel the vibe” but to look and see what’s there and then think about what makes most sense to you either as an architect or as a human being who cares about the built environment. An idea won’t suddenly come every time, but you need to put yourself in the best possible place to have those ideas and get the process started. As ever, good luck.

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