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Clever Solutions

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“Is something a clever solution if it’s to a problem you made yourself? You see, I really like thinking out of the box in order to solve problems and as long as it does not break any design rule my instructor has set then I think these solutions should be appreciated as effort by the designer and not as some kind of trick or cheat. After all, it’s not possible for an instructor to teach a student the solution to every problem. Sometimes a problem pops up while designing and I might have a situation no other student has. My question is this: “How can I tell if something is a clever solution I have devised to smartly solve a problem or if it is some trick or cheat to make a problem not look like a problem anymore?” 

Dear Student,

Thank you for understanding the difference and for even thinking to ask that question. I’ll do my best. There’s no point of any of us doing what we do if we’re not interested in solving problems creatively. I know critical thinking gets mentioned a lot at universities but nobody really knows what it means, how to teach it or how to evaluate it. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that needs teaching more. Knowing the difference between a solution that is contrived to solve a problem and a contrived solution to an unnecessary problem is the question and knowing which is which isn’t made any easier when the media endlessly presents us with contrived solutions to dubiously contrived problems. This has been going on for a while now. The following project, no longer new, solves no problem other than to fill a void in the architect’s perception management strategy.

I always tell my students that if they create a problem for themselves then they must use the knowledge and skills they have learned to solve it for themselves, and to only ask my help if they’ve explored a few ways of dealing with it and are unsure which one to go with and why. There’s no end to the number of things that can be suddenly become a problem. It could be a preferred position for the underground car park ramp conflicting with the position of a tower core, the direction of opening of the elevators, the typical floor corridor and possibly even the apartment layouts. It could be a problem of how to plan a bathroom to create an extra 10 cm of space in an adjacent hallway. It could be a problem of a preferred window treatment working with a building typology but not its layouts. 

But whatever it is and whenever you become aware of something you aren’t happy with, you need to find out what’s causing it. The cause will invariably be some decision you made somewhere else, perhaps on a different floor or on the other side of the building. You need to go back along that chain of decisions until you find a fork where one path is the one that took you to where you were (and didn’t want to be) and the other path is the one you didn’t take for some reason. Follow it. If you end up in the same place, then you have to repeat the process but backtrack even further as some even earlier decision is responsible. Try to get into the habit of making mental notes of every decision you take so this path back is easier to trace. It might be you find yourself back at the beginning. This is called Starting AgainYour idea didn’t work. You wanted something to be a certain way and discovered it either wasn’t possible or was more trouble than it was worth. 

It’s not always a linear path. For example, finding the right position for a service elevator in a multi-storey mixed-use building is a common nightmare because service elevators pass through different levels that each impose different conditions. An ideal position for one is rarely ideal for the others and it’s easy to go around in circles attempting to optimise. You need to determine what positions are possible for the most critical level and then use a process of elimination to test them for the other levels.    

Architects can’t know all possible outcomes of all possible choices and these processes of backtracking and elimination avoid guesswork, will save you time. You will find yourself getting better at solving problems and enjoying it more. I believe that getting better at these is one of those positive effects of neuroplasticity that’s called learning at first, and then it’s called experience. When faced with a design problem, a designer shouldn’t need to generate thousands of  iterations, modifying the parameters until an approximate solution appears. You need to do two things to get better at this. 

Don’t fall in love with your first idea. When you are still trying to understand the problem then your first idea is probably not going to be your best one. You risk narrowing your options too early and too quickly, and making yourself blind to other possibilities that could be better. 

Don’t be afraid to start again. Every time. It’s often quicker. Practice and experience are good but just because some approach might have worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work for situations only slightly different. Trying to make the same thing work for a new situation is another way of blinding yourself to other possibilities that may be better. Many famous architects fall into this trap. You might want to know about relatively unknown Japanese architect Tōgō Murano who was responsible for about 300 buildings, few of which “pursue the same themes” yet he got it right time and time again.

But to get back to your question as to whether a solution is clever or not depends on when the particular problem popped up. If it pops up in a late stage of the project then a clever solution is called a workaround and is an admission you might’ve been able to solve the problem better if you’d discovered it earlier. Such solutions aren’t really that clever. I’m not sure I should be telling this to students but it used to be said in offices that If you can’t solve a problem, then make a feature out of it! 

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if such brazen workarounds like this one are “out-of-the-box” solutions, clever cover-ups or clever design. Over time, they may come to be seen as the way things were always meant to be but it’s not like the problem of a tree and a house wanting to be in the same place was impossible to foresee. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to have house and tree in the same place and this was the solution. 

And then there’s this next example. Curved beams are never a good idea but they call attention to themselves and are not “workarounds”. I’m not sure they’re even features in this case because it was within the architect’s remit to choose where the “trellis” began and ended, the beam dimensions and their spacing to avoid both trees but … if he had, I wouldn’t be mentioning it now. The primary purpose of this “solution” is to show how cleverly the architect solved a problem he allowed to happen. It has this in common with the heavily Pinterested tree of the previous example and with the OMA building of the first image.  

The fact the two trees have been replaced at least once in the past 80 years in order to sustain this conceit suggests that “clever” solutions to problems architects create for themselves are closer to the heart of architecture than you or I may wish to believe

More than a few trees were removed to construct that driveway and house. Wright’s real genius was to make us see his sparing two of them as proof of his genius. It’s either Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy or the plot of Dexter. 

BONUS EXERCISE!

  • Import and scale the floor plan below into your preferred program.
  • See how the spacing of the trellis beams is set by the somewhat arbitrary position of the bridge and length of the porch canopy? The architect could have adjusted both to make the trellis beams avoid the two trees but he chose not to.
  • Fix it for him, making minimal changes to the position of the bridge, the dimensions of the canopy, and the width and spacing of straight trellis beams so they avoid those two trees. This way, the trees won’t be missed when they ultimately have to be removed. It’s not like they were ever meant to do anything other than guarantee the architect’s ego an afterlife. 

• • • 

It’s not all bad for here’s a counter-example for a special solution that is acceptable. The rooftop room of this 1976 house by Kazuo Shinohara is said to have resulted from a client request coming after the design of the house was more or less complete. I’ve always doubted this explanation as it’s not like parents suddenly discover they have a teenage son. It’s more likely grandmother came to live and there was no way a household of six people, three generations with two girls and a boy was ever going to fit in a two-bedroom house.

Photo by: Carlo Fumarola

I see this rooftop room as a clever solution to a problem but the problem isn’t one the architect made. And it’s not a workaround. It’s definitely a feature but the new problem was how to add an extra room to a structure that had already been designed. It doesn’t matter if you’re at university or in an office, sometimes the problem changes and starting again is not an option. Situations like these are when you really need to get clever and it’s ok to be as clever as you can. You have no choice so go for it! 

Thank you again for your excellent question. Good luck with the rest.

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