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It’s Just Design

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A colleague tells a story of how she once asked a student why they made a certain design decision and the student replied “I don’t know. It’s just design.” It’s difficult to comprehend this as I’ve always thought of design as something requiring no small amount of knowledge and skill together with an understanding of the problem and a curiosity regarding possibly unconventional ways of solving it. This student felt neither such pressure nor challenge. Design was just some inconsequential flourish added at the end. Or so I think. Or think they thought. I really don’t know.

And yet, I do understand that not every design decision has to be justifiable. Some can be appreciated for what they are without attempting to step inside the head of the designer. Sometimes you don’t even think to wonder why. Many of Tōgō Murano’s design decisions are exactly this and I’m happy to just appreciate them for what they are. Whatever the register, I trust his judgment. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]

I thought of Japan and such enigmatic design again recently. Last September, a friend from Japan passed through Dubai and gave me a bottle of saké. I said I’d keep it for some cold winter’s night. In January, in anticipation of a cold winter night that never came, I went to my local DAISO and bought a tokkuri and matching choko – three, because in Japan a set of something is always three or five, never four. I thought their design slightly weird in a way Japanese design often is, but up to the task. Anyway, by mid-April here it was already 35°, lockdown and high time to crack open the saké.

[The tokkuri is filled and then placed in a saucepan of boiling water for up to five minutes. You always fill the cup of your drinking companion if you have one. If you’re using the more ceremonial shallow saké cups, you’re supposed to finish it in exactly three and a half sips.]

But what’s going on with that design?! The fish is the famous fugu, the blowfish that chefs need a license to prepare. I don’t know what it’s doing on a tokkuri but fugu is like sushi in that it’s one of those foods Japanese eat to celebrate special occasions and events so I guess there’s a connection. But it wasn’t the toxic fish but the three dots that disturbed me. They seemed like an example of “just design” – some incomprehensible throwaway flourish that, though weird and resistant to justification, can’t be said to be right or wrong. All I knew was that someone had designed it that way and I either had to accept it, reject it or just appreciate it for what it is and not overthink it.

I overthought it. The three dots are the same shape as the white background to the fish – a use of Shape to UNITE – and that connection caused me to think of the three dots as bubbles and not the domino-like arrangement I’d previously seen. Once that idea of bubbles forced a conceptual unity between dots and fish, I couldn’t unthink it. A tangible unity reinforced by a conceptual association is a strong combination. [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE] Never again will I see those three dots as just dots or the design as just design because I now have a way of understanding it and any mystery or magic is gone. It’s the price one pays. But if it were possible to understand the mechanisms of beauty, would we want to? Me, I think we must, and we should also try to apply this knowledge to the business of getting buildings designed!

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This site for this semester’s design project was in an interesting but slightly disconnected part of town, primarily residential, and with 24-hour supermarkets and many good and inexpensive restaurants.

At the south corner of Satwa Roundabout is a car park shaped approximately like a quarter circle of 60m radius. Triangular sites always force fundamental decisions regarding vehicle access ramps and the direction of the grid. Students don’t like them.

The straight sides face four-storey buildings across streets, with the one on the south being a shaded pedestrian street. These two sides will have views of the Dubai skyline from floors four and above.

There’s a direct bus route to the airport and less than 2km away to the east is Dubai’s main road and Metro, to the west is the beach and museum, to the south is the old area of Satwa and to the north are the old areas of Bur Dubai and The Creek. In short, it was a perfect location for a three-star hotel, or rather, another three-star hotel because on the eastern corner of the roundabout is Chelsea Plaza Hotel. I don’t know when it was built but it’s probably not as old as it looks.

That’s the eastern half of our site in the photo on the right below, taken, the internet tells me, from Room 405 of Chelsea Plaza Hotel.

So then, how to begin? What to do? What does a three-star hotel with about 250 rooms and a maximum parapet height of 39 metres on this site in this part of Dubai want to be? For some students this is the most fun and interesting part but for others the most frightening – The Difficult Whole. Some will freeze, thinking I want them to come up with some BIG- or Hadid-esque concept of shape for, in many student minds, curves are still powerful symbols of creativity. In order to discourage all but those with the confidence and skills to pull it off, I usually include a requirement for an underground car park with an efficiency of more than 35 sq.m per car.

I used to be one of those students who treated every design project as an opportunity to show off. I recently had reason to request a copy of my undergraduate transcript and was shocked to see I received a B for my final project. On reflection, I probably would’ve been pleased for, at the time, we thought anything over 75% was brilliant and called a Distinction.

There were two approaches. One was a linear building along the long side of the site, perhaps following its curve, and the other was an L-shaped building along the other two sides. Former me would have avoided the obvious and I did for a while consider a building that curved along the site boundary for the lower floors but gradually changed into one curving the other way at the top in exaggerated response to the view.

It was possible to flex the building and give it a vaguely cobra-like shape while keeping vertical columns and a maximum south side cantilever of 3 metres but every corridor would have had varying degrees of curvature. Besides, I didn’t think the curvature would be that perceivable anyway. Actually, it wasn’t such a good idea. I was also put off by a similarity to structures Bjarke Ingels and Elizabeth Diller have each shamelessly invoked the name of Eladio Dieste to justify. For a three-star hotel project in an intermediate design course, something more aesthetically efficient was called for. I went for the L-shape but with the function room level and pool deck as a volume distinct from the body of the hotel.

If the lower volume is the same height and color as Chelsea Plaza Hotel then this upper level is where it is different. It’s a design feature with its asymmetry, colour and overhangs calling attention to itself as a place for some of the other things done in hotels, and its curve is a consequence, a ripple of the fountain and roundabout. At least that’s how I saw it. To someone else it might be just design. The missing three windows most definitely are – at least until you realize they guide your eye upwards.

The thing about The Difficult Whole is that it’s a problem invented to show how clever you are in solving it. A whole is whatever you want it to be. Circa 1850, Augustus Pugin rejected the idea of the whole at Alton Castle. The building has been called a precursor to Modernism with its different functional spaces given different expressions with no thought to an overriding unity.

Or is it? There’s a likelihood Pugin embraced function as an excuse to be picturesque. Victorian clients liked buildings to look older than they actually were and creating the appearance of having been haphazardly extended over the centuries was one way of achieving this. This rambling inconsistent whole may have been the effect he was striving for. It’s either all just design or none of it is.

Recently I mentioned this building from 18th-century Venice where nobody found anything difficult about putting a symmetrical facade beneath an asymmetrical roof. [c.f. What’s Already There]

The projects I set students I always do myself, working it through and sharing what I’ve learned when it’s appropriate. I can usually anticipate problems they might have but mostly I do it because I enjoy it. There’s always something. No matter how much you try to choose an approach that gets all the big things right, it’s impossible to anticipate every problem that might arise. With this project, I tried to listen to those problems and respond to what they were trying to tell me and discovered that, as an approach, it works. The images you see here are from a presentation powerpoint [worth 20% of the final grade]. A separate [20%] requirement was a set of drawings aspiring to planning-approval standard.

The typical floor fell into place easily. Elevators are where they need to be. Corridors have windows and fire escape is obvious. Internal columns line the corridor wall. More rooms have a Dubai view than not. There could have been sixteen more such rooms but the fire-escape stairs couldn’t go the other side because of the internal roads. [I only just thought of it now, but if I’d taken the stairs down on the inner side and on the first floor swapped them to the outer side then I’d have 10 more rooms with a preferred view.] This approach is my understanding –  or possibly my mis-understanding – of a newish concept called Lo-Res Architecture. For me, lo-res architecture is an architecture that’s uncomplicated and undemanding and that seems so obvious you wonder if in fact there’s any art to it at all. It’s the most exciting idea I’ve heard in years. Despite how much a Lo-Res Architecture has meaning for me, I’ve probably got it wrong because, on the basis of what I’ve read about it, it seems to require a lot of hi-res language to describe it.

Even a lo-res problem is a problem and sure enough, they started to arrive.

Problem #1: This first one was my most embarrassing. My initial attempt had the main entrance on the other side of the building where the service entrance is now, but this produced an insoluble circulation problem on the 9th level function room floor where the elevators need to open south. (Tyrant me forbids the use of double-door elevators as a solution to situations like this.) The reason I like the small hotel as a design problem is because the service corridor, service elevators and passenger elevators have to work for levels of five different types. It’s a complex 3D spatial planning exercise and I had to confess that I should have checked I’d solved it for all levels before I’d gone too far ahead. Luckily, the peculiarities of the one-way traffic system meant there was no better side for vehicle access and having the entrance and lobby on the “rear” corner meant all public areas of the ground floor faced streets active with pedestrians. This should have been my first choice. I fessed.

Problem #2: The rear of the 9th floor was originally a curve almost concentric with the one on the other side. The problem was that the outer walls on the south side didn’t hit the column grid well – something I also should have checked much earlier. Making the curve larger reduced the size of the terrace and still wasn’t a good fit. Reversing the curvature did the trick.

Problem #3: A colleague pointed out that I had poor visibility where vehicles leave the site. I removed the offending column, cantilevered as far as I could to compensate and adjusted the room sizes accordingly (because the internal columns were along the corridor wall). No hotel room door occurs at a column position. Doing this produced the double-L massing on the roundabout side. I was open to letting something like this happen as, before, I confess the building had been a bit dull.

Problem #4: The service elevator wasn’t in a happy place and so I moved it to the middle of the building. This paid off when planning the rooftop pool deck but it’s also why the service corridors on the ground and 9th floor are a bit messy in the final version. I always have to convince students that, if anything has to be a bit messy, it’s best if it’s a service corridor.

Problem #5: This next elevation drawing explains why the window spacing on the south-east and south-west elevations is not regular. On the other side of the building where there are fewer windows and columns, I simply got lucky. What I’ve learned is that interesting things just seem to happen when you simply set up systems and let them interact. I don’t know what to call this. An architecture of happy accidents? It’s a response to circumstance and not just design. To an observer it won’t make any difference but to a designer it should.

Problem #6: But some design decisions are less easy to justify and my asymmetrical overhanging 9th floor meant that fire escape stairs from the rooftop deck overshot the stairwell below at one end of the building and didn’t quite reach at the other. I either had to make this work or come up with a better idea. Both ends were manageable, without any fuss at the overhanging end, and by introducing the new design feature of the yellow stair – Hello Arquitectonica! – plus a new drainage problem, at the other.

In last semester’s project I’d stumbled upon the idea of setting up simple systems and letting them interact as a design approach. [c.f. Spiral Binding] This time around I wasn’t so set on a preconceived outcome, and I also accepted that every single element didn’t have to be a design feature and certainly not the building as a whole.

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