Today I had this idea about something I hope you can address in your blog. I thought about it after reading your latest post*. Personally, I usually start my projects without really thinking of any concept beforehand. I try to address the problem directly and then explore what solutions I can come up with. For me, design is very much an A to Z process because I tend to be very organized in how I think about things. [*c.f. It’s Just Design]
Then again, I’ve found with many of my previous projects that even if I didn’t consciously try to come up with a concept for it, it was always somehow there – if that makes sense. It’s almost like I realize that, when I see the final result, I was actually designing with a concept in mind. Sometimes even a few months after the end of a project, I would look back and suddenly realize what I was doing all along! For me, finding a concept doesn’t seem to be a conscious decision but something that just somehow happens while attempting to solve the problem.
Now I’m wondering what the difference is between a truly concept-less design and one with a good concept. I’ve always thought that projects with strong concepts tend to create more problems than they solve even if they look like they come together a lot more coherently as a whole. But even then, sometimes it’s difficult to really notice what the concept was about all along.
On the occasions when I have come up with an idea beforehand, I usually don’t know how to express it in words. I faced this problem many times this semester when my instructor would ask me and I just didn’t know how to answer. It’s not that I don’t have a concept in mind, but it’s more like a vision I have in my head and I’m not sure if that counts.
It’s probably best not to use the word vision because, when we’re talking about ideas and where they come from because people – including and perhaps especially instructors – might mis-understand you to mean that other overused word, inspiration. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to start with an idea of how you want your building to be. The problem is what kind of idea it’s going to be, and words like vision and inspiration pressure students into thinking they have to dream up something in the realm of Art. It’s terrible seeing young lives wasted.
Before I answer your question properly, I’d also like to exclude from consideration those people whose concepts won’t be great or even appropriate, but who have the graphic and/or presentation skills to convince you that they are. This is something else entirely and, even if there is a place for these people in contemporary practice, I don’t think you mean you want to get better at expressing any concept.
If you think university crits and juries are terrifying, just wait until you have to explain your proposal at a public presentation in a local community hall where some people will have come prepared to object. You’d find the general public isn’t interested in concept, narrative or process. All they want to know is that you know what you’re doing. They want to be convinced the decisions you made are the right ones, so make sure you talk about things that are important to them.
Community consultations are less confrontational and generally more pleasant because of the tea and biscuits. Many people will come out of curiosity because there was a flyer in their letterbox but it’s still the same. Everybody just wants to be reassured you know what you’re doing. Consultations like these are part of the planning approval process so listen to what the people are saying and, if you can’t let it shape your project, then be prepared to justify why not in a report to the municipality. Once again, you have to offer evidence you know what you’re doing. This never goes away.
But to get back to your question, my first thought is that it’s good to have a vision for how you want your building to be or, more to the point, how you want people to respond to your building. Once you know that, it’s just a process of making decisions that move it in the direction you want, and not making decisions that don’t. It’s not really trial-and-error because things will happen and some of them will work towards what you want and some will work against it. If you have that initial vision then you can always test your decisions against it.
Perhaps instead of the word vision we should use the term mission statement and use that as a guide. When a company is first set up, it has a founding document called Articles of Incorporation that describe what the company will do and it will include something called the Mission Statement. The Mission Statement has a very important function because, whenever a company finds itself in a situation where they can’t decide which course of action is better, they look to their Mission Statement and ask which course of action is more in line with what the company is supposed to be about.
With that recent project of mine in the post you mentioned, my guiding principle was to allow those unforeseen factors to directly influence the outcome and I discovered they create an immediacy and specificity that wouldn’t otherwise have been there. In the previous semester’s project* where the “idea” was to let two rigid geometric systems intersect in ways I couldn’t anticipate, I learned to not be afraid of not knowing everything at the outset. Even though I relinquished a degree of (imagined) control, there were no situations that didn’t work and required some one-off cheat to solve. [*Spiral Binding]
You’ll notice I haven’t used the word concept. I’ve never liked it but, to be honest, I never find much appetite among instructors or students for my preferred term, organizing idea which is equivalent for the (now) archaic term parti that used to be used in architecture schools.
I think that’s what it is! A mission statement! Personally, I can’t design something without it checking the list of what I think it should fulfill at the back of my head so I think that could be one element that I never thought about before.
I remember back in introductory design, I couldn’t start a project without a vision of it in my head so I would lag for a while and have nothing to show for class. I think my instructor probably thought I was either lazy or stupid. I just couldn’t get my head around students creating things without a vision for it in their heads. In order to do well, I eventually just pushed myself to produce work even if it didn’t comply with whatever I thought the design process should be.
The next design course was an odd experience but also kind of depressing. It was more about creating things that look like buildings rather than creating buildings, or at least, that’s how I saw it. I noticed how the more “visually expressive” projects usually got the higher grade because they were deemed more creative. During my second year, it wasn’t the workload or the pressure, but this concept of creativity and how it was judged that almost made me change my major.
I remember seeing projects with snakes, sea turtles and fish as their concepts. I remember the stated concept of one third year project was a man and a woman confronting each other. The project was simply two buildings facing each other with one taller than the other. I had no words. I’ve always understood that a concept is supposed to lead the design, kind of like what streetlights do when you’re driving through the night.
Mission statement does seem to be a more useful way of looking at it. You can interpret it as something you believe in and that’s good too. Cost performance or environmental or energy performance are also things one can believe in and each can shape a building. Even if the criteria are more quantifiable – not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s still the same process with criteria to guide your design and let you know if your decisions are moving towards them or not. Mission statement can also be interpreted as research agenda. In that Spiral Binding project I keep going on about, my mission was to test if letting two rigid systems intersect without knowing the results beforehand was a viable way to design a building. I suppose that, in the same vein, an artistic agenda is also a variety of mission statement and this is why we’re more willing to accept artists saying things like “with this work I wanted to express …” etc. The problem with artistic agendas, whether they’re used or misused by artists or architects, is that the end result must speak for itself.
Finally, I suppose we have to also admit the existence of the marketing & branding agenda where the mission is to use a project to gain as much publicity as possible. Whether the people who are good at this actually believe in what they’re doing beyond that is another matter. I’m not worried about you because you’re deriving your own criteria for what good and success mean. It’s the others I worry about.
In English there’s an old saying from the 1500s, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” It means you can’t make something good out of something that’s intrinsically bad. It’s true, but Post Modernism taught us you can still say something is good and you can still present it as if it were good, and people will believe you.
You’ve already noticed how some students spend more energy convincing instructors their design is good than they do on making it decent or even acceptable. You’ll meet these people again and again throughout your working life. You’ll have to try to not get upset when you see them succeed. In ways we’re not even aware of, architectural education is a microcosm of the world outside where far worse things happen.
You mention the man and woman project. Well, on the left below we have Vasily Klyukin’s In Love Towers rendered into London and, on the right, we have Gehry’s Fred and Ginger doing its thing in Prague. These are worse than anything that happens at university because one could happen anywhere around the world at any time and the other one actually did. If I had to choose, I’d choose the Klyukin for its aesthetic economy. The Gehry is equally trite but it’s heavy-handed. That “elbow” is unforgivable.
All the best.