Architecture Myths #31: Synthesis

Synthesis is the third and last major stage of the design process where it’s all supposed to come together and, as if by magic, it does. It’s where all the explicitly stated problems supposedly solved in some supposedly relevant way by some relevant or worthy “case study” or “precedent” problems find their way into the design proposal.


Apartment planning

The proposal begins with a scissor apartment plan that has been stretched so that the stairs form the sides of light wells and the apartments are entered half a flight up via external stairs. This configuration brings light and air to the centre of a typical floorplate that previously had none. The open access corridor is overlooked from above and below by kitchen windows on one side and by bedroom corridor windows on the other. All bathrooms have two windows, neither of which are visible from the access corridor. All living rooms are on the sunnier side of the building and all bedrooms on the other side.

This type of relationship with the street exists in London’s Georgian terrace houses and in New York’s brownstones. In both cases, what is residential space now is accessed from the footpath/sidewalk half a floor up and down. In both instances, the level difference articulated a social hierarchy within the building while providing daylight, ventilation and physical and visual access to the street.

This plan is the same for up-going and down-going apartments, with only the direction of the stairs different.

Apartments are mirrored to configure pairs that are then repeated to configure the building. Doing this means the open stairs are double-width above paired single-width stairs below.

Apartment construction

The two sides of the building are approximately the same area, suggesting the possibility of modular, prefabricated construction. All staircases are the same, apart from those on the lowest level where there is no internal stair below. The entire building could, for example, be configured from shipping containers and with a minimal number of customizations and customization operations.

#CustomizationCont. 1
Cont. 2
Cont. 3
Cont. 4
Cont. 5
Cont. 6
1Remove walls*142111110
2Wall end openings*2 4222212
3Tall windows224
4Bathroom windows44
5Corridor/kitchen window112
6Bathroom party wall11
7Partitions with doors224
8L-shaped door recess2*324
10Bedroom partition wall1*512
  1. Removing a wall whether short or long is counted as one
  2. Making a window opening an installing a window are counted separately
  3. The L-shaped recess for the entrance and exit doors is counted twice for each container even though it is the same component inverted
  4. The direction of opening of the doors however, will have to be reversed.
  5. I expect the bedroom partition wall to be constructed in two halves that are later joined, and so it’s counted as separate customizations of different containers.

Construction is the assembly of the various modules.

The access corridor maintains all the advantages of the original.

These basic units of accommodation can be of any length. At each end is a core of similar design to that of the HKHA concord tower blocks. These cores will not be as substantial however because the maximum height is probably 10–15 stories as determined by the loadbearing capacity of the lowest modules. Moreover, there need be only one fire stair as the cores are now connected by the access corridors, providing a fire escape stair in each direction of escape.

Urban Possibilities

Assuming three person occupancy for each apartment that is approximately 6 metres wide, and that ten apartments form one floor of a ten storey block that will house 300 persons. These blocks are connected at each end to concrete cores that are octagonal in shape and house a fire escape stair, two elevators and perhaps a garbage chute. The basic urban unit is a slab block eight stories high and eight apartments long and four of these are connected at both ends for reasons of fire escape.

This next drawing shows Paris at a scale of 1:5000 and has approximately 13,000 apartment slabs in approximately 33 Assuming eight stories overall and eight apartments per block, and an average occupancy of two persons gives a total of 2,496,000 persons living at a density of 75,640 persons per – a density higher than that Manila.

Paris @ 1:5,000 There’s no need to change the street pattern.


The calculated density results from the initial assumptions. Building to only four stories houses half that number at half the density. Allowing for 50% single occupancy brings the population down to 20,000 persons/ which is still equal to the population density of current-day Paris.

This project may look like a project that developed a particular typology as a unit for urban living but it is also an example of a “what-if” scenario in which the typology or urban form directly follows from one assumption. Examples of this type of project would be “what would a city be like if there were not such a thing as gravity?” or “what would a city be like if COVID19 keeps coming back more virulent?” This proposal is what a city could be like if perfect robotic prosthetic limbs made it no longer necessary to design for wheelchairs. Advantages unique to this particular arrangement are:

  • All apartments have either south-east or south-west facing living rooms and north-east or north west facing bedrooms.
  • All kitchens, bathrooms and access corridors are naturally lit and ventilated.
  • All access corridors are observed and persons moving along the internal streets are aware of being in a place where other people live.

We’ve reached the end of this thing called The Design Process. I would normally tell students that the project itself is the conclusion but any written description of the process should mention that the problem that was identified as The Problem is the one that had been solved and, if anhything has been learned along the way then now is the time to say it. It might be the case that solving the problem this way this time has given you ideas about how it might be better solved next time then, if this is true, then say that too.

This is basically how the design process is understood and, asccordingly, how it’s taught. Students and architects alike are expected to identify and analyze a problem, and then devise a proposal that solves it but it’s never quite as straightforward as that.

“When all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.”

The greatest problem for an architect is to not see every problem as one that requires an architectural solution. Most of the large commercial practices are savvy enough to highlight some project such as an office workflow that was improved not by a new building but by better space planning, for example. It makes them look as if they don’t always go for the solution that brings in the most fees.

Architectural behemoth HoK has a book titled Problem Seeking that attempts to make the analysis part of the process more explicit.

“The total design process includes two stages: analysis and synthesis. In analysis, the parts of a design problem are separated and identified. In synthesis, the parts are put together got form a coherent design solution. The difference between programming and design is the difference between analysis and synthesis. Programming IS analysis. Design IS Synthesis. ” 4th Edition, page 18

It’s the opposite of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language in attempting to map connections between the parts of a problem rather than offer a limited universe of part-solutions to known part-problems. The overuse of 1980s management speak gives the impression of professionals who know what they are doing in the same way that “data”, “parameters” and “algorithms” are used today. It’s unfortunate but possibly indicative that problem seeking in action is illustrated by the example of maximizing the efficiency of an office building floor plate.

A reality with variables and connections that were subjectively identified in the first place, and that shift and change along with their respective degrees of importance is resistant to automation and scripting. Even if it were accurate tracking and not just a representation of it, there’s still the problem of that response being frozen in time once the thing is built. This is why we have so many dynamic looking buildings that don’t actually go anywhere. It’s the perpetual motion of things staying the same. We’re still stuck with using a limited range of variables and values to generate infinite variations as a representation of universe of possibilities to which the conventional design process of selection, analysis and synthesis are still applied. Nothing’s changed.

If all one has is a design philosophy then every problem is a vehicle for its dissemination. It’s always been the case that particular problems are identified and analyzed in order to justify particular solutions. It’s also known as “a solution in search of a problem”. These have always existed whether the design process is executed as analog or digital. It is possible that there is deeper design process that can’t immediately be dismissed as “intuitive” simply because it might appear so. It’s basically what I did in my example above. The steps appear to have been followed but the actual design process took place before my working through of it and well before its articulation. It could just be this deep design process is a kind of background cognition, and that analysis and synthesis are just shorthand for thinking about the problem, the focussed application of experience and knowledge, and using that as a basis for coming up with a solution (for the benefit of whomever). We’re still none the wiser regarding the actual workings of that particular adaptive algorithm executed by our brains in the course of a design problem, but there’s no need to be threatened by or in awe of crude representations of it. We’re still being encouraged to mistake a representation of a thing for the thing itself. This post-modern era drags on.