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What is Architecture?

Published on the 7th of April, 2017

“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence.” – Daniel Burnham








On the 4th of April, 2017, we asked our friends a question on our Facebook page (link here): What is the difference between a building and architecture? In other words, how do you define architecture?

This question of defining architecture has been a rather peculiar one for me ever since I started graduate school at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. On my first week at school, I was invited to a student lead discussion after studio that pondered this very question “What is the definition of architecture?” At first I was both stumped and dismissive –  on one hand, I was annoyed at myself for not being able to come up with a clear articulation of what I believed architecture to be (especially one that is different than the word “building”), and on the other I questioned why such a definition was important; if designers can create “architecture” implicitly, who cares if they cannot find the words to explain what it is they are actually doing? The discussion moderator suggested that a definition is important in the same vane neuro -linguistic programming is vital to self development; if designers are clear on their intentions to what it is they are doing and can verbally articulate in communication, they would be more organized in their thought process while creating/designing and can thus challenge their perception from time to time and help evolve and grow as architects.

To me, this established the first cannon to the definition of architecture: self and critical awareness. As opposed to more traditional builders and buildings, an architect is one who seeks to challenge the norm and status quo through innovation, and the process of which this occurs can named “architecture”. In this sense, architecture is not a noun but a verb; it is not the finished product of a building or a design artifact but the process onto which this artifact is being conceived and AFTER it is erected through its interaction with the general public (in other words, how one is experiencing a building is – in my own personal view – architecture).

This definition of mine was slightly at odds with my peers at Grad school, as they merely focused (at least in their presentation and communication) on the first aspect of the design process; to them, architecture was more akin to “representation”. The word “representation” in architectural communities can be understood (I am sure I will get a lot of architects arguing with me over my definition of that word) as the method of exploring and communicating space in design form. Drawing is a method of “representation”, so is physical and digital modeling. Students at the UMD at the time were very diligent in exploring different representation methods as they believed by experimenting with the design tools at their disposal they were able to seek new paradigm shifts of what architecture could be. I did not fully understand this at the time, but I do find this aspect rather fascinating. However, in my view, there is another element that we architects must keep focusing on in order not to lose ourselves in the design loop (designing for design sake), which is I believe that we should also focus on planting the seeds for users to experience our design in their own way, and through their perception allow the act of designing and re-designing to continue.

Let me de-philosophize the above for a second and create a more tangible scenario. Say that I’ve received a challenged program brief for a project and I’ve figured out a strategy in order to create the design artifact (for purposes of this example, let’s say the purpose is an apartment building). Through the guidelines and site restrictions, I find the only way to use the most space that I am allowed to use is to create vertical apartments, where each main space and en-suite is on a different floor resulting in a 5 floor apartment unit of about 200 square meters or so. This would be rather different than the traditional dwelling unit, but from a designer’s standpoint had I not designed the space as such I would not have maximized my allowed area in the block (I have created 4 extra units in the block than had the design been more traditional). How the tenant chooses to make use of these spaces is also an extension of the architectural design process, and all of this is independent from the actual physical building that the architectural process takes place (this is a project that RiadArchitecture design in Michigan, we will link the project to this article when we make the move to the permanent website which is currently being revamped).

Another example of this architectural paradigm which is rooted in history is the design of the Spanish Steps in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. The design is quite simple, it is a series of steps going up from the fountain area – Fontana della Barcaccia – of the Piazza the Church of Trinità dei Monti. In the course of building, stairs are used to go from one elevation to another, but the design of these particular steps have made future visitors to utilize them in many various different ways and functions. They serve as landscape platforms, seats for people to sit and have a conversation with their friends, sit and watch a concert being performed in the lower area by the fountain, or just sit as people watch all day long. The sequence of stairs has become more of a park than a method of circulation, and this part of the design and architectural process was made possible by the public and not the original design (you can argue that the designer Francesco De Sanctis planted the seeds for the public to make this design alteration, but this is irrelevant to the discussion that the architecture process extends beyond the design and build period).

My brother and partner in RiadArchitecture, Khaled Riad, based his entire thesis exploration “The Indeterminate Construct” on this notion of allowing the public to design for themselves and to question and challenge the role of the traditional defined architect. He felt that architects were getting too bogged down in designing and constructing rather rigid prototypes and typologies that does not take into account the possible need for change and flexibility in the future. He wanted to focus on the idea of architecture as a process and not as a field that constructs artifacts (buildings or otherwise). While he took this idea to the extreme for academic purposes, he came out with a solid and clear vision for the future which can shift the entire field of architecture – one that the world is seemingly heading towards. He stresses on the idea of interactive architecture, be it flexible furniture, movable walls, digitally enhanced automated smart homes – any aspect that allows the public and user to have some level of control over the final product (which in this case is never final but ever changing).

There are some that feel that this signals the death of architecture and the end of the role of the architect – but my brother and I would argue that this type of challenge is needed and will in fact increase the importance of architects in the future. The architect here can design a process of evolution – rather than a rigid enclosure – which thus after planting the seeds of foundation can re-create itself with each coming generation. Us architects might not know the exact overall form that would take place ten or fifteen years after the first conception, but we can create a path (or number of paths) that would determine a few key important modifiers. We create the framework over which future designers (be it us in the same design loop or the general public utilizing the building after us) can take cues from and add to our vision. Thus, to my brother and I, Architecture is the process of evolution in the design process before and after the designed building has been complete, the product of which is a building.

You will notice this discussion does not assume “good” or “bad” architecture or design or buildings and has differentiated between the words architecture (which we conceive as the general process), design (the act of creation), or building (the constructed product of both the process and act of creation). Please note that all of the above is coming from our own thought process on the subject matter and we do not assume or try to preach our vision to be the correct one, but this is a process of self awareness and critical dialogue that we as RiadArchitecture are undertaking in an effort to constantly redefine our intentions, which you – the reader and participant – are helping us conceive. Many of the comments on our Facebook page have been rather fruitful and thought provoking; ranging from a more poetic definition of architecture to the more pragmatic understanding of the built environment. This article does not neglect your comments or ideas but perhaps adds to the general dialogue in an effort to evaluate our understanding of architecture.

Until next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

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