Connecting the dots : From an idea and a concept to a complete design

Everybody can imagine. But architecture is one profession where we are paid to imagine and to dream. Architect Charles Correa had once written ‘A leader like Mahatma Gandhi is called the architect of the nation, not the engineer, nor the dentist, nor the historian’. Architect, because of his ability to imagine a vision of the future.

Each one of us is naturally gifted with enormous ability to imagine- when we read a novel and then see a movie based on that novel, we will never be happy about it, since what we would have imagined would be much more. What you learn in architecture is to convert that imagination in to reality, and that is the most difficult task.

When students begin the process of design, the biggest question they face is ‘How to Start’. There is confusion about what is a ‘concept’ and how to go about converting this into living, breathing spaces. Where does one begin? How to strike the balance between an abstract idea and a logical design solution?

We all know about the two sides of the brain, the left hemisphere which is logical, and the right hemisphere which is creative. The left is associated with order, analysis, rational thinking- concepts that are measurable. The right on the other hand is associated with emotions, art, imagination, randomness- all which are immeasurable.

“A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through the measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasurable” (Louis Kahn)

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Architectural design is one process which requires a fine balance of both where both logic and creativity play a very significant role. Louis Kahn once said, “a great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through the measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be immeasurable”.

When you begin the process of design, understanding the measurable is therefore crucial. You look at the site, the physical features- the slope, the surroundings, the orientation, the trees. You understand the influence of the future structure, not just on the site and the immediate neighbours but also the locality and the city.

You then understand the functionality, space requirements, body postures, elements of nature, movement of sun, direction of wind and direction of flow of water, and the technology that is to be adopted.

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It now comes to the immeasurable part- that of senses and emotions. William Blake depicts the immeasurable in this painting.

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For an architect, that is the most difficult part. How do we bring in emotions into the space? How do humans connect to the space, what are the senses being activated, what is the response to the building? Light can be measured using a solar clock. But can the human response to light be measured? The famous sculpture, Michelangelo’s David, when viewed with changing the source of light, renders to the sculpture a completely different emotion.

The famous sculpture, Michaelangelo’s David, when viewed with changing the source of light, renders to the sculpture a completely different emotion.

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David, when viewed with a different source of light conveys a completely different emotion

That is part of the greatness of this sculpture. In nature, every moment, light is changing. Can we use this changing nature of light to bring a different quality to the space we design?

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  (Alvin Toffler, writer)

Humans are conditioned by society at every stage in our lives and have accumulated a baggage of learning, sometimes without questioning. For instance, in the first year of architecture, some students were asked a basic question- what is a table? Some answered that it was a surface with four legs. Then came the questions- why does it need to have four legs? Can it not have three legs, or one leg? The table was thus later redefined to be a surface at an appropriate height, based on the activity which it was to be used for, and which certain qualities depending on its function- whether smooth or rough, high or low, the shape and size. Once you remove this ‘imagery’ of a table, you are left with a whole new perspective on what one can do with it- it could be suspended from the roof or cantilevered from a wall. But the function and inherent quality remains the same.

Likewise, when you design a classroom, you first start with the measurable and known qualities- the seating arrangement, the capacity, the acoustics, sight-lines. These are fundamental and need to be designed logically. Once you have learnt these, you can come back and question the basics. Which is the best place for exchanging ideas , do you need a ‘room’ for that?Once you start questioning the basics, a concept evolves. Fresh ideas emerge. It is about redefining the accepted. It is about unlearning. And this is where your ‘concept’ begins.

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It is important to be curious and question like a child, but also important to remember that you can never escape the basics. You can question once you have mastered it. If you look at Picasso’s early paintings, they were all realistic, with perfect human anatomy and details like folds of clothing. In his later work, he started questioning and reinterpreting his art in a different way. But he did this only once he was a master of the basics.

Creativity is actually very logical!

The body of the fish is streamlined and narrow to allow it to swim, and any additional aesthetic elements, like colours or patterns, come later. The logic of the shape and structure never wavers. Even in the human face, every part of it is designed to fulfill a certain function.

All of nature’s creation has a very storing logic embedded in it. Using measurable and immeasurable ideas and then reinterpreting them has to always have a backing of a sound logic. For instance, our ancestors always left their footwear outside the house. They did this because the climate of the country was conducive to doing most of their daily activities on a floor, unlike a cold climate, where the floor was too cold to sit upon and they hence needed the insulation of a chair.

Further, because they sat on the floors, the windows in traditional buildings also came down to the level of the floor. But because of influence of Western design standards where windows were fixed assuming that everyone would be sitting on chairs, we have started using these standard heights for windowsills in India too. Can we reinterpret this concept and rediscover the floor?

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The Lobby, Ahungulla Hotel, Goeffery Bawa

Another concept we learn from master architects like Charles Correa, B V Doshi and Goeffery Bawa is how they blurred the lines between the inside and the outside, and made the threshold of a building disappear. A photograph of a space in their building can leave one confused whether it is indoors or outdoors. Can we look at reinterpreting ideas like these in modern buildings?

 

 

Simplify, do not mystify

There is never ‘lack of ideas’, there is only a lack of clarity of ideas. Human beings have great imagination, for instance, people are rarely satisfied with a movie that has been adapted from a book they like. This is because the movie often doesn’t live up to the extent  of the human imagination.

But we cannot just keep waiting for the perfect idea, we need to simplify and make a beginning. You may not know where exactly it will take you, but each move will be determined by the previous move until you start getting a better picture of where you will be arriving.

It is kind of like the process of sculpture where you start working with clay without a clear idea of what you are sculpting. Every push gives the sculptor gives him a new idea, and he arrives at the final form. Even with doodles, it may start out being vague but ultimately gets some clarity. It is important to start, freeze what is possible, and leave the other ends open and start solving it through the process.

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Sometimes the idea flashes by looking at site , context  and its constraints and at times it is a struggle. Sometimes, it is not about not finding an idea but about an abundance ideas. But the process usually a gut feeling, a vague idea like looking at a foggy picture which over time comes into focus.

Sometimes the solution may come to you when you are in the middle of the design, but you cannot give up and need to keep the process going.It is important to focus on the goal, start with a path to reach the goal. The goal can actually be very simple- architecture is not only about creating wonderful forms but is about caring for people who would be using your creation and for the environment around you.

Today, young students find it quite hard to simplify, and have a lot of vague, mystic ideas. This is probably also influenced by technology, where there are so many options available, and one keeps zooming in and out losing sense of the design. It is important to use technology appropriately.

There is an anecdote about Africa, where high-end expensive incubators were sent to the country from the USA to help with a health crisis. It was then found that the machines frequently went out of order and were discarded because nobody knew how to repair them. The makers then realised that Toyota was a very popular brand in Africa, and then made these incubators using Toyota spare parts. The local mechanics all were at ease repairing them, and the product was thus put to good use. The key here was not just to use any technology, but to use an appropriate, site-specific technology.

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Technology does play an important role in modern design but it must always be appropriate to the context.

The process of design, from the conception of the idea to the design and then it’s execution is exhilarating. We need do work towards doing good design and also enjoying the very process of design.

In architecture, you fall in love with an idea, and fight relentlessly for its realisation.

 

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