Artchitecture General

On the Question of Beauty in Architecture

“Once you learn to look at architecture not merely as an art more or less well or more or less badly done, but as a social manifestation, the critical eye becomes clairvoyant.” – Louis Sullivan

 

On the 25th of April, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here) – here is our response:

I realize that this is a loaded and heavy question and extremely subjective – when one starts talking about “preferences”, all arguments for or against start to become irrelevant, which is why interior design for private dwellings is a rather subjective art. On the other hand, we have always felt that architecture exists in the public domain (regardless of who the client is), so a certain level of objectivity towards the design aesthetics is required … a rather difficult take that many would believe is an oxymoron. For many, the question of art and aesthetics is highly subjective, and any attempt to create an objective rational or analysis over it defeats the purpose of “Art”. We at RiadArchitecture don’t subscribe to that notion, and believe that it is imperative; especially with Architecture – where scholars are still arguing over why, how and if it truly is “art”.

Having spent many years of my life involved in the design arts (starting with painting, moving into musical composition – which I do regards as a “designed” art, and then into architecture), I’ve come to realize that we need to differentiate between what can be considered “good” art and how our preferences and tastes form our biases (I often try to stay away from using simplistic subjective adjectives like “good” or “bad”, but for purposes of this article which attempts to describe my own outlook towards this subject topic I will eliminate my vocabulary inhibitions in order to better get my point across). For example, I am personally not a fan of “blues music”, I find it repetitive and boring … I prefer Jazz because I find that the musical form and structure is much more liberating for the musicians and the possibilities are endless. The 12bar blues form, in my opinion, is too limiting and I feel that I am listening to the same version of the song between each track and the other. That, is my opinion, and it is not fact … and could very much mean that I am an idiot and a musical novice that I could not understand the sonic subtleties between each song and the other and between each artist and the other. For me to denounce the entire genre of Blues just because I don’t prefer it would be rather immature. I have a lot of respect for the genre and the musicians who perform in it, and I realize the musical genius behind the fingers of BB King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, it is just that I don’t listen to it. I cannot claim it to be “bad” music, or “unmusical”.

On the other hand, there are certain songs that I believe that I can discuss in an objective manner as to why it truly is “bad” music. There are those who claim that we should refrain from judgment from all music and art because it is all entirely subjective, I believe that this is not true. In my opinion,  there is a criteria on which we can distinguish between “good” and “bad” art provided that we are mindful enough to understand the difference between this criterion and our own preferences. For example, we need to know that there is a lot of “good” music that we won’t particularly like, and there is a lot of “bad” music that we may actually enjoy. In this definition, “good” music or art is one that either engages, bends or even breaks the rules and guidelines for creating art, as well as adding an intangible quality of pouring into a bit of their soul in the artwork (which may seem unquantifiable and immeasurable, but the mere fact that one is emotionally touched by the music or artwork is evidence enough that such a soul outpouring has occurred) – the artist goes through a process of critical thinking (even if just on a subconscious level) upon inception and creation of said artwork. On the other hand, “bad” music or art is one that recycles old ideas without any type of awareness to the process (the element of critical thinking and soul outpouring is missing from the creative process) … this artwork is processed and manufactured, and not created.

I believe that if we are able to agree to this definition then we can separate our own biases when judging artwork and take into account people’s different tastes and cultural inclinations and inflections. This leaves us with two aspects of the design process: the self awareness and critical thought process that deals with the engagement of the rules, and the intangible quality of soul outpouring. When engaging in design, both aspects of the process are always present, whether the designer is conscious of both, one and not the other, or neither. We could understand it as the Yin & Yang of design, or my preferred analogy would be the “Yung” & “Qi”; the Yung being loosely translated to the “mastery” or the mastery of creating the artwork, and the Qi being loosely translated to “energy flow”. The former is objective and theories of which can be taught at school, the latter would differ from one designer to the other as it is how we choose to put our own personal touch to whatever it is we do. I will discuss how I, and by extension RiadArchitecture, have been engaging and rationalized both aspects so far.

When it comes to mastering the rules of architectural aesthetics, there many guidelines we can go by. Most architecture schools in the states adopt the vocabulary adopted by Francis I Ching in his book “Architecture: Form, Space & Order” – required textbook reading for all young aspiring architects.  He uses phrases and concepts like proportion, rhythm, order, harmony, hierarchy, and datum (including many more) to understand and analyze the built environment, abstracting complex forms and geometries into simple basic ideas which young & designers architects can then delve into and create layers thereof. Ching, and many other architectural scholars like him, have developed an objective approach to how we can discuss, analyze and critique aesthetics.Designers can chose to follow these rules, bend them or break them in a conscious effort to create visually engaging experiences. Whether or not we as the general public “like” what these designers is irrelevant in some respect, as it does nothing but show our own biases and preferences, and are therefore highly subjective. In this regard, we cannot take away from what the designer is attempting to do (but perhaps only critique how successful each designer’s approach is while catering to our collective needs and preferences).  I believe that the problem arises from the MANY designers that do not truly understand these principles are and somehow winging it.  The lucky ones have an implicit eye towards what they feel “looks good”, but can then only argue in a subjective matter. The unlucky ones get to build the many pieces of the built environments that many of us agree are “eye sores”; there is no integration between elements, no attitude towards proportion or harmony, no understanding about creating datum, rhythm and variation … which then results in poor quality architecture.

In RiadArchitecture, we have added another layer of understanding when it comes to these principles, which we have simplified as creating a blend between “constants” and “variables”. We believe that what we as humans connect with in terms of designs are the elements which our brain can figure out a pattern or organizational concept behind. We might not understand what said organizational pattern is, but our brain has recognized that there is one. A creative pattern is that which employs a balance between constants and variables. A constant is an element where the brain can easily distinguish, a variable is a variation of said constant (be it  a variation in size, geometry, color, material…etc). A pattern filled with variables and not enough constants would seem chaotic and cacophonic, as the brain will see and understand it as a pile of garbage or an un-designed mess. A pattern that does not include enough variables will be seen as rather dull (if we follow the definitions set forth in the beginning of this article, it would then be slapped with the “bad art” label). We believe the most engaging pieces of art is that that includes enough variables that would get the observer intrigued, move, and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable. A good mix between both take the observer to the edge and pushes them to their comfort zone limits and perhaps a little bit outside of it. It encourages them to step outside what they feel is the norm but also gives them a guideline to be able to find their bearings with the overarching organizing principle when needed.

To give you a simple example, let’s consider two surfaces: a curvy free flowing surface and a flat surface. Each of these surfaces need to be divided into a series of panels. The curvy surface is free flowing and is a constant blur of variables, so we add a regular grid pattern to it as a constant. This pattern will then morph and evolve as it follows the free flowing surface (expand when the surface is being pulled in tension and contract when the surface is being condensed). There is a way the brain can identify the motion of the surface by following how the grid responds to it, and thus this surface becomes more intelligible to us.

On the other hand, a simple flat surface would need some level of dynamism to animate it. The flat surface is our constant, so we are now free to layout whichever variable grid (different size or shaped patterns) onto it. Whatever pattern we create here may be convoluted if we overlay on the freeform surface, which would make both the pattern and the surface more difficult to comprehend. We at RiadArchitecture believe that art exists in this exploration and constant game playing while bending the rules.

Which comes to the second aspect or quality of the design, the intangible “Qi”. In the 1960s, there were many architectural anthropologist scholars, among them to be one of my favorite authors, Amos Rapoport of “House Form + Culture”. Rapoport has stated that architects need not strive for any conscious aesthetic inclination and that architecture that responds to its surrounds, in terms of responding to the physical, material and climatic constraints of the site and taking the local cultural aspects that influence the design, the finished product will inherently be “beautiful” just by default. He believed that by putting all these conditions first the designer would then tap into “the spirit of place” as opposed to his or her own aesthetic biases. Even though I love this poetic notion that designers can live and breathe the local cultural nuances of any given site, I do understand that this notion of designing with the advent of globalization and digital technology may be outdated. However, I do believe that we as designers need to find different methods in order to personalize what Rapoport has suggested in order to not directly impose our own design language (a little bit of ourselves will be imposed on our creations whether we like it or not, but we need to find a method in order to allow ourselves to be influenced by something much larger and much more important than ourselves). I believe the best description of such can be found in a poem I heard Moshe Safdie recite a few years ago at Grad School which I would like to share with you:

 

“He who seeks truth shall find beauty
He who seeks beauty shall find vanity

He who seeks order shall find gratification
He who seeks gratification shall be disappointed

He who considers himself a servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self expression
He who seeks self expression shall fall into the pit of arrogance

Arrogance is incompatible with nature
Through nature the nature of the universe and the nature of man we shall seek truth
If we seek truth we shall find beauty”
Moshe Safdie

 

It is our quest at RiadArchitecture to find and define “truth”. We do this by trying to unravel the non-architectonic layers that make up whichever project we undertake, devoted to understanding the intangible and hidden dimensions that make spaces and places unique. The aim is to create unique environment that don’t originate from the over the top design (designing for the sake of designing) but strive to find a deeper meaning to every line, curve of form that is being built. Our design ideas are usually taken out of the context of cultural traditions, critically analyzed and deconstructed, and then put together again to fit the needs and spirit of the time and place. We apply this by encouraging and interdisciplinary approach to design, where ideas from music, music theory, philosophy, psychology,  emotional well being, education, and ecology are often found to be driving forces behind the ideas. This is our attitude towards what many have called “critical regionalism”, not accepting the status quo of tradition but feeling free to chose what works and build upon it both aesthetically and programmatically.

Whether or not we are successful in our approach is a totally different story and not up to us to decide. However, I do encourage that each designer try to find their own niche in how they define their “Qi” and their “Truth”. What are we trying to uncover, explore and give back to the world? What is the vision we are trying to create and recreate on Earth, and how can we effectively improve until such a vision is achieved? How do we evolve as designers and allow the built environment to evolve on its own with our creations long after we are gone? These are the type of questions that I believe that we, as architects and designers, need to preoccupy ourselves with, and the result, as Moshe Safdie has so eloquently stated, will be inherently beautiful.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

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Artchitecture General

The Future Role of Architects? Pt1

“The ultimate goal of the architect…is to create a paradise. Every house, every product of architecture… should be a fruit of our endeavor to build an earthly paradise for people.” – Alvar Aalto

 

On the 18th of April, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Facebook page (link here): What do you think is the role of the architect in today’s market/culture? How do you think that has changed over time? And, most importantly, how do you think this will evolve in the future?

Right off the bat, I didn’t realize how difficult it was to respond to this question until someone dear to me asked me what my vision for the next 50 years was. I felt that I was always good at answering these type of “where do you see yourself…” questions (my classmates and I had once been tasked to write our own obituary for Architectural Business class to make sure that we lay out exactly what we would like our  contribution to society to be), but it seems that I have been too focused on the small details in front of me that I lost sight of the bigger picture. If I can’t articulately (or at let somewhat articulately) define my vision for my own future, how am I propose a vision towards the evolution of the role or architects in the future? What I found that was interested is that many of my friends that I asked to engage with this week’s question was equally stumped – many of these friends were architects and designers. It seems that many of us architects get too bogged down in what we do we lost sight of what we believe we can do. Too many of us are focused on how to make ends meet and generate more income until it becomes a habit (even when are doing well financially) that we lose sight of why we dreamed of becoming architects in the first place. I believe that this is a question that we will need to revisit periodically (every 6 months or so) because it will be interesting to see how both our friends views and our own views have changed – which is why this is part 1 of the series.

Now, there is a very pragmatic and run of the mill textbook answer to the question , especially in response to what is our role in today’s market. What laymen don’t realize is how much managerial work the architect is actually engaged and preoccupied with – be it design management in the early stages of the process, client relations, resource management, coordination, consultant management, project management, up to construction and site management. Actually, come to think of it, if we take the 80/20 rule, I spend 80% of my time managing work flow of others and 20% actually sitting down and designing. This is definitely NOT what I expected during my time in architecture school. Depending on how architecture firms are structured, you may find that most brand name design firms delegate most of the design and research work to the younger architects and those that climb up the practice’s hierarchy ladder get to do less and less of the designing (project leaders role are more synonymous to design critics as opposed to actual designers).  In some of the more corporate structures, the design is done by a senior designer with a team of young architects to do all the grunt work, and that often makes up of a small percentage of a firm which is mostly occupied by architects turned project and/or construction managers.

The point I am trying to make is the image of the master builder architect who is in control of the entire design & construction process from A to Z is mostly non-existent. The visionary individual that poetically seeks to empower society through the built environment (I am reminded of the Winston Churchill quote ” We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”) while blending their craft within the confines of their surroundings are now characters you may only meet in literature (or perhaps in a corner cafe in Piazza della Signoria in Florence marveling at the elegance of the Uffizi). You may find the remaining remnants of this dying breed in smaller practices or offices, usually run in a one man show fashion and often struggling to make ends meet. There seems to be an impending fear within the young design community that our role as architects will soon become irrelevant, but I am afraid that the definition of “Architect” that we have romanticized about in the 20th century  is now obsolete. No longer do you have the masters like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Hassan Fathy, Alvaar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe … etc – and their starchitect replacements like Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels…etc, are essentially brand ambassadors of their own design ideologies.

The above paragraph is not an attempt to anyway negate the work, talent or genius of these starchitects or other equally esteemed designers/architects that exist today, nor am I trying to make the case that the master builders of the 20th century were in any way superior – what I am trying to do is be clear (at least with myself and through my own bias, experience and understanding) on how and why the profession has evolved today in order to best predict how it may evolve in the future; as perhaps by being aware of such a trajectory we may, as individuals in the industry, be able to influence it. I believe when it comes down to it, this evolution from Master Builder to brand ambassador is a result of scale and is akin to the notion of Franchising in business. The only different is between Franchising in business and my analogy to it in respect to today’s starchitects is that these brand ambassadors are franchising their design technique, philosophy and ideology to the rest of their design team, while they come in from time to time to ensure that their vision is followed through. The speed, size and number of projects these practices deal with everyday make it impossible for one individual to oversee the entire process as was the case earlier in the 20th century, so gradually in order to compete against the large architectural corporations and offices, the design oriented architects had to follow suit and create more of a pyramid hierarchy based organization. The two tier system of Master and Apprentice(s) has been, as our friend and colleague Architect Ahmed Sarwat Aguib so eloquently puts it, diversified into many various roles with many different hierarchy structures. Junior Architects coming out of school and into the industry will soon find themselves compartmentalized and type cast into one of the many roles that make up our industry: designers, project managers, construction managers, client relations (a role often undertaken by the higher ups), office managers, quality controllers, procurement specialists, visualization / graphics specialists, project & consultant coordinators, draftsmen … etc.

This diversified conveyor belt approach to the industry is best suited for the mass production of architectural products, and the organization evolves into a well oiled machine. This removes power from the one Master Builder role and transforms it into a collective entity that seeks to create more business opportunities in order to generate income to pay their employees. While removing power from one singular voice and distributing it to a collective is often a more just political system, in the creative industry one could argue that it artistically dilutes the vision and is more inclined to become business and financially goal oriented as opposed to socially inclined. The Master Builders often had their vision of Utopia that they were striving to attain (whether or not they worked or responded well to the community they attempted to serve is a different story), whereas the more corporate structure of architectural practices often seek to provide services to the highest bidder. Architecture has evolved from a practice that seeks to build societies to an industry that provides services … and this is what I believe many young architects tend to become disillusioned by and some attempt to rebel against.

In this vain, I believe that architecture in the next 50 years or so will strive to evolve to engage with society once again. Some are already trying to grab the seat of power from the real estate developer in becoming design/finance/build firms – ShoP Architects – come to mind, where they essentially are becoming their own client and find a creative way to mitigate the artistic vision and financial feasibility under one roof – but this would still create a strategy that is financially based; which is fair – people need to make money – but in an ideal society, I believe that finances should come second to social responsibility, and the ShoP model is inherently a financial one. One the other hand, there are many architectural practices that have gone towards the other end of the spectrum and working to be engaged in more social activities by creating more community outreach programs that allow people of low economic prospect to build their own dwellings; hitting two birds with one stone by establishing their own housing as well as arming them with a craft/tool that would help them boost their own economic well being … but then how are these firms to survive in the financial market today and be able to compensate their employees?

This is a tough question that I personally do not have the answer to, but I predict that within the next few decades (given the economic , climatic and resource realities) we will be forced to reconcile with these two ends of the spectrum.

 

Until next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

 

Artchitecture General

What is Architecture?

“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.

See you next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture