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Focusing on constraints inhibits design excellence

Paul Finch
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Dwelling on what you weren’t able to do is a poor basis for creating good architecture, says Paul Finch

Is it me, or is there an increasing tendency for architects to present what they couldn’t design on a site, before they tell you what they were therefore forced to propose?

Like the leap into detail, the leap into constraints is a poor way to start a design process because it is relentlessly negative, based on the assumption that a good outcome will be one that responds to what may be contradictory prescriptions or indeed proscriptions.

The best presentations I have seen over the years, whether in lectures, design reviews or at the World Architecture Festival, have involved site analysis, historical context (not a constraint but a given), and either a diagram that explains the organisation and relationship of one use to another, or a proposition about form and massing which are almost intuitive – that first sketch which the final built form uncannily resembles.

A combination of analysis and creativity is what distinguishes architectural activity from that of other built-environment professions, and explains why the bean-counter brigade are so often critical of architects – creativity not being intrinsic to their world-view. But it is creativity, which can apply to commercial programmes as much as it does to education, health or culture, that is at the heart of the profession.

So a dreary litany of why we couldn’t do this and why we had to do that is the exact opposite of what we expect from real designers, which is to say: a proposition that stands on its own two feet rather than being propped by development, control, neighbours, local plans and so on. What we want is commodity, firmness and an element of delight which seamlessly resolve whatever ‘constraints’ may apply, including those related to budget.

Incidentally, there should be no embarrassment about the juxtaposition of ‘creative’ and ‘budget’, which is not the same concept as creative accounting. Creative cost consultants are worth their weight in gold, because they think proactively rather than sucking air through their teeth whenever someone has an idea. Architects should regard budgets as opportunities to building something good, not the imposition by Philistines on creative genius.

One of the first things creative designers do is imagine what might emerge not just on their own site, but those adjacent

So how do good architects approach site and brief if they are to avoid the pitfalls of constraint-driven processes. Where will the joy come from?

As an observation, one of the first things creative designers do is imagine what might emerge not just on their own site, but those adjacent. Will the existing remain there long-term, or is the area in a state of flux – in which case, how will the current proposal relate to, or influence what is to come?

This approach can help determine issues such as height on the one hand, and ground plane conditions on the other. A good question to ask is not what your design does, but what it might prevent happening in the future. Good designs try to take account of this.

Terry Farrell has an excellent saying: ‘Place is the client’, which encapsulates these ideas, particularly where there are split ownerships and no clarity about future development. It is a civilised approach which promotes urbanism, not just the design of single buildings.

Other hallmarks of good designs are those that have a certain inevitability about why different elements are as they are, incorporating constructional as well as design logic; another clue is whether fronts and backs have been properly considered so that the old joke, ‘Queen Anne at the front, Mary-Anne at the back’, does not arise.

It is not difficult to imagine many of the buildings we know and love being infinitely worse had the designers approached their task with metaphorical hands tied behind backs. Good buildings should work for their site, their client and their users. Good design is about playing on the front foot.

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