Defining the role of the archi-lead-tect-user

Should the architect try to anticipate or direct the needs of the lead user? Or should the architect be the facilitator to provide the means for lead users to direct themselves?

This is a debate we have had in our studio for weeks now.

My personal confusion comes from a childhood, and admittedly selfish, desire to leave my mark on the world. Past work in my undergraduate degree was highly creative and based on programme invention and form that responded to the topography of a site. This has fuelled a driving excitement to acquire a patch of land for real, with permission to design what I want to! This, of course, would be every architect’s dream, to be shaken from the shackles of a brief and have free reign over a project…this scenario may be a fantasy and maybe it will never materialise!

Conflicting with this desire is everything I have learnt since being at Edinburgh. The process of construction, the encompassing technology, responsiveness and the importance of making relevant buildings/projects that enhance our perception of ‘self/community/interaction’, as the technology and materials we rely upon encroaches on the space we inhabit. Once you’ve noticed a shifting paradigm, to go back to the other methods is not only foolish but inconsiderate…i.e. not sustainable.

However, Castells rightly points out the increasing need for architects to provide meaning, a situation, a solid platform from which to conduct and restore community: ‘cathedrals for the information age’.

Architecture should be space that creates thoughtfulness.

What even constitutes architecture today? What is the ‘meaning’ Castells talks of? This is of course a big question!

Architecture is the thoughtful creation of space‘ – Kahn said.

I think there is another level to this statement: Architecture should be space that creates thoughtfulness.

Is a garden shed, for example, classified as architecture? If the builder (the lead-user) transformed it into a space that instilled ‘thoughtfulness’, a degree of wonder, would I call that person an architect? I think so. But a shed rarely achieves this feat, so it isn’t architecture?

However, when viewed through a train window, I have always enjoyed looking into gardens and at the lean-to roofs and the back garden sheds and find something really architectural about them. Is that because collectively they have a meaning, the provoke thoughtfulness about how each one came to be slightly different. Some are new and some are falling down. The same can be applied for industrial sheds and derelict warehouses. They often provoke a rich sensation of imagination and wonder about what they once were, how they came to be and what I would do if  I had a project to convert them…maybe, irresponsibly, I would just let them continue to crumble as an urban ruin!?

There’s something to be said for graffiti visible from on board a train. You only catch a glimpse, but it is on a wall, against a track, maybe on ledge above. It provokes a question about who decided to do that there? How did they climb the barrier and what was their motivation to spend time in such an undesirable place? Their meaning, rebellion, induces thoughtfulness. That is why the rich fabric of an urban landscape is architecture.

Graffiti moment

Scale must be everything when making a judgement like this? Maybe these thoughts can be applied to the original question.

Should the architect try to anticipate or direct the needs of the lead user? Or should the architect be the facilitator to provide the means for lead users to direct themselves?

My coursemate has an opinion that architects could be eradicated through developments of open-source design technology. I don’t necessarily agree that eradicating the architect would be a good thing. Perhaps the solution is for the architect to view himself in the broader context and become a lead-user of architecture. That is what the construction masters, Dieste, Nervi, Felix Candela…They specialised, invented and progressed their knowledge in their field and advanced the profession. This encompasses construction, manufacture and technology.

Staying stagnant and providing what the user merely ‘needs’ is what is denying our built environment of the meaning and the rich urban fabric that is required more and more in this technologically dominated society.  Trying to change and shift the profession in some direction is what is required of architects. On a broader perspective, architects will be better positioned to facilitate and direct the lead-user they are designing for because of these steps.

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