The role of the archi-lead-tect-user

Analysis of Activity

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.

My personal conflict 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 studying at Edinburgh. The process of construction, the engagement with 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 encroach upon the space we inhabit. Once you’ve noticed a shifting paradigm, to go back to the other methods is not only foolish but inconsiderate…unsustainable.

However, Manuel Castells rightly points out the increasing need for architects to provide meaning, a situation, and 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’ that Castells talks of? This is of course a big question!

Architecture is the thoughtful creation of space‘ – Louis 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? Nicholas Pesvner denotes the architect’s role as framing space, but describes the bike shed as a building, not 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 fabri of an urban landscape is architecture.

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?

Stan Allen and Lars Lerup are critical of the ability of architecture, as a profession, to  approach and establish form and programme through the prescription of use. Disruptive Technology positions the lead user at the heart of a collaborative approach to design. Perhaps the solution is for the architect is to view himself in the broader context and become a lead-user of architecture themselves. That is what the construction masters, Eladio Dieste, Pier Luigi Nervi and Felix Candela achieved. They specialised, invented and progressed their knowledge in the field and advanced the profession by encompassing construction, manufacture and technology.

To deal with the programmatic changes in a building, using the analytical skills of an architect that the client employs inevitably results in some method of representing use. Suggesting a policy change demands exemplar strategy drawings. The difference of the Portobello Home Economics class proposal is that the suggested programme is based upon field tests that put the analysis of programme directed by the lead-user. There is customisation built into the proposal. The method of drawings and the model present a degree of adaptability.

Can thoughtfulness in space create architecture?

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 desperately needed as the technologically dominated society advances. Trying to change and shift the profession in a direction is the historical course of architects over the centuries and I fully believe is what is still required of architects today. On a broader perspective, architects will be better positioned to facilitate and direct the lead-user they are designing for because of these steps.

In the context of a school, can thoughtfulness in space create architecture? Programme, event, story and narrative can be recorded and the arrangement of space directed over time by the school teachers and pupils.

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