What is Architecture Under Development?

Before announcing my thoughts on this subject, I would like to state my hopes that by sharing this information on a public platform it will help to generate discussion and critique.  I simply ask that the concepts I raise initially be received with an open mind, processed, and when refuted done through with example(s).  I prefer to discuss evidence and things grounded in reality or real possibility rather than hypothetical propositions. 

So what is implied by architecture under development? My first thought is it suggests the architectural profession being subsidiary to building development.  That if all trades and disciplines involved in the activity of building realization were to play as entities within one corporate structure, development would hold the majority of voting rights within the stock of architecture.  Some stock would be held by investment bankers, another percentage by market researchers, a significant number would be provided to the clients (typically tycoons of business), a small portion would be given to contractors, and at the end of the day the remaining stock would trickle down to architecture; leaving it with little say in how a building actually appears.

More often than not buildings come to the architect’s office trimmed down and encased within an envelope of what is financially feasible.  The program has been established, the zoning has been researched, market placement has already been considered, and the buildings core values already set in place: it is either a return-on-investment based project, or design patronization. (Ranked in order of financial return, investment buildings attempt to decrease construction costs while maximizing rentable square footage, where as patronage buildings place greater value the some other form of return to justify a capital loss.)

In the midst of a recession and tight lending practices, design patronage is difficult to come by. Investment buildings typically offer much greater tangible incentives (such as an increased bank account) and allow for the potential to later construct design patronage work.  Investment buildings act as a sustainable economic model, whereas design patronage quickly fails only to last until all capital has been spent.

Under this realization buildings and cities provide plenty of data on the current and historical local economic status of a region.  The year built, materials used, common spaces, room layouts, relative proximity, all suggest something about the market conditions and financing behind the building itself.  The building’s financial structure is designed prior to the architect taking control, it’s very economic foundation exists within the building’s DNA and becomes expressed physically.

Architecture under development is an observation on the professional design process. To help establish the notion that design occurs before the draftsman, that the economic structure is as much a determinate to a building’s massing as the load bearing structure itself.  That real estate and market appeal are the agents that proceed the color swaths and carpet samples. And that architectural design is nothing less than a conglomeration of influences through a capitalist system which architecture must work within. 

Design happens before the design. Lets become a part of that process.


~ by James Conley on 2010/07/22.

2 Responses to “What is Architecture Under Development?”

  1. Excellent post sir!

    It is good to have a better understanding of what your purpose is… I might do this as well.

    To begin a couple of important texts come to mind.
    You must get your hands on Jeremy Till’s recent book “Architecture Depends.” The theme word of the book is contingency… Till uses constantly to discuss the production of architecture. It is a pretty easy available read, and I think you will appreciate it more than I did (which is a lot).

    Your blog intrigues me and I think its content is critical to the Crisis-City concept. One of the call’s of our ongoing mission statement is:

    “Crisis City (I think) asks for real solutions to real problems, solutions which reject traditional “touchy-feely” Architectural reasoning, and which eschew Architecture’s typical focus on pretty form-making. Crisis City says, “Lets get down to business. Let’s engage the citizenry. Let’s take real action, make real measurements, use real data, and be sure that our solutions have a quantifiable effect on the population – for the better.”

    The realities of architectural production (development) should not be ignored in academia. While hypothetical academic projections exist to counter these realities they are foolish for often ignoring them.

    Architecture in a world of crisis is not only interesting but possibly real (this is one of the provocations of crisis-city). How will architecture respond to crisis? Of particular note is how architecture will respond to economic crisis (Recession). I think you are correct in professing architectures near-complete reliance on capital. If capital freezes does architecture freeze? I think there is a lot more to think about on this front, but I think informal architecture such as design-build, vernacular construction, and reuse all become real opportunities and possible futures.

    A final thought, if not a warning… as Till suggests we need to carefully consider why we want to become a part of the process, whats in it for us, and what are our motives. Is it for power or is it for justice?

  2. This is a great stage-setting post. The question becomes: how do you engage? One thought provoked by Nate’s Crisis City proclamation above is: what if your thesis took the form of an investment? See for example http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124587240

    Another model for such a thesis would be to develop an algorithm, tight or loose, and play it out at the urban or site scale. A version of parametric design and counter-typological research.

    One model that comes to mind for some of the preparatory research is the article on hedge funds in Volume a few years back (I think).

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