The Architecture of Life: Designing and Building a Nation II

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Designing and Building a Nation II

(Second of a series of related posts- Part One here.)

Now that we have completed a "cursory site examination" of the building site upon which our political project was begun, let's take a look at the programming for the project.

"Programming" is what architects and design professionals call the process of collecting criteria for the design of a project.

The advantage of establishing such criteria is that it provides you with guidelines for the design of the structure that give the designer a better chance of staying true to the needs of the inhabitants.

That is assuming the criteria you collect comes from those inhabitants, and not from the fevered imaginations of the architects and builders.

So in our on-going metaphor, what were the criteria for that design?

Happily in this case, we have a pretty thorough set of design criteria. It is called the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The project is also informed by an earlier document - quite controversial at the time - referred to as the Declaration of Independence.

The building permit was contested by the authorities in this case, and as a result, a war was required before real construction could begin.

Great Britain at the time had strict land use and architectural controls regarding their colonies, so our nation' s designers and builders had to "fight city hall" to make their project viable.

But once they accomplished that, they had a pretty clear vision of the type of nation they wanted to construct.

They wrote down their "first principles" (a specifications document) in the Constitution and Bill of Rights and said those criteria were "created equal" for all upcoming projects.

This was a good move, because their goal was to acquire a great deal of additional real estate and though they knew lots of change orders were inevitable, they did not want to suffer major revisions in the design as the scope of their projects grew.

Those "first principles" were predominantly values, goals and moral and ethical standards for human beings and society...not for the structure of the "sticks and bricks" that would be used to build the project.

They were criteria like equality, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, etc. etc. All building standards we take for granted now, but at the time, they were revolutionary new building technologies for political structures.

A question that arises here, is why such values and goals are for the most part, not a central goal of architectural programming today.

After all, the buildings we design are supposed to house human beings. Human beings are emotional and cognitive organisms who are quite impetuous and reactive. They tend to do better on long-term projects when guidelines are established.

And really, it is hard to take the human being out of the purpose of a building, no matter how effectively the modern and post modern movements in architecture have tried to do so.

So why are these human "first principles" not part of present day architectural programming?

Why don't we try to find out how people feel about their built environments; what they care about and what values they use to guide their lives; how they live day to day within those environments - before we set out to design a building?

Why do those of us in the design community tend to think "how to" instead of "what fits?"

And "what will it look like" instead of "who will be living in it and how do they live?"

This question goes beyond "form follows function." It goes to the question of a building's human purpose, and the nature of the human beings who will inhabit it.

Which seems like a good area to investigate if you are designing buildings for human beings.

Next post is series here.