What is an architect? What is architecture? These were the questions being asked on the first lecture of the semester. When people are asked what they think architecture is, they will usually give response such as buildings, design, city planning or any other things related to the notion of constructing structures. These are the common understanding that the public has about what constitutes architecture and what architects do; However, after all the projects that I have done in this semester, I have gained a better understanding about what architecture is.
When I first considered pursuing architecture, it was because of a simplistic reason. It was because I enjoy drawing and all art and craft related activities. At that time, I thought architecture is merely about designing buildings, and I failed to see beyond the aesthetic aspect of a design process. Throughout the years before I started my tertiary education, I read and asked around to find out more about what architects do and basically what architecture is. I usually read articles from the ArchDaily and I found their articles relevant and interesting. The more I read, the more I realised that architecture is imbued in our every day’s lives and so many different aspects of our lives. One of the articles that I found memorable is titled “This Underground Bathhouse on the Korean Border Questions Architecture’s Role in Geopolitical Tension” (Baranyk 2017). This makes me realize that architecture plays an instrumental role in many different aspects of our lives and may become a panacea for different problems. The article is about a design competition of a bathhouse which will be built at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The bathhouse will allow the citizens from the two different parts of Korea to see each other. They are still not able to communicate with those from the opposite side but what I found interesting is the realisation that architecture can play a role in a Geopolitical tension. There are also many other aspects such as cultural, environmental, economic and etc where architecture can play its role. I will discuss some of these aspects on the latter part of my essay.
My understanding of what architecture is has also slowly evolved after I began my study of Architecture in NUS. From each project, I obtained some learning points that help me to understand architecture better.
Architecture is one of the professions where ethical considerations play an important role in the process of formulating solutions. The first project is about the ethics in environmental design. At first, I had my doubts on its relevance to architecture because I had not discovered the link between ethics and design. But through the case study (Bartel 2006) and the solution that my group formulated, I understood how ethics are like the light that gives architects guidance when designing. Design always puts emphasis on the aesthetic aspect but it is the ethics behind the process that will allow the structure to be able to cater to the users’ needs, not harm the environment, and a myriad of other reasons.
Ethics enables architects to make a difference with an ethical consideration in design for the improvement of our daily lives. Design impacts the way people use the space and the quality of the environment. According to John Carry, during his sharing in TedTalk (Cary 2017), architecture can create dignity for all. He said that design is like a soundtrack in our daily lives, that we sometimes do not even realise that it is playing. It sends us a subconscious message about how to feel and what to expect. The example he brought up is about his wife’s experience in giving birth in a bleak room. It is beige in colour, has no window, and a clock is ticking on the wall. The feeling that the room gave was contradictory to the joy of welcoming the daughter. The room is unwelcoming, and undignifying. It does not give the users the freedom to enjoy a good ambience before the joyous occation of welcoming a new human being. In this case, the design of the hospital’s room failed to bring dignity for the users.
The speaker became an architect because it was about creating spaces for people to live their best lives. Yet what he found is a profession which is disconnected from the people most directly impacted by its work. Thus to be able to come up with a good design, architects must interact with real people and actual community to find out their genuine concerns and needs.
In one of my projects, which is title the “Community Kitchen”, I had the chance to show empathy, the ability that architects must possess to understand the needs of users. We let the community voice out their needs and wants so that we can come up a design that adeptly cater to their needs. Sometimes we design and come up with solutions which we based on our own assumptions. This approach may not be able to produce the best result as our judgement may sometimes be too superficial and we may not truly understand their situations without us personally asking them. The approach of asking the community for their input is important to be included in the design process despite the fact that the community may have difficulties in explaining what they really need or want. However, it is eventually the role of architects to comprehend the existing problems in the society then resolve them through a design approach. Furthermore, by including the community’s opinions in the design consideration, they may feel empowered as they realize that they have contributed to the project.
Finally in the video, the speaker concluded that design has the unique ability to dignify. It can make people feel valued, honoured, empowered and seen. However to be able to do this, architects must first understand the needs of the users by listening to their needs. There are buildings which are specifically constructed to fulfill the imminent needs of the society. Some of the examples are disaster shelters, housings for the migrants and many other examples. Usually these buildings are built with more emphasis put on the practicality and purpose rather than the glamourous aspect. These buildings can make a difference and bring dignity to the occupants, however this type of Architecture receives less acknowledgement compared to the more modern structures (Baumann 2008, 77-97).
From this video, coupled with my learning from the Ethics in Environmental Design and Community Kitchen projects, I learn that Architecture means accounting for some ethical considerations when designing for the community to create dignity for all.
In his book titled “Towards a New Architecture”, Le Corbusier mentioned that the business of Architecture is to establish emotional relationships by means of raw materials and it goes beyond utilitarian needs (Corbusier 2014, 149-159). I believe relationship is not only formed between humans but it can be extended to the relationship between a structure and the people around it. The relationship between architecture and people is instrumental as architecture is one of the most urgent needs of man, for the house has always been the indispensable, the first tool that he has forged for himself. This relationship and emotion can be affected by the materials and colours used in the structures. Materials themselves do not provoke certain emotion however it is the architect’s task to come up with a design using a specific relevant materials to be able to evoke a desired emotion (Zumthor 2015, 10-11). For example, the use of bricks with their various red hues brings a sense of warmth and the way that the architects utilise the space can further enhance the emotion.
I had the chance to explore the possibility of materials during the assignment on week 10. My group attempted to formulate a solution on how to recycle ashes from temples then use it to benefit the temples. We tried to make a brick which consists of all the natural ingredients that can be found on the temple. This then leads to my second understanding that architecture is about respecting and learning from the nature. In designing a structurally sound buildings, we often take reference to nature. We practice our sensitivity to find and creativity to fully utilise the resources provided by nature.
In nature, there are many things that we often take for granted. When we ask how to be better adapted to the changing condition of this planet, the asnwer is actually there around us. There are no better models than the species that have preceded us for billions of years. There are many naturally existing strong structure that we can draw inspiration from. For everything that exists in the nature, there are definitely reasons behind it. For example, camels have slit-like nostrils and two rows of eyelashes to help keep sand out. So here, we can look towards the processes of resilience in the natural world to understand how to best live and adapt to our environment. Then, we can implement the learning on how we architecturally design to serve the needs of everyone without adversely affecting the nature.
Furthermore, architecture is not only about conserving but also contributing back to the nature. Our design should never harm the environment by for example, increasing the amount of pollution. Instead, we should aim to come up with a sustainable design which cherishes and uses the local resources and potential. In a way, architecture can be our chance to contribute to the effort of protecting the nature and environment.
Lastly, I realise that communication is very instrumental and pertinent in Architecture. For any type of practicing Architects: innovators, technicians, business people or genius (Baumann 2008, 93-95), communication is still the first step of the design process. They need to know what the clients need and want. Inevitably, not all the needs and wants can be fulfilled but it is the Architect’s role to be able to use their critical thinking skill to formulate solution to the problems and requirements being presented by the clients. After designing, the architects once again need to communicate their design to the clients and to explain the reasonings behind it. In this phase, sketches and 3D models play an important role in aiding the conveying of idea to the clients. Sometimes the clients may have difficulties in understanding how the end product will look like or he may disagree with the design being presented, thus architects must possess good communication skill to solve these possible glitches (Norberg-Schulz 1963, 14).
Other than the clients, architects also need to communicate with technicians, workers, goverments and many other possible stakeholders. Architect does not work alone, but with a group of people to make the project come into realisation. Like what Steen Eiler Rasmussen said in his book, “Architecture is not produced by the artist himself as, for instance, paintings are.” (Rasmussen 1964, 7). Thus, communication plays an crucial role in helping architects to firstly document the existing conditions of a problem, define its context, collect relevant datas, then eventually formulate the solutions and explain it so that it can be executed.
Architecture is indeed something ineffable and does not really have a fixed definition for everyone. It is a tangible thing which possesses many intangible qualities. To understand architecture does not equate to being able to determine the style of a building by certain external features (Rasmussen 1964, 33). It is not enough to see architecture because you must experience it. In a way, you must interact and observe the way the structures are designed for a special purpose and how it complements the overall concept and atmosphere of a specific era.
To experience architecture, we need to use all of our senses. When all the senses have been stimulated, the perception of the place will be imbued in our memory. We can see and observe the structures from afar to identify the overall design style that the structures have. Then we can move closer to better notice and appreciate the meticulous details. Details may not only refer to elaborate carvings or ornaments, as details can likewise mean the way that the bricks are arranged or the grafitti on the backyards. Closer up, we may start observing the people’s activities in the buildings and maybe activate the sense of smell, touch and taste. We can smell the food being cooked, touch the textured walls, or feel the heat being reflected from the building façade. Combining all these esperiences, we can roughly conclude how we feel about the building, whether we enjoy or not being there.
Our senses of sight, smell, touch and taste are closely connected to our emotions. This is why architecture has a potential ability to affect people’s lives.
In conclusion, throughout the first semester I have gained a better understanding on how to cater to the ever-changing cultural and societal needs as an architect. I have also learned that Architecture is a form of practical and functional art that fulfills beyond the purely physical needs of humans. When designed aptly, architecture can even elicit happiness and the sense of warmth among the users. Thus, to be an architect, one must not only be fixated on the physical problems that are present, but must also be responsive towards the ever-changing cultural and societal needs. We must prove that Architecture today is not an “impotent discipline which has been controlled by political autocracies and building pragmatics as an instrument of the common market” like what Miko Cimolini has said. Instead we need to prove that Architects are indeed concerned with defining the everyday problems and finding solutions to them in the most effective manner.