Every project starts with a blank page, and those first few marks can be tough to make. I’ll start with a pencil and paper, shift to marker and trace, get up for a cup of tea, start a CAD drawing, and then go ‘round again. I want to stay as open as possible to how a customer, site and program might come together to form a concept for a house. I’m searching for something, not yet a plan, although diagrams exploring spatial relationships might be a first step. There will be ideas and images floating in my head, inspired by the site or a formal concept. But it’s all pretty vague until a plan starts to take shape, with those first sketches being fragments of an order I’m trying to find. I think of it as establishing a connection to a project, a way-in so to speak. Depending on its suitability, that initial order might carry on throughout the project, merge with new ideas, or be discarded along the way.
I began my practice at a drafting board where miles of trace were unfurled. Since then I’ve adopted computer drawing and have embraced the advantages of working on a screen. Once I’m into a project I tend to jump around from plans, to sections, to elevations, to details, and CAD drawing has enabled me to do that more productively than hand drafting ever could. As well, 3-dimensional programs allow for quick explorations as well as walk-through visualization of spaces far easier than building traditional models. But I still appreciate the art of draftsmanship and it’s sad to see the demise of the craft. There is an apocryphal story of Frank Lloyd Wright conceiving Falling Water entirely in a furious two hour drawing session while his patron drove to see him. Wright had procrastinated for 9 months, no doubt working through ideas in his head and at least sketching. A struggle to conceive, a period of gestation, and then the manifestation of a project fully rendered. For whatever truth there is to the story there is something to be said for nurturing the process.
Back at school in the 1980s there was a lot of emphasis placed on having a concept for a project. At the time there was a reaction against the 1970s architecture of banal shopping malls and public structures. Work was thin, and architects were looking far and wide for inspiration. A concept could come from anywhere— a story, art-work, social agenda, theory, geometric form, whatever. What mattered was how the concept was translated into form, and that’s how it was judged. If you could weave a compelling tale of meaning during your critique, it didn’t matter how your project was structured or if there were any bathrooms. You could learn all that practical stuff in an office, design studio was a place to find your voice. The emphasis on concept did keep us pushing ourselves to find paths worthy of exploration.
That search continued into practice, with each project being an opportunity to create something purposeful and unique for a particular customer and site. Though I find the notion of concept still important, I discover it more often through the act of design rather than trying to pin it down before starting. To describe the process I’d say it’s an exploration of the relationship between form and the narrative of use. I might begin with one or the other, though ultimately architecture is about how the two are woven together. In the discovery of that synthesis there is a kind of alchemy that can happen, when the two come together with what feels like a certain inevitability. Giving a specific name to the concept might not be easy, or it might even come long after the project is built.
A more traditional notion of architectural concept is that of parti, from the French phrase prendre parti, or to make a decision. It is the chief organizing idea of a design in a formal sense, whatever the theoretical framework might be. This idea can often be captured in a plan sketch. For example, compact plans are certainly more efficient than articulated plans, but the embracing wings of a home create exterior spaces that more easily blur the lines of interior and exterior. The movement of sunlight through a home can be another generative aspect of design. Orientation, clerestory windows, 2-story spaces and light wells can map the sun’s journey through the day. These relationships can be better explored and captured in a building section, which might then be used to convey the parti for the project. In this era of design complexity, fully rendered 3-dimensional models are often developed at the conceptual phase. Even then, one can generally trace a generative idea to a plan and section.
*Our title is borrowed from the recent book according to plan authored by Rob Kovitz, my former partner in Small Building Company. It is a curious look at our obsession with making plans, be they found in plot narratives, data collection, design, and a multitude of other endeavors. Check it out at amazon or treyf books.com.