Architecture, nothing about everything. Design and the importance of external interests

 

Hobbies are great right? Obviously they’re fun. If you didn’t like them, they wouldn’t be your hobbies, they’d just be something that weird guy from down the street does and pretends to enjoy (The fraud, as if anyone actually likes stamps that much). But, are they useful? Definitely. I believe with no doubt that hobbies and interests outside one’s professional field are extremely beneficial, both for personal fulfilment and in one’s working life. I also believe this opinion rings particularly true in the field of Architecture.

Why? Well, the simplest reason is because architecture is, at its core, a creative industry, and creativity thrives on experiences. Think about writing for a minute, whether for fun or just because we were forced to during our education, we have all tried our hand at creative writing. “Write what you know”[1] is one of the most common pieces of writing advice given. This does not mean you should write exclusively about your own life experiences (or our shelves would be full of stories with writers as the protagonist). It means that writers should draw on their own experiences to help create realistic emotional depth in their characters. It stands to reason form here, that a person with a wider range of interests would have a wider range of experiences from which to draw on, and therefore be able to create more realistic well-rounded characters.
So how does this relate to architecture? Designing characters and designing spaces for people to experience seem as different as apples and… I don’t know, the wooden bowl I keep my apples in?
But really they are both design processes; in these situations the designer must draw upon their own professional skill set and personal creativity to find the ideal solution. Be that a relatable character arc, or a resolved building design.

Foster and Partners 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin)
Design for the external surface structure is drawn from the Venus Flower Basket Sponge [2]
I have had some people tell me they don’t have any hobbies. Not to call anyone a liar, but I don’t believe them. I went for a drink with a girl once who told me she “didn’t have hobbies and didn’t care for them” but then went on to say her only interest outside of work was her dog “Pugsley”, shockingly, a pug. *Sigh* You walk him, you play with him, you dress him up and take terrible Instagram photos of him, that is a hobby! With the exceptions of sleep and basic bodily functions, I consider anything that someone does outside their working hours to be a hobby. Unless you are literally a slave, you must have a certain amount of time that is your own, and will have to fill it with something. Family or pet keeping may not be the most exotic of hobbies but if there a definitive list was written surely they would be included.

We do need hobbies, as suggested a hobby is nothing more than a label on how you choose to spend your leisure time. It is widely accepted these days that relaxation and leisure time is good for your mindset[3]. I’m sure most people can say from anecdotal evidence that they feel better when given the chance to unwind and relax a little. A trial at Svartedalens Nursing Home in Sweden recently experimented with cutting full time employment down from an average 8 to 6 hours per day (while retaining the same pay). The results showed that working fewer hours actually led to a massive increase in both employee productivity and wellbeing[4]. Though, after the trial period it was deemed that the increased cost (those other 2 hours a day have to be paid for too) was too high for the system to remain in place. While this trial may not have proved financially viable it did demonstrate the positive effects of access to leisure time.

Would these positive effects be universal if full time hours were decreased across every field? Not necessarily. An important distinction to note is that this experiment was trialled in the nursing industry, a ‘Time Driven Employment System’ where you come in, work your shift, then leave. Architecture, however, is a ‘Task Driven Employment System’ where there is a task to complete and a deadline to meet. The latter system being the kind of work one is more likely to take home with them means a reduced hour working day may not actually be beneficial, but actually increase employee stress levels due to having fewer working hours in which to complete a task. Bengt Lorentzon, the lead researcher of the Svartedalens project, believes that in Task Driven field such as Architecture similar benefits could be achieved through flexible working hours2. This would allow employees the freedom to schedule their work time around other activities. The important point is that people have the ability to do both their work and the things they enjoy.

It is great to know that hobbies are useful and that there are clear benefits of participation in leisure activities to all aspects of one’s life. But what makes this especially relevant to architecture? That comes to the multidisciplinary nature of architecture as a field of study.
Early into my education one of my lecturers put up a slide with what looked like a stock photo and text that read-

“An Engineer is one who knows a great deal about very little and who goes along knowing more and more about less and less until finally he knows practically everything about nothing. Meanwhile an Architect is one who knows a little about a great deal and keeps knowing less and less about more and more until he knows practically nothing about everything.” [5]

Yeah, it’s kind of funny. The dig at the engineers is an easy laugh. What I find most entertaining about this is that I have seen the same quote (with different accompanying terrible stock photos/MS Word clip art) where the Architect and Engineer’s roles have been reversed.  I have also seen it again with ‘Philosopher’ and ‘Scientist’, and again in other variations. A quick google attributes the origin of the quote to Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian Ethologist and Nobel Prize winner, speaking on the downsides of specialisation.

“Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.”[6]

As an architect I have an aversion to over specialisation. I believe the Jack of all trades is far better off than a master of one (and apparently that’s closer to the original intent of the expression too, who knew?). While specialisation is of course important and necessary, it is the coming together of everything as a whole, which interests me. This holistic aspect of building design means that as the designer of the whole, an architect must be aware of all elements that compose the building. It is in this sense that an understanding or interest in a variation of fields contributes greatly to the Architects skillset.

In an online article for Architect Magazine, Blaine Brownell wrote about the many advantages for architecture students in collaborating across disciplines “When architecture students are intent on understanding unfamiliar topics… their chances to develop innovative designs expand”[7]. Brownell was advocating for more interdisciplinary training of architecture students, but the same results could be achieved encouraging the students to foster their own interests in other disciplines. The obviously relevant way to do this would be by nurturing related hobbies.

Over the 2016-17 Summer I travelled over to Olot, Spain to complete a summer design studio. The studio was hosted by now Pritzker Prize winners RCR Arquitectes. We worked from their studio and visit nearby completed works, learning about their design process in order to implement it in a small project of our own. It was a great time and the projects were wonderful to see. There is an elegant minimalism in their work that allows it to integrate seamlessly with the natural environment around. It makes sense that the crux of their design process would also exhibit same that crisp simplicity. They explained it as below.

A+B+C=D
Place+Brief+Concept=Design Proposal
The Site+The Solution+The Key Idea=The Product

It’s the C that highlights the usefulness of some extracurricular interest.

“We see the world through the lens of all our experiences”[8]

Attributed to American Diplomat Madeleine M. Kunin the above statement reflects that every individual sees the world differently. The personal lens through which we view our surroundings is constantly being distorted, beginning at birth. Every experience and interest shapes us as people and defines how we interact. The RCR design methodology acknowledges that concept is what sets one design solution down a different path to another. As concept is drawn from the imagination, which is sculpted through this personal lens, hobbies are major factor in developing. The Image at the top of the article shows the influence an interest in botanical studies had in creating the façade of the famous Gherkin building in London.
While researching this article is was put to me that if the backbone of each architectural proposal is a concept drawn from personal influence, why then do so many big projects look the same? Following that reasoning shouldn’t I be able to spot the skyscrapers designed by the architect who yo-yo’s or quilts in their free time? It seems unlikely that so many current high profile architects share the same recreational interest in glowing glass beacons.

Various Modern Skyscrapers[9]
As ridiculous as it sounds when phrased that way, there is merit to the question. Buildings do follow the typology of the times, there is a cultural trend of influence. I mentioned the individuals lens before, so I’ll stick with that analogy. Your own experience forms the lens through which you see the world, it is important to realise that world around you is also constantly changing. The cultural identity of place is shaped and moulded by the shared mutual experiences of those living and participating in it. While this cultural identity is always shifting it moves and forms much slower than the identity of any individual persons. For this reason, in larger buildings, be they public or private, which cater to larger volumes of users, it is likely to be the cultural identity of the place rather than the architect’s personal influence that determines a projects key driving design concept. Not to say that the lens of the individual plays no part, the Gherkin may be considered by some as another of the glowing glass beacon typology. So while its influence may be subtler in larger projects the impact of the personal lens, shaped by ones ancillary interests, is still important. Everyone, especially architects, should make an effort to embrace their hobbies and give them the time they deserve. Even if you are into stamps.

Modern Architecture Stamps from UK’s Royal Mail[10]

 

[1] Jason Gots, ““Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever.”, Big Think.com, accessed 19th October 2017,  http://bigthink.com/think-tank/write-what-you-know-nil-the-most-misunderstood-piece-of-good-advice-ever
[2] Figure 1, “Interdisciplinary practices in Architecture”, Architect Magaizine, March 24th 2016, accessed November 8th 2017 https://www.arch2o.com/interdisciplinary-practices-in-architecture/
[3] Sarah D Pressman PHD et al, “Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being” Psychosomatic Medicine 71:725–732 (2009), accessed 19th October 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2863117/
[4] Maddy Savage, “What really happened when Swedes tried six-hour days?”, BBC NEWS.com, February 8th 2017, accessed 6th November 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-38843341
[5] Author’s Notes, ARCT1130 University of Western Australia.
[6] Konrad Lorenz, A-Z quotes,  accessed November 1st 2017 http://www.azquotes.com/quote/178990
[7] Blaine Brownell, “Why Architecture School Needs Interdisciplinary Training”, Architect Magaizine, March 24th 2016, accessed November 8th 2017 http://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/why-architecture-school-needs-interdisciplinary-training_o
[8] Madeleine M. Kunin, A-Z quotes, accessed November 1st 2017 http://www.azquotes.com/quote/164251
[9] Figure 4, “Ubiquity and Uniformity: Why Toronto’s Condominiums All Look the Same”, Arch Daily, January 7th 2017, accessed November 8th 2017    https://www.archdaily.com/802984/ubiquity-and-uniformity-why-torontos-condominiums-all-look-the-same/586ec2bde58ece3daa000017-ubiquity-and-uniformity-why-torontos-condominiums-all-look-the-same-image
[10] Figure 1, “UK’s Royal Mail issues 10 stamps featuring iconic modern architecture”, Archinect, July 13th 2017, accessed November 8th 2017 https://archinect.com/news/article/150017428/uk-s-royal-mail-issues-10-stamps-featuring-iconic-modern-architecture

 

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