Constraints and Architecture?

I think Liam’s post and the quote from Geoff Manaugh’s manifesto that he cites, brings up some good questions that are relevant to 2nd year.  The Manaugh quote:

“Everything is relevant to architecture – from plate tectonics to urban warfare to astronomy and the melting point of steel. There is architecture lining the streets of New York and Paris, sure – but there is architecture in the novels of Franz Kafka and WG Sebald and in The Odyssey. There is architecture on stage at the Old Vic each night, and in the paintings of de Chirico, and in the secret prisons of military superpowers. There is architecture in our dreams, poems, TV shows, ads and videogames – as well as in the toy sets of children. The suburbs are architecture; bonded warehouses are architecture; slums are architecture; NASA’s lunar base plans are architecture – as are the space stations in orbit about us.  Stop limiting the conversation!!”

I think it’s important in this context to ask (again) about the question of “constraints” that was mentioned in an earlier post as an essential aspect of (good) art.  How does the idea of constraints square with “everything is architecture” and “architecture is everywhere”?

Many architects throughout history, including today, have felt it is important to constrain what “architecture” is.  Any architect or firm whose work has consistent themes–in style, in construction, in function, in theoretical approaches–imposes constraints on themselves and their work.   All research is a form of imposing (and searching for) constraints.  It is important to impose constraints, because we can’t be everything to all people, and not everything is possible, or equally good.

What constraints should we impose on ourselves in defining architecture and what we do and think about?  The famous historian Nicholas Pevsner once said famously “A bicycle shed is a building, and Lincoln Cathedral is architecture.”  Adolf Loos once said: “Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument.  Everything else, everything that serves a purpose, should be excluded from the realms of art.”  What do you think about these distinctions and constraints?   Should architects design only “architecture” and related artifacts?

We can also ask, how do the references we seek out and influences we absorb and use as architects relate to the products we hope to create?  Should we “constrain” ourselves in the kinds of things we design, but have no limits on what can influence or help determine its designs?  Or vice versa, should we be able to design anything, but according to ideas and principles that are fundamentally “architectural” in nature?

My position is that it is essential to be judicious, to focus, and to impose constraints.  While “concepts” and “inspiration” CAN come from many sources, perhaps not everything is equally well imposed on architecture.  As was said in a previous post, freedom may be detrimental to art.  Is architecture an art? How does the subject of constraints and freedom differ in art and architecture?

The question remains: how should architects limit themselves?  Things like site, gravity, materials, heat flow, function, and cost are almost always given constraints that “art” can voluntarily avoid, but architecture cannot (except at school).   The vision of “carbon neutral” buildings that Liam mentions is clearly a huge “constraint” that many architects are eager to embrace, and some perhaps more reluctant.   There is no doubt that ethically we all need to move in that direction with everything we do in life, as Danny and others have mentioned on this blog.  However, such a vision necessarily constrains the materials we use, the technologies we access, the energy required, the way we use buildings, the comfort we demand, and ultimately, the way we design architecture.  Will it also constrain the references and influences we can use?  Perhaps constraints are needed to achieve goals.

Think also about the issue of “constraints” in relation to education, and especially your own architecture education.  Throughout your life, much of the learning you’ve done has been done “incrementally,” going from simpler to more complex, from fewer variables and unknowns, to more.   Early on, teachers impose many constraints (like learning addition before calculus), and then gradually release these as students develop and learn, and they impose other constraints (like the rules of calculus).

Should “everything be on the table” for the architecture you design at this stage of your career?  Certainly your 48-100 and 48-105 studios had definite positions on that issue and the learning process.   In many ways, architecture school can be seen as the layering of ever more, and more complex “constraints” on the design process (materials, structures, systems, occupancy…).  The pedagogy (and learning) ought to be a way to “deal with” those constraints while still allowing the “architecture” to manifest itself.   Pedagogically, we impose more constraints, but also give much more freedom, as you progress through the education.

What constraints should the 3rd semester of your education include to maximize your learning?  To bring it back to Manaugh: should we voluntarily limit the conversation?

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