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The Potentiality In The Architectural Design Process Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3320 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Architecture is by definition subject to a complex set of constraints. Generally, a project entails the formulation of a problem from within that mix–upon a certain programmatic condition, the particularity of a site, a structural feat, an economical restriction, the capacity of a given material, the adherence to a certain manifesto. To some extent, architecture has defined its mode of operation as one of response, of reaction, and has by the same token found sense–along with meaning–in those very problems it proposes to address. Such practice has led architects to impose additional constraints when in lack–generally of an arbitrary nature yet masked as a given, as a need of the object rather than as a need of the subject who is to produce it.

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Potentiality, is what a thing is capable of doing, or being acted upon, if the conditions are right and it is not prevented by something else. Potentially being , can either ‘act’ or ‘be acted upon’. Which can be either innate or learned. For example, the eyes possess the potentiality of sight (innate – being acted upon), while the capability of playing the flute can be possessed by learning (exercise – acting).  Constraints have been acknowledged as a critical tool in a wide range of production — in literature, in film, in the visual arts.

‘Design’ as an architectural term has two levels of meaning: in a restricted sense it means designation, the delineation in general terms of a scheme in mind, usually by means of visual symbols; more comprehensively it refers to the adaptation of means to a desired end or purpose. The dual nature of the word ‘design’, suggesting a link between means and ends, may yet provide us with a clear conceptual tool. Embracing, as it does, the whole range of activities from the stating of the problem to defining the solution, its particular relevance to architecture, where-as we shall argue-so many design decisions are taken in the formulation of the problem, is immediately apparent.

The design process is a creative process, but its additional emphasis on the stage of problem definition places it in a special category of the creative process. When the term ‘creative’ is used in its broadest sense, to describe a process whereby an agent (a product of personality and environment) interacts with material to form new syntheses of essential novelty, it of course embraces the design process, but it is too general to be particularly useful. When it is used in a more specific sense, however, relating to the arts and the pure sciences, it usually denotes an input largely self-originated and self-motivated, deriving from sensitive perception in art, critical observation in science, of selected phenomena; a creative process of synthesis, preceded by analysis and followed by validation, especially in science; and the production of an output largely self contained and self-rewarding, consisting either of a work of art or a validated hypothesis, or theory. The initiation of the creative process, in this more specific application to both art and science, is largely self-motivated; and the principal terminal objective of the process-even if it has peripheral connotations of utility-is aesthetic.1 This narrow application of the term ‘creative’, then, would appear to render its use in relation to architecture inappropriate, as the creation of an architectural design (the delineation of the potential physical structure) is largely externally motivated; its terminal objectives are social and utilitarian, as well as aesthetic; and it is neither self-contained nor self-rewarding. The architectural process should perhaps be considered then as an amalgam, embracing artistic and scientific creativity, and invention.

We have defined the commencement of the design process as the definition and clarification of the problem, and have suggested the formal solution to the problem as the consummation of the process. We here suggest that the termination of the design process in architecture is when the last substantial decision has been taken: this may, in a prefabricated building, belong before the constructional process commences; in more traditional forms the design process overlaps the construction stage, perhaps significantly. separate the design process from the actuality of architecture, it may be argued that the design process is not commensurable with the creative process-in painting or sculpture, for instance, the creative process is not fulfilled until the last brush stroke or chisel mark5 is made, to complete the artefact itself. There would appear to be some merit in this contention, for the design process may culminate in a complete set of instructions for the production of architecture, and not necessarily in the work of architecture itself: in other words the design process results in architectural potentiality, while the creative process extends beyond this to produce architectural actuality. Does this mean that the design process is essentially different from the creative process? The creating of architectural potentiality, in this view, is thus another order of creativity, and the summation of the architect’s design decisions as formalized in his instructions-his plans, details, specifications, written and verbal instructions-may be regarded as analogous to the potentiality of the score in musical composition or the manuscript of a play. The design process, then, is a specific category of the creative process, which recognizes a possible separation of the constructional, or executive, phases of creativity.

The architectural design process, as defined and described here, is a synthesis of artistic and scientific creativity and invention, resulting in architectural potential for the adaptation of the environment to defined human purposes. A word is necessary on the sources on which an account of the design process may be based. In that architectural design is a category of the creative process, general studies in creativity, which look at the nature of the work created, the psychology of the creative personality, and the formative role of society and the environment; and which brings comprehensive theories of the creative process, are obviously of primary importance-but because of their generality, these studies leave some critical areas of the architectural design process unlimited.

The design process, is a problem defining and problem-solving procedure. We can find much relevant material and much clarification, therefore, in related fields of design- such as engineering, industrial design or communications, in addition to other zones of the environmental design spectrum such as urban planning- which are similar in scope. An analogy with these fields of design has its concomitant problems, however, and must be treated with the caution proper to all analogies. If, as we have suggested earlier, architecture is not enough of an art-or, preferably, is not sufficiently pure an art-to fit comfortably into the aesthetic-oriented creative process, then, conversely, it is too much of an art-that is, aesthetic considerations are too important a component of architecture. The technique of design, which accounts for its efficiency and utility must take its part in a process of designing productive of aesthetic ends. The most direct indication of the nature of the design process should come from the architects themselves, through critical introspection and self-analysis. The teacher of architecture has an important role to play here as privileged observer of the design process. His is a special position in relation to the design process of his students: he is an intimate onlooker, largely outside the design process yet deeply involved as a critical observer.


The general process of design is a continuous process. Although it is continuous, it may conveniently be regarded as a series of phases, a chain of interconnected and overlapping events each with a set of characteristics sufficiently distinctive to permit categorization. These phases, in the general design process, have been classified, with some consistency of category, but not of the name given to it, as definition, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation. In architectural terms these events in the architectural design process are here designated: problem, programme, insight and hypothesis, verification and design. These terms will be described more fully in a moment: but before so doing, some words of caution must be spoken, some general qualifications made. Firstly, it must be realized that each phase of the process contains within it, in microcosm as it were, at least a portion of the essential creative cycle-so that the process is really a series of cycles within cycles.

Secondly, the sequence from problem to design, in the straight line indicated, is an idealized sequence; in practice it may be compressed or short-circuited; there may be feed-back and repetition of some phases of the cycle; some phases may be pursued in parallel series; and overlapping may well occur. Thirdly, while each design process may appear to be an isolated occurrence, it is essentially one event in a total creative situation and the solution to the one design problem forms part of the input to other problems, in a continuous evolutionary process of creativity.

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The initial phase of the design process is the synthesis of relevant facts, and the personal and social objectives of those concerned, in the definition of the problem. Because architecture is a commissioned creative act, and because the concept ‘architecture’ transcends the purely formal, the problem in the nature of things is very largely defined by forces external to the designer; nevertheless the designer must participate in this initial process, because the manner of definition of the problem contains within it the seeds of possible solution and circumscribes the range of possibilities. While a precisely defined problem is essential, care must be taken that the parameters of the problem are real and are not merely the built-in reflections of stereotyped solutions. Much study, in modern design systems,2 is devoted to more accurate and precise techniques of problem formulation, of isolating and defining the relevant facts of the design situation. This much is constant: the problem is the resultant of the relevant facts, synthesized in terms of objective or purpose. In each age these facts (whether objective reality or congealed belief) become part of a complex list of design parameters, and to this list, more recently is the added list of climate, function, budget, material and skill resources, technology, the time element, and many other factors which circumscribe the problem. Each individual, sponsor or designer, motivated by his own needs and his own objectives, and driven by his own daemon, will see the facts of the situation differently, and in posing the problem differently will predicate radically different solutions. Societies as well as individuals have objectives, and these objectives are highly relevant to the formulation of the design problem-as well as to the manner of its solution. The facts, interpreted in the light of the objectives of the parties in a design situation and a social context, lead to the establishment of the problem: this synthesis achieved through the interaction of all parties to the design situation, and not by the designer alone, is an original act of clarification and is a basis for subsequent analysis and understanding by the designer.


There follows an intensive and extensive analysis of the problem. It is explored with every faculty: it is examined visually by means of diagrams, sketches and models; intellectually by rational, logical processes of induction and deduction; intuitively by contemplation, empathy, imaginative pre-vision of its possibilities and a kinaesthetic anticipation of its reality. It is reduced where possible to quantitative terms by measurement and computation. Intractable incompatibilities in the problem -budget and accommodation; accommodation and site-must be eliminated by a re-assessment of the problem, conflicts must be reduced to a minimum and divergences in the various attributes of the problem- philosophical, psychological, social, biological, physical-recognized and reconciled in a process of continuous compromise, made according to a hierarchy of values partly inherent in the nature of the problem and partly imposed, at this and subsequent stages of the design process, by the architect himself.3

The resultant of this period of analysis is a provisional synthesis of the problem in the form of a coherent programme. This programme may include a statement on motivation, reflecting the objectives of all concerned; relevant environmental data, from site and climate to historical context; budgetary considerations; given determinants of the design, of varying degrees of immutability from mandatory requirements to expressed preferences; a functional analysis showing use, in terms of function, occupancy and linkages; and a schedule of spatial requirements. During the Renaissance, for instance, the intense exploratory activity, the measuring of the ancient monuments, the study of the classical authors -is preparatory to undertaking architecture, any work of architecture, rather than a specific project. It is probably from such idealized, generalized programmes that specific building programmes were adapted.


It must be stressed that verification is not restricted to this one stage of the design process, but pervades every phase: each analysis is based upon a verified input, each synthesis is checked and validated-for each phase has within it, in microcosm as it were, the essential cycle of analysis: synthesis: verification. But while verification takes place in other phases of the design process, here-in this particular stage of the design sequence -it becomes dominant, as the characteristic feature of the phase. Verification is common to all aspects of creativity. The first stage of verification in the architectural design process is to test the entire process from its inception to the production of the hypothesis in terms of its consistency, for consistency is the index of its wholeness and unity-and in striving thus to attain wholeness through integration the architect is following a holistic process which is basic to creative behaviour. This theory, to be viable, and to provide a valid matrix for evaluation, must be in a constant state of adaptation, so that the equation of belief and experienced reality may be maintained in an evolving situation. Objectivity demands that belief be built upon the bed-rock of reality, that truth be verifiable rationally and in terms of experienced reality. Renaissance perspective and mathematical proportion are not objectively determined scientific criteria, even in the limited field of visual perception. The entry of science into the architectural design process has brought direct methods of objective assessment to the hitherto nebulous task of verification. Verification demands that every aspect of the proposed solution be tested and declared valid: not only the aspects more immediately amenable to objective evaluation, such as the structure, the materials, the services, the environmental controls and the cost; but also the planning efficiency, the accommodation and circulation, the appearance, the symbolism, and the environmental relationships. The task of verification is enormously complex and difficult, and the architect must bring to it every resource, every evaluative technique. Architectural techniques of verification might gain an added dimension of efficiency from an appreciation of the morphological approach in engineering,5 or an added dimension of objectivity-in the most complex design situations-through a cybernetic approach to optimizing design. More aspects will become amenable to objective assessment, and where these new techniques and methods appear we must not be afraid, as creative architects, of using them as a measuring rod, even in the earliest stages of the design process. What cannot be measured objectively must be assessed subjectively, and such critical subjective assessment is a reflection of the creative genius: but what can be measured objectively should be, must be measured, as accurately and efficiently as possible. Creativity and objectivity here go hand in hand, for the process of verification must employ every technique of evaluation, from the scientific instrument to the compasses in our eyes, if the design process is to aim at perfection.

To aim at perfection is the objective of the design process: it is essentially an optimizing process. If improvement is too plebeian a term to be acceptable, let us call it a process of refinement; a process of refinement of the validated hypothesis, through which the gap between problem, insight and solution is reduced to the irreducible minimum. This is a process of successive correlations, successive clarifications, successive solutions. In the cumulative process of verification, refinement and concretization most of the major decisions have been confirmed and transmitted in the form of instructions, via appropriate techniques of presentation. Each phase of verification has its own medium of presentation, and sketch plan, revised sketches, preliminary working drawings and comprehensive working drawings all contain a cumulative record of instructions given, which will translate architectural design from potential to actual. The final design decisions may well be taken after construction is under way-decisions on lighting, decisions on colour, decisions on furnishing, decisions on landscaping.


Architecture is complex, multi-faceted. Such an extensive and complex work. On the contrary it is necessary continuously to keep the totality in mind, and to go from the whole to the parts and back to the whole’.4 As we have emphasized throughout this discussion, the linear process here outlined is an idealized straight-line process, which in practice may be simplified or become more complex. Generally, instead of becoming simpler the process becomes more complex, more intricate. We have frequently, for instance, to retrace our steps; information, or fresh insight derived from later stages of the process, feeds back into earlier phases, and in a cyclic fashion part or even most of the process may be repeated in modified form: insight may alter programme, verification may cause fresh understanding of the problem. The process may not be monolithic, and different aspects of the problem may be considered, at a different scale of intensity, concurrently: that is, various aspects of the process may be pursued in parallel channels, necessitating careful integration. Finally it must be reiterated that the consideration of the phases of the design process must not lead us into the error of considering the process as a series of distinct and independent steps. It is a continuous process, one phase merging gradually with the next, overlapping, eliding. Each phase is defined not by its boundaries but by the core of its essential characteristic activity: hence we may properly talk of the programming stage, whose activity is essentially analytic; or the stage of hypothesis, which is characterized by creative synthesis. Yet, as we have stressed earlier, the dominant characteristics of any phase do not imply a monopoly, and all aspects of the process are, to some degree, found in all phases of the design process.


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