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“Is Architectural Quality Mysteriously Ineffable?”, Patrik Schumacher, London 2011,
contribution to the RIBA Building Futures Debate, Business Design Centre, London
Topic of the debate: This house believes that the value of design is not measurable. How can the unquantifiable qualities of design compete during a downturn?
Speakers arguing for the thesis ‘the value of design is not measurable’: Robert Adam, Denise Chevin
Speakers arguing against this thesis: Patrik Schumacher, Bill Hillier
Chairing the debate: Angela Brady, President-Elect RIBA
Statement Patrik Schumacher:
“I am proud to line up on Bill Hillier’s side – one of the few truly penetrating theorists of the discipline. I am a great admirer of his works and very curious about his next book.
Is the value of design really not measurable? I do not think that the downturn should matter here. If anything, it forces us to make our intuitive valuations explicit. I think this is possible.
I also think it is not a matter of quantitative vs qualitative assessment. It is a matter of rational vs intuitive, not yet rationalised (and therefore perhaps unjustified) choices. Nothing in architecture has to remain ineffable. Everything can be made the subject of rational enquiry.
The uniquely architectural value of a design is “measurable” in the sense of being - in principle – subject to rational decision making, which retrospectively can be subjected to a comprehensive, theory-led comparative assessment, guided by a rational reconstruction and then normative definition of architecture’s unique societal function.
Thesis 1: Design is neither art nor science. It is a sui generis competency.
There are some obvious, unproblematic ways in which certain aspects of the value or quality of a design can be measured quantitatively: costs, energy performance, overall ecological performance (LEED, BREEAM), circulation efficiency, …, structural efficiency, gross to net area efficiency etc.
These measures do not measure the architectural quality of the design – rather they measure economic and engineering efficiencies. These latter engineering concerns are relatively easy to operationalize because they relate to a narrowly defined sub-problem and their measures do not involve reference to the users of architecture as socialized, sentient beings.
It has to be recognized that built environments function via perception and comprehension. This poses the task of articulation.
However - within the paradigm of parametricism - there is no need for structural and environmental engineering concerns to be anatogonistic to the genuinely architectural ambition of articulation. Architectural articulation can harness the lawful, rule-based differentiation of structures and envelopes for its agenda of user orientation.
Organization and articulation are the two irreducible, constituent components of architecture’s task. Organisation is concerned with the physical distancing, separation, and connection of domains and is thus framing1 communication physically, by physically channelling movement and interaction. Articulation is concerned with orientation and is framing communication cognitively. Articulation is guiding movement and interaction via conspicuity and atmospheres, via perceptual as well as semiotic clues. Organisation recognizes and operates via social communication’s dependency on human beings as mobile bodies in space, while articulation recognizes and operates via social communication’s dependency on human beings as perceiving/comprehending beings.
Architectural order involves the task dimensions of organisation and articulation, the latter comprising phenomenological and semiological articulation.
The unique expertise or core competency of architecture is therefore the establishment of order - the organizing and making legible - of social relations, the framing, i.e. the structuring and priming of social communicative interactions.
Spatial framing supports the ordering and (temporary) stabilization of patterns of communication. Spatial frames are themselves communications - they are permanent broadcasts that operate as antecedents or premises of all communicative interactions to be expected within the bounds of the respective frame, be it in a single space, a building, or an urban territory.
Thesis 2: (A o A, THESIS 21, section 5.1 Architecture as Societal Function System)
All social communication requires institutions. All institutions require architectural frames. The societal function of architecture is to order society via the continuous provision and innovation of the built environment as a system of frames.
Bill Hillier offers a science of organisation (configuration). Can there be a science of phenomenological and semiological articulation? Yes, intuitive skill and talent can and should be made explicit and upgraded by explicit theory. This can and should happen on all three dimensions of architecture’s task of ordering: we need to upgrade our organisational, phenomenological and semiological expertise. Our intuitions remain a control device here.
Yes, there can be a science-informed, normative theory of these dimensions, but organisationally, phenomenologically and semiologically informed design is a different practice from scientific practice. The double code of utility and beauty that governs design is very different from the code of scientific truth or probability.
The reason for this difference is that designers need to act and decide quickly, in the face of uncertainty and incomplete information. Science, in contrast, never reaches closure, it has infinite time, and patience to follow through the ramifications of hypothetical constructions. A refutation is here as much valued as a theoretical proposal. Both advance the scientific enterprise. Design is a different matter. Designers have to posit and act in the here and now.
That’s why aesthetic values must come into play.
Aesthetic values - to the extent that they are historically well adapted - facilitate quick, intuitive decision making, both for designers making design decisions and for users making decisions about which space to enter.
The recognition of the beautiful is the instant, perceptual recognition of the vital, the functional, identified on the basis of its mere appearance, prior to a more in-depth experience and verification of the entity’s functionality.
Therefore, the category of beauty cannot simply be opposed to rationality. Being attracted to beauty is not per se irrational. The discrimination of beauty vs ugly is a culturally refined instantiation of the fundamental biological mechanism of attraction and repulsion: organisms are attracted to what serves their survival and reproduction and repulsed by what impairs their survival and reproduction.
Aesthetic sensibility is a constant, universal feature of all human behaviour and action.
Some of its aspects might be hardwired by biological evolution (order vs chaos), other aspects are culturally evolved and imparted, yet other aspects might be based on individual conditioning.
All of this implies that aesthetic appeal can be subjected to rational analysis and criticism. We cannot trust our sensibilities blindly. They need to be subjected to a critique that queries their historical pertinence. For instance, I can demonstrate by rational argument that a Classical or Modernist/Minimalist sensibility is impairing the subject’s capacity to fully participate in the most advanced, vital and productive of today’s life processes.
Thesis 3: (A o A, THESIS 17, section 3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values)
Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed, collective experiences within useful dogmas. Their inherent inertia implies that they progress via revolution rather than evolution.
Aesthetic values must be revolutionized if societal conditions or technological opportunities change. Clients vote with their commissions. Users vote with feet.
The in-depth, rational critique of aesthetic values is a matter of theoretical reflection, often trigger after the crisis; for instance the crisis of historicism after WW1 or the crisis of modernism in the 1970s. The in-depth, rational critique of aesthetic values cannot take place in the heat of the design process - nor in the heat of the ongoing life process. That’s why we must be aesthetically sensitive. Aesthetic evaluation cannot be altogether eliminated and replaced by theoretical analysis and rational argument. Argument and analysis can only confirm a general, operational programme for the application of the code values beautiful and ugly. These programmes are familiar to us: they are the styles to which we are committed, and to which we must be - at any time - committed, as potent designers, discriminating clients and productive users.
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