A conversation on The importance of not trying to control everything in Architecture
(JL: John Lin, YS: Yifan Shen)
YS: When I was your student, I often heard you talk about trying not to control everything. What do you mean by that?
JL: Firstly, if you listen to reviews of students’ work in most schools of architecture, you tend to hear teachers and students engaging in a conversation where they are evaluating each project by how much control you have over every decision. It may seem that control is the prevailing skill and ambition of the architect. But I think deciding what not to control is perhaps the most important decision to make. At least this is my own experience with trying to build architecture – it’s a compromise from the beginning, since you cannot do it alone and its fundamentally collaborative in nature. So,the real question is, how can we incorporate this lack of control into the design process? And how can we teach it?
YS: Can you give me an example?
JL: One of the documents I show in my studio quite often is a drawing by Scarpa. It’s a very simple sketch of a tiling pattern for Museo di Castelvecchio which shows some areas where he wants to have input while leaving open other areas where the workers can freely adapt the pattern. The drawing is a precise determination of the limits of the architect’s willingness to control. I actually think the drawing is a dialogue between the architect and the builder – between the one who conceives the vision and the one who realizes the vision. But it says to me that the architect is not the most important person.
YS: But I think it’s a rather hard thing for architects to realize that because we are the designers and our entire training and expertise is about designing things.
JL: Yes, that’s correct. I suggest it requires redefining our understanding of design as result or product oriented. We can begin to consider design as a process of collaboration. That’s the essence of the Scarpa drawing – it’s a drawing of a process, not a product.
I like to discuss my failures- it’s very important to engage with our failures if we truly want to experiment or innovate. I would say one of my biggest project failures was “The House for All Seasons”. I learned a lot from this project and reflecting on its failures. When I say failure, it’s interesting because on one hand, the project as a design was a big success; it won a lot of awards and it influenced a lot of architects. But I also say it failed because the project ultimately became abandoned, and at the end no one really lived in the house or took care of the house. Upon reflection, I was quite surprised because in this particular project we had complete control over its budget and its program.
A Hong Kong charity helped to fund the entire construction and we could decide every aspect of its use. However, some political issues occurred, and the village could not agree on how to select a family to live in it. We didn’t quite anticipate the complexity that was created as a result of our simple gesture to gift the house to the community. We did have a flexible and open attitude, and eventually established the house as a community center and headquarters for a straw-weaving cooperative run by a local Women’s charity. This succeeded until our Hong Kong charity closed and experienced some internal political problems of its own. All in all, there was some bad luck which was out of our control. But I also had a very powerful realization that the occurrence of compromises in the design process and during the project realization are of utmost importance – we should embrace NOT resist them. Because compromise is the fundamental process of political engagement and compromise is the result of stakeholders and people taking ownership over the project. So, from another perspective, compromise is essential in architecture, because the sense of spiritual ownership is what is essential for the social contract of architecture.
YS: I think it happens a lot now in China. A lot of designers are doing all sorts of experiments – particularly in Rural China. I think it’s because they can fund it themselves and have a great deal of control over everything. However, a lot of architecture that is implemented in the villages is finally abandoned within just one or two months. I think many architects design everything to test out their own design ideas, but they didn’t really work with or consider people who are using it. Maybe their designs were too ideal, and regular people couldn’t really fit in it.
JL: I agree with you. I think it is important the process of turning architecture over to a community – and this should happen from the very beginning, during the design process. I feel that architecture is like creating a stage for different activities, but you can’t really determine these activities because it is not a choreographed performance at the end. Instead it should open up surprising and inspiring possibilities for how people, the users, conduct their lives.
But I also disagree with you, because the role of the architect is important in conceiving of new ideas for living – it takes an outside perspective. I am also cautious of the other extreme, which is a design process that is completely given over to people. Back to the Scarpa drawing, I still think the most powerful action is to decide very precisely where the line between control and not controlling is. I still believe in the architect’s role as a visionary.
YS: I think it is that architects tend to spend a lot of time defining the space and functions but actually you are not able to define it because people just use it as they want.
JL: Yes. Good architecture actually allows people to feel free, to give you a sense of the enjoyment of life beyond its functions. Especially in houses this is very important. That’s the true feeling of home – that people who really live in it, create it.
YS: And people happen to intuitively change their homes. Their lives change, and family grows, life is different from before, and they constantly change everything. That’s the magic of house – it grows.
JL: I think it is a very good point, to say that architecture grows within the community. And it is not just about the post-occupancy process, but it happens from the very beginning – as soon as you start designing and building a vision, you can begin to incorporate the community. It can be conceived of as a collective process.
I would like to illustrate this with another project which impacted me a lot: Louis Kahn’s parliament in Bangladesh. When you go visit the project, there are horizontal lines in the concrete walls every five feet. That was not part of the original design. That happened because Louis Kahn was on the construction site every day. He watched how they built the walls and he observed that the local formwork process was leaving these lines in the walls (which were intended to be filled in later). He instantly decided to leave all these lines from the casting process. I think it saved the project. The project has immense multistory vertical concrete walls – and it changed the scale of the project, on one hand it gives a sense of human scale, but on the other hand, the lines exaggerate the size of the space (because they look like floors). We tend to think Louis Kahn is someone who is very ordered and very controlled, but I think he is someone who is very open-minded throughout the whole process. He allowed the process of construction to inform the final result.
YS: We always think architects are people who have to have knowledge of so many kinds of things so that they can design complete buildings. But sometimes you just have to admit that you have some inability in a lot of aspects and need other people – who will just influence how it is built and used. I think it is not just about realizing the limits of design, but also realizing the limits of yourself and as a human being.
JL: Exactly. And the second anecdote which I’d like to relate about the project is the design of the roof over the main parliament hall. It was the most important element of the project, and he was dissatisfied with the design, despite enormous pressure to make a final decision. He continued to design and re-design it almost until the rest of the building was nearly completed, just because he wasn’t sure. Therefore, I think that self-doubt is very important. And uncertainty is essential to the creative process. Again, self-confidence is important but having a little bit of doubt in your design process allows you to understand the limits of what you can conceive as a designer. I think he could only design it after he saw the building under construction.
YS: I agree. And I think it is very important to accept what is there and to accept that you are not able to control everything beforehand, keep absorbing and evolving allows good design to take place.
JL: Exactly. Being a good architect and making good architecture are two different goals. I think we have to be more conscious of architecture as an ability. One of the truths of architecture is that you often make architecture in a place which is foreign to yourself. So, an architect should be someone who is very good at learning and absorbing the culture of another place, and ultimately being able to incorporate that into their work. That’s what I think is the most important ability. As you start to compromise, it is the reflection of a collaborative process – and the ability to absorb different opinions and unforeseen circumstances.
YS: It seems very humble, to embrace all uncertainties, and to be less self-confident?
JL: Well its related. To be self-confident as a designer is also about placing less confidence in a fixed design idea – but being able to design in the space of uncertainty. Because architecture is something that embraces the freedom of use and function and celebrates the diversity of different cultures and lifestyles. And ultimately, I think architecture is political. It’s a celebration of living together, whether as a family or as a community. So, I think if we really want to make good architecture, it’s a collaborative process with the goal to contribute to a new understanding of our collective culture. It starts by placing less emphasis on the design of a building, but more confidence in the process of building together.