Saturday, December 1, 2012

Where does a building end?

Machu Picchu

22 years ago, when sitting beside landscape architecture students in my first year of design studio in the architecture program at Virginia Tech, I asked myself:
"Where does a building begin, and end?"
22 years later, I still ask myself this.

The question is less driven by curiosity than now being a red flag signaling a crisis of identity - as a professional, and as a person.
And I suspect I am not the only one.

In that first year, all disciplines which fell under the College of Architecture and Urban Studies - would-be architects, landscape architects, and urban planners - all took the same core design studio. The intent was, basically, that design is design.

Dealing with proportion, number, color, shape, etc. as well as the process of study and questioning, proposing design solutions, developing them, and having them shaken up by peers and professors (sometimes literally) prepared students for the common ways in which these related professions worked.

Emerging, diverging, and returning to integrated design

Much has been written on the divisions inherent which become increasingly clear when moving from student to professional in the United States. One has only to speak to a few design professionals, schooling aside, to find some common themes:
  • As emerging professionals in their 20's, technical demands overshadowed conceptual. School was the bastion of ideas; upon leaving, one was busy with learning how to make those ideas work - drawing them, building them, and keeping them under budget.
  • As newly-licensed professionals in their 30's, specialization became a way to distinguish oneself in order to advance within their place of employment: the curtainwall detailer, the hotshot renderer, the smooth operator who handled clients best. Those who ventured out on their own found specialization necessary to distinguish themselves from others in a flooded market.
  • As seasoned professionals in their 40's with more experience managing people of different disciplines and projects in various sectors, specialization was job security. But, in a world with increasing demands and desires for mastery of many design and construction methods, technologies, and disciplines, these professionals were finding themselves having to reinvent what made them valuable.
Ask any U.S. architect (or landscape architect or urban planner) with a dozen years experience whether they are interested in, or think they need to know about, what other design disciplines know.

They answer might not be clear, but what is clear is that the growth of the 'sustainability' field has introduced a new dynamic and dimension largely absent to design professionals educated in the 1990's.

The sun rises over Machu Picchu

While traveling recently in Peru (see photos), and finally seeing the buildings and landscapes that first struck a chord with many a student in history of architecture classes, I became aware that professional divisions - architect, landscape architect, and urban planner - were probably quite fluid.
One does hear references to Inca architects and engineers, but I suspect these are contemporary overlays.

The 'master builder' of the cathedral days, was more present in these incredible designed environments than in many of the scores of churches I visited as a student during a semester abroad in Europe and Scandinavia.

The kinship between the pinnacle of the (built) achievements of the Inca Empire and where we want - and need- to be headed today is striking.
The proof is in the many contemporary projects that cross the realms of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and many other engineering, ecological and biological disciplines.

The design professional finds him, or herself, asking not simply "where does a building begin, and end?", but the larger, more fundamental question inherent:

"where does the design professional begin, and end?"

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