Radicant Design: time, needs and experimentation
Learning is less about acquiring or transmitting information or existing ideas than it is about collectively designing a world that is worth living in.
A process-based approach vs. the tabula rasa
As time passes and the ecological debate develops around the globe, we are being forced to recognize that we are living through a much broader series of transitions — energetic, urban, migratory and industrial, to name but a few — which are combining to dismantle the functionalist order that had established itself between the industrial revolution and the economic boom which followed the Second World War. The ecological scene brings together architects for whom this dismantling process triggers a desire to transform the theory and practice of architecture. Some readdress the culture of building while others study alternatives to the post-Fordian city or draw up process-based theories of architecture. These advances enliven the intense internal debate and the analyses and visions of these actors can diverge widely. But they agree on the fact that a historical cycle is coming to an end and that its paradigms can no longer help us.
This scene continues to represent only a small minority, especially in a Western world that calls itself “developed”. The hypothesis that these Great Transitions concern architecture is received with skepticism or even hostility by those historians and theoreticians who are unable to think beyond the post-functionalist silo. The resulting idea cannot possibly be compared, they claim, with the rise of the Modern Movement and its radical ruptures (which underpin so many current authorities: educational, historical, academic). This disagreement is based not on fact (no one denies that we are experiencing an energetic transition) but on scale. For the ecological scene, events ranging from the oil crisis of 1974 to the systemic crisis of 2008 are not a series of simple shocks which have affected the course of progress but a historic caesura: a caesura between a long industrial cycle which trans-formed the planet on the shoulders of Modernist design and a 21st century which must abandon this design approach “which doesn’t have the instruments for understanding something which, rather than a crisis, is an ecological mutation”Bruno Latour, conférence “Au tournant de l’expérience”, Cité de l’Architecture, Paris, 12th June 2016..
For those adherents of Post-Functionalism who remain loyal to the productivist industrial approach, these crises are modest in scale. They will find a solution, by evolving their systems — urban, technological, architectural. They will challenge neither the paradigms nor the course of Modernist progress which are based on the control of the world, of space and of time. This divergence reveals a political and theoretical conflict. Besides the most obvious differences (in, for example, the energy debate, with its economic aspects), it concerns approaches to designing and producing space. One key issue — in the space/time/architecture trilogy — is the relationship with time.
Architects today no longer claim to be agents of the radical perfection that the Modernists believed would emerge from the combination of the tabula rasa and speed; rather, they develop the conditions for appropriated improvement and trigger a progressive process in which the inhabitants are the actors because it is they who define the content and the pace. The principal resource of this participative approach is time.
Time as a resource
Time as a resource can deepen this debate about readdressing the long-term nature of the process of the formation of habitat and of cities. In the productivist Modernist economy time is money — we can save time — and cost reduction has encroached into architecture. Indeed, wasn’t the tabula rasa itself nothing more than a means of cleansing and saving time? Razing the ground is a way of eliminating contexts and the need to take these into account; of flattening any residue left behind by history, geography or former uses — which can get in the way of a project — and of inserting this project into the context of a blank sheet of paper or a screen. It is also — and above all — a way of reducing the time lost through interactions with local inhabitants.
But if, in a characteristic inversion of the ecological approach, we stop subordinating the process to the final product and, conversely, consider that this product should be defined as a function of the nature and activation of the available resources, it is the quality of the process, its enrichment, that prevails over the design of the product. In such a situation, time is no longer a cost but a resource with multiple qualities: it is unlimited, universally available, inexpensive, shapeable.
The reintegration of time opens the way for an experimentally reformist architecture which no longer considers — and this is a new theoretical direction — the project as the design of the perfect product but, rather, as a long-term process of improving inhabited milieux. This long-term probationary approach repudiates Modernist radicalism. It suggests that construction itself matters more than the constructed, that time spent thinking, experimenting and doing matters more than the final execution of the object. And even, perhaps, that architecture is not a finished object but a collective moment of co-programming, co-conceiving and co-constructing, a phase in the continuous process by which humans make and remake — in a radicant manner see “The Radicant City: Why Sustainable Living Space grows Like Ivy”, Marie-Hélène Contal, “Sustainable Design III: Towards a New Ethics for Architecture and the City”, with a foreword by Alexander, Gallimard “Manifesto”, Paris 2014.— habitat, city, milieu under the complex influence of the available resources, human experience, the sedimentary timescale of the city and the long-term rhythm of geography and climate.
Need as a resource
This different way of using time also opens up a political — radicant — approach. We know that time pressure is the enemy of democracy. In this sense, one could hope that architecture is able to escape from its role as an agent of a vertical and radical political timescale in order to get closer to society and explore the new (and yet so ancient!) paradigm of the civic responsibility of the architectUpon arriving in exile in the United States in 1946, Walter Gropius, creator of the multidisciplinary experimental pedagogic approach of the Bauhaus, established, together with Marcel Breuer and their new generation of Harvard students, the TAC, “The Architects Collaborative”, as a manifesto of a “a profession which employs collective design in the service of society.” See Walter Gropius “Architektur”, Fischer Bücherei, Frankfurt 1956..
The radicant Design methodology proposes a multi-rooted analysis of place and of the needs of its inhabitants, aiming to propose different scenarios for a collectively designed urban and architectural development. Therefore we settle in the place for many weeks and firstly lead a historical, morphological and typological analysis, setting the place in its geographical and environmental context — the “classical” analysis architects should be educated in. Yet, we lead this analysis with the people and in the following, we form groups of interdisciplinary research, respecting the four fields of sustainable development: economic/political; social; cultural and, of course, ecological.
These research groups use the toolbox of participatory Design: workshops and dialogues with the inhabitants and users and SWOT evaluations which document the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the place. The results are documented in inclusive mappings and thematic cartographies — easily understandable for all.
The radicant approach aims to co-design and co-realise necessary projects “with and by the people”, rethinking existing environments and public spaces in a way to foster circular economies and catalyst effects of self-development and social emancipation.
Because the truth is that time is the best vehicle for collective decision-making. By facilitating the attentive identification of needs and the development of projects which respond to these needs, time is the raw material of this radicant approach — which is humble in the sense that it doesn’t claim to provide radical solutions to problems. Today, such methods of architect-supported self-development are spreading around the world: in the West as a means of countering the authoritarian Post-Functionalism of national or city governments and in emerging countries where Modernist design has slipped away, leaving behind a chaos that these societies have to sort out for themselves.
This analysis of place and of its milieux, this act of giving the floor to the unique character of any local situationLocus: the at once singular and universal relationship between a certain specific location and the buildings that are in it. Aldo Rossi “L’architettura Della città”, Clup, Milan 1966, of listening to users and uses, of experimenting with urban and architectural co-programming as a form of civic catalyst and of persuading inhabitants and our-selves — the architects — to accept extensive dialogue and sensibly elaborated compromise during a collective process of co-conception and co-construction naturally requires time. But there are two more priceless dimensions which it requires even more: humility and curiosity. Learning from the existing, from its collective memorySee Carl Gustav Jung, Approaching the Unconscious, in Man and his Symbols, Dell Publishers, New York, 1964, its symbols and analogies... or, like Rossi beautifully puts it: “The biography of a city is written analogously between the lines, in a fabric of feelings.” Aldo Rossi, The Analogue City, in The Architecture of the City (1966), with an introduction by Peter Eisenman, English edition, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1982. The concept of analogy is borrowed, like the previous Locus concept, by Christian Norberg-Schulz in Existence, Meaning and Symbolism, in Meaning in Western Architecture, Electa, Milan 1974, English edition Rizzoli, New York, 1980, its sensual qualitiesSee Juhani Pallasmaa, The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the Senses, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2005, its hopes and fears, its potentials and threatsIn my radicant studies of the public realm I use the analytical methods of Lynch (1960), Jacobs (1961), Rossi (1966), Alexander (1975), Frampton (1983) or Gehl (2011), combined with SWOT and stakeholder analysis. All design proposals are exclusively developed through making models up to the scale of 1:1, in wood, cardboard, earth or recycled materials. means putting the character of the place and the needs and aspirations of society before our creative ego and believing that public spaces “(…) have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they are created by everybodyJane Jacobs, The death and life of great American cities, Vintage Books, New York, 1961..
Achieving the highest possible quality of designing and making through continuous experimentation, through trial and error is, however, not a new approach. Rather it is the original approach of our profession because “(…) the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958. Design and building laboratories are currently being established in many places as experiential learning programmes which work on all design scales from architectural detail to urban design and can focus on techniques for building with renewable resources, earth, wood, stone … or on zero-energy maintenance, prefabrication, transport technologies … Sometimes these programmes join with members of communities to execute self-built prototypes; sometimes they donate modular constructional kits or engineering concepts to the open-source web-community.
This necessary revival, which is consistently based on the knowing investment of the resources of time, needs and experimentation and whose results must, of necessity, be in the service of society, is taking place fifty years after the learning-by-making pedagogies established in Illinois, Berkeley or VeniceRichard Buckminster Fuller’s proto-types for proving “systemic forces through economic efficiency”, Christopher Alexander's universal pattern-tool-box for compositions “at the service for all”, Giancarlo de Carlo’s consensus-based design method to name but a few. and nearly a century after the Bauhaus’ unequaled revolution in design teaching, which grew out of Walter Gropius’ pioneering methodology of mixing artisanal, industrial and trading traditions, expertise and aspirations.
The Bauhaus’ experimental work, which was organized in long-term curricula and reciprocal consulting sessions that used open-work learning dialogues The idea of the open work was subsequently developed by Umberto Eco during the 1960s: artistic or literary works were purposely left unfinished, generating an “openness” of interpretation The author invited his public to participate through an “open end” and the interactive process of creativity and transfer of interdisciplinary knowledge could start. See Umberto Eco, Opera Aperta, Bompiani, Milan 1962, English edition The Open Work, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989., had to result in the development of “scalable” design concepts, which were “ready for reproduction yet typical for our times”.
While intense demand from industry and commerce meant that the design of industrially producible objects quickly overshadowed his early attempts to approach context-conscious architectural or urban design, Gropius returned to his original reformatory design attitude upon arriving in Harvard when he was asked to conceive his first architectural project overseas: “The fusion of the regional spirit with a contemporary approach to design produced a house that I would never have built in Europe with its entirely different climatic, technical and psychological background. Adequate to its context it is to be of light construction, full of bright daylight and sunshine, alterable, time-saving, economical and useful in the last degree to its occupants whose life functions it is intended to serve.”Walter Gropius describes the design process of the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts in Scope of Total Architecture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956.
In line with the theses developed with his sociologist friend Franz Müller-Lyer during their escape from Nazi-governed Germany, Gropius held that all future dwellings should prepare for “the age of nomadism”, a lifestyle of “simplicity, mobility, independence and emancipation”.
Readers should note that he foresaw this “age of nomadism” in the mid-1930s, three-quarters of a century before Doug Saunders wrote “Arrival City”.Doug Saunders, Arrival City. How the Largest Migration in History is reshaping our World, William Heinemann, London, 2010.
But what does “experimental design” mean for architectural learning? It means finding tools, materials, techniques and technologies which are adapted to previously analyzed needs. It means that the architect has overall responsibility for identifying adequate answers to necessary questions: the right-tech solution between numeric self-deception and backward romanticism.
Experimentation as a resource
Albert Schweitzer stated that example was not the main thing in teaching others — it was “the only thing”. And more than being a mere pedagogical approach, an example can also become a design tool. When students build their project proposals at a scale of 1:1 and develop their design not only technically but also in terms of content and meaning alongside other specialists: structural, mechanical and energy engineers, landscape and city planners, lighting designers, wood, earth, stone and recycling experts, writers, filmmakers, musicians … the age of Gropius’ interdisciplinary “nomad-architect” has begun.
One should test and prove the capacity of project prototypes to “age well”, to meet the challenges of climate and user flexibility, urban and rural contexts — because the capacity to “age well” in such conditions is the very essence of a sustainable design approach that integrates civic practice and acceptance with the unique “social capital” of the crafts that Richard Sennett has called “that basic human impulse: the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Allan Lane, New York 2008.
Collective design tasks realized through experimental learningDavid A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall 1984. The theory states that a per-son would learn through discovery and experience. It was called “experiential” due to the fact that, having its intellectual origins in the experiential work of Lewin, Piaget, Dewey, Freire and James, it forms a unique perspective on human development and emphasises the central role that experience plays in the learning process. hope to replace, in the long term, such questionable aims as “originality” and “artistic talent” The well-known confusion between talent and tradition overshadowed the “Beaux-arts” system of architectural teaching: it highlights an overvaluation of individual “artistic” talent and the lack of a holistic ethical overview and true technical knowledge. In Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot wrote sharply of the uncritical encouragement of “talent without tradition and termination of talent rather than its continuation”.
with much more aspiring standards — technical, aesthetic and artisanal perfection — as a means of starting to reverse “the marginalization of those who truly know their job, and know it as something more interesting than themselves.”Roger Scruton, The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, in The Sunday Times, 10th February 2008.
This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.