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Architecture, processes and materials

Can a thing develop organically and yet not look organic?

This is an attempt at thinking while writing. I have no idea where it is going. The main questions came to me when I was thinking about what I like and don’t like in architecture, so architecture is what was mostly on my mind.

It occurred to me recently that I sometimes like modern architecture. This surprised me because I have so often disliked it that I thought I could really only feel comfortable in places that are old, and which were built in traditional architectural styles. Good examples for this are what Bernard Rudofsky called “Architecture without architects”. That phrase itself may be a good metaphor for what I call here “organic development”. In any case I do like those architectural elements that you find in “traditional” buildings:  arcades, tiled traditional roofs, front porches, wood and brick and not metal and glass, and the like. These are also all design elements that Christopher Alexander has so well described as emerging naturally, organically if you will, from the traditional,the timeless way of building.

Alexander’s main claim is that traditional building processes create naturally well adapted solutions to architectural design problems primarily because they are slow and do leave detail decisions to the builder rather than attempting to resolve all decisions at the planning stage. Local authority trumps global authority. And this he claims, leads to fewer mistakes and better functional adaptation, and better esthetics too. He point out that the design space of architecture, the sum total of all possible design combinations, is so huge that mistakes are vastly easier to come by than good design, and that all design elements are so interconnected and interactive, that planning everything ahead of time is practically guaranteed to yield a sub-optimal solution. By way of contrast he makes a compelling case for traditional processes and their time-honored solutions. In his “A pattern language” he catalogues an enormous amount of architectural patterns that have been honed through practice and evolutionary, incremental adaptation, until all the bugs are worked out and the pattern “works” as a standalone, and also as part of the larger architecture it is embedded in. These patterns also feel – to me – almost instantly comfortable and intuitively “at home”. They were successful because they work.

Alexander also shows many examples where modern architecture fails to achieve well adapted form, never mind esthetics. He goes to great length to describe modern buildings as largely lifeless in “The nature of order”. But if this is so – and my feelings go in this direction – then why? On the technology side builders now have many more options for achieving certain solutions than the traditional builders did, and so it is easy to conclude that it is the materials that make a building “modern”. So when modern buildings don’t feel comfortable or well adapted to the needs of the inhabitants it is easy to blame the technologies and materials first. But the root of modernity lies rather in the industrial production process, the formalization of design, the extensive planning, than in the actual materials used.

In the modern, real world, Alexander’s ideas of designs as pattern languages have caught on, most intriguingly in computer programming, and his examples of patterns in architecture are also well received. But very few builders follow Alexander’s prescriptions for the design process because the modern bureaucratic requirements for licensing and permitting and planning require precise, detailed planning ahead of time. Alexandrian processes interfere with the permitting process in modern regulatory frameworks. So when modern architecture feels uncomfortable, modern processes may have more to do with this than modern technologies.

Consistent with the above, nothing in the Alexandrian building process framework forbids uses of “modern” technologies or materials. All that Alexander claims is necessary for well adapted architectural solutions to emerge, is a process of incremental adaptation – development on the fly during construction – in a well-defined order of steps he calls a generating sequence. This process coincides with the traditional process of building, and is also very close to the sequential development steps in pre-ordained order yet with much “local” authority, that are observed in biological (ontogenetic) development, i.e., growth and differentiation of an organism.

Now if the processes are more important for the functionality of the outcome than the materials used, then any form achieved through a process that is similar in nature to “organic” process, should be called organic, regardless of technology used. Conflating swiftly organic processes with Alexandrian generating sequences, this now relates to the architectural manifestation of the problem, resulting in the question of the beginning: Can a form be produced organically, for instance an architectural form produced through an Alexandrian generating sequence, and yet not look naïvely “organic”? After all we are all used to recognize what’s “organic” though the lenses of the only organic things we think we’ve seen, life as we know it. So is everything that doesn’t look organic, of a non-organic origin? Obviously things can be made to look fake organic, but can something of genuinely organic origin look “artificial”? Or will it always have recognizably organic features? Or maybe are these recognizably organic features so subtle, that say a modern building can look naïvely “modern” because of the materials used, whilst actually being the result of an organic process? Is it maybe for this reason that some modern buildings actually look and feel good to me?

I would like to think so, not just for theoretical reasons but because it would make for more genuinely interesting architecture to have more than just two polar opposites of choices – replicas of traditional styles that feel comfortable but that are stale in their development and don’t make use of modern technologies, or modern styles that never really feel comfortable. Of course there is always the possibility as well that modern buildings may just genuinely be well planned and built, with no organic process involved whatsoever, regardless of the low odds for this to happen, according to Alexander. My personal feeling though is that there aren’t enough modern successes of that kind.  There has to be a way to use modern materials and technologies in architecture, to produce striking, novel, interesting, modern shapes, and yet shapes that are well adapted to their function, and have a subtle, organic feel to them. I would like to think that using organic process with modern and non traditional materials is the way to achieve this.