Between the romantic notion of an architect - sophisticated, artsy, pseudo-sciency, ambitious - and the reality of a CAD monkey getting off on uber reimbursables and overtime paid in caffeine, I have always wondered what drive our profession to work so hard for relatively little monetary returns compared to other professionals. And more often than not, so little design satisfaction. Being in a beautiful and well-detailed piece of architecture could be truly awe-inspiring. I recall the few moments when I stepped into a space that makes me go " Wow, this is why I want to be an architect!" But this shock factor always wear out, and at some point I have to acknowledge it simply isn't enough for me. In view of our planet-wide march towards the 6th mass extinction, I think we could, and NEED to aspire towards something more encompassing. With a "tad" bit of urgency.
Work or passion, what exactly are we seeking through the pursuit of form & space?
In 2001, on the first day of college at National University of Singapore, our studio critic Jason Yeang laid the cold, hard truth onto a bunch of starry-eyed freshmen. He said, out of 100 (or so) of us, maybe 10 will end up being an architect. Out of the 10, maybe one will become a good architect. We laughed it off thinking "what a cocky fella!".
But the truth doesn't care whether you believe it or not.
Indeed, many friends whom I went to architecture school with have left the profession. Some became full-time parents, others off to 'greener' lucrative pastures. Many who are practicing say they don't know what else they want to do. Others simply do not question their lives, quietly "living it out" because what else could one do when you have invested in a life-time of college and graduate debt?
Bleak? Quite the contrary. I count my blessings. Not without agony of course. When I reflect upon my journey and where I stand today, I have come to truly appreciate what architecture (with a lot of tough love) has ultimately taught me -the transformative power of Design Education.
The tendency, the goal of the architecture is to produce an Object, or maybe a cluster of Objects. Ironically, the constraint of birthing a localized intervention is what propels and nurture my increasingly holistic worldview. Over the years, I noticed a series of recurring questions that come to mind every time I design. And not just for designing landscape and buildings, but for any activity that involves creative thinking . More often than not, they set me up for a very solid project and idea.
In fact, they are turning into a design process for me, an integral part of my professional practice in whole systems design. Here are five recurring themes and a set of Why, What-if and How questions that guide my designing process. Perhaps they could benefit you too.
Lesson 1: Seek Potential Beyond Problem-Solving
"Why does this program need to happen here?
"What if X happen instead of Y?"
"How can this localized intervention produce the MOST beneficial impact for this community and ecosystem?"
We have a tendency to start our design process as a problem solving exercise. While that is necessary and true, I find this approach rather limiting and reductionist. Focusing on "defining the problem" and "solving it" assumes a fragmented and myopic lens of looking at design. On the other hand, looking at what a place and program could be, while solving other problems is a game-changer. It re-orients our mindset to one of possibilities, seeking out patterns of relationships, a starting point for systems thinking. Starting our design thinking from a Potential Seeking point of view thus re-contextualizes the design "problem" to a much larger mental map and scope of impact.
Lesson 2: Define the Scope of Impact
"Why does this condition exist, or not exists?"
"What if this condition becomes Y?
"How far can this (beneficial) impact go if these decisions are made?"
A design that is geographically and culturally bound will have certain impacts to its immediate context and beyond. With seeking potential in mind, how far can you take this? At what point beyond which the program, infrastructure won't be able to support, effect the potential intended?
Lesson 3: Identify 80/20 Cross-sector Leverage
"Why are these (spatial / programmatic) patterns not connecting or working well ?"
"What if these key moves , or what are the key leverage points -through an ecological, social and economic lens, that could help achieve this potential?"
"How could these system flows be configured to achieve symbiotic relationships that support conditions for sustainability?"
It is easy to define a running wish-list of design criteria as a means to set up quantifiable measures of success for a design project. However, trying to fulfill and fix everything , or "as much as you can" may not be the best course of action. With time and money on the line, it is often not feasible. The question becomes, " how can you do the least to effect the most?" Just like acupuncture, you cannot try to fix all the symptoms without understanding the root of an issue. You identify the key flows and act on strategic nodes or "pressure points".
Lesson 4: Cultivate Your Intuition
"Why does it feel right or wrong?"
"What if I try these iterations?"
"How could I test these options systematically?"
We live in a world of chronic rationality. So chronic, we externalize our judgement almost completely. We rely on 'scientific data' to tell us what to do, how to do and when to do. Only to be told otherwise when conflicting data appear the next day. While there is value in understanding our world through data and pattern literacy of phenomenon, we often neglect and undervalue what the most sophisticated piece of machine -- our body -- tries to tell us. In my first year at graduate school, I suffer what could be described as severe mental constipation. I could not draw a line without knowing exactly why. Aside from driving myself insane, it is a highly reductionist approach to design. One that stifles creativity and the joy of design. By third year, as I slowly (though unconsciously) applied Lesson 1 to 3, I noticed a level of design intuition taking shape, which allows me to think more and more holistically, connecting higher levels of complexities. My mind seemed to have figured out a protocol that untangles itself. More importantly, I developed a trust towards my intuition.
I will never forget what my 4th semester studio critic, Florian Idenburg, told me at the exit interview . "You have good intuition, use it well". I never gave intuition much thought, let alone work with it. Intuition, for me, is not simply an innate, subconscious voice that comes out once in a while. It is a faculty and skill that one can cultivate. It grows with experience, confidence. It is heartfelt. And Stevie got my back on this!
Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. - Steve Jobs
Lesson 5: Start by Being the Architect of Your Life
Instead of asking (and being asked) "What kind of architecture do you do?" . Ask yourself,
"Why am I (not) doing what I am (not) doing?"
"What if I could do this instead of that. What kind of designer do I want to be?"
"How can I be the best version of myself to better this world?"
This is a huge one. And I will end on this note. We cannot live out our role unless we commit to evolve not just what we do, but who we become, how we feel, and how we think. In order to become great designers, we have to start by designing ourselves. The way we fit ourselves into this world is a design exercise in itself. One that has no fix point, it is a process that lasts a lifetime. The natural tendency of existence is creation through a cycle of life and death. A re-shuffling of matter, cause and effect. If we are not mindful of our own creation, then we will continue to contribute to our world's problem, rather than being part of her solution.