Discourse, 18 June 2021
Context, concept, and content are probably the most significant matters within an architectural design process.
I recall that my very first introduction to the term ‘context’ was during my sophomore year in the university, when the design projects are scaled up from a countryside single dwelling into a community center in the campus. That was when the scope of our study was expanded by a little bit, considering our designs were actually placed on a specific setting, serving a community, and affecting its environment. Since then, for every design project, our batch will be divided into groups to focus on respective aspects of the so-called ‘context’ within two or three weeks.
It was an inferior model indeed. The one-size-fits-all attempt to standardize the contextual study in a fixed template: climate, environmental study, traffic, accessibility, vegetation, and so on, seems nonsensical to me. And most of the time, we find our designs later are lost in translation to the contextual concerns. They are mostly redundant, trivial, or lack of a rigorous grasp, that eventually turned out into an insensitive inference towards the specific context. The meaning of context is often being misunderstood.
Studying a specific context is supposed to be similar as studying a language. It is not expected to be easy, not within two, three weeks or even a month, especially when you are not a member of the context. The more we are familiar and masterful to a particular language, the more we may be able to navigate ourselves to read the context- which are circumstantial, multidimensional, dialectical, or even vexatious sometimes. The nature of its multiplicity shall give rise to various expressions. Those are the critical ingredients to be involved in the design process- either considering them as a convenient whole by exclusions, or a difficult whole by inclusions (though the latter one could result in richer, manifold, and convoluted architecture, but the former one is usually being adopted considering the timeframe of a project nowadays).
That bring us to another topic- the concept in architecture. There was a time I avoid using the term ‘concept’ to explain my design, simply because the way which lecturers demand a ‘concept’ like a wow-factor without even questioning why our projects need to be ‘wow’. We often see architectural concepts nowadays comes in as form-findings, shallow metaphors, sticked-up feature, or even marketing jargons. (I do not go against those ideas and the application of them, but I tend not to refer them as architectural concept- instead, they came in as cluster of ideas instead of being shouted as ‘concept’. Nowadays I aware many of my projects especially quick competition entries are having less ‘concept’ or perhaps without it, but simply made of collages of notions and little innovations.)
In fact, concept is the furthest thing from a wow-factor, and it does not need to be explained in one word. I rather refer it as a continuum of overarching narratives to relate the specific context to the architectural content within the design spectrum. It is highly idiosyncratic, radical, and the validity of designer’s decision of his/her architectural approach. I would perhaps see it as series of speculative justifications of personal enthusiasm in architecture, that sometimes conform, confront, collide, or conflict to emerge an accent or expression reflecting to the context. Subsequently, it could be extremely explicit, intensively intellectual, or inherently profound, depending to the designer’s approach.
The context and concept are always correlated, in either way creating equilibrium or tension of the shaping of architecture. This could be what I believe a well-crafted and sophisticated architectural design thinking. Whereby the content is everything that is being positioned and pioneer within, and sometimes beyond the context and concept- that would be another story instead.