Architecture is unique for its blend of art and science. Architect Antonin Gaudí, for example, is world famous for his unconventional shapes, colors and textures. But, at the end of the day, his designs for the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell and other noted structures had to be technically sophisticated enough to reach into the sky without falling down and to last for centuries.
In a profession ruled heavily by technical and codified requirements, what room is left for creativity, and how does it shine through?
We posed a series of questions along these lines to some of our staff members, and some themes emerged.
The architectural design process starts with understanding the client’s vision and needs, as well as the context of the project, and then touring the site. During the first site visit, the architect is looking to learn more about the texture of site, its environs and neighbors, its history, the social and environmental aspects, sun angles, views and more.
After this visit, the architect needs a creative spark. From this spark comes the design concept around which the rest of the project falls into place.
“With a strong design concept, all other decisions fit easily into a framework,” said Sandy Gramley, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C. “As other people get involved, the design concept can guide them, too.”
For example, knowing that the North Pleasant Valley Desalter Facility in Camarillo, California was located on the border of the city, Naveen Waney, AIA, decided that using ‘gateway to the city’ as his design concept would spark the rest of his design.
Kristin Holbrook and Yolanda Velazco used a photo of a beautiful sunset as creative inspiration for the Oceanside Crisis Stabilization Unit color palette.
Sourcing a Spark
Where do these sparks come from?
In addition to the two examples above, the proverbial spark can come from anything.
“I look at lots of different resources,” said Naveen. “It might come from flipping through a magazine, from past projects or just about anything.”
The ‘just about anything’ often includes nature.
“We see a lot of nature-inspired design, including biophilic design,” said Sandy. “Biophilia is the practice of taking concepts found in nature and bringing them into design.”
She referenced the inspiration a fabric designer found in observing how geckos’ feet stick to surfaces to then create a removable wallpaper, and an engineer’s study of how a cactus sheds water in that engineer’s efforts to design a water preservation system.
Naveen also credits architecture schools for helping budding architects build a strong foundation for creative spark. History classes, for example, are helpful for reviewing magnificent architectural examples from the past and then working backwards to understand them, he said.
Kristin agrees, and added that travel is also important for sparking her creativity.
“Travel is a big inspiration for me personally. I don’t always get to execute the ideas I generate right away, but it opens your mind to a different aesthetic possibility.”
Sandy pointed out that technology has opened up travel as a design inspiration for designers who may not have the wherewithal to jet to a faraway destination. With the vast resources of the Internet, including Google Earth and three-dimensional or virtual reality tours, architects can expand their creative horizons much more easily than in decades past.
The Role of Technology
Technology, however, can be a double-edged sword.
“Now, computers allow conceptual designs to develop three-dimensionally much faster,” said Sandy. “But is that better or worse? You still have to be able to do a lot in your head. [Formulating the design] without a computer can be a slower process that gives you time to work through some parameters. Conversely, a computer offers more opportunity for iterations.”
Naveen added that technology can work in the opposite direction of modeling, but neither starting point is right or wrong. “My generation learned by sculpting with chipboard, but now many architects are used to having environmental data and light studies that they can use to work backwards to shape the building,” he said.
Despite technology comprising a significant part of her architectural education, Kristen realizes the standard options available in many software programs can stifle creativity.
“If you rely on technology over drawing, you can let it make all the decisions,” she said.
Will I Dream?
In 2010, the sequel to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the partly sentient computer HAL asks, “Will I dream?” – a chilling reminder that we don’t expect a computer to think like a human. It is, in fact, the human element that an architect must be responsible for infusing into a project.
“The architect has to understand where the project’s stakeholders are coming from,” said Sandy.
We need to step into their shoes, especially to have cultural sensitivity if that’s something relevant to project.”
Civic projects make up a big portion of our work at Platt/Whitelaw, so we often seek input from many different people and groups.
“[Community input] will always color your perspective,” said Kristin. “The architect should be sensitive to it and ask, ‘Who is this project is for? What is their culture? How do we honor it in the design?’”
Kristin added that as equity and diversity advance in the architectural profession itself, the shift will “open up exciting opportunities for creativity to unfold into projects” and to reflect sparks from more types of people.
As our staff contemplated the role of creativity in architecture, Naveen offered a good summary.
“Creativity doesn’t stop or have a specific place. It needs to continue through to building occupancy. It’s expressed consistently in figuring out how the pieces fit together.”
Photo by W K on Unsplash