Why Architecture? because a bench is not a bench just because you’ve designed it to be…

The basis of my particular writing comes from something I picked up from my previous studies and frankly am extremely grateful for as it continues to be the springboard to everything else I invest my energy into. I remember while studying whether it was one of my modules in anthropology, sociology or psychology that the main outcome in every module on every study guide was “the student must develop a level of critical thinking”. Now at that time at 20 you can imagine how abstract the whole idea was, firstly, what is “Critical Thinking”? how do you develop it? how do you know if someone has it? and lastly if you eventually do develop it through some divine epiphany how do I use it? For the longest time I didn’t know what that meant and whether after my studies I had subconsciously somewhere, somehow developed what was meant to be taught in those modules.

It wasn’t until after my degree, not immediately, not a week and not even a year later but until my return to academia in 2017 this time to study Architecture that it eventually clicked. When I look back I remember my first anthropology assignment in 2011 it required us to go to a social gathering space, either a restaurant, pub or club and the assignment very simple was to sit quietly, diligently and without directly interacting with anyone in the establishment, observe. That was all. Observe, document, interpret and hand in. Therefore, the only way I can “show” you what I’ve learnt is through my writing, observations and questions posed to you the reader. So let’s hope we catch a glimpse of it in this specific piece.

From that assignment which was one example of many throughout my studies all of which increased in scale, theoretical concept and complexity overtime helped me develop a personal philosophy and approach to problems and how to solve them. I like to compare it to the process of “making by breaking” which is a learning process that stems from the idea that through deconstructing and taking things apart we’re better able to understand and from understanding we are better able to construct. And I personally believe before someone is given the task and responsibility to design or construct anything they must first learn to deconstruct and reconstruct successfully what already exists.

A deconstructed DJI Inspire 2 drone, understanding though deconstructing.

But anyway, before I stray too far from my point, what I didn’t know at that time was that that assignment was my first introduction to an ethnographic study. We had to jot down what social norms existed in the environment both written and unwritten, a fancy term for what were the rules created by those people usually subconsciously that determined how they acted and organized themselves in that space. Along with that we had to sketch the physical layout of the space we chose and describe how these norms governed how people interacted with the physical space.

The most important part for me in that assignment was how we went about this. It was documenting and interpreting the simultaneous action of environment organizing behaviour as well as behaviour organizing environment. It was as if you were watching a dialogue of one informing the other and vice versa, continuously and simultaneously.

I learnt from that that although it’s always going to be a combination of the two It’s not the physical environment that informs the majority of behaviour but the people who inhabit it that inform the physical environment and will ultimately determine whether a physical environment whether it a building, park or office works or not. For example, a bench is not a bench because you’ve designed it to be one, it could be a bed, a shelf, a shelter or several different other things depending on the social context it’s in. Therefore, if we continue to design with the mindset of physical informs behaviour it reflects a symptom of prehistoric reasoning because we as people have outgrown the stage in history where we were completely helpless and at the mercy to the forces of our environment. A bench is a bench then only if it’s used for its intended purpose, or in architecture a public squares’ success is not based on its physical layout but by how people use it.

Arial shot of Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain.

This reasoning comes from the fact of the matter that most people today don’t have the same ability they once had to physically design and use the spaces they find themselves in what they do have however is the independence to decide how they use it and this will happen regardless of the existing physical layout of their environment. People WILL to the largest extent possible alter a physical space to suit their needs, whether those needs are physical, social or psychological it will happen. The evidence again is littered throughout human history, we’ve altered and continue to alter our physical environment to suit our needs the only difference now being that people don’t have the same control that was once so accessible to them to construct places that serve these needs. It’s a subconscious, deep seeded and intuitive process how spaces and places develop, it stretches far beyond the physical, the physical manifestations of places and spaces is only the final almost superficial representation of a long and complex design process. Choosing to analyze the physical as a method to understanding why certain spaces and places work or happen as your point of departure as an architect or urban designer is starting right at the end of this process of design and is completely detrimental to the process of designing successful environments.

In my day to day observations I continuously ask myself questions like why do people choose to urinate in the bush next to a public toilet rather than use the public toilet itself? or why do residents continue to choose to buy their fruit and veggies from vendors and supermarkets when architects and planners continue to add community vegetable gardens to their community design projects?

The answer again I think is simple and that’s because our needs and motivations although manifesting in physical objects and environments stem from much, much deeper social and psychological motivations. It’s how we were able to intuitively in earlier civilizations interpret our needs on all these complex levels and I believe the ability to interpret and understand these needs is what continues to go missing today in design.

Looking back now the most enjoyable part of that assignment and maybe why it was so memorable is how much I was able to understand about a place or space when I took the time to observe it without the intent to disturb it. It was about exercising a level of sensitivity and respect to the people who use that place and saying to yourself and them “you know what you need and I don’t, help me understand”.

The art of people watching is a strong form of social research.

So, for me coming into Architecture it felt a natural progression of my studies, a step further in the right direction. With my reason for studying coming from my studies in Psychology and Sociology which like Architecture I believe centers around people. So then naturally if Sociology and Psychology were the analysis and understanding of the individual and the effects his/her environment has on him/her then architecture has to be the next step of producing environments that accurately interpret the needs and wants of people, right?