What should we mean when we talk about context in Architecture?

As active participants on this planet were always in a state of communication and relationship with the environment around us. Our planet is an active environment that constantly communicates and interacts with us in ways that promote, encourage and enhance both our and its state of well being.

I believe the master architect responsible for designing our natural environment/world was less concerned about physical definition and our obsession over the inclusion and exclusion of the “other” as his/her starting point in design. The starting point for the design of our natural environment in my eyes was developed around the premise of relationships and creating an environment that seamlessly integrates these through understanding the relationship of one element to another. By understanding relationships, you are able to allow that to develop or define the space needed for those relationships and eventually that system to thrive. This thought and observation got me thinking about what context should mean especially within the built environment.

Too often I believe or more emphasis rather as the starting point in design is about the physical relationship of a building to another and the things that come with that. It’s more about what YOU leave out and what YOU put in, how YOU want an individual(s) to experience a particular space almost as if it exists in its own social vacuum. The responsibility rather of any designer who fiddles with habitable human environments primarily, is to listen and interpret the language spoken through the relationships of one individual to another and come to understand how the cumulative relationships that make up that specific community or society allow it to function. It’s from that information that we are then able form the required spaces needed to enhance, maintain or reduce the effects of certain relationships in order to achieve the desired outcome intended by a design intervention.

It is not only not enough but near impossible to plan any addition to an inhabited environment by relying heavily on the erroneous belief that complimenting an environment via physical function equals successful contextual integration or enhancement. In my opinion one cannot simply add on to an environment whilst relying so heavily on this premise alone.

Perhaps this way of thinking can be attributed to how we define our environment. In our environment we purposefully divide physical land into sites, each with its own identity, function, owner and agenda. In a world fuelled by the obsession of the “individual” and our ever growing population, societal dysfunction becomes a natural by-product because of the lack of unity and cohesion that begins to develop in that environment. In relation to the built environment my concerns are how this obsession translates to private land ownership and how we subsequently plan and design through this individualistic paradigm. For example:

Consistent population growth + our obsession with individualization = greater need for purchasable private property which consequently leads to smaller and smaller sites being available and sold for private ownership as availability of land becomes a problem.

What happens now is that we produce large urban environments that are made up of buildings designed around all these individuals in isolation from one another without enough consideration of how the relationships of these individuals affect one other as a collective. Rather we focus heavily on doing what becomes more and more impossible and counterproductive to do which is try to in a world so individualistic, design additions to our environment along the physical relationships and functions of surrounding buildings.

The worse part I believe because of the shear complexity of designing heavily around this idea is that we end up either doing one of the following:

A — Choose to oversimplify how our additions compliment or enhance the physical contextual relationships of surrounding buildings by finding and selecting only buildings that support our additions, or design our building according to only the most obvious and supporting buildings available.

B — The total disregard of the physical contextual relationship (an aspect that we’ve placed so much emphasis on) that’s meant to exist between the proposed building being designed and its surrounding buildings.

The by-product of both these routes is obvious in the extents we go through to protect and safe guard physical real estate/property. I believe the more one feels the needs to safeguard and protect a specific building (which is especially evident in residential areas) the more it is an indication of the total misunderstanding or disregard of the importance social context played when the decision to design or build in that area was made. The more a building or buildings are in sync with their social context the lower the walls become.

I believe the importance of social context is one worth exploring more and placing on the same level of emphasis as physical context in our design processes. Our profession as designers is to serve, because the environments we design are not for us but are to be of service to others. Our goal always is to consider how we can enrich, enhance and advance society because the ability to manipulate and shape spaces is a great power and responsibility.