April 29, 2013, by John Noble

In Search Of That One Impossible Move

“By incorporating (all the concerns of all the stakeholders, including the site and the society) instead of reducing them to the lowest common denominator, you avoid compromise. Instead of meeting halfway, you oblige yourself to solve everything - to keep looking until you find that impossible move that takes into account ALL of the concerns of the project’s constituents. Then suddenly the functional and the fantastic become collaborators and you as an architect don’t have to refer to french philosophy, the kabbalah or whatever source of energy an architect may use ... Architecture becomes a consequence of, and an answer to, a (the) problems in society.”  - Bjarke Ingels from “Yes is more” with emphasis and parenthetical modifications by me.

jn program diagramIt seems like there are two extremes in the way we architects often think in and about our work - either we spend an awful lot of energy trying to invent systems of meaning for projects or, alternatively, we completely ignore the meaning of what we are making and focus on solving a limited number of parameters at the exclusion of all else. What I appreciate about the above cited quote from Bjarke Ingels’ monograph “Yes is MORE”, is that he is proposing a third way of approaching design, a way that incorporates a wider view or set of needs, and then insisting on a solution whose meaning is generated in response to those needs, be they economic, cultural, programmatic or technical. I especially love the part where he imagines “the functional and the fantastical” as collaborators for its optimistic insistence that great architecture is both pragmatic AND delightful, both about drainage and exits and about a particular quality of light or shaping a singular spatial experience.

jn interiorThe process he outlines is difficult and time consuming because he and his colleagues don’t let themselves off the hook with a solution that solves only most of the issues. And it often results in projects that challenge one’s initial expectations of what a building “should” look like. But what really draws me in to the work is the way they demonstrate, in a step by step manner, the almost Sherlock Holmesian way that they strip away all the options that don’t work until all that remains, however fantastical, is that one impossible move which now, in the context of this rigorously rational process, seems completely obvious as the absolute right solution. The solutions seem simple, but like anything that looks easy, they demonstrate a tremendous amount of creativity and innovation.

r se ext 11x17In many ways, one of the most valuable lessons  to be learned from this, aside from the value of tenacity and flashes of brilliance, is the power of a process - creating and sticking to a set of strategies all the way through, from the blank sheet of paper, through the inevitable frustration of multiple failed or bad ideas, through the euphoria of the break-through and the agony of the discovery of inevitable road-blocks, to the end - a completed project that addresses the needs and desires of the client, strengthens its community, respects its neighbors and improves the quality of life of its inhabitants and the environment in which it is situated.

This is NOT the easy way out - it requires a high level of commitment and a great deal of time and energy, but it generates a result that is clearer, simpler (both conceptually and, often, constructionally) and, frankly, just better.

And I love that the book is in the form of a comic!

*Note: The accompanying images were created as a hypothetical design exercise, trying to incorporate the processes  and strategies described above and utilizing the program for a new School of Architecture to be located in a former warehouse.