October 10, 2013, by John Noble

Metaphor and the Generative Idea

“nothing is superfluous, and everything justifies itself by contributing to [a] central generating


E. Fay Jones, “The Generative Idea,”

Landscape Architecture, May/June 1983, p. 68.

“I’m interested in a concept, an idea that is more meaningful than a formal strategy, though formally distinguished, as I would hope that my work over the years shows... That’s what I strive for in my work, a conceptual stratagem in response to the special conditions of every project. I try to come up with a concept that has a deeper meaning than just a form, and to use that to tie everything together.”

Steven Holl

by Joseph Masheck




Here is a joke for you:

What’s  a metaphor?


(say it out loud to yourself, preferably with a little bit of a cowboy accent)


I love that joke. I like it because it is really dumb, but I also like it because it hints at a theme that I have consistently struggled with in my career – When does a metaphor stop being a metaphor and become something else, perhaps an impediment to moving forward.


put another way, what is the role of metaphor in architecture, both the process and the product. When I was a grad student I took a field trip to Arkansas and Oklahoma to see work by Faye Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright. The buildings were beautiful (Thorncrown Chapel was a life-changer) but one of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the chance to meet and hang out with Mr. Jones himself. He spoke about several of his projects and touched on the theme of the “Generative Idea” and invited us to tour a construction site with him. When I got back to school I looked up an essay of his by that same name. It shaped the way I think about and approach the act of design to this day.

So what is a generative idea? It is a conceptual scaffold on which to hang your earliest design ideas until they accumulate enough structure to stand on their own. Steven Holl starts every project with a generative idea drawn from such esoteric fields as quantum theory, discrete math, advanced musical composition, even a Picasso painting. The purpose of the idea is to help the architect shape the overall organization of the elements of the project into something that has an intrinsic weight that is greater than a simple arrangement of spaces but attempts to speak to something deeper in the mind and heart of the inhabitant.

Recently we have been working on a kindergarten that will be built adjacent to an existing building. While we want the new construction to blend with the existing and form a coherent whole, we also want the school itself to be magical and engaging, so we hit on the idea of a geode as our generative idea. Geodes are formed when air pockets in the earth gradually fill in with mineral deposits borne by water infiltrating the soil. Over time a hard stony crust forms on the walls of the pocket and, as more minerals filter in, they gradually crystalize, resulting in a hollow ball, tough on the outside, relatively smooth, flinty looking and grey – like a rock. But when you cut it open it is full of glistening jewels and sparkly prisms – a perfect metaphor to guide the design of a kindergarten that whose primary function is to protect and nurture the youngest of our children making their first foray out into the world, and whose physical center and pedagogical focus is a central courtyard with sandboxes, frog ponds, trees to climb and a stage and amphitheater.

Of course, in the end, a building is a building, not a sponge or a rock or a harmonic convergence, so there has to be a point at which the scaffold drops away, leaving the building to stand on its own. And this is the struggle –defending and maintaining the integrity of the concept while accommodating the critical realities of construction like budgets, code reviews and flashing details. Gradually, the emphasis moves away from the concept and toward the real, but if one is attentive and keeps the idea in the back of the mind as a measuring stick and touchstone for each twist and turn in the process, just as a body follows the lines of the skeleton within, so a building with a strong generative idea will retain a fundamental, sparkling  core which shapes the experience of inhabitation in fundamental ways, perhaps unnoticed by the vast majority of people but there to be discovered by anyone willing to dig just a little bit below the surface.