On Concept

How can ideas and beliefs not embodied in design can be manifested and explored in built form?  It is easy to see a gulf between the two, the theory as abstract and the building as very much physical.  Their relationship can be difficult to grasp: a conceit, developed by architects for discussion in their own language and within their own world – one in which a few choice lines can summarise a building.  Yet there is much architecture in which design and concept clearly do play mutually supportive roles.  How, then, is this made legible?  Clearly it rests partly on that which is distinctive about the design: the dominant use of materials or a striking play of light suggests that these elements feature in the concept.  But at some point it crosses the line into an abstract, theoretical world: light comes to mean religion or emancipation, material to mean truth, and the intellectual game is played which depends on learned associations and familiarity with precedents and a convoluted architectural lexicon.

So, then, is the sceptical view: that a concept is a plaything for the theorists and means little more.  But it is undeniable that the majority of people, though they may not be able to express a built concept as the architect would, still experience it in what can be a very powerful way.  To move between darkness and light, to touch an exquisite material, to hear footsteps: these need not be understood in their analytical, academic context to be rich and moving.  It may well be in these cases that the concept acts as a cue to an architect, a starting point for the derivation of a strong architectural experience, with intellectual side there only for those who dig into it.

If this is the case, why is it necessary?  Why not accept that architectural design can simply be experiential, tied together with the careful consideration of people and dwelling, of moments of inhabitation and comfort and opportunities tied together in space in such a way as to offer delight?  ‘Intensifying the sensuous qualities of life through a careful crafting of the shapes, materials and environmental dynamics with the goal of enhancing an individual’s physical sense of being’?[1]  The phenomenological approach- sufficient.

wood grain, hatfield house

The answer, I suppose, is that concepts are always lurking in the wings.  Architecture is in this way laden with conceptual baggage against which every decision is a statement. To design a wall is to immediately offer reference to concepts, to invite in ideas of shelter and subdivision of space, of planes and materiality and more.  The same is true of every move made, whether for a window or a fireplace or an open span.  Seen from this angle, it appears that to have a concept is not so much a conceit but a way of organising and managing the ideas in play and controlling the references the architecture begins to make.  It is to accept that people understand architecture within a frame of reference that includes everything from churches to shopping centres, old to new, high to low, and make associations accordingly.  Giving conceptual thinking a place within design is thus a matter of recognising the ideas that are inevitably at play, to place them in the context of the scheme and its aims, and to seek to investigate and better understand them through design.

And that, perhaps, is the crux: not to have a concept to execute in design, but to allow the process of designing to develop the understanding of the concept.  This is what takes the notion of a ‘concept’ beyond a conceit for architecture schools – the summation of a scheme in a neat diagram – and into a powerful tool which not only draws quality into the architecture but is also a path for critical examination and discovery.  Much of the potency of architecture as a field of study lies in the way in which it draws on a wide range of disciplines.  Perhaps as critical is the way in which it moves fluidly between the academic and the actual, inviting ideas to face up to the challenges and tests of real life and to be enriched by them.

Concepts don’t exist, really.  They are a frame for organising a scheme and a way of describing the conditions it seeks to investigate.  To believe that the concept can make a scheme good is delusional: a concept is only as strong as the scheme it serves.  Accept them absolutely as a starting point, a springboard for diving deeper into the possibilities of architecture, a way of accessing the value of precedents, an explanation of the drivers of the scheme, but accept also that they are nothing but tools and that they should be informed by the architecture as much as they inform it.


[1] ‘The Richly Designed Street’, by Coll Howard, in in Multiplecity, ed. Sophie Wolfrum and Winfried Herdinger, 2008,Jovis,Berlin.  pp. 121