Program is a word that architects use in a way that only architects understand. For most everyone else, a program is something that is installed in a computer or an football team and organization with an overzealous coach. But for architects program is… well, what is it?
The term has been defined many, many different ways over the history of architecture. For modernists, program is function. Form follows function and what is function but the list of activities that are done in a space or building. More specifically, program was the ‘spatial relationships and other physical conditions required for the convenient performance of specific functions. For Rem Koolhaus and Bernard Tschumi in the period they were writing ‘Delirious New York’ and ‘The Manhattan Transcripts’, program didn’t exist. To paraphrase, a subway station could become a church, then a nightclub, and then a farmer’s market. They argued that buildings and spaces had a complete interchangeability of form and function, with neither following or leading the other. In stark contrast to modernism, program was in reality, indeterminate. So what is program today?
Architects and architectural academics today see program differently and in my opinion, the current definition of program is one that might stick. Program, much like the computer reference above, is active and the architects are the programmers, creating forms, shapes, and space with agency. Broadly put, program is the question and architecture is the answer.
If someone presents you with a problem, the assumption is that you will solve that problem, employing your skills to provide a solution. In the design world, that solution is a built product, something that actively solves a problem. To me, that means that a material employed in the design is part of the solution as much as the plan layout. The way in which the question of a project is answered is broadened from organizational elements to include form making elements, engineering systems, specific project requirements such as acoustics, and the list goes on. This opens up projects to be driven by any portion of the program, from the mechanical system driving interior organization to a reinvention of the shape of a lap swimming pool generating the form of an entire building.
To me, what this means is that the architect becomes the programmer, the person along with the design team, who define the project. The list of specific requirements and square footages that the Client provides at the beginning of the project become the parameters to which the architecture is applied. Beyond that, the architect takes over the programming of the building, adding energy efficiency to the program, adding social aspects of a project to the program, and giving these additions weight in the design. The architect and architecture, in redefining program, can move beyond the minimum requirements to make buildings that act and are active.
 John Summerson, “The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture,” 1957