The art and… what..? of architecture

Incomplete house from Graduate Design Studio II.

One of my greater failures (so far).

Whenever I speak to someone new and mention that I’m in architecture, they’ll say without fail, “Oh, how creative! You must be an artist!” I’ve learned not to argue, to just smile and nod instead, maybe chuckle and say, “Something like that.”

 I grew up in the sciences, on the neuro side of psychology. I threw myself into biology, into anatomy and physiology. Into chemistry and physics, even. I was a research assistant for three years and found myself preparing for med school. My dad, a family practitioner and the biggest reason I flirted with becoming a doctor, once told me about ‘the art and science’ of medicine:

To be a good doctor, you need a deep grasp of the science behind the medicine. To be a great doctor, you need the ‘art’ – the intuition to know when to go with or against what the science seems to say.”

Here I am in architecture now, and I miss the science.

Instructors and jurors have often told me that design is an ‘art’, a form of personal expression. But the design of our built environment transcends artistic expression, carrying deep ramifications for our natural environments and even our inner personal ones – our surroundings influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Shouldn’t we know whether our designs are right, then?

Design, rather than some abstract, mystical force, is a process as learned as it is innate, and it is teachable. And design, like the practice of medicine over the centuries, can be refined through objective observation.

Problem is, architecture often cannot rely on perhaps the single greatest tool of science: the randomized, controlled, double-blind trial. We can’t test buildings or cities across populations of 50 or 50,000 the way we can drugs or physical rehabilitation strategies. Yes, we can test materials and structure, even performance, but not the effects of our designs, of whole buildings.

Architecture can, however, at least draw inferences through observational studies. Examine what we’ve created, learn how well those creations perform with regard to human experience, rather than energy or structure – those fields of scientific study are already advancing. The problem with objectively improving our design strategies, though, is failure. Not the fear of it, but the acceptance of it.

Learning from failure is, at the very least, as important as learning from success. But we don’t like admitting to ourselves that we’ve failed, much less accepting that we have. And we especially don’t like admitting to others that we have. We repress our failures, maybe post-rationalize them. Or we might even shift the blame for them.

Our failures, though, are opportunities rather than humiliations. Shouldn’t we want to know if a project failed and why it did?

If we are to improve the science of architecture – the basis for our intuition, for our ‘art’ of architecture – we can only do so through observation. If we are to rigorously observe our processes and products of design, we can only do so through admitting to and honoring our failures, through studying them and improving upon them.

If we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying. What are your greatest failures?

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