Architecture BOOK REVIEW | Operative design + Conditional Design

February 18, 2020 0 By Kailee Schamberger


Hey, Eric here were Thirty by Forty Design
Workshop, back today with a book review – actually two books – sort of a companion set. They’re not new releases, but they’re new
to my library so, I thought I’d share a quick review of them. It’s easy to get comfortable as designers
and rely on familiar compositional tricks that have worked for us in the past, but falling
into these familiar patterns can leave our work feeling stale and uninspired. Learning from the work and processes of others,
outside of our own professional orbit, is a necessary part of keeping our work fresh
and exploring new ideas. These two books do that for me, they’re sort
of like miniature form-making reference manuals. Book one’s foundation is a system devised
for teaching spatial manipulation by the authors while they were teaching at the Harvard GSD. The book is organized into basic formal operations:
subtraction, addition, and displacement, and they are meant to set in motion the designer’s
work. Rather than finite forms or end products they
are the means to an end, a jumping-off point. The book’s diagrams are simple and they
effectively communicate the transformations possible using the one word verb on each page. I view them as a writer might a thesaurus,
as a way to say something more precisely, or a way to color an existing design language. It’s a concise book with only a very few introductory
pages of text in the beginning and as such it leaves room for interpretation, but equally
it leaves out some of the more complex variants of form and space making specifically curvilinear
or non-orthogonal geometries. But, it certainly opens the door to those
prospects with some of the hybrid compositions presented at the end of the book. The bulk of the book doesn’t present the manipulations
as works of architecture necessarily rather they’re organizational diagrams and in this
way, they’re useful instruments for conceptual design; for diagramming. It’s not difficult to envision real work evolving
from each operation and the authors do supplement with real-world examples from notable architects. Conditional Design is an evolution of the
more abstract Operative Design and rightly acknowledges that the conditions of architecture
are defined by more than simple volumetric manipulation, we must also consider the site,
program, light, scale, circulation, and structure. If Operative Design is an abstract manual,
Conditional Design grounds the abstract in the real conditions of architectural design. Now, it’s proposed as a design methodology
but it’s difficult for me to see that here, there are no specific steps per se. There’s transformations, iterations, and rightly,
a testing of ideas. Now, perhaps that’s because although we’re
always seeking a methodology, the design process refuses to be prescriptive in this way, you’re
free to start a design process with any variable you choose, any one you think most important
and then begin testing ideas. These books reinforce that notion. Now, the books may seem to promote a kind
of kit of parts design mentality, one can imagine borrowing the operations or the resultant
forms and collaging them together. Now, you might be thinking, “is this what
architecture has been reduced to, selecting parts and pieces from a catalog?” But, before you dismiss it entirely I do think
there’s merit to it. Timothy Love wrote an interesting article
in Harvard Design magazine called, “Kit-of-parts conceptualism” where he talks about the
value and also some of the shortcomings of this kind of approach. This was actually how I was taught when I
went to architecture school. I, somewhat naively, fully expected to start
right in on day one designing buildings – homes actually – I thought I could choose. But no, in architecture school they start
off by purging all your received architectural knowledge, your notions of what good architecture
is, sort of an informal brainwashing if you will. What you think about architecture is based
on a lot of things: where you grew up, your social class, your culture, where you vacationed,
all the media you consumed. In architecture school they want to start
you off fresh, with first principles; introduce you to space making rather than your baked-in
notions of domestic perfection per se. To do this, they arm you with a kit of parts
and a composition challenge where you can only use the fundamental building blocks of
architecture, planes and piers. They give you a set of basic rules and you
complete a series of abstract projects. What this does is it forces you to think about
creating space first rather than the iconography or imagery of a home, for example. And so, there’s validity to the kit-of-parts
approach but not as the only approach. Architecture is the result of many complex
motivators, formal composition is but one. And, as Love says in his article, “Architecture
cannot only be about itself,” as the kit-of-parts teaching might suggest, it must solve tangible
problems. So, for a kit-of-parts to be truly useful
it has to be informed by other meaningful ordering systems. As a pairing, these two books neatly address
that idea. Now, without question there’s lots of obvious
value here as a teaching tool and so, I think these will be most helpful for students and
teachers. Having said that, I think they also have a
place in the library of experienced architects too and used as a reminder of first principles,
a tool to incite new ideas, and to help counteract our own well-trod – perhaps tired – natural
design tendencies. And, quite honestly, that’s why I picked them
up. I have to admit there’s a certain delight
in flipping through these and whether that’s because of their size, their ordered simplicity,
or just the air of possibility they project, I think they’re hard not to love. The authors’ apt usage of verbs throughout
the book suggests these manipulations are only stops along the way, one in a series
of infinite possible iterations as one digs deeper to find the proper resolution of the
architectural idea. Links are in the cards, buying through those
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