I recently came across an interesting article in issue 2/10 of the Swedish architecture magazine “Arkitektur” (in Swedish). Written by Thomas Hellquist (TH), the article explores the methodology of engineers, “the culture of the engineer”, how architects adopted this methodology throughout the 20th century, and the inadequacies of these methods when applied to architecture.
According to TH, the engineer works with symptomatic problem solving, using a linear model and addressing one symptom at a time. In the next step, the engineer remedies the problems caused by the previous step’s solution, and so on. This is commonplace practice in most fields these days; the medical field is a textbook example highlighted by the author.
This linear methodology leads to two separate developments: the evolution of specialization and optimization. The symptomatic model produces ever narrowing fields of specialization. Every symptom and its solution gives rise to a new kind of specialist. It is a model that forever leads inwards rather than outwards, where every element becomes smaller and the entirety less and less comprehensible. Optimization is the process whereby the specialists attempt to find the best solution for their particular field, seeking the optimal solution to one specific symptom.
When applied to the field of architecture, the methodology produces architecture that is reduced to the assembly of optimized components, products chosen from a catalogue and arranged in novel fashion according to the Zeitgeist. The result is no greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, in most cases the result is less than the sum of its parts; remedying a particular problem in an optimized way often delivers overlapping and sometimes even contradictory solutions.
The resulting architecture becomes bland and banal. This linear methodology is extremely conducive to focusing on the components and thereby losing track of the whole. The virtues of pre-industrial architecture are described: the architect designed the building as one cohesive system, with specific parts which relate to each other in an integrated whole. TH uses the house on Mommsenstrasse 5 in Berlin in the image above as an example. The author’s argument could even be extended beyond aesthetics to include aspects of sustainability, promoting a holistic approach to architecture and urbanism. And this is the challenge of our age.
Industrial society prioritized cheap production, i.e. economic sustainability, but as more and more people consume the resources of the planet, we need to integrate ecological and social sustainability into the architectural process. These three aspects of sustainability need to be addressed on different scales, from macro to micro, and these in turn need to be integrated with each other. This is an enormous challenge, one that engineering methodology is arguably ill-equipped to handle. There is a distinct need to complement linear methodology with holistic methodology; to define a comprehensive approach to go with the culture of specialization, an architectural methodology.
This is admittedly extremely idealistic. But the challenge of transforming a fragmented, overly specialized system is not limited to architecture; it is relevant for every aspect of a globalized world. The world is one enormous system with interrelated parts. The formula will probably not be a linear and Fordist one, but a much more complex and integrated system approach that will most likely take many years to define.
Great architecture has always been able to take a holistic approach; in fact, its comprehensive design is often what makes it great. This is why all the copies of Mies van der Rohe’s “Seagram Building” are so dull and lifeless, despite their resemblance to the original. The architects focused on the components and lost track of the whole, which subsequently reduced the building to a set of parts. Industrialization made making bad copies very easy, especially of Modernist architecture.
It is too early to say whether TH’s article will spurn a much-needed debate in Sweden. As of yet, I have come across two reactions to the article. One of them, written by Claes Caldenby and Karl-Gunnar Olsson, appeared in the following issue of “Arkitektur” (03/10) (in Swedish) and points out that creating animosity between architects and engineers serves no real purpose.
The article’s illustrative example is a school building by Burkard Meyer in Baden, some 30 km outside Zürich. This is a beautiful symbiosis of architecture and engineering, built with industrially pre-fabricated elements of a refined elegance rarely seen outside Switzerland. Switzerland, like Japan, possesses some of the strongest craft traditions in the world, and these influence and raise the quality of the construction industry. Sweden, on the other hand, lost most of those skills and knowledge long ago. Competent architects have always managed to take a step back and see the whole process and handle it in a successful way, and the example at hand makes an excellent case for that. In the authors’ opinion, architects and engineers can and should work together and engineers are not the culprits in the degeneration of Swedish architecture.
Notably, it does not contradict the original article’s main point: that architecture should not be approached from an engineer’s perspective or as problem solving symptom treatment by optimizing specialists. Architects must be able to step back and see and work with the whole. Let the engineers be the engineers. Architecture is neither a contradiction nor an enemy of engineering – the two fields are complementary. Architecture requires the ability to see the entire image, or as much of it as we can fathom. The task is then to integrate the elements to form a whole, creating a result greater than the sum of its parts. I believe that this is this point TH wants to make; to establish that the methodology of the engineer is more suited to engineering than to architecture.
The other reaction is an article written by Johannes Lilleberg on the blog of a Swedish development lobby group (in Swedish). The article acknowledges the lack of artistic quality in most architecture today and considers this a problem, or symptom if you will, and proposes a solution: that a component of artistic quality be added to the façades of buildings in order to remedy this symptom. The article furthermore proposes that artistic elements could be left to residents or the specialist, the artist, who would then optimize the artistic qualities of the buildings. Interesting.
Cynicism aside, it nevertheless illustrates how deeply engrained symptomatic thinking is in our society. The article does bring up one valid point: the need for political and economical incitements for developers to increase the quality of architecture as well as artistic qualities in the built environment.
In conclusion: architects need to evolve a “culture of integration and coordination” instead of clinging to the prevailing “culture of specialization and optimization” in order to avoid becoming second-rate engineers. Industrialization and modernism made us imagine ourselves as engineers and specialists, but the truth is that we are not nearly as good at being engineers as the engineers; we have a different role to play and we are sorely in need of a different methodology.