Architecture in Real Time
Cameron Armstrong
December 2008

This text summarizes the main ideas presented in Open Practice: 2003, Cameron's intensive description of how CAA's open practice approach emerged. As suggested in the afterword, design has much to gain from research at the boundaries of representation and action, especially from recent advances in social science method and theory.

If you are open to the possibilities of architecture, there might seem no limits on how a new building can transform life and work. Although new construction can be problemmatic and costly, it offers a chance to create enduring change. Critically, good outcomes depend on the understanding between client and architect: where will their work begin, how will it proceed, and what are its purposes? Despite generations of debate, we now function without a professional consensus about design or its goals. There is no common definition of what an architect does, or how, and expectations of new buildings are similarly vague. As a result, with every project there's the chance to redefine what design is, and what it does. For many architects, the passing of traditional and modernist orthodoxies has inspired a retreat into blind representation -- of the past, of the "contemporary," or of theory -- with predictably bad outcomes. Today's buildings are too often subject to a feudalism of outmoded ideas that makes them expensive to build, costly to maintain, and quick to decay. To avoid this fate, it's important to reconsider the fundamental, enduring motivations for construction: to provide physical and psychological shelter, create economic and social benefits, and sustain public and private values. Contemporary design begins and ends in a thorough, critical engagement with those priorities.

It seems obvious that a good place to begin any design is with a clear definition of what is needed. Most clients can eventually document their desires, whether with pictures, drawings and diagrams, press clippings, or simply in written lists. Because a building acts so strongly in shaping the social institutions it houses, any information about future uses or desired effects can potentially be critical to its design. Therefore, such inventories are important tools, not only for the sake of thoroughness, but to gain an expanded functionality for the new building. The point is to catalog every possible interest bearing on the new space, find its voice, and seek its needs. With this approach, psychological factors, matters of intuition and emotion, and those emanating from objective conditions of site and construction will all find their imperatives reflected in the design. This pragmatism ultimately produces clear parameters for the building's performance, which therefore also are standards for judging progress, and deciding when the work is complete. In so radically broadening design, the philosophy of open practice compells a high degree of collaboration between designers, clients, and consultants. This joint effort is ultimately grounded in the client's intimate acquaintance with his or her own needs, and keyed to the critical process of finding consensus on the new building's purposes.

Since a consensus is only as strong and clear as the process behind it, success depends on maintaining openness, both in the attitude of participants, and in the evolving structure of the process itself. Because many aspects of a program are not initially obvious, but are found only as the project takes form, we have developed ways to assure that new, fundamental ideas can come to the fore throughout design. Enthusiasm about (or commitment to) particular features must never inhibit the emergence of new perceptions or requirements. Therefore, we have used these procedures to transform our process into a circular, re-iterative form of research. Our immediate goal is to saturate the project's categories with descriptive information, be they rooms, functions, or elements of the surrounding natural context, such that the information itself begins to indicate spatial and experiential parameters. In the long term, we want to awaken the reality that already exists, implicit in the project. In this way, even objective factors, such as basic site conditions, can acquire a kind of subjectivity, as if possessing sentient purpose.

So, beginning with our basic inventories of needs and desires, the continuing, exhaustive description of physical and psychological factors amasses a storehouse of specific characteristics whose elements each then undergoes a similar process of critical questioning. Once completed, this questioning returns to the original list(s), as if to repeat the process in its entirety. Through such repetition, the program's purposes become fully defined in consonance with the client's needs, and can literally dictate the building's shape. The design and its process become fully parametric. By testing and retesting, solutions eventually attain the stability to resist critique. Ultimately, our commitment to finding the building in the realities implicit in the place and the people who call it into being assures a global reach for their fundamental values, and assures reliable correspondences between intentions and results.

As a result of our efforts to open up the design process, it is now obvious that maintaining an open dialogue between the client and designer is not just a matter of efficiency, but must be a critical focus of the design process. CAA has therefore invested in advanced architectural software to improve collaboration between designers and clients. A design meeting now typically includes (and in many cases simply is) a "fly-through" of the project's emerging digital model, which enables the client to make numerous changes. As a result, client and architect are freed to devote their time together to working directly on collaborative goals, instead of to the time-consuming melodrama of traditional architectural presentations. We have also begun to develop ways of communicating via the internet, such as the Progress Pages on CAA's website, to keep people up to date on our work. The ideal of face-to-face engagement with the realities of the project is accomplished in an increasing number of ways, using new and old technologies. Open design process clearly has affinities to concepts of open source software development, which suggest that its practice will continue to evolve in tandem with these new technologies.

The search for hints of the spaces already reaching out from within clients' lives has underlined how architecture, even that of existing buildings, lives first in the imagination -- how easily the impacts of attention, perception and vision can outweigh the literal regime of walls, doors, wood and plaster. It has also demonstrated how working from within the client's context can transform design decisions into close engagements with important social, cultural and environmental matters. One example was our reliance on visual cues to provide "overlays" of alternative perceptual experiences on a small house's physical spaces. Various arrays of spaces, opening in depth, were designed to provoke divergent feelings of expansion or enclosure, depending upon one's point of view. This virtual dimension was as critical to the building's construction as its physical completion, and lent its narrative of domestic life the aspect of a gesture. In another building, we projected the owner's ethos of civic involvement into a visual language of natural light and spatial expansion that brought its spaces into dramatic engagement with its surrounding gardens and the neighborhood beyond. Its integration of climatic responses and perceptual strategies make the house an example of how both pragmatic solutions and larger meanings can grow out of an exhaustively descriptive approach to the owners' needs.

In recent decades, confusion about the nature of its practice has left the discipline of architecture seemingly without roots or direction. However, in crafting organic relationships between the processes of understanding and those of design, open practice offers it a new, stable foundation. For architects, the chance to systematically focus on particular requirements and basic purposes enables an emphasis on producing architecture, rather than speculating about, or representing it. And, it points to new sources of ideas both within and outside their traditional scope. For the client, its emphasis on the building's completion in moment-to-moment human performance, rather than in the universal but frozen time of symbolic reality, portends a deep functionality. For both, its basis in collaboration promises fuller, more complete solutions. In seeking the emergence of design rather than its assertion, our open practice recognizes that values such as order and beauty derive from process, not imposition, and that a reiteritive, collaborative approach can generate not just patterns of use, but powerful expressions of personal, social and cultural needs. Its critical cycles are not just a way to force facts from conditions, or to search out unspoken requirements, but to ground the physical shape of the future in the full dimensions of the present.

Afterword: Real Time, Considered

Comparison with traditional approaches suggests that the biggest difference offered by an open practice is in how it positions the programming phase of architects' work. The classic modernist view, exemplified in Problem Seeking by William M. Pena and Steven A. Parshall of HOK, is that this early phase belongs to "Predesign." As the terminology indicates, they think deriving purposes and calculating functional requirements should be completed before formally beginning design work, although they accept that serious revisions are sometimes necessary. For them, the need for such changes arises from flaws in the original analysis, usually minor, to be avoided by greater accuracy. These errors need not be interpreted as reasons for critical new inquiries, nor even as particularly valuable information. They are simply technical mistakes, small missteps whose correction is a necessary inconvenience, but which do not raise questions about the structure of the process. Unfortunately, an approach devoted, in effect, merely to uncovering and then confirming existing preconceptions is bound to produce such errors. The recent history of both public and private building in America offers ample evidence of the dysfunction institutionalised by this ideology, even as its incomplete adoption reflects continuing professional confusion. But to abandon the impulse toward the clean linearity of separating analysis from creation, of having one clear, established certainty follow upon another, would leave Problem Seeking without a process to describe.* By contrast, in an "open practice," the focus on developing a reiterative critique comes close to simply eliminating programming as a separate category. This is not to return to premodern approaches, but to absorb the lessons of the problem seekers while acknowledging the limitations of linearity per se. Therefore, for us, the work of deriving purposes and specifying their accommodation, of which revisiting past decisions is an important part, is essential to every phase, and reaches completion in tandem with the design as a whole.

This break has suggestive similarities to the so-called "narrative turn" in Anthropology and other social sciences several decades ago (see Writing Culture, Clifford, Marcus et al. 1986). Where once a positivist bias had seemed needed to lend these disciplines the aspect of "hard" science, many researchers of the 1980's questioned the objectivism it imposed on their studies. Re-assessing the implications of position, voice and rhetoric, they looked for ways to more accurately study and represent their subjects. The result was rapid development of new traditions in "Qualitative Research," which have enabled useful perspectives on the gaining of knowledge about society and culture. Likewise, in architecture, the many professionals now pursuing variants of open design practice are responding to the dysfunction of their traditional and modernist legacies by seeking new grounds on which to advance their work.

It remains to be considered, then, how the new perspectives permitted by an open practice in architecture are likely to change the buildings we build, and the lives they serve. Certainly, projects realized in this way are especially characterized by their specific fit to the circumstances of their design, and to the needs to which they respond. In addition to such specificity, they almost always betray a strong practical bent, as easily seen in the efficiency and durability of their materials. They seem rooted in purpose and utility, rather than in representations or meanings. The process of collaboration by which they come to fruition, in itself, seems inevitably to yield buildings that more directly interrelate their users' inner and outer worlds, while assuring basic functionality. But even more important may be the convergence of all these factors in subtly encouraging a broader and deeper sense of the building's duration, and of the unfolding of life within it. For some, this literally might seem a new kind of time altogether, an organization of duration beyond the reach of clocks and schedules. For them, a design's careful inventories of purpose and attention might open an unexpectedly immediate awareness of both personal and social commitments - such as to career, to family or to community. Exemplified in familiar, creative rituals like those attending an infant's growth, a day's hard labor, or the preparation of a meal, such embodied rhythms can energize this new time simply by turning the mind towards them. Emphasizing repetition and suggesting duration, they paradoxically can return awareness to the present moment of perception. Through the emergent process of their realization, they can construct a time other than symbolic, other than the freeze in history's flow required by a quantified, linear order. For architecture, this would be real time.


* As the book's review puts it:

"... The core idea is profound: Separating programming (analysis) from design (synthesis), brings tremendous clarity to the design problem. Focusing first on the goals, facts and concepts, then translating those into quantifiable needs (independent of the solution!) facilitates decision-making..." The core idea, in other words, is to do one thing first... and then another, and another, with little need for an interim critique of the results.