Open Practice: 2003
Cameron Armstrong
October, 2003

This text presents an intensive description of how CAA's open practice approach emerged during the period 1994-2000. For a more readable summary, see Architecture in Real Time.


Architecture, Undecided

The project to design and construct a new building, or to alter an existing one, raises questions of all kinds. People want to know how it will work, what it will do, how big it will be, etc. They also want the answers to fundamental questions about the process they need to follow in order to realize the new structure. But the topics of this writing, queries like "Where should design begin?" and "What are its chief goals?", are no longer matters of easy consensus. Instead, architectural design has come to require a new kind of awareness of its origins and direction, as the following text describes.

It certainly takes no special expertise to see how little consensus exists about architecture's basic subject matter. This might be surprising, not just because people have been building buildings for millenia, but because of the vigorous disputes among the last generation of architects and theorists about this very question. In the 1970's and 80's, books like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Learning From Las Vegas, and exhibitions such as the Museum of Modern Art's Five Architects, stirred awareness and debate about the profession's declining authority, and its ever more permeable boundaries. Then, as now, the foundations of practice seemed uncertain, without principle. As a result, decisions about client needs, physical contexts, and market factors increasingly took on the color of speculation. Exchanges of the period centered on the question of how to plan a structure, any structure, after the collapse of both traditional and modernist norms. Their intensity reflected the concern that, unwisely (or perhaps unknowingly), architects might have yielded their responsibility to shape cities and buildings to government regulators, mercantile speculators, politicians, and others.

To an outsider, the sheer number of proposals might have indicated a useful outcome, or at least some practical guidelines. But instead of establishing new goals and showing ways to reach them, the outpouring of texts, designs and buildings merely reproduced the debates themselves. Calls for a retreat to autonomous, intrinsic values were matched against the chance of grappling with popular culture, and demands for restoration of the old regime. Whether advocating its hypothetical roots in language, economics, history or politics, these proposals forcefully underscored architecture's undecided condition. Now, after a generation of controversy about purpose and meaning, some have argued that the contest itself is a likely definition of the discipline and its practice.

This controversy about the intellectual roots of architecture has served to highlight the need for clarity about its methods, but offered little new knowledge about how it should be pursued. Meanwhile, as both modern and traditional ideals have faded, the need for practical approaches has become increasingly urgent. The failure to re-invent its basic creative machinery has not only produced confusion about the profession's goals and priorities, but real shortcomings in new construction. And, lacking a consensus about the scope and procedures of design, architects have too often found their projects dominated by extraneous social, commercial and political interests. Unfortunately, the spectacular visions of some designers and the dramatic rhetoric of recent movements, such as "Postmodernism" and "Deconstructivism," have yielded diverting imagery and yet more controversy, but not substantive new directions for practice. The materials of debate are simply not those of design or construction. However, even as old ways have unravelled, the basic motivations for construction have endured: physical and psychological needs, economic benefits and costs, public and private values.

Beyond Idealism

For most clients, architecture's chief concerns fall easily into a few simple categories: needs, costs, benefits, and symbolic meaning. Their interest in building is colored by the material gains in utility and status that result. A non-theoretical grasp of these basic purposes inspires a do-it-yourself attitude. As a result, before hiring a professional they will often have written, photographed or otherwise collected a large inventory of images and ideas for their project. In dialogue as often with frustrations as with hopes, they adopt concepts from all kinds of sources -- from long held memories, personal symbols and fantasies of history, to the daydreams of "shelter" magazines. This is how emotional and psychological factors emerge as practical concerns, and begin their projection into the virtual spaces of a new building.

Such list making is inevitable in response to the challenge of identifying, understanding and organizing a large number of interdependent decisions. It seems necessary to the process of rationalizing unformed desires, as well as an essential tool for analyzing requirements. However, historically, architects have more often treated it as a concession to circumstance than as an object for serious attention, a technical chore to be gotten out of the way before jumping into design work based on and valorized by other ideas. As a result, matters of cultural representation and social propriety have usually overruled practical matters.

Due to our doubts about the value of such politics, as well as the theoretical confusion cited above, my clients and I formulated different intentions. We fell back on the certainty that practical performance, broadly defined, would ultimately determine our buildings' success. Wanting to use our inventories as direct sources for design, we tried to understand their inner structures, and broaden and deepen their reach. Because we saw the process of formulating them as critical to their accuracy and usefulness, we wanted certain questions - such as the relative importance of requirements and their interrelations - to remain open as long as possible. The reflections inspired by this approach, and the constant re-questioning of participants it entailed, revealed the breadth of possible perspectives on our work and encouraged the recruitment of new voices to the cause of inclusive, inductive programming. In order to account for the full range of conditions on our buildings, we often, in effect, granted subjectivity even to inanimate factors such as technology and materials. Our definition of a building's site came to extend far beyond its physical setting and climate, to include psychological, emotional and any other matters that could be identified and listed.

Working from within the inside of projects' requirements has greatly increased the collaboration between designer and client. One reason is simply that grounding decisions directly in clients' needs emphasizes their critical role in developing both details and overall visions - after all, who but the client can properly judge any particular solution? Because the consensual "we" of this relationship easily overshadows the disparity in experience between professional and amateur, the architects' rhetoric of special knowledge has become obsolete in our practice. A designer's effort is no longer "on a design," but "with a client." As a result, instead of generalized prescriptions such as the modernists' "form follows function," decisions must be justified in terms of the project's fundamental purposes. Planning a building now seems as much a matter of finding consensus on these purposes, as of working with drawings and models. Faced with the need to base this consensus in facts, not ideology, the intramural thrills of pitting one idealism against another have given way to disciplines of research and specificity.

Process and Decision

As a form of research, this questioning produces a textual guide to each project's unique challenges, and clues to their relative importance. It also constantly points to needs for more information, and suggests new ways to assemble it. The "master lists" that ultimately evolve from this circular, inclusive process can take many forms, in widely different media. More importantly, their logic, and the repetitions of their graphic process - their sketching, revising, cutting and pasting -- can suggest intrinsic guiding questions. In reaching towards intuited visions, and constantly comparing each element with its original impulse, architect and client can use these questions to revise both their goals and the means to reach them. Posed against these inner questions, extrinsic demands of politics or culture can be accepted, or not, on their merits. This cycle of criticism can reach far into design, not only to assure consistency and accuracy, but also to set the terms of its completion.

Simply stated, this approach relies on factors implicit in a project to shape its physical expression and, instead of leaving programming behind when design begins, retains it as a continuing element in the design process. In that process, as drawings and models take the place of two dimensional texts, the architect/client team constantly refers its three dimensional creations to the guiding questions it has discovered. As in Jazz, its improvisations constantly revisit central themes in order to refound the work in essential material. Each return re-situates the team in relation to the key information defining the project, enabling new perspectives and conclusions. The guiding questions themselves may then be confirmed or changed in response to new discoveries. The concern at every stage is, How does this room -- or this opening, or this material -- respond to these critical issues? How does it advance the performance of the project, and the users' performances within it? Such questioning can give global reach to even the most rudimentary list of needs. Although each cycle of reflection upon original intentions has the potential to destabilize, it also promises the eventual proving of the work, placing it beyond momentary dislocation.

One project after another has demonstrated how the factors motivating a building rarely lack implicit architectural gestures of their own. Beginning with inventories and interrogations as described above, design has been most effective when searching out - or excavating, perhaps -- the virtual structures already embedded in clients' dreams of new surroundings, and frustrations at present ones. The existence of such pre-existing templates should be no surprise. Imagine the cook whose cramped kitchen feels ever more confining as his vision of a future space grows vivid. His current frustrations frame the mirror image of a more perfect, yet-to-be-constructed kitchen: he's already working in it, testing its best features, even as the present kitchen crowds his every move. To delve with a client into this inner world is to begin a dialogue that prefigures the completed design itself - at the simplest level, matters distinguished by controversy, resistance or even just close attention must find physical expression in the final building. At whatever level, it is in this exchange, or conversation, that the project's critical subject matter begins to assert itself.

Placing this kind of exchange at the center of design has important implications. Firstly, no single authority can dominate, not least because most people now understand that an autocrat cannot simply dictate the interests of others. In working out a program, many voices should be heard from: with a home, the entire family should have a say; with an office, assistants as well as managers should be listened to. And, for us, the architect is not seen as the only source of good ideas - his or her role has become that of experienced guide. More importantly, with an open process, critical needs that might otherwise remain hidden are brought into open discussion. Rather than falling victim to disruptive "unknown unknowns," the design can give them priority and attention, as appropriate. Then, decisions can be based on common interests. Therefore, whether defining a function or use, a room or relationship, designers should first ask whose interests are at stake in order to engage them in the work. It may be necessary to invent new ways to create this involvement, which can sometimes make the creative process resemble a complicated board game, or a puzzle. Yet, it is only when all voices are heard in open conversation that a design can hope to meet the needs of its users.

Emergence and Practice

The search for hints of the spaces already reaching out from within clients' lives has pushed our design work both inward, and outward. In the first instance, involvement with descriptive techniques has taught how architecture, even of existing buildings, lives first in the imagination: attention and visualization are what ultimately distinguish spaces and functions from eachother; boundaries of perception and concept easily outweigh literal regimes of walls, doors, wood and plaster. We've also learned how working from within the client's immersion in his or her context can transform key decisions - about orienting rooms, creating openings, choosing materials, and about the structure as a whole - into close engagements with social, cultural and environmental matters.

Vision and Gesture

The value of visual perception as an architectural material can be seen in a house built during the mid 1990's in Houston's West End neighborhood. The clients, an artist and arts administrator with a small child, wanted a restful environment supportive of family life and their collections. They needed a conventional inventory of domestic spaces in a very small amount of space, but with an expansive feeling of light and space. Together, we developed a "zigzag" layout that divided the building into two wings, each of which could then front on garden courtyards at the front and rear of the site. The layout of the kitchen/dining/living-room was articulated as a series of telescoping spaces, with interlocking margins set by visual cues instead of physical obstructions. The bedrooms were planned as a complex of interconnected boxes, each with garden access. With views of the gardens through the front door and a glass wall to the rear, the high-ceilinged entry acts as a spatial hinge between the two wings.

The use of perceptual cues was critical, throughout the house, to making it seem full of space, although small. The idea was to use the mechanical gestures of vision itself to shape each room, and direct its combination with others. As an example, when viewed from the entry or kitchen, the dining room seems shorter, and the living room closer and larger, than objective measurements would seem to predict. When experienced from within the room, the same features work in reverse, to make it seem both wider and longer than it should objectively appear. It's as if two spaces, of different dimensions, were overlaid one over the other. This is due to how the rhythm of overhead beams and their supporting columns amplifies the foreshortening of the room in perspective - but in different ways, depending on the point of view. The visual performance of such elements, contrasts of light and shadow, and other cues create similar effects throughout the building. The eye's movement is successively slowed, accelerated and redirected by changes in illumination and contrast. Looking from one room to another, and circulating through them, one feels space to be constantly expanded and collapsed in different dimensions.

With these tools, some activities could be consolidated - for example, the owners' often-simultaneous roles as host, cook and babysitter - while others, such as a seated dinner party, could be given subtle precedence. We also relied on them to accomplish other goals, such as "reaching out" to exterior garden spaces, and providing spatial emphases for the display of art. Virtually every room depends on the use of light, shadow and their contrasts for its functional and spatial boundaries. That a view or movement from one space to another might entail a choreographed perceptual performance, as well as commonplace encounters with walls and furniture, lends ordinary experience an understated drama. The completion of the building's design in materials as much virtual as physical gives its implicit narrative of domestic life the aspect of a gesture.

Program and Engagement

For a house in Houston's Braeswood section, the design was similarly built up part by part, rather than from a pre-conceived template, and relied on perceptual cues to help order its experience. The owners understood that rooms and their combinations could act as well as represent -- that, in a linguistic sense, they could function as verbs rather than nouns. So, they were interested in how the building's spaces might operate socially, specifically in how they might support their vision of family life. Beginning with a room by room inventory, we theorized a system of discrete yet open spaces, which, like the chambers of a coral reef, would have oblique mutual relations, and multiple routes of visual and physical access. Although personal, subjective factors were granted precedence equal to conventional quantitative measures, incessant criticism of each feature on practical and economic grounds assured a sense of objective necessity for each decision.

Like its owners, the house looks strongly outward, its vigorous worldly engagement expressed not just in its plan, but in the means by which it enters experience. Vision and movement are drawn from room to room by the attenuation of light on flat surfaces, and its punctuation by the edges and voids created by contrasting illumination. These planes of light and shadow, which include features such as "drop soffits" projecting outward at upstairs window headers, as well as walls and ceilings, insistently move the gaze towards the light, space and verdant growth of the surrounding landscape. The building's role in supporting the shared purposes of a family home is realized as much in the experiences it engenders, and the way they help to shape common attitudes, as in its literal functions as shelter.

Whereas most of CAA's Houston buildings have been free to use materials practical for the local climate, the Braeswood area had legislated the use of traditional masonry veneers, like brick and stucco. As attention turned from interior requirements to the difficult, semi-tropical climate of Southeast Texas, the challenge of finding a durable application for them loomed large. The chief problem was Houston's excessive sunshine, greater even than at the equator due to the vagaries of cloud cover, which guaranteed an oven-like performance for these materials. Therefore, a roof plan was developed to provide almost 60-inch overhangs, with additional outrigger sun louvers to help shade the walls and reduce air conditioning costs. In addition to augmenting the perception-driven strategies of the interior by serving as visual cues to attract the eyes outward, such overhangs would also help to combat Houston's extreme humidity, which often reduces stucco exteriors to an unsightly, disease-ridden mush. New technologies were also specified that would enhance the building's thermal and mechanical performance - for example, it's one of the city's first geothermally cooled structures, and the surface of its large roof was designed to exploit new, low cost solar energy panels.

The integration of climatic responses with the interior's perceptual strategies make the Braeswood house an example of how both pragmatic solutions and larger meanings can grow out of an exhaustively descriptive approach to the owners' needs. The inner gesture embedded in these requirements can ultimately be as much a creature of the site, considered broadly to include climate and surroundings, as of material and emotional wants. To make that gesture the central condition of a design requires only an inclusive definition of scope, and dogged research. In this case, lifetimes of reaching out via medical careers, community service and family involvements, and the disciplines imposed by climate and technology, inspired an architectural language whose every term bespeaks the owners' specific interests and engagements with eachother, and with the outside world.

The Critical Present

Architects are not supposed to be surprised -- after all, we dimension the future down to the millimeter. However, growing confusion about our practice and its purpose has made design an uncertain process. As described above, there has seemed little chance of verifying our solutions other than repeatedly to ask, "What need, What desire?" in the face of unformed requirements. With persistence, such questioning can yield reliable factual accounts like the lists, tabulations and inventories I have developed with my clients. Fully developed, its discipline of improvised yet exhaustive inquiry promises a reliable replacement for architecture's failing traditions of autonomy and artistic license. Admittedly, without strict conventions by which to assimilate the new information constantly arising from this work, it can sometimes seem wayward, or a little disorganized. Its constant return to basic questions can seem frustratingly circular. But such "controlled indeterminacy" has shown itself to be a rational, productive basis for design, not its obstacle. Instead of the vague, out-of-touch results of traditional methods, its buildings present specific responses to particular requirements, rich with the clear, energetic forms of their owners' lives.

Without the stable norms required by tradition or innovation, there may be no alternative to such open, descriptive methods. The displacement of symbol making from art to commerce, together with the decline of graphic arts like drawing and painting, exemplify design's loss of tools once considered essential. That a building might find completion in human performances, rather than physical construction, is an idea born of present necessities. And that architecture must now be discovered, rather than inherited, reflects a range of involvements beyond the scope of traditional practice. For architects suffering the erosion of their techniques as well as of their claims to special knowledge, the legitimacy assured by close work with underlying causes lends authority to emergent styles of practice. Rooted in engagements with the basic human conditions of lack, frustration and hope, they promise an architecture as comprehensive and durable as the questions, and the questioning they embody.

In insisting on the emergence rather than the assertion of design, such an approach might seem to dispense with the pursuit of higher values such as order, even beauty. However, the example of nature as the emergent system par excellence suggests that such worries are misplaced. In design as in nature, order and beauty are an outcome, not a dictate. Firmness and delight, as well as utility, are results of a process. The most valuable benefits of "open" practices lie in assuring the integrity and focus of that process. Beyond simple thoroughness, and the capacity to rule out undiscovered unknowns, they can restore formal attention to an important category of issues. Their basis in the recurrence of critical questions -- such as, What is this for?, What does it do?, and Who does it serve? -- promises to reconnect design, in general and in each particular instance, with its fundamental purposes. In reaching for a full, justified account of needs and desires, this reiterative, collaborative questioning can suggest not just patterns of function, but powerful images of personal, social and cultural habits. This is not just 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.