July 09, 2009

The Boiling Soup Method - Or How I Design Architecture

Yesterday, I sat in the cold, cramped department conference room during architecture theory class and half listened to my professor while skimming one of the assigned readings I had failed to read before class. In the middle of that, when my attention is suspended over the chasm of boredom between the two continents of attentive listening and attentive reading, when the pot boils. I have a lot of pots and I leave them simmering on the back burners of my mind. I occasionally toss in new spices, extra vegetables, stir the contents, sniff the steam, but ultimately but them back on low heat. I’ve found that turning up the flame usually doesn’t help the contents cook any faster.

This particular pot is labeled Windhorse/Architecture. I have been intentionally neglecting it for some time. The architectural phase of my thesis for Windhorse Retreat Center in Wisconsin won’t officially begin until Fall semester and I don’t want to get wedded to one idea too early. But the pot boils when it boils, when all the necessary ingredients have been added, whether I’ve been paying attention or not. Each ingredient is a thought, idea, knowledge, data, picture, experience, sight, sought, or phrase someone spoke when I was only half paying attention. They mingle together in unknown and subconscious ways until, POP, just like that, they boil.

A design blossoms fully formed in my mind, geometric shapes and arrangements and relationships, tectonic manifestations in solid materials and spaces, traffic flow and compass directions, movement of light and wind, and changing of seasons. I see it all in three dimensions and the train goes barreling away willy-nilly, unfurling a banner of potential solutions behind it. And even though I’m envisioning formally (as in ‘forms, shapes,’ not ‘proper, strict’), in terms of cubes and cylinders and serpentine shapes that defy geometric description, each one responds to a specific series of non-formal criteria. “Oh, this set of forms would describe the entry experience!” or “This relationship between spaces would be ideal for service deliveries,” or “This shape would allow light from above and create a stack effect to help passively regulate ventilation,” and “This is how it would sit on and integrate with the site.”

While I’m sketching it out, mentally, I can’t possibly explain all of the ways in which this design satisfies all of the (sometimes contradictory) requirements of the design program, which went into the pot as the basic broth months ago. But it’s all in there; it hasn’t boiled off. I get the shapes, then I get the relationships, then I get the tectonics, then the aesthetics, then the temporality, then the process, the theories, the metaphors, the poetry, but I also get them all at the same time. It’s not a condition where I get the shapes, then have to revise them when the relationships don’t work, then have to revise the shapes and relationships when the tectonics don’t work, so on and so forth. Everything comes as part of a cohesive whole.

This is how the Shambhala Dining Hall came into being. It boiled during mid-morning meditation of the Shambhala Level III training program. I waited a long time after that before I wrote anything down, put anything on paper, because I wasn’t sure the design would hold up. I didn’t trust my experience because I hadn’t had it before. I thought something else might occur to me. After I wrote it down and showed it to my professors and classmates, I held my breath and waited for it to be ripped into tiny, little, itty, bitty pieces. Because that had been my only experience up until that point. But in the end, there were only a few minor critiques and changes. The design proved to be robust, fundamentally workable. At final review, it essentially represented those first few sketches. Even the most critical of professors were hardly able to deny it did exactly what I said it should do, or that what I said it should do was fundamentally correct. They looked and said “Okay, that’s works. I get it,” and they left scratching their heads because that was an experience they had seldom had before.

What I find is not unknown to me. Like any good soup, we can identify the individual tastes, spices, and ingredients that create it. I saw that bit in the latest magazine, found this idea in a book, pulled that from the mandala principle, saw that on the building site, heard about that in a dharma talk, discussed this with my friend, dreamed that the other night, have always admired this in another’s work, etc. It just amazes me how the mind functions without our being conscious of how it is working at all.

I have no idea how this pot will turn out. I may have to throw it out and start a new batch. That’s always a possibility. This one could still be ripped into tiny, little, itty, bitty pieces. Only time can determine if it is fundamentally workable or not. Either way, there is no reason to get attached, although I know I’ll struggle with it anyway. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Until then, I’d best keep it a secret. No point in giving them a target too early. Professors tend to get annoyed when you can’t show your design process. They tend to want dozens upon dozens of sketches and models and a hundred completely different solutions, just to show that you’ve actively and attentively studied everything. For myself, if I look at something and find it doesn’t work, I don’t feel the need to waste a scrap of paper on it. Most people don’t live their lives so fully inside their own minds. That’s probably a good thing, but problematic when attempting to lend legitimacy to one’s efforts when no physical evidence of such exists.

Professors don’t tend to appreciate the boiling soup method of design.

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