Design as a Verb

Paul Haack, AIA

June 15, 2019


VII. Notes on Design: Design as a Verb

Drawing  |  a way of seeing and thinking
Visioning  |   the embedded diagram
Researching  |  nature and precedent
Exploring  |   the sketch problem
Iterating  |   the uncanny discoveries of the repetitive
Crafting  |  connecting drawing to making
Feeling  |   assessing character

The term ‘notes on design’ is intentionally vague to suggest that design, specifically the process of design, can occur in a variety of ways. I do not believe in a design process generally. I think the thing that is most important about the design process is the depth of exploration relative to program, context, craft and character that will yield a relevant architecture. The complex variables associated with each of those poles of development and the importance hierarchy plays in considering the influence of each of the poles of development yields the reality that program, context, craft and character are re-shuffled based on different circumstances. My interest has less to do with finding a specific and consistent process and more to do with identifying those circumstances of experience that inform the depth and hierarchy of the exploration that leads to the desired outcome—in our case: relevant architecture.

Each designer must find the path that enables them to unlock the potentials of a project. The following thoughts about process are some of the ways I found to be helpful in addressing the four poles of exploration. Of course, there are many more possible methods of design that can be used during the process and each has value. The processes that I am offering in this narrative are ones that I find to be the most accessible and fruitful in terms of discovery; they bring to the fore the things that matter most.

For me, the design process, at least in its earlier stages, is about possibilities and exploration rather than representation and confirmation. Implicit in the word ‘process’ is a realization that exploration occurs in a sequential manner originating with the unknown and the notion of ‘beginnings,’ proceeding through the murky ambiguities that honest questions reveal and ending with propositions that give form to program, context, craft and character.

I believe the most important ingredient of any design process must be time. Design is not for the swift. Design is hard, and it requires a significant amount of time to ask questions, explore possibilities and if, necessary, go back to the beginning. Time is an essential prerequisite for the iterative process. A process that acknowledges the slow fermentation of an idea, the regeneration of an idea based on a heightened awareness of the problem and the transformative aspect of repeatedly drawing the same thing lessens the impulse for the heroic gesture or pre-conceived idea. And when there is the inevitable preconception, process places it within a broader context of truths that challenge those visceral impulses or, at the very least, makes them much better. As David Ross Scheer instructs in his book The Death of Drawing:

“Focus on the process rather than the state of a project at a moment in time is essential if the project is to be capable of discovery or anything beyond the mere will of its designer. It allows the project to ‘speak’ to the designer, maintaining the architect in a receptive state of mind necessary to remain alive to the complex forces acting on the design and alert to the new possibilities they raise.”

Drawing – a Way of Seeing and Thinking

There are several different media and methods available to an architect to engage a design problem. I believe that all have their place. Sketching, hand drawing, computer drawing, simulation models, photography and many others can be essential at various points along the way. However, I believe that alone among these many techniques, drawing is uniquely suited to exploring the depths of any exploration of program, context, craft and character, especially in the earliest phases of design.

Drawing simply connects a designer with the myriad of influences, thoughts and perceptions that exist in the beginning of any architectural problem. Drawing alone enables the architect to record the ambiguities and complexities of often fleeting realizations in an immediate way and to recall them when they have meaning or application. Sketching and drawing are uniquely suited to exploring program, context, craft and character because they allow you to explore all aspects of an idea simultaneously. The interplay between each of the poles of development are given equal representation as they are conceived. Drawings can represent the ambiguity, vagueness, contradictions and overlapping intentions that are the result of any open-minded investigation into an architectural idea.

Drawing is a unique and personal activity that enables the designer to touch the ideas with his or her hand and pencil. The pencil becomes an extension of the hand which connects designers to their emotions and intellect. The drawings are a direct product of this interface and allow architects to “see” and “think” in a haptic and imaginative way. This can only come through drawing. Drawing, in its many manifestations from the gestural line to the worked image creates a bridge between imagination, perception and reality. Drawing is the natural and only vehicle for exploring how to be in the world.

Sketching is important at the outset of a design process because the ideas and thoughts about a project remain as gestures or some emotional or psychological response that has not found its place within the scheme. Nonetheless, it remains on the page in a dormant state, a visual reminder of ‘what can be’ as other aspects of the problem are explored. The resulting multi-layered realization of the problem can only be captured by drawing.

This is not to say that computer drawings or parametric modeling is of no use. Quite the contrary. Computer drawings and the relative ease of quantification and qualification that comes with that is essential to making drawings more meaningful. Additionally, computer drawings and related software applications give us access to parts of the project that were beyond reach previously. I believe both are necessary at the right time within the process. The important point to make is that one should not cut short the depth of the exploration in exchange for some false sense of resolution. The danger in prematurely resorting to the computer image is a sacrifice of depth and richness in favor of image. The image will come—give it time and, more important, give it substance.

Visioning – the Embedded Diagram

A diagram is an abstract representation of intent or better yet, content. I would say that a diagram is often associated with describing the ‘order’ of a design. A great embedded diagram seems to capture the ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’ in a provocative assembly of gestures, marks and imaginations that reveal a project’s essence and the designer’s innermost realizations about a project. In contrast, post design computer diagrams à la Richard Meier’s beautiful monograph diagrams or the diagrams found in books such as Analysis of Precedent, offer analytical analysis of buildings already complete, and as such, can maintain a distilled simplicity.

Generative diagrams, on the other hand, require the emotion, contradictions, speculations, and propositions of embedded content. They should be messy things. Diagrams, when they are most illuminating, seem to tell a complete story. Often that story is portrayed in a medium not usually associated with the diagram. For instance, words and images often do a better job of describing or unlocking the essence of a problem compared to a more conventional diagram. However, the more conventional diagram is often explicit in its intent relative to the order of a building; this is an indispensable tool in offering a road map for investigation especially among a team of designers.

I believe that the diagram, in whatever manifestation, is essential to any design task. It is the raw stuff that you return to when faced with decisions of appropriateness or when the process jumps the rails. More important, it is what you come back to in order to discover the generative spark that was paramount at the inception of the project. The pre-conditions for diagramming are first, it must define an underlying order—a way of engaging the design that is accessible to anyone working on the project, and second, it must be hand-drawn. The act of drawing and writing connects the designer with the act of building through imagination. The essence of a design exists in the realm of the unknown; the medium of drawing, by its very nature, enables us to explore those depths without the preconceptions and certainty necessary with other mediums.

Beginnings are everything. Diagramming, in all its manifestations, is about beginnings. It captures the unbridled thoughts and aspirations of the designer. In addition to graphically describing the order of a building, these abstract marks or pictorial gestures denote some hidden aspect of experience, of psychological memories or some hidden quality of a site. Together, this conglomeration of seemingly disparate notations captures the essence of the building. Nowhere else in the process does the designer have such freedom, visceral energy and range to express where the project ought to go—it is visioning ‘beginnings.’

Researching – Nature and Precedent

Research is often a neglected but important part of the design process. It is particularly well-suited within the framework of program, context, craft and character in establishing a solid point of departure for exploring the problem. Of course, there are many aspects to research: building materials, systems, sustainability, site analysis, building performance and many others that can and should contribute to architecture. However, there are two areas of research that I believe are particularly suited to the beginnings of a project: nature and precedent.

In the section on Program, I summarized the task at hand with the questions ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’. The first question deals with the nature of program while the second addresses the propositional responsibility of architecture. It is difficult to assess or speculate ‘what can be’ without really understanding ‘what is.’ Whether it is a teacher in a fifth grade class, a researcher in a materials science lab or students living together on a college campus, the architect has a responsibility to understand the nature of those activities. Only then can one begin to explore and propose an architecture that enables these programs to exist in a new light—a light that illuminates a way towards a new proposition about program.

Diagramming the processes of program or annotating a diagram or plan that speaks to ‘what is’ is the fundamental point of departure for any design problem. It seems so obvious, but all too often we, as architects, never develop a deeper understanding of the activities and processes that we are allegedly designing for. The profound architecture of the Salk Institute was the result of Kahn’s insistence on understanding the rituals of a research scientist (especially in light of the shortcomings at Penn). His observations and conversations with Jonas Salk resulted in a proposition (‘what can be’), that remains the model by which all labs are measured.

The second area of research that is important to a design process is precedent. As tempting as it is to believe that our proposals for a design are novel or inventive, the sobering truth is that more than likely your proposal has been explored, in some form, in the past. The design may not be the same, but it is logical that someone else struggled with the same issues as yourself (what is has always been). Architecture, like law, medicine and literature, is built on a common foundation and advanced by way of a common language in the form of precedent and history. It makes sense that a precedent study should be one of the first activities in any design process. Precedent is the category of research that connects us to the long architectural heritage that is shared by all of us. Developing a meaningful precedent study is a way of having a dialogue with architects of the past. Precedent study is digging deep into a particular building to find the underlying structure of ideas. Precedent study is not a stylistic exercise where copying a particular elevation or detail is the goal. In his book Architecture’s Historical Turn, Jorge Otero-Pailos describes Jean Labatut’s (an early phenomenologist) ideas about ‘reading” historical precedent:

“Reading the building meant searching for the self of the original creator embodied in it while simultaneously looking inward, to one’s self, for the basis of comparison. Once this self-to-self connection was established, then the building had to be consciously forgotten… Labatut boiled down his pedagogy to four steps: ‘learn, assimilate, forget, create’”

Precedent study should be a deeper understanding of the issue at hand through the analysis of built work. Building types (schools, museums, factories), plan types (configurations), elemental types (walls, door, window courtyard) and contextual types (bridge, tower, fabric) are the categories of an architectural language that can be a source for a deeper understanding of architecture. Great work uses those lessons of the past and transforms them into relevant propositions within a new context.

Exploring – the Sketch Problem

The sketch problem is an extremely important step in realizing the potentials of a design problem. Implicit in the term ‘sketch problem’ is the idea that it is a quick generative exercise focused on the content contained in a ‘soft’ rendering or study of the project. The nature of the sketch problem is that it has to do with ‘beginnings’. And here I am not referring to the sequential first step in a process but rather the unencumbered, pure exploration of a complete design proposal. It is the first opportunity for an architect to put into physical form the inspirations and inclinations he or she has about a project. Too quickly, the budget, client preconceptions and other non-architectural concerns will begin to influence the project. The sketch problem is a short and highly generative step in the process that focuses only on the architectural issues associated with program, context, craft and character. For me this is a highly personal journey. The sketch problem is a vehicle for quietly immersing ourselves in architecture; it is about mining the depths of our intuitive impulses at the same time we are exploring the veracity of our initial thoughts about a comprehensive proposal.

Of course, many of these ideas will fall by the wayside as a more in-depth analysis changes our thinking about these ‘ beginnings,’ not to mention the non-architectural influences previously mentioned. But what is most important is that this is the place where we give equal opportunity to the most controversial and visceral ideas we have about a project to understand their value. The sketch problem treats architecture on its own terms and with a passion that is often cooled as the project moves on to a ‘real’ design proposal. It is here that the three levels of perception discussed earlier have a stage to compete with the conventional influences of architecture. This is where the seeds of inspiration are sown.

The sketch problem is not a vehicle for exploring singular aspects of the problem. It is not the tool for finding a diagram or parti, nor is it the place for evaluating plan efficiencies or elevation alternatives. The sketch problem is a way of creating a dialogue with yourself about how program, context, craft and character will influence this project—a first offering of a complete idea about architecture. Site plan, plans, section and elevation come together as our first attempt at achieving the difficult whole. It may be naïve as a final proposal but it is a rich and inspirational point of departure for advancing the design of a project.

The sketch problem is even more valuable when working as part of a larger team. The sketch problem enables the entire team to come to terms with a design problem within a common framework. Each person approaches the problem in a different way and the sketch problem becomes a lens to see the design situation in a new light. The trials and tribulations that are present in every design problem become part of a shared common language and can be re-referenced as the project moves forward.

Iterating – the Uncanny Discoveries of the Repetitive

I believe that one of the more important processes we go through in design is the iterative process. Put simply, iteration is the sequential development and refinement of a proposal based on a new understanding or realization about the problem. Of course this occurs throughout the process and I wish to limit this discussion of that process to one activity that occurs within the iteration of a design idea—the repetition of drawing.

This aspect of the design process occurs within plan, elevation, section and three-dimensional studies. However, I think it is the plan where the repetitive process yields the most architectural returns. As you all know Le Corbusier said the plan is everything and Wright indicated that you can tell how good an architect is by looking at his floor plans. The plan, more than any other dimension of architectural exploration, can record a multitude of architectural propositions within a singular drawing. Order, structure, transparency, volume, surface texture, section and many more aspects of built form can be recorded and envisioned as part of the floor plan. Consequently, as ideas emerge and change in the iterative process it is only logical that a re-drawing, literally, of the floor plan brings forth a new realization of the building through the plan.

Each time I re-draw the plan, it changes ever so slightly but in a way that is more inclusive—a richer expression of the same parti. Elements of the plan seem to go beyond the representational to a fuller expression of the space. As you continue to re-draw the plan ideas of layering, transparency, hierarchy, and dynamics begin to emerge and the two- dimensional plan has become an achievement of spatial composition.

Crafting – Connecting Drawing to Making

Unfortunately, the modern condition has removed the architect from the process of building. The craft of building, which long ago was the responsibility of the architect, has been re-assigned to the contractor, software libraries and trade associations. The sense of immediacy to the act of craft and its relationship to building tectonics has become something abstract rather than the real and haptic process of design. I realize that there are good reasons for much of this evolution. Fees, repetitive systems and litigation put enormous pressures on the design process, but there is still a place for a comprehensive study related to craft.

In my experience, one of the many ways of addressing craft is the process of making the building through drawing. Making large drawings of the elevation, section and plan as part of a single drawing, forces the designer to connect with the myriad of issues that influence a building’s tectonic quality. And this is where the notion of design as verb vs. design as noun is extremely important and revealing. It is not enough to simply produce these drawings as an end product. Their value and versatility are a function of an iterative process of making. It is here where one can immediately move between the section, elevation and plan to explore architectural intent and its relationship to each of these modes of exploration. The initial drawings should be tentative and malleable. Like sketching, they should record possibilities and ideas that have not yet emerged in the drawing.

The drawings should be developed in a large scale. This forces the designer to address the issues that ultimately proscribe architectural craft. Nowhere is the design process as fruitful as this exercise. Constructability, materiality, light, shadow, proportion, function, texture, color, rhythm, human scale, weatherability, movement, durability, design intent and inventiveness all become part of a comprehensive collage of ideas that are discovered and crafted into a meaningful whole by an investigation into plan, section and elevation.

It is extremely important to repeat that this is a process of craft—not a final product. I see all too often people making these drawings with no regard to material jointing, shadow lines, methods of attachment and connection, the physical properties of materials, constructability or any number of tectonic properties, the absence of which result in a naive rendition of the building craft. Ideally, these drawings are not only iterative, but evolve into a final proposal for the craft of the building. The details and haptic qualities of the façade find expression in a final series of drawings that can become the point of departure for the next phase of work.

Feeling – Assessing Character Through Drawings, Words, Images and Text

Admittedly, character, the atmospheric realm of architectural exploration, is much harder to fit into any process. And often the final product exceeds or falls short of the architect’s original intention. As Juhani Pallasmaa has articulately concluded, the atmosphere of any place is a holistic experience—not necessarily reducible to any individual design element or rational analysis. However, visualizing space through drawings, text and images elevates the level of investigation and, in my mind, ensures some level of intentional spatial character. There are ways to explore juxtaposition, legibility, light and shadow, and texture and materiality that offer a path to a more experiential quality in our work.

A building, Kahn proposed, is an assembly of rooms. He went further and suggested that the room itself, not any drawing designation would determine what it would become. Implicit in both of those thoughts is the idea that a room is the point of departure for the architect’s most important task—the assignation of spatial quality. If you accept this, which I do, it seems only natural to focus the design process on the character of interior space.

Once again process is the operative word. Interior space is not something that is developed after the building is finalized and your efforts at an architecture of character are brought forth by a finish schedule and color board. Process suggests the same thought, time and architectural intent that characterizes the development of the diagram or the study of the craft of the building.

I would propose that we think of the same back and forth that is fundamental in the enlarged elevation/section drawings as being essential to the study of architectural character. Light studies, wall surface articulation, volume, and texture could be explored as the plan and section develop.

Rather than the interior being determined after the major design decisions have been made; the study of character should take its place as a form-giver earlier in the generative stages of design

Perspective vignettes, light studies, enlarged elevations, evocative photographs and words describing the aura of a space should have a place adjacent to the plans and sections that typically determine spatial content. When I was in graduate school, there was a studio where the professor eliminated the floor plan and exterior elevations from the required final materials. Instead, students had to design their building and present it to the jury only with interior and exterior perspectives. There were no orthogonal representations of the building. The result was a far more intensive description of architectural experience; instead of a series of geometric relationships in plan, the work focused on the qualities of space. I’m certainly not suggesting that the plan and orthogonal representation of section and elevation are not important, quite the contrary, but the qualities and characteristics of interior space were much more profound than in many of the other studios and suggests a way to engage in a more comprehensive study of character.

Design is a very difficult thing. The avenues of exploration are many and are exceeded only by the number of ideas and feelings one has about a project. It is important to discover a process that enables an architect to achieve both. The very nature of design as a verb suggest that there is a generative exploration occurring, ideally, over a long slow period. My appeal to you is to let that happen in an honest and iterative way. Do not close the door on possibilities because your process doesn’t enable the ambiguities and uncertainties of architecture to linger. My suggestions are only a few of the ways I have learned to design... as a verb.

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