Saturday, May 1, 2010

The type of things

At a GSD urban studio final review yesterday, I saw a lot of matrices, catalogs, tables, charts, templates... No matter what you call it, it's a way of typological study. Based on the philosophical premise of Plato's essentialism, we divide the world into discontinuous and immutable "kinds," or types. Through careful observation and statistical induction, categories are set up to promote a clearer perception of our world. In architectural and urban studies, types have been developed mostly according to the physical characteristics of buildings and cities. It can be geometry, style, or specific elements. J.N.L. Durand, Aldo Rossi, Christopher Alexander, and Leon Krier are all great contributors to the discourse in various ways (urban, suburban, and even - ah! - new urban). Their rational analytical approach provides us with a fresh and clear reading of our built environment. Adopting this methodology, the students developed interesting thoughts on types of interventions (large-scale redevelopments, small-scale catalyze), types of grid morphologies, types of block configurations, types of open spaces (plaza, passage, courtyard), types of dynamic forces (developer injection, local forces), etc. But when they tried to apply these types to actually design, their strategies seemed vague, or even faulty.

Why's that? I think the problem is the lack of a proper gauging system that links expression to intention. Christopher Alexander called his typology research a "pattern language." If design is a language, owning a dictionary doesn't mean you can speak properly. Vocabulary is important but you still need to know what you want to say first. In terms of design, you need to identify the problems and develop a strong concept, then you will know how to select the right design expression from the great manual of possibilities you've prepared, just like picking the right word from a dictionary. A convincing decision requires a palpable reason. Without clear intentions, expressions can be only random and empty.

In the professional world, we do design options. If the design study is rigorous enough, the options would exhaust all types of possible solutions. This is typological study as well. Just unlike the inductive observation in the academic version, this is rather a process of deductive creation. When you have all the possibilities on the table, carefully categorized in different types, all you need to do is to examine and choose the one that serves the design intention the best.

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