September 18, 2012

Know Your Precedents

One of the things all architecture students should do is to keep up to date with architecture news, read magazines, and look at architecture buildings in person and through publications and readings. I remember, one time in studio, that my friend was telling me to probe and ask questions of why you like the image you see. This was the advice of her undergraduate thesis professor. It got me thinking, we’re constantly looking at architectural examples in and outside of class, through books and websites, and in person through trips and site visits. It is imperative that we go beyond the I-like-it-because-it-looks-nice and start to question why we like it defining why we like what we see.

What?/Why?/How? did the architects or designers do to make that space successfully in terms of composition and formal aspects. The goal of your university education is to critically think and ask. As architecture students, we are constantly bombarded with seductive "Archi-Porn" in the form of renderings and photographs. It's easily to forget this simple rule, to ask yourself why that image your seeing is a good design or not.

I remember one of my favourite professors in university mentioned to our class the following: There are two main things we architects think about when we look at a magazine image. We want to know "(1) what it’s built out of, and (2) how it is built." I think after a few years of architecture school, students just don’t look at the Architectural Records, but we also look at magazines like El Croquis, The Plan and Detail which has more technical drawings than just the orthographic projections that we utilize.

You want to probe why you find that building pleasing...or vile. You want to analyze:
- Context
- Materiality
- Light
- Scale
- Detail
- Firm
- Structure
- Composition
- Social/Political/Cultural factors
- Building Code
- Zoning Issues

and the list goes on and on....this is just A FEW of the things of the all-encompassing field we call Architecture!

Immerse yourself in the world of architecture as a student. Study the architecture around you. Sketch, Photograph, Read. The more precedents you know, then you can begin to start generating design ideas. Who are your Archi-heroes and find out why you like them. The more ideas you get from precedents, then you can push above and beyond these precedents in your design project. You can understand the limits where architecture is today, and move beyond. I have a feeling that some my criticize me for the importance of precedent studies, and might argue that we need to go above and beyond precedents. But i’d like to see learning about precedents as the starting point. Sometimes having a few inspirations can help you out of a design block.

From time and time again, since high school drafting class and through university, A lot of people might say that the best designers actually “cheat” and “steal” or copy...but really are creating a remix of what is done to be innovated. There is a recently published TED Talk that was recently produced called “Embrace the Remix” by Kirby Ferguson. Creativity is quintessentially a remix consisting of three parts: "copy, transform, and combine". The talk uses some examples and traces the linkage of precedents in how music and industry has progressed through remix.

I'm not condoning nor advocating plagiarism or blatant copying or stealing, and like all these blogs, use this tip with a grain of salt. Use your favourite examples as a starting point but move beyond. Use the essence or idea of why that example was successful.

One way of being a better designer is knowing your precedents and why a design is successful. The more you know in your architectural vocabulary, the more examples you have in your mind to build out of. The more easily ideas can come with that inspiration.

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  1. You should share some precedent studies that you have done for school. It would be great to see how you document projects for better understanding.

    1. Hi Becky,

      That's actually a good idea I should do for the next entry. I'm kinda afraid to post images and drawings of projects that I do not own for copyright issues. However, I might just look at a second year theory course analysis and use diagrams to explain the concept and abstract the drawings. It's actually a building on campus at my school, and I'm dropping by today, so I can take some pics. thanks. =D

  2. I heartily agree that precedents are a wise starting point. Also, the process of remixing is definitely what creativity is about. It can be done lazily, just to spit out something "cool," or it can be done deliberately and intelligently to push further in an intelligent direction.

  3. Also, it seems like looking at precedents can be a part of iteration in design.