Architectural Fit

Originally an email to James Bowen on November 13 2009

What does fit mean with respect to an architectural project?
In a general way, it describes the extent to which we make the project "what it wants to be." To me, at least, this “what it wants to be” is a surprising confluence of the mantras of Ian McHarg and Louis Kahn.

First of all, that means that we need to find as many of the legitimate individuating forces, clues, as we can. These clues are inherent tendencies of our specific site and our specific program. To the extent that our solutions are supportive of and consistent with these inherent tendencies, we will have good fit.

There is also value in the individuation itself, if it is legitimate. The test for legitimate is whether the clients and users understand it. Our world is enriched by specific places and specific places result from legitimate individuation. This individuation can happen at every scale, from windows, to rooms, to buildings, to neighborhoods, to cities.

Our moves also need to be polyvalent. That means, design decisions, in plan, section and elevation, should always increase fit in more than one way. So, for example, if our building is to be sided, does the siding avoid creating glare, does it help the residents to identify positively with their specific dwelling, does it make noise in a desirable way when the wind blows, and of course does it help to keep water and pests away from the structure and the interior? Polyvalent design moves are often the very best way for us as architects to add value that our clients can and do understand. Not only is a polyvalent move efficient, clients understand and are pleased with the description and explanation of such moves.

Good fit also occurs when the architecture makes use of the building trade skills that are traditionally (trade and traditional, hmmm?) a significant part of a community. If there is some building or decorative skill that local Mom’s or Dad’s regularly pass on to kids, well, let's make sure we incorporate that into our solution.

Here are some of the fitness issues in a typical housing project:
Do we orient our dwellings appropriately toward the sun?

Are our dwellings asymmetrical in ways that clearly respond to the sun’s path and its relationship to the lives we imagine being lived in these dwellings?

Do we do the same with respect to desirable prevailing breezes and also, if there are any, undesirable winds?

Does our project shade areas that might want to be shaded at certain times of the year but allow sun to areas when that is advantageous?

Do the openings and outdoor spaces respect the neighbors? Can the residents use their windows and outdoor spaces without an unacceptable compromise of someone’s privacy?

Do we respect the age and infirmity of some of our residents? And the age, naivete, and inexperience of others?

Does our project cause more people to want to be on the street? Building community?

Does our project cause more businesses to want to locate near it? Sustaining community?

Does our project enable, inspire, require the residents to use resources more efficiently?

Is our project buildable? That is, will it attract the enthusiasm of the stakeholders and then will it attract the enthusiasm of the community at large?

I believe that it is much easier for clients and residents to get excited and agree on issues of fit than it is for them to agree on issues of aesthetics.

Please don't misunderstand. We don't stop for one minute caring about aesthetics. We do everything we can to satisfy ourselves that the feel, proportion, atmosphere, yes, even details, make us happy in terms of our aesthetic goals and beliefs. But, in the end, I think that's mostly between us and us (which in no way is to belittle its importance!!!). What matters more in the big picture is whether our project works and whether our clients and the community can see in advance that it is indeed going to work. And then after we have built it, they continue to recognize on a day to day basis that the decisions the architect made, the recommendations the architect provided, they really do make life better every day. "Oh, god, I love having coffee on my front porch in the morning." That should not be an accident and it should not be understood as an accident. It should be something we knew would happen, something we promised. I don't know how many times I have had that experience, that experience of people saying, you said this would happen and doggone it, it did!

This is not a plea for slavish devotion to whatever the client and the residents say they want. Often they say they want "x" because no one has ever shown them something more valuable. One of our jobs is to find legitimate individuating tendencies. My experience is that explaining understandable tendencies is often the best way to avoid unhappy disagreements with my clients about design.

This is all very important because architecture as now imagined by most architects is a marginal, elitist, self-absorbed, pastime. For the sake of the American economy, and for the sake of the sustainable future of humanity, architects need to switch to something much more important. They need to get down and dirty and make a building for the local hardware store guy that really works for him and his customers (in ways that he and his customers can see, can even, can we say it out loud, even maybe measure). Then architecture will begin to more directly contribute to the quality of human life, and, boy howdy, we'll have all the work we can possibly ever do.