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Why Architecture is a Creative Process

Have you ever thought of architecture as a creative process? The short answer is yes. However, the longer answer (which can be much more interesting) that this article will explore is that architecture is a creative process, but it has different forms of expression. So let us explore the question: What does it mean for an architectural process to be creative?

Architecture is a Creative Design Process

By its very nature, architecture is a design process.

A design process is a systematic sequence of actions (or steps) taken to achieve a specific end result. It may or may not be an expression of an underlying philosophy. It can be based on specific methods or techniques.

At a lower level, creativity is about producing multiple variations on a theme or problem that may represent multiple solutions to a problem. However, there is a higher level of creativity that produces unique and original work that is connected to the subconscious mind.

It’s that higher level of creativity that becomes interesting when we consider standout architecture.

The architectural design process divides into two parts: Invention and Production. Invention refers to the process the architect goes through in the design phase; production refers to the more technical aspects of creating construction documents necessary to build the structure.

Architecture involves a significant amount of creativity during the design process – therefore architecture is a creative process.

The question is, where exactly does it feature?

The Architectural Design Process

With some variations, the process can be outlined as follows:

  1. Programming (the client’s needs for the project).
  2. Schematic Design (the first conceptual designs) – often using freehand drawings and sketches. Considering diverse approaches.
  3. Design Development (development and refinement of the final concept, incorporating design thinking)
  4. Construction Documents (detailed drawings and specifications for bidding and construction)
  5. Bidding and Negotiations (comparison of contractor bids to select a bid).
  6. Construction Administration (cooperation with the contractor during the construction works).

Creativity is needed in steps 2 and 3 above.

Three Models for the Design Process

Beyond rote tasks and science, architects approach their work in different ways.

Ashraf Salama, in New trends in architectural education: designing the design studio, suggested that there are three models that relate to the level of creativity used:

1. Intuitive Method

A black-box approach. It is so-called because, according to this model, the act of designing takes place in the designer’s brain and is beyond logical or rational control. Pragmatic, iconic, analog and canonical designs are different design approaches that represent this model.

2. Rational or Problem-Solving Model

Glass-box approach. In this model, designers cannot explain all the reasons for their decisions, but they still hold to the idea that they can find an acceptable solution to the design problem by clearly defining the goals, variables, and criteria in advance in the design process before seeking solutions. Systematic design and pattern language are two methods of representing this model.

3. Participatory Model

People are at the center of every decision. Work with them to consider their ideas, values, and needs.

Architectural Creativity in Action – Zaha Hadid

It’s worth a quick diversion to consider who might be a good example of the Intuitive Method, above.

I’d argue that the renowned architect Zaha Hadid is a great example of how a top architect uses creativity in their design process.

Some of her techniques include:

  • Fragmentation and Abstraction
  • Ideas regarding gravity and the ground
  • The play of light
  • Flow and seamlessness

If these sound somehow very unscientific, that’s because they are! The point is that they are creative approaches, that are underpinned by proven methods and science.

The 5 Core Stages of The Creative Process

How does the broader creative process – as used by artists, writers, musicians, and more – fit into the architecture framework?

There have also been many different models of the creative process over the years! For the purposes of this article, we’ll go with Graham Wallas’s model, below.

Although we can present them in a linear fashion below, this does not mean that an architect (or any other creative person) strictly adheres to the sequence. Normally, there is a lot of flip-flopping between stages!

1. Preparation

This is the phase of gathering information and materials, focused on the problem and its dimensions, which can be a very short process but can also mean months of work. Some architects research and gather ideas from nature, fine art, place, local culture, and much more.

2. Incubation

After preparation, the next phase is one where you leave your project alone for a while. You may forget about it altogether, but it remains in your subconscious and continues to work on the problem during this time. Basically, you let things sink in and mull them over.

3. Intimation

A feeling or hunch that something is right – an insight into a solution. Not everyone experiences intuitions, but they can often be helpful in solving problems. It’s the inkling that a solution is on the way.

4. Illumination

Breakthrough! Eureka! Aha! The ‘moment’ of discovery (which, of course, flows from the conscious and subconscious work that has gone before).

5. Verification

Putting the discovery into practice. A focus on effectiveness and appropriateness.

The Balance of Function and Esthetics

When you look at a building, the first thought that comes to mind is probably not, “What a beautiful function!” But a strong argument that good architecture is a creative process is the way it balances function and esthetics.

Just as an artist’s work exists on two levels – the physical substance of the work and its emotional impact – architecture has two important dimensions: the practical and the visual.

Architects must consider a variety of factors when designing buildings. The number of people who will use the building, how they will use it, and what they will use it for are all elements that must be carefully considered.

These functional elements can sometimes seem like design constraints. For example, it is easier to design an open space than one with rooms interrupted by walls – but if you want to create a specific mood or atmosphere, you may need more complex spaces.

However, architects have learned over time that these functional elements can also be an opportunity for creativity. Creating new types of spaces or rethinking old ones can have a big impact on how people experience a building.

Given four building blocks, the noncreative person might use them for target practice, but the creative person would put them together to construct various forms.I discovered quite late in life that the creative act is not a conscious one. Our conscious and subconscious minds only make contact with each other at short intervals we call thinking. But our minds work at very high speeds and sometimes without our knowledge. If thinking is not a purely conscious act, then neither is the creative process. You can catch yourself being creative without being conscious that you are.

Gunnar Birkerts, Process and Expression in Architectural Form

Why Creativity Matters in Architecture

Architecture is the science of designing and building structures. One of its main goals is to create a sense of place, and it is in this area that creativity is of utmost importance.

Here are some reasons why I believe architecture should be creative:

  • Architecture should reflect the time in which it was created. The world we live in is constantly evolving, and so should our built environment. Modern people have different needs and desires than their ancestors. Architecture should respond to them in order to satisfy the needs of the people it serves.
  • Architecture can help us better understand ourselves and our history. A good example of this is the Great Pyramids of Giza, which say a lot about their builders.
  • Architecture can be used as a tool for social change, transformation and progress. By creating new opportunities for people to interact with the built environment, a creative architect can change the way people use buildings and spaces around them, improving their quality of life.

The Difference Between Architecture and Art

So you might be thinking, by this stage in the article, that I view architecture as art.

Not quite.

I think the fundamental difference is that art is meant to evoke emotion; architecture is meant to provide utility. We go to a museum to experience art, but we go to a bank, a library, a park, or a house, for example, to perform an action. So the first task of architecture is not to create beauty, but functionality and efficiency.

However, functionality and efficiency alone are not enough. Architecture must also appeal to our minds and emotions and enrich our lives, even if only in a small way. It must be inspiring.

Inspiration for architectural creation comes from many fields: Mathematics and physics, engineering, building materials and construction methods, the surrounding landscape, history and culture, social norms, economics, climate and weather patterns, sustainability issues, personal experiences of individuals or groups of people, politics, and more.

Creativity comes into play when all of these inspirations are synthesized into a cohesive whole – a building – that satisfies the functional, esthetic, emotional, and environmental needs of the user while meeting the needs of the community in which it stands.

Renowned Architects to Study Their Creative Process

Architecture students, and fans of fine architecture, can learn much from the following:

  • Louis Kahn
  • Jun Igarashi – Japanese architectural firm
  • Daniel Libeskind
  • Zaha Hadid
  • Frank Lloyd Wright

Sustainability and Creativity in Architecture

It would be remiss to publish an article dealing with the role and process of architecture without mentioning sustainability.

Sustainability has become an important factor in modern architectural practice. Architects are expected to consider the environmental impact of the materials they use and ensure that their designs are energy efficient so that they do not impose a large ecological footprint on the environment.

Many contemporary architects now also specialize in green design, which uses natural elements such as sunlight for heating and cooling, rainwater for irrigation systems, recycled building materials, and green roofs to insulate buildings from heat loss.

The way the best modern architects are incorporating these elements into their creative design is truly remarkable and bodes well for a progressive and abundant future.