Concepts: why do we even have them?

In the year since I last wrote here (I know—I have been very bad) I have continued to think about why we even teach concepts in the first place. I have also authored a new course on architectural history and philosophy (hopelessly ambitious in its cross-cultural and temporal reach) which was the equivalent of writing my dissertation all over again in terms of sheer length, and I have now also taught that course successfully both in a classroom and online. I now aspire to write its sequel (things that happened after 1800 CE) but time will tell what happens with that. I do want you to know, readers, that MFA students are capable of reading Plotinus and even Pseudo-Dionysius as primary sources and writing some pretty interesting reflection essays.

And while I was working on the history of the world, I kept encouraging my design students to pick better concepts than “No Boundaries” and “Salute to Our Military Dogs”, with mixed success. As I noted before, getting them to come up with ideas that are not primarily grounded in the language of marketing or simply in the words themselves, like an evocative title, is an uphill road, and I have to start over with a new group every semester.

So why do we emphasize concepts? I mean, many students are clearly perfectly content to do clear the lower bars of good space planning and picking out a few trendy chairs (or barstools… they think people like to work on barstools). My students continue to be highly risk-averse even a couple of years down the road from the last accreditation visit, when the department had a nervous breakdown over code compliance and communicated its anxiety very clearly to the students. And, well, they are seniors, and especially in the spring, they have trouble concentrating on things like classes.

One purpose of having a concept then, at the student level, might be as one part of a toolkit of things just to overcome their inertia and get them started on those blank sheets of pixels. We teach them a number of somewhat mechanical techniques for forcing some decisions and thought, like bubble diagrams, but those are essentially non-spatial. Even a block diagram is more like solving a jigsaw puzzle than anything else. As if they had ever read William James, my students can generate a variety of possible options and need something from ‘outside the system’, something with some emotional charge to it, to point them toward the work entailed by actually making a choice.

In my more cynical moments, I note that concepts act as benchmarks for reviews. You tell me your concept, and then I can tell you if you got there or not. In the time pressure of a long day of critiques, a clear concept is a blessing. Concepts keep projects from blending into each other, even in classes that are clearly experiencing a bit of group think (this year’s trend: the relentlessly neutral color scheme, aka “pop of beige”). Readers with professional design experience know already that you don’t always really have to introduce a concept into a project in order to have it work well enough, so maybe my cynicism is justified.

I think, though, that concepts have a different purpose once you’re out in the world. While not every project of mine has had a concept per se, especially remodels and projects where the functions are especially constraining, some of them actually kind of did, although I never discussed it with anyone at the time. For projects where the architecture forms a significant part of the overall experience (and client appeal), most of us want to explore different architectural options, even within the limits of genre (department store cafe, for example). And after you do a few of these, the technical side of the problem-solving becomes easier, and that leaves you the design aspect as a way of staying fresh about your own work. Speaking for myself, I get tired of a steady diet of “You do you” when it comes to what I’m drawing. I look for ways not to get unintentionally sucked into doing my same-old, and that’s the function of a concept, even if I never tell anyone why this cafe looks so different from that cafe. Sure, they still look like they belong to the same client, but I had a lot more fun with them than I would have had I been doing a strict kit of parts approach. So when we teach concepts to our design students, we are both addressing immediate needs (theirs and ours) but also planting a clue to help them avoid career burnout to some degree a few years down the road.

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