Architectural Design Theory: Models of Interaction and Meaning

Architectural theory analyzes and describes architectural design in terms of appropriate elements, their relationships to cultural understanding, and the process of devising them.

In this context, theory is an explanation that does not proscribe a specific end result. It is a structure of concepts, categories, and relationships intended to explain things or to advocate, not a defined roadmap or a step-by-step methodology.

No single comprehensive structure of ideas can be applied in the same rigorous way to resolve all design problems in architecture. It is unlikely that a formal set of rules lie behind all of the many complex decisions that produce an existing building. However, practitioners have long valued theory in making decisions on complex projects or to retrospectively clarify a body of work.

Architectural theory can be traced back to the first century BC. The Roman writer and architect Vitruvius[] wrote a treatise that laid out the salient aspects of Roman architecture in a series of volumes. The Ten Books of Vitruvius illustrated the principles of design and construction and emphasized the three “laws” placing architecture above mere building, namely that a work of architecture must possess the qualities of Firmness, Commodity, and Delight.[] These three laws clarified that a work of good design must be physically and structurally sound, must support the functional and practical needs of its occupants, and must be aesthetically pleasing to the viewer.

By comparison, Hewlett-Packard User Experience Lead Jim Nieters’s blog on Interaction Design lists the goals of an interaction model as being Discoverability, Learnability, Efficiency, Productivity, Responsiveness, and, not coincidentally, Delight.[] Although these two thinkers lived in different times, these somewhat analogous sets of “laws” underscore the relevance of aligning UX design with the design of interaction and experience in physical space.

Since the time of Vitruvius, architectural theory has relied on classifications and definitions — grouping buildings into types, defining accepted applications of morphology, focusing on uses, appearances, and the appropriateness of combining elements from different periods, styles, or construction types. Theory has even suggested that the components of architecture exist as elements of a language that has a particular grammar, as elaborated in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander et al. Alexander laid out the idea of pattern and usage as a way of building what he called “timeless.” He states, “Towns and buildings will not be able to come alive, unless they are made by all the people in society, and unless these people share a common pattern language, within which to make these buildings, and unless this common pattern language is alive itself.”[]

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