Robert Little, Jr., AIA
Senior Design Principal
How many times as a designer, has someone asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” For me, too many times to count, especially when non architects are looking at my work. “Do your ideas just pop into your head out of nowhere?” “What inspired you?” Honestly, I never really gave these questions much thought. From my point of view, design is a process, honed through education, professional experience and exposure to the world around us, and it is the recognition that we share DNA from the historical context.
The architectural education exposes one to art & architectural history and design theory. One learns to refine drawing skills and to recognize the things our eyes see. Formal education provides us with the skills necessary to ask questions, seek answers and learn independently.
Professional experience exposes one to a whole new set of criteria vastly different from that of one’s formal education. Issues related to typology of the various market sectors, constraints of budget and schedule, building ordinances and code compliance all influence the design. Navigating the web of finite determinants and sometimes obscure requirements in the professional environment, can often times become a collective effort of wits.
I am not one who believes design can exist in a vacuum – ideas don’t just materialize out of thin air. All of our thoughts, not just design ideas, are formed over the course of our lives through a constant exposure to everything around us. Most of what we know has been gained through the process of osmosis. Our brains are a sponge that absorbs every bit of information our eyes see and our ears hear, even if we are inattentive. Every personal adventure contributes to the database of information from which we draw our inspiration. It is also true that we can enhance our understanding of things through education. We can learn to sharpen our senses and recognize the latent principles of order and identity; to see order where others see chaos.
The use of precedents is a valuable part of the design process. Design, again, is a continual transformation of everything that has been done before us. This is not unique to art and architecture. Think of music, whether classical, jazz, blues, rock & roll or pop. We learn and are inspired by the work of others; we see or hear things, assimilate them and ultimately (and hopefully) transform them into our own unique product. The music of the great rock guitarist Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was the manifestation of his influence from such talents as Scotty Moore, BB King, and Otis Rush, just to name a few. He transformed these influences into his own unique sound but the music’s DNA can be traced, in part, to the work of others. This is the same for architecture. We rationalize our thoughts and ideas through historical or contemporary design precedents.
Using a precedent is really about citing an example of something that is similar in either form or thought. For the duration of this discussion, it would be more appropriate to use the word “analogy” in lieu of “precedent” as an analogy in architecture is a conceptual process of comparison, the comparison between dissimilar things that share similar attributes. Discovering analogies is a means of formulating thought by finding or recognizing connections between a series of different entities, i.e., the wing of bird vs. the fin of a fish. There are many subsets of analogies too numerous to discuss, so in order to make this discussion more concise, lets discuss the most common type of analogy used, the Imitative Model.
Imitative Models are the most common form of architectural precedents used in the design process. Like analogies which evoke, in varying degrees, abstract thinking, the Imitative Model is a means of recreating those aspects of something in which the designer finds emotive meaning. They are literal connections to something existing, whether as logic or fact. They evoke ideas by exposing the individual to alternative ways of seeing potential.
This is done by looking at existing entities that demonstrate architectonic principles or forms of the individual’s interest. They are meant to provide a range of possibilities to the solution of a particular problem. They can be used to reinforce latent ideas by studying similar attributes of the same or differing types. In other words, by looking at things that exist in architecture we can discover, clarify, and obtain ideas about form and spatial concepts that otherwise would go unknown to us. Without precedents, we would be designing from a vacuum, a place where references to things are never made. This would be an impossible situation as we need to see things in order to understand them, judge them, and perceive their meaning. It is a learning process that enables us to draw a conclusion from evidence and reasoning.
If we review some of the work of Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish modern architect, we can see in the form of his theaters a strong resemblance to the form of the ancient Greek amphitheater of Pergamon in present day Turkey. The shape of the amphitheater was, in part, determined by necessity for good acoustics and site lines. The irregularity in the form is determined by the natural terrain and the programmatic need to increase the occupant capacity. In Aalto’s travels he visited Pergamon and was intrigued with its form as can be seen in his sketches. Was his architecture influenced by his travels? Did he see inspiration in the ruins of Pergamon? How could he not have, as many of his architectural designs exhibit a similarity in plan as that of Pergamon, including a few of his library designs.
Should we consider Aalto’s cribbing of the Pergamon plan plagiarism? In my opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to crib attributes as long as a transformation exists, whether programmatically, contextually or conceptually. He uses Pergamon as inspiration for three of his modern theater designs; House of Culture in Helsinki (1958), Finlandia Hall (1971), and finally Essen Opera House in Germany (1988) which was completed after his death. The influence of the Pergamon plan on the design of these three theaters is self-evident. Of more interest is the transformation of the idea, the maturing of the form from the Helsinki Theater to his final work, the Essen Opera House. He borrows the form through a transformational process, but changes the context, thus changing the form’s meaning.
As a student studying architecture, design theory and architectural history at Cornell, the work of Alvar Aalto was at the forefront of the teachings, along with the work of the great modern master, Le Corbusier. The influence of their architecture has imprinted itself, knowingly and even unknowingly, on my brain.
Three auditorium/theater projects I designed can trace their DNA to the simple conceptual diagrammatic lesson of Pergamon and Aalto.
The Hill School Performing Arts building (1988 AIA Silver Medal) is all about the wall as a linear element, and the theater as an internal object. Its diagram is simply a wall and the recognizable fan shape of an auditorium.
The auditorium designed for Sterling Winthorp, now owned by GlaxoSmithKline (1992), uses a similar motif as Aalto’s project in Helsinki. As part of a nine-building R&D campus, the training conference building organizes its program as a diagram, along a linear path that terminates in a fan shaped auditorium. The similarities in the programmatic organization of the plan (the DNA) can be traced to Aalto’s plan. The transformation occurs in the final manipulation of the form and the massaging of the building into its surrounding context.
The third project was for a competition for the design of a customs facility in Shenzhen, China (2001, AIA Honor Award). While this auditorium design is part of a much larger complex, the dialectic between the wall, as linear element, and auditorium as object is clearly established. In this example, the fan-shaped auditorium is again used but the interplay between the “wall” is much more three-dimensional when compared to the previous two projects. The notion of the wall as an organizational attribute acts much the same way the corridor does in the GlaxoSmithKline project. The difference is the minimization of the circulation, allowing for greater three-dimensional expressions of the forms.
Today, with advanced technology, tracing one’s DNA and personal family heritage has become fashionable and easily accessible. Most of us know little about our lineage and the DNA we share with people from different cultures and continents. The same can be said about architecture, as we are influenced and impregnated with the work of others. All three of our designs have some DNA rooted in the work of Alvar Aalto who I conject has some DNA from Pergamon. No DNA test is required; a simple conceptual diagram confirms the thesis.
1. AALTO, ALVAR. DIGITAL SCAN OF SKETCH. HTTP://WWW.PINTREST.COM/
2. UNKNOWN. ANCIENT GREEK CITY.
3. AALTO, ALVAR. PLAN OF FINLANDIA HALL.
4. AALTO, ALVAR. PLAN OF HOUSE OF CULTURE.
5. LITTLE JR, ROBERT G. DIGITAL SCAN OF HILL SCHOOL PERFORMING ARTS CENTER FLOOR PLAN. H2L2. 1988
6. LITTLE JR, ROBERT G. CONCEPTUAL DIAGRAM. 2016
7. LITTLE JR, ROBERT G. DIGITAL SCAN OF STERLING RESEARCH GROUP FLOOR PLAN. KLING. 1992
8. LITTLE JR, ROBERT G. 3D RENDERING OF CUSTOMS FACILITY. KLING. 1999