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Context: The Cauldron

August 3, 2021

We are all somewhere. None live solely in our minds, or on the glowing screen you are seeing here. We all have a context, an origin point, a place. Humans are not satisfied with instinct, they create. Everything is made in a place. That place is where the needs and desires of those who wish to make something employ the human creativity it takes to make anything.

I think each place, each context – it’s people, culture, topography, climate, geology, even funding and legalities – is a cauldron. What is to be cooked has two parts: the need/hope for what is desired and the spice of human creativity. That recipe is cooked in that cauldron in every thing we make.

What is cooked can be tasteless and bland, even disgusting, or it can be so spiced as to be unpalatable but to all but a few. Or the food that results bastes the it in function and elevates it’s delight and hunger by its spice. The human spice. But you cannot cook without a cauldron.

When architects create, they often have two approaches: “Go along to get along.” where what is here now determines what will be, or, conversely, “My way or the highway.” Where where we are has nothing to do with where we will be.

Denial or Mimicry is literally the mind of a two year old.

“No!” Is often the first or second word used by our brains. Between those rejections, children live in a world where familiarity and comfort is virtually central to existence.

We are not two year olds, and architects do not create things solely for two year olds. Making things cannot deny context, but if we Xerox it, it is not creativity, it is mimicry.

There are always a place where we make things.

And when we make things we deal with what is there.

No matter how different the needs are from what is there.

Context can be social, vernacular, but it is transcendentally the environment of where we create. Political, legal, climatic, geographic, funding, materials, technology all, every one, should have an impact on what we create. But the land comes first.

We cannot deny the way the land is shaped, how water that is around it flows, and what the soil is under it. But we often do not judge buildings by those arcane factoids that are the essence of design generation. We often just see the results, the outcomes of our making.

We can try, unendingly, to void the past, pretend that the existing realities of the places we build, its population, it’s climate, it’s topography, even its culture, are simply to be transformed by our genius. The Guggenheim Museum does that, but the wall of buildings it pieces are necessary to create its beauty. Seldom does denial of what is there when we think of making things more than simply an insult or willful ignorance. When we wish away context, much of what the thing we build will only be for the designer, who seldom lingers.

But if we simply see what exists, replicate it, cleverly adapt new to what is there now, following what is there now, but do not create, we beg the reality of our humanity. We do not eat one food, listen to one music, even speak one language. Humans are a quilt, not a tapestry.

Every addition to every landscape of building lives with it. Is the result a marriage or a fight? Is it a dance or an army of unified marchers, thoughtless and following? It cannot be either, because humanity is neither by rote or by explosion, we create, we should not fear or deny.

Unless we see what is there, we deny it. And denying reality is simply not possible.

Context is not about gravity or time, because context has our humanity fully subsumed in its reality. The intensely private, isolated place is somewhere, used by someone, and nothing stays in the designer’s mind if they are an architect, it gets built.

If we want to be here, now, and make for a place, people, culture and in the environment, we cannot wish them away. And if we see the world as it is built, replicate the patterns, designs and design of those who are long dead, our work becomes the walking dead, not a living extension of who we are.

Context is hard to deal with in architecture because it is neither the raw food to be eaten, the need, nor the added spice of our human creativity to make that food sing. It is the caldron of context that contains both the food and the spice, cooks both and what architecture is is served from.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Julian Fouser permalink
    August 3, 2021 5:49 pm

    As a carpenter I worked on many houses that left me scratching my head. Why is this room here, and why did the architect do this. I can’t imagine how you could design a house without spending some time on the land. Know where the sun comes up and goes down should be in the mix, along with the other thing to consider. Thanks for the article.

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