1. What is a concept?

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First the dictionary definitions of concept: a) From WordNet: "an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances" b) Another definition from Merriam-Webster, other than one above: "Something that is conceived in the mind" The Wikipedia definition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concept "A concept is an abstract, universal idea, notion, or entity that serves to designate a category or class of entities, events, or relations. Concepts are abstract in that they omit the differences of the things in their extension, treating them as if they were identical.

They are universal in that they apply equally to every thing in their extension. Concepts are also the basic elements of propositions, much the same way a word is the basic semantic element of a sentence." I believe that for an architect, a concept is that idea or small set of ideas around which the architect builds up a design A concept could even be an irritant, in which case the design would ideally be built up by the architect layer by layer, in a similar fashion as an oyster would build up a pearl by depositing layers around the central irritant.

I've broadly seen two approaches to concept formation in architecture: a) Concepts that are brought in from outside the problem space and b) Concepts that originate from within the problem space itself The first type of concept is quite easy to do and therefore it is also often done. But I am not so sure whether they are relevant in any design. I've seen architects bring in a completely unrelated phenomena and use that to explain the architecture that has evolved. When I was a student, there was this famous phrase that architecture was "frozen music".

I believed then and I believe even now that to connect architecture to music in an simplistically analogous fashion is a very tenous relationship,at best It maybe possible for an architect "subjectively" being sure about such a connection but I have a hassle in bringing in subjective explanations when objectivity is called for. This was explained in an earlier post, so I wont get into that again.

Another example: designing architecture using a geometric symmetry along one or more axis — and that symmetry being the central concept around which the architecture need to be evolved. Symmetrically arranged design could be relevant in certain building types, but to use it everywhere is probably a mistake I prescribe to the formation of a concept that evolves from the problem space itself. This is the second type of "concepts" in architecture

What is the problem space?
Draw a circle on a paper. Gather all issues that concern the project and write down a descriptive sentence for each of them. E.g.: "This project is in a hot-humid climate. In such a climate, the diurnal temperature rarely goes below the comfort level and yet the project still needs to be comfortable", "This project attracts a lot of people and so there is a chance of a lot of noise and babble but there is also a need to keep the sound level really low", etc. Examine each of the issue in detail and see if there is an element of "me" in it.

That means check if is it a "subjective" issue or is it an objective one? If it is a subjective issue, then keep it out of the circle. The issues that remain in the circle are those which would have the same meaning by any third party After all that work, whatever remains in the circle is the problem space: Which is that set of objective issues that needs to be solved in the project.

Where is the "concept"?
The challenge is to keep examining each of those issues inside the problem space and see what would be that idea that would connect and solve most of them, if not all of them. It is almost impossible to achieve with just one idea, but you would need a set of closely related ideas In the pure sciences, there has been many examples where a concept arose by minutely studying the issues that need to be solved. The studying of the issues is best done objectively, with others participating in the process. But there have been examples where a lot of subconscious processes went behind the creation of a concept. In fact, many inventions come out of subconscious processes.

One example that I like a lot is that of Kekule's discovery of the structure of Benzene. Freidrich Kekule shifted over to chemistry from architecture(!) after he and another chemist (Liebig) solved a puzzling crime. A crucial piece of evidence in that case was a ring that depicted two intertwining serpants.

Prof. John Leinhard in his informative radio series "The Engines of our ingenuity" explains in the article "Inventing Benzene" http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi265.htm :

In the above example, the problem space was very specific: A structure that required the presence of 6 carbon and 6 hydrogen atoms, connected in such a manner that the rules of chemical valence are not violated. It seemed contradictory (and that is why it was an issue) till Kekule found the answer Prof. Leinhard attributes Kekule's discovery to his background in architecture. He reasoned that Kekule may have been good at spatial visualization. Whatever maybe the process adopted by Kekule for investigating benzene; what is seen here is that the concept which centrally explained the structure of benzene belonged solely to "benzene" objectively (i.e. it could be verified by a third party) and it was not Kekule's personal subjective interpration Sometimes I feel, scientists, mathematicians and inventors have it a bit easy.

They can sometimes internalize their process as they examine the problem space. They can work alone, and they need not owe an explanation to anyone regarding their internal processes, and yet the outcome of the work is easily testable. Kekule's concept applies to all "benzene" molecules and not just the one that Kekule was dreaming about Architects cannot afford that luxury, because the outcome of their examination is just one unique product, so one cannot be sure whether the architect was doing posteriori ("after the experience") rationalization. The process adopted by an architect simpy needs to be recorded objectively, both for team participation during the design stage as well as for examination later in posterity.

So, how does an architect generate a concept?
(by looking into the various issues present in the problem space) My personal experience in architecture is to go through a lot of iterative churning before something really worthwhile emerges from within the problem space. I need to put my finger on each of the issues and mull over it and move over to the next one lest I get biased with the first one. When I finish my examination of all the issues, I need to start again and repeat the cycle of examination again, and yet again! In fact, the entire design team working on the project needs to keep repeating these cycles till we discover ideas that can tie up and solve most if not all the issues present in the project's problem space.

It is very important that this cyclic process of looking at each issue be done as quickly as possible. I cannot over-stress how important it is to flit from one point to the other just like the way a potter caresses mud into a pot on his wheel. If the potter spends too much or too little time at any one point on the pot, the pot would not shape up right I have seen many times where we architects tend to fall in love with an idea that solved one particular issue but not others, and then our finger refuses to move to other issues which also need to be solved. The process of issue examination then gets flattened into a linear one instead of a cyclic one.

For e.g. maybe a structural problem would get solved cleverly, and the architect ends up developing a concept that is heavily (pardon the pun) structural. Or maybe the architect was good at solving climatic issues and other issues may be left on the wayside, etc.

How does one know that a good concept has surfaced?
I use a simple measure. I am very insistent that most, if not each every aspect of the architecture that has been designed thus far, is explained and connected comfortably to some explanation of some solution for an issue in the problem space. And in the end, I must have solutions for all the issues If all I had was intuition for my design decisions, I know that I and my team would have to do even more iterations.

The formation of "Concepts" in today's world
I had heard an interview on BBC of Ian Angell who wrote "The New Barbarian Manifesto" His point (which I too subscribe to some extent) is that "the advancements made in electronic communications technology will not be a panacea for all as some have predicted, but rather will lead to the eventual end of the nation-state as we know it" http://www.salon.com/audio/2000/10/05/angell/

If true, this has huge implications for architecture. The previously mentioned "problem space" does not have one static set of issues, but the issues themselves are highly mobile. So when we architects peer into that circle of the problem space, we must brace ourselves to catch very ephemeral and yet important problems in order to form relevant concepts For e.g. A classic "stable" piece of architecture was the Berlin wall.

People thought that it would be there for ever. But when came down, it did come down in a tearing hurry. And at least some of the cause can be traced to exchange of information from one one world (capitalists) to the other (communists, Russian style) Today the world is furiously reforming itself in many ways. Before someone thinks that it "would not effect our practice because I am a small guy" should come and take a hard look at the half-complete buildings of Navi Mumbai.They were done in the speculation rife times of 1995-96. They were to cater to the dot-com boom but that never happened.

Luckily, the very IT industry that Ian Angell thinks is causing people to fortify themselves into email groups/web-sites/blogs against "barbarians" may actually come to the assistance to solve the peculiar concept formation problems we are facing It may be possible to tackle these dynamically changing issues just-in-time by using information technology. XML (Extensible Markup Language), OOPS (Object Oriented Programming) and other developments in computer science are helping architects connect with other professionals and form what one author described as "loose multi- organisations" that gets set up just as it is needed. Nowdays, COPs (Communities of Practice) and KM (Knowledge Mangement) are subjects that examines how issues in a solution space can be discussed objectively So the challenge for the young student/architect is to know what is going on in this information age, and arm themselves with enough knowledge so that they can form relevant concepts for the new architecture yet to come.

One last thing: I found out that both "concept" and "conceit" share the same root. I guess we should remind ourselves that it is easy to get conceited about a concept!

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