Organic thinking and making things whole

Walter Hosack AIA posted on the AIA Environment forum to which I replied, about organic thinking as something architects could advance as a key to the survival of our place on earth, noting that design is always two things: “…The first is a gift. The second is a responsibility”, and suggesting architects have a broader responsibility to learn how to think and design organically, and help bring about a Symbiotic Period of life on earth.


In principle I couldn’t agree with you more, but to escape long standing habits of linear thinking in our culture we would need lots of true examples of organic thinking, and develop an awareness, motivation and technique.   The surprise answer I come to is that architects are already quite good at it, but have not quite understood how their approach to design could widely apply.

When we find out just how numerous and varied the true working examples of organic design in action are, that our culture remains quite unaware of, it’s almost so embarrassing as to be humorous.   It’s in virtually every action in nature.   Every breath we take, every project on the boards, every smile, begins just like pregnancy does, with a explosion of things fitting together that would become unmanageable if it didn’t change.  So, the rule architects know about needing to move to design development and not spend the whole fee on conceptual and schematic design, is what’s missing from our world’s plan for economic growth.

You see it in our rather advanced design to make our uses of the earth keep getting bigger to just get bigger, which like the start-up explosion plan for anything just get’s abandoned.   The question for organic design is what will be left when the start-up is over.  So we might give special study to the great efforts to give birth to new things that leave something of value despite largely failing to achieve their initial apparent goal.   Dinosaurs gave us birds, for example.   There are also design projects that proliferate so many visionary options that at the end of conceptual design there’s only one small scrap of paper left, after discarding an enormous pile.

It’s really our linear thinking that keeps us from seeing the organic design in every creative building process in life, so we generally just don’t notice that growth of every kind is quite a challenging experience for the thing that is growing, having periods like pregnancy when the whole world has to change to accommodate.    Every growth process has its quite necessary milestones along the way, deadlines, graduation dates, needs to get a roof on before winter.   If you don’t make the turns and get through the gates of using each stage as the foundation for the next, and move on, the process fails and stops.

I had a failed design project that I think prepared my mind to begin noticing the stages of creating new form in nature’s way doing design.   The start-up period of runaway physical expansion really must change to a calming process of integration for both the growing thing, within itself, and for its environment.   It’s exemplified by how a building project starts up boldly, without quite knowing what to become, and eventually finds how to become the heart of enduring new relationships for a community.  It may be a struggle along the way, with making it whole the one thing truly essential.

My design that rather failed the test at conceptual design, never getting to schematic, was the last studio project in first year architecture school.   I had decided to try to design the space of the building without the form…!  Well, it didn’t work and it was rather painful, and I was politely invited to do a summer studio, and to please complete something to continue next semester.   I ended up salvaging something from that, surprising myself and everyone else.

Mankind has designed things for growth without end quite frequently, and watched as they failed disastrously without learning from it, over and over too.   So our linear thinking is clearly a problem for us, and we are in desperate need of a shock of some kind to get us out of it.  It’s the story of all “bubbles” and megalomanias, and we have lots of them.

The problem with linear thinking is having purposes that don’t become responsible, and respond to the world they’re to become part of.   In the extreme, it leads people to not even recognize that they live in a world, but just come to trust in their own world of mental fixations, finding belief to be culturally affirming and observation not.   We lose track of the need for every beginning to find its own completion.

So, in our work, architects are already quite accomplished at that and enjoy learning new ways to bring projects into harmony with the environments they’re part of.  The one place we may fall down is in playing along with the linear thinking of others, who do not think of that at all, and use us to help them multiply their expanding unfinished business.   So I think what we need to do is find how package our awareness of the whole design cycle, our ability to change gears in midstream, and sense of process, and somehow convey it to others.   The world really desperately does need both the idea and techniques for asking “what in the world are we building here”?


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