Contextual [mis]understanding

Context is everything.



Okay, I concede, maybe not everything.  But our human way of understanding is often based upon context, making it a relevant factor in many realms—whether we are talking about architecture, linguistics, archaeology, or pretty much any other subject matter.  The very definition of context,

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed

indicates that in order to fully grasp any concept, idea, or even something more tangible, context is essential.

If I were to ask you, “How do you feel about context?” you’d likely respond with, “Context of what?”  See, you’d need some context from which to understand my question about context…

There are many examples by which we can establish the validity of context’s effect on a general level, one of which is the Ebbinghaus Illusion.  This optical illusion serves as a good visual reminder, demonstrating how our eyes and brains interpret and evaluate what we see and experience, based on context.  Perception is based on context.  Whether we like it or not, this is in fact the truth.

The two orange circles are exactly the same size; however, the one on the left seems smaller.

Context + Architecture:

“Place is to architecture as meaning is to language.” -Simon Unwin

I was recently a participant in an impromptu online discussion about the importance (or lack thereof) of context in architecture, spurred on by a Portland Architecture blog post about the North House, a new contemporary multifamily building on an urban infill lot in North Portland.  The length and depth of the ensuing conversation is, I believe, an indicator of many things.  First of all, anything so controversial is likely an important topic deserving of such discussion; second, the discussion demonstrated a rather contentious set of viewpoints and, I might say, an often one-dimensional understanding of architecture and context.  Many of the points raised during the discussion represented extremely valid and thoughtful questions about whether this particular building was designed with sensitivity to its surroundings, but I was disappointed by many insinuations that contextual sensitivity was either black or white—as simple as “same” or “different.”  Questions about this building’s lack of attention and sensitivity to context were often refuted with the sentiment that those posing the questions simply wanted the building to mirror its surrounding structures.  In reality, an examination of urban and architectural context is a matter that must go much further than skin deep, in order to exhibit any significance.

While the discussion provided a very relevant and interesting example from which to think about architectural context, this post is not intended to be about the North House, nor about that discussion.  It is, however, intended to provoke thought on the subject of architecture and context in general terms.

When it comes to architecture, the term context becomes much more complex and dare I say more important than the perceived size of an orange dot.  One of the fundamental struggles in defining architecture—I think both from within the profession and from others’ perception of it—is in determining whether we see architecture as a service profession or an artistic one.  Or both.  And if both, where do we draw the line?  Musn’t there be a balance that lies somewhere between the two extremes: (1) an autonomous architect creating a giant piece of sculpture, and (2) an entirely yielding architect only replicating what already exists?  Instead, how about a collaborating architect creating a building that both exhibits an artful interpretation of architectural form derived from contextual understanding and a building that truly services those who will inhabit it, those who will look at it, and those whose lives will be affected by it in any number of ways?

Granted, this may be a lot to ask for every building to achieve.  But considering that our cities are nothing more than the canvas upon which we inflict our desires—whether those desires be buildings, roads, freeways, bikeways, landscapes, parks, or ourselves—how can we not consider that what goes into creating our cities is deserving of such careful consideration?

Architect and writer, Simon Unwin, states in his book Analysing Architecture,

“Creating places and spaces that enrich the lives of the people who use them is the foundation of architects’ work.  Every building can and should engage in a dialog with the history, beliefs, and needs of a particular place and time.”

Where I believe this sentiment sometimes goes awry is when we fall back on the over-simplified adage of the concept of new vs. old, same vs. different.  It is with this insular way of thinking that we lose sight of the vast array of possibilities that exist within the gray zone.  Somewhere between new and old, or between same and different, is a new that also pays respect to the old or to the existing.  It is not about mirroring, nor about replicating; but it is about considering that vernacular respect can be recognized, and perhaps even alluded to in a new and contemporary way.

To take this a step further, we must contend that context is not simply a matter of architectural form.  It is not only about the pitch of a roof, the choice of materials, or even the size of a building.  While these can often be important pieces of the context puzzle, they are by no means the entire puzzle.  A work of architecture is not just an abstract hunk of materials; it is not sculpture.  Architecture inherently has social and cultural effects that go far beyond what we often consider.  Again, I must reiterate that designers wield power; they are, by the nature of their work, shaping our existence in this world.

To go briefly back to the North House, one of my personal contentions in this discussion related to the social aspects and consequences of placing a new building—one with vastly different design aesthetics than those of its neighbors—within a somewhat disadvantaged area of Portland.  While my assertion was, in part, about the aesthetics of the building, it was much more about what it stands for.  Again, we need to look beyond the skin of the building to issues like its high rental rates (which will limit and signify who can and will live there), to all issues related to how the building design addresses its surroundings—from its relationship with the street to its relationship with the buildings immediately adjacent to it, as well as its relationship within the general context of the city and neighborhood.

Again, it is not my intention to harp on this particular building.  I believe whole-heartedly in progress, change, and embracing the new and different.  But I also believe in addressing issues of architecture and urbanity on a holistic level.  It is my belief that if an architect does not cognizantly accept the fact that his or her work has lasting social implications, he or she is not practicing architecture.  The work becomes nothing more than sculpture.

In the words of Alvar Aalto,

“The very nature of the art of architecture is to serve humanity.  It is a utilitarian art, even in its most spiritual form.”

It is with that sentiment I believe context must be heavily considered.  A building does not stand alone—particularly in an urban environment.  Buildings are but one element of the collage; however, they are a crucial element to establishing social and cultural mores.  Issues such as economic, and therefore even racial, stratification can easily be affected, altered, and changed—for better or worse—by architecture.

While it would be nice to say we can evaluate architecture based strictly on the standards of form, function, and aesthetics, it is very thoughtless to do so.  Architecture is a deeply complex field with deeply complex consequences.  I may have unrealistically high standards, but they are nonetheless standards I believe should always be at play as we evaluate architecture.

And with that, I’ll say: context is everything.  Well, almost.


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