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Geometry & Generalist

Architecture is somewhat unique as both a profession and body of knowledge because only architecture approaches societal issues as fundamental problems of geometry. This is not always the best way to approach large problems. Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and later manifestations of public housing such as Pruitt Igoe were failed attempts to address systemic problems of inequity, poverty and racism through site planning.  

While other professions are responsible for laws, medicines, structures or finance, architects make – or try to make – physical places. Obviously, this approach doesn’t solve every problem thrown up against it, but neither does a new law, a new policy, a new derivative, or a new drug. The particular type of three-dimensional thinking that architects embody (this is admittedly a very idealized view of architects), balancing humanism and science, is much more important to society and has far greater practical applications than merely the design and documentation of new buildings across the landscape. Architecture, even when not applied to buildings, represents an alternative way of looking at the world. If architecture as a profession changes fundamentally to the point that it ceases to exist – and we know from history that entire bodies of knowledge can disappear – or if it becomes trivialized until no one appreciates the difference between a making a great place to live and a making a clever teapot, then society will have lost a profound body of knowledge, a portal to solving some of its most entrenched large scale problems using three dimensions, the holistic thinker. 

Other professions approach societal challenges as deficiencies in public policy, law, finance, medical diagnosis, or statistics. Industrial and interior designers also bring three dimensional solutions to problems as, but those problems are almost always already proscribed within an already defined geometric context of rooms, form factors or possibly packaging.  Almost unique among professions, are fundamentally three-dimensional problem solvers at the scale of buildings and cities.  

Moreover, unlike specialized professionals such as structural engineers, mechanical engineers, or geotechnical engineers, an architect is specifically trained to be a generalist, to see both the big picture and oversee the details. There is a saying that an architect knows a little bit about everything, but not much of anything! No other professional on the building project team can talk with about space, light, building codes, history and the strength of concrete with equal ease (and sometimes in the same sentence!). The architect works first with the client to define functional needs, budget, schedule, then analyzes site conditions, building and planning code requirements, and any other external parameters. Then this information is synthesized into an architectural design, and from this creation are derived engineering strategies, material selections and construction methods. All of this under the aegis of the architect in the service of creating a beautiful, strong and functional building or place that successfully resolves the many conditions and criteria that were presented. 

You can find architects involved in the design of anything that can benefit from their unique skill set: cities, office towers, hospitals, schools, houses, interiors, furniture, Minecraft, or even dishes. It is the architect’s three-dimensional and holistic approach to a design challenge that brings its greatest benefit to society.