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Power of Ten Design

Charles and Ray Eames made a very famous short movie in 1977 called “Powers of Ten.” As the camera gains altitude in 10 second increments, it illustrates how perspective and context change algorithmically as we pull back from the immediate object (in this case a picnic blanket), and yet all views are an equally valuable way of viewing the object. Not just picnic blankets, but anything I life can be viewed up close and from a distance to provide greater perspective and understanding. 

Architectural design can be thought in terms of multiple levels or “altitudes.” Up close is the building itself, its walls, roof, doors. Further back is the building’s physical context, and further back still – with the building now out of direct site – might be its symbolic context or the role it plays in the larger society. All of these views are interdependent. 

Another way to think about design is in terms of four key characteristics: Aspiration, Context, Practicality and Creativity.  

At the highest altitude, a work of architecture is aspirational. It hopes to serve some greater purpose than simply providing basic shelter. It might be expressing authority, anchoring a community, conveying warmth and comfort, welcoming. Aspiration captures our intrinsic human need at a psychological and sociological level to attach meaning and create order from chaos. We combat entropy in everything we do, and we look for buildings to “make sense” in a larger context, and we assign meanings to them which evolve over time and according to who is using them. 

At a somewhat lower altitude, architecture is created within, and shaped by, its context. Contextual considerations that impact design are not limited to physical attributes of a site. They include the regulatory context defined by planning and building codes, the financial context that sets the project’s market value and budget, and the political context that describes the design review process, relative power of community members to affect the design through comments and hearings. Political context includes incentives to create new buildings, such as the numerous waivers and other concessions available for Accessory Dwelling Units. And, context can include disincentives to building such as historic landmark designations, environmental impact studies, riparian studies and more. 

Another few steps closer to earth, Practical considerations include all the resources available to build and their respective limitations. Money is almost always the primary practical consideration for any project and a limited resource.  However, some buildings depend on donated materials and volunteer labor and their availability and skillsets are practical considerations that impact design. An architect may envision a building in steel when no steel is locally available, and practicality dictates either compromise or opportunity depending on the architect’s choices. Younger architects proposing outlandish designs to their bosses frequently use “unobtainium,” a miracle material with no practical limitations.  Whether guided by money, materials or labor – or all three – if it is true that a design must be constructed to be fully considered as architecture, then practicality is as important as context and aspiration for giving form. 

At the metaphorical ground level are Creative considerations where everything comes together. This broadly refers to the process of considering aspiration, context and practicality combined with program and function to invent architectural form and space. All are considered simultaneously and without hierarchy. They are just multiple ways to see the same design problem and solution, just as a picnic blanket seen from space is no higher or more important than one seen from the ground. It’s only the perspective that has changed.  

To mix metaphors further, aspiration, context, practicality, program and function are all ingredients of any design, and the architect applies their own creativity to produce a wonderful and delicious cake. The cake is the placed on a picnic blanket which is viewed form ever higher altitudes at the power of ten, and the entire process begins again.