Visit an Architecture School to See Future

Central China TV Headquarters, Beijing 2009
When I attended architectural school in the 1970's, one of the graduate level studios (not mine) explored the concept of linking highrise towers with horizontal connections. So it did not surprise me when, about 30 years later, buildings utilizing such concepts were actually constructed; the students had become principals in major design firms.

I am reminded of this by a visit to Southern California Institute of Architecture's presentation of their graduate students thesis projects.

Architectural schools represent a broad range of pedagogical approaches and philosophical underpinnings. Sci-Arc's amuses me; many of the projects on display appear to treat gravity as an optional design consideration. But their creative investigation of architectural forms challenges existing conventions, and suggest architectural trends that will impact the future of building materials. Take a look:
Chia-Ching Lang
Dave Bantz
Han-Yin Hsu
Qing Cao
Sheng-Ping Lin
Experiment from robotics lab.
You won't have to wait to wait 30 years until today's students become principals. In a few months, these new graduates will find jobs and begin influencing what materials are used in buildings currently being designed. Your ability to communicate with them and understand their architectural influences may be critical to your marketing success. For while it may be the principals from my graduating class that make the final call, these youngsters know far more about the realities of computer-aided design than the old geezers ever will.

Now, if only they would understand gravity...

...and if you think I am joking about gravity, take a look at how the emergency exit doors at the school are blocked. This is the second time this year I have visited the campus, and on both occasions the doors were blocked.

This suggests a second reason for you to visit the schools of architecture. The faculty is probably not teaching students about your products and technology. This creates an opportunity for you to cultivate relations with these future principals.

Sci-Arc photos by Vladimir Paperny.

Our Cumulative Achievement

Every time it rains heavily enough to make noise on the window – which is not very often in L.A. – I am reminded of standing on the roof of my house with my long-suffering real estate agent the day we closed escrow.  The roof had acknowledged leaks, and we were hurriedly spreading a tarp in a fierce downpour.  That was the day I learned what a tough job roofs do every day, the moment I really began to appreciate what it means to have a roof over your head.

At a time of year when thoughts often turn towards both appreciation for the blessings we’ve got, and assessment of what we’ve achieved, I would like to put in a word of praise for the blessing and the achievement represented by the Built Environment.  It’s hard to find a better example of the method by which the human race grows as a species, and how far we’ve taken that growth.

We grow by being able to accumulate knowledge and capabilities across generations, by being able to quantify and record what we learn, and transmit it beyond the span of our individual years.  From the time when people first realized that caves weren’t going to be enough, we have been accumulating the skill of transforming our environment to adapt it to us, the short-circuit of the evolutionary process.

For an illuminating example of this achievement, one could look to the great pyramid at Chichen Itza, the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo.  Standing 98 feet tall, it is actually a shell built over a previous pyramid, which itself was built over the original pyramid.

I once visited the inner pyramid.  It’s not on the regular tour, but we had heard it existed.  We were standing outside the pyramid when my wife saw a park employee going into a little door under the most fully-restored of the four grand staircases.  She ran up and asked if that was the way to the inner pyramid, and he agreed to take us up.

Within the door, we were in a dimly lit, low-ceilinged stone chamber.  The steps of the previous pyramid stretched upwards like a narrow, rising tunnel.  The stone treads were worn as deep as an inch in some places.  The walls sweated with little blobs of moisture that glistened in the light of the bare 40 watt bulbs strung along the ceiling.

We raced up the stairs like they were on fire, tremendously excited by this weirdly threatening place.  We arrived gasping at the top to realize that, while the Mexican government had done a great thing excavating this path and stringing the electric lights, they might have been well advised to install ventilation, as well.  We already used up most of the oxygen in the place. 

Soon our gasping turned to gaping.  Before us stood a large sculpture of a jaguar (one of the gods worshipped at this site during one of its several changes of ownership), colored bright red, with three large stylized spots made of a green stone that looked like jade.  Its back was flattened in a way that strongly suggested it was a sacrificial altar.

The tiny chamber we stood in had once been the exposed top platform of the previous pyramid.  The tiny room in front of us was the previous inner temple. I reflected how much grander the current top platform and inner temple – above our heads – were, how the capabilities of these people to move, shape and build with stone had advanced from one civilization to the next. Within this man-made stone cavern was the reflection of one large page in the story of civilization, written over hundreds of years.  Then, the page turned, but the building that characterized it lived on.

I looked upwards and realized we were beneath tons of stone, and I had no idea what was holding them up.  Yet I had confidently taken my life in my hands and raced up that staircase in complete faith that whatever held them up was going to perform as expected.

Not to belabor an obvious symbol, but all of the built environment is constructed on top of the achievements of the past.

One could examine the latest and greatest architectural and engineering achievements to understand how far we’ve come.  A modern building has so many different kinds of technology that make it perform.  It protects its occupants and contents against wind, water, fire, and earthquake. It provides locations for all manner of human endeavor.  It modifies the (interior) weather.  It gives light in the darkness.  It has hot and cold running water.  It transmits communications.  And there are so many levels of concept embodied in it that allow it to serve the functions required of it.  It is logical.  It is expressive.  It offers the visitor a multi-sensory experience.  It creates functional spaces.  It provides confidence, comfort, safety, and security.

I would suggest, however, that perhaps the most illuminating example of what “cumulative achievement” really means, in terms of the built environment, is the network of standards that have been developed for construction and for building materials.  Those standards represent the length, breadth, and extraordinary depth of our knowledge, but that’s not all.  They represent our commitment to accumulating, quantifying, and transmitting our knowledge and hard-won achievements.  They further represent our commitment to our fellow human beings, to provide reliable structures for today and the future. After all, we pass along not only the knowledge, but the buildings themselves.  The inner pyramid at Chichen Itza, for example, is over 1500 years old.

Construction standards are, I believe, our most sincere expression of pride in our work, our determination as an industry to do the right thing on every project, and to continue thousands of years of advancement.

People who work in the construction industry are part of one of the signal endeavors of our species.  We have a right to be proud.  We have a responsibility to be careful, thorough, and to work by the rules, because we are, quite literally, building the world.

Utilitas, firmatas, et venustas: A Latin lesson for product literature designers

Written about 20 years ago, this essay has stood the test of time and continues to provide insight into building product sales and marketing.
I work for an ad agency that has just been hired to design product literature for a building product manufacturer. I have experience creating sales collateral pieces in other industries, but this is the first time I have done work for an architectural product maker. What do I need to know to meet the needs of my client's target audience: designers? - A.C., account executive

Like all sales collateral, building product literature must stimulate awareness of and interest to your firm's products. But unlike product literature used in other fields, building product literature must also provide designers with the information they need to engineer, detail, and specify products. While these objectives appear simple, designing an effective piece of product literature can be as challenging as designing a building.

Vitruvius, a classical Roman architecture critic, wrote that good architecture is characterized by "utilitas, firmatas, et venustas," which means, "utility, firmness, and delight." Like architecture, sales literature has to be useful; it must help someone evaluate and select appropriate materials for a project. It must have firmness; the information provided must be accurate, reliable, complete, and clear. Finally, the literature must also delight the senses by being visually attractive.Aesthetics are especially important if the piece is geared toward architects and designers. As visual thinkers, they are strongly motivated by pictures and the graphic appeal of catalogs. Whenever possible, the most important features and benefits. of a product should be expressed through illustrations or photos. Effective literature uses an architect's visual language for communicating information, such as isometric drawings that show several surfaces at once, poche patterns to differentiate materials, and other drawing techniques.

Text is important, especially in technical data sheets and engineering manuals, but not as effective as visual information. If architects wanted to spend their time reading, they would have gone to law school.

Media jockeys vs. technocrats
Although aesthetics are important, they can receive too much emphasis. "Media jockeys" - graphic designers and other ad agency staff - know how to get readers emotionally attracted to a product, but too often they don't understand the technical data. They may create a beautiful page full of exciting images but product selection data can get lost in advertising hyperbole.

On the other hand, many manufacturers are staffed with technocrats who are so intent on talking about roofing or windows that they forget that the product will be part of an entire building. Other technocrats have great product knowledge but can't write catalog copy that communicates information to someone considering their product for the first time. The best sales literature balances aesthetics and technology.

Literature sells
Most architectural and engineering firms have large libraries of product literature. There are so many products available that no individual can have a comprehensive knowledge of them all If building products are the palette with which designers create, then the more catalogs available, the larger the palette of design options. [Update: Today, every designer has an internet full of product literature, creating a different set of challenges.]

The brochure or catalog is often the manufacturer's only contact with a specifier. If an architect can't find information quickly and easily, the literature has failed to serve its purpose.

Different pieces serve different goals. The type of information that is helpful to a specifier early in the design process is different from the information needed during preparation of construction documents. In the preliminary design phase, general information is needed so product selection decisions can be made quickly. Later, designers need complete technical information and supporting documentation to detail and specify a product. Although general and specific information can be included in the same brochure, it is usually better to create separate pieces of literature for each.

Depending on the type of product, sales literature can contain details, engineering criteria, installation and operation instructions, warranty information, code approvals, and much more. An architect writing specifications for product material usually works from master specifications. But many products are not written up in commercially available master specifications, so manufacturers must provide guide specifications to help the architect.

The word "specifications" has two meanings when marketing building products. Design professionals use it to mean project requirements, and manufacturers use it to refer to product capabilities. Product literature must be written and organized so that specifiers can readily determine where the projects requirements and the product's capabilities overlap.

All the architectural product literature for a product line should be assembled into a three-ring binder. It's easier for architects to find a conspicuous notebook in their crowded offices; individual brochures are easily misplaced in project files. The binder on the architect's shelf also serves as an advertisement for the building product manufacturer.

Keeping up with concerns
The construction industry never stands still. New technologies are developed, building codes change, and manufacturers merge and downsize. Construction marketers should avoid using product literature that is more than five years old.

With changing social concerns, product literature now gives more emphasis to building materials' environmental features. Metric units are becoming more common, to accommodate federal construction policies and international construction. And for many manufacturers, it is also important to translate product literature, especially installation instructions, into Spanish and other languages to accommodate international markets and a changing labor pool.

Electronic media have already made a huge difference in how architects select products. A large number of building product manufacturers are currently evaluating the development of CD-ROM's or Web sites. [Update: Obviously out of date. If I wrote this today, it would talk about BIM and mobile apps.]

During the next decades, the nature of construction information will change even more dramatically. Architects and engineers will shift from creating paper drawings of their buildings to creating computerized building models. Manufacturers will provide computer models of their products to be incorporated into the virtual models. The challenge, however, will not be to put existing product information onto computers, but to use computers to create new relationships between suppliers and specifiers, and to add value by offering better access to information. [Update: This is still the challenge.]

Send us your questions about building product marketing and we will answer them. Send to:

Previously published in Construction Marketing Today

Emotions and Branding

Louis Sullivan was one of the most important architectural leaders of the late 19th Century. His well known maxim says:

Form follows function.

This has inspired generations of "modern" architects and justified designs seemingly stripped of ornamentation and excess. To satisfy market demands, most building product manufacturers have had to offer materials similarly devoid of ornamentation, allowing the function of the product to speak for itself.

But architecture can also borrow insight from other creative fields. Willie G. Davidson, Chief Styling Officer for Harley-Davidson -- a very successful brand -- proffers a small but significant twist on Sullivan. Davidson says:

Form follows function, but both report to emotion.

I see this expressed in the current issue of McGraw Hill's SNAP magazine - a publication that survives by appealing to architects. It's cover photo depicts a pair of trash receptacles, a product category not ordinarily considered exciting.

But without sacrificing functionality, the manufacturer of these trash cans added an entasis (architecture for "curvature"). showed sensitivity to color and texture, and created an object with emotional appeal to designers.

Svelte objects of sensual desire may not elicit the right emotion for your company -- many building products, for example need to appeal to emotions of safety and reliability, for example -- but you cannot afford to overlook emotion in your branding.

Architects Are From Plato

"Why do architects think the way they do?"

That is one of the most common questions asked during sales training programs conducted by Chusid Associates. This essay suggests that architects may not be as irrational as they seem -- but many of them have a different philosophical frame of reference than do engineers, builders, or other individuals in the construction community.

Architects are from Plato
by Erik Anders Nelson, PE, SE

What is good architecture? Why does one building appeal more than another? Is it more orderly or more efficient? Is ornament justified as an art, or does the aesthetic need to derive from a function? What do our greatest western thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, have to say? It is in their work where you will find the great evolutionary divide in comprehending and approaching art and architecture. Engineers evolved from Aristotle and architects from Plato.

First we can define good architecture as that which is universally beautiful. This loaded definition has preoccupied philosophers and artists from the beginning of time. If we can find something that is universal, it becomes objective (as opposed to subjective or opinion) and a sort of "truth". Something that is objectively beautiful is a compelling idea even if it is not possible. We all seem to like different things but there are things that have stood the test of time and are deemed worthy of greatness. But how is it possible? The search for truth, beauty, and goodness is where we can find answers, the so-called holy trinity of Plato (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Trinity of Plato

The ancient Greeks studied natural forms, including the human body, to try to mimic the ultimate creator. They looked to nature to find divine proportions and truth in natural beauty. We find this in the proportion or relationship of the Golden Ratio and the modular proportions of human bodies. This search for beauty was linked to a search for truth. Plato did not distinguish between beauty and truth as clearly as we do today. He found that general forms in nature, what he called "archetypes", are immutable and eternal ideas or patterns that reflect truth and have a divine significance. For Plato, beauty was truth.

In two of Plato’s works, Ion and Phaedrus, we find the way to produce good art. "All good poets compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired or possessed...there is no invention in him unless he has been inspired and is out of his senses and the mind is no longer with him...these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of god." (Plato, Ion, 536) Therefore, the artist must be "finding the nature of their own god in themselves." (Plato, Phaedrus, 252). Here, Plato links that which is beautiful with that which is divine and true. His approach to architecture is spiritual and holistic. Plato would find that rationality does not necessarily contribute to beauty; in fact, the artist is better off becoming divinely inspired to create beauty as shown in Figure 2.

Plato’s approach is fundamentally irrational, however; having divine inspiration is not a process using reason. In Plato’s Laws we read "the equal is not equal or the symmetric symmetrical, because somebody thinks or likes something, but they are to be judged of by the standard of truth, and by no other whatever...those who seek for the best song and music ought not to seek for that which is pleasant, but for that which is true." (Plato, Laws Book II, 668) But what is truth? We (engineers) find truth in mathematics and our understanding of materials to create forms. These forms follow mechanical laws and are able to carry loads from top to bottom. Engineers, we will see, evolved from Aristotle.

Figure 2: Rationality and Beauty

Aristotle had a more structured and scientific approach to creating good architecture. He used observation to reduce and classify nature. To Aristotle these theories of proportion have no divine or formal significance. A building can be designed beautifully by the application of mathematics, a secular (albeit spiritual for some) language. Gothic architecture stemmed from this approach, where rules of proportion according to structural requirements governed the design of the flying buttress and the ribbed vault. This method continued into the time of Galileo, who first attempted to answer the question of a cantilever, "Where will it break?" At that moment, the science of material mechanics was born, a second beginning of the scientific method heralded by Aristotle. This is when architecture became a science, and when science governed the form.

Plato believed proportions can be inherently beautiful, simply because they are found in nature and life and are expressions of "truth". The desire to force architectural forms to perfect circles and squares are clearly expressed in Renaissance Architecture. Also, the mystique of numbers such as pi, the Fibonacci sequence, or the Golden Ratio is intriguing to Plato and architects because they may be the basis of beauty. We remember it was the mathematician Leonardo 
Fibonacci who found that the additive number sequence 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13... describes spiral growth patterns of plants and animals. This number series also generates a proportion called the Golden Ratio or Rectangle. So should all windows of a particular building be 8:13 because we find this ratio in nature? The answer is yes for some. In fact, I had to change the exterior bracing on several high rise residential towers in Beijing to follow proportions of Fibonacci. The designers wanted rise to run ratios of vertical bracing to follow Fibonacci, such as 1:2, 2:3, or 3:5. For example, a brace with a ratio for 3:4 had to be changed (Figure 3a and b).

Figure 3a: Fibonacci Bracing

Figure 3b: Fibonacci Bracing

But what does an inanimate object, like a building, have to do with an animate one?

Aristotle, in his work Parts of Animals, develops a different approach to the design process. He states that one "starts by forming for himself a definite picture, in the one case perceptible to the mind, in the other sense of his end - the builder of a house - and this he holds forward as the reason and explanation of each subsequent step he takes." (Aristotle, Parts of Animals Book I, 640) Here, every action of an engineer or architect follows a particular reason to achieve the end goal.

For example in the case of Figure 4, Aristotle and engineers would find the answer to be completely subjective. But if pressed, they would ask about snow loads, and if there is snow, would find the triangle roof superior. That is because Aristotle, contrary to Plato, believed architecture to be a rational process; shedding snow from a roof is rational. He argues that the scientific method has a hand in the judgment of art. "The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree." (Aristotle, Metaphysics Book XIII, 1078) Aristotle also believes "Every art does its work well - by looking to the intermediate and judging its work by this standard." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 1106)

Figure 4: Is there a better choice aesthetically?

To Plato and architects of course, the idea of intermediate or symmetric forms can constrain architecture. Antoni Gaudi and Frank Gehry are neither intermediate nor symmetric. For Antoni Gaudí, the master of fluid and organic forms, the straight line belonged to men and the curved line to God. Whether curved or straight, Plato felt it necessary to find objective beauty and attempted to dispel subjectivism in art. He believed that what is central to an artist is his/her ability to understand the nature of measure (what we today call proportion). The architect, according to Plato, must know the nature of measure and with this knowledge can find a square roof more aesthetically pleasing than a triangular one. "The art of measurement is universal, and has to do with all things." (Plato, Statesman, 285b) Accordingly, there may be a "proper" size for a column or window. Here, Plato argues for the doctrine of objective beauty, which may give the architect the upper hand in making an aesthetic judgment. But how does one 
earn the advantage of passing artistic judgments 
of things?

It should be noted that while Gaudi thought the curve or circle was otherworldly, Mies van der Rohe found a curve unnecessary. Mies van der Rohe believed everything had to have a reason, and a curve is not reasonable. For him, subjective decisions were unwarranted and did not contribute to a better building. One could argue that the modern movement of the first half of the 20th century - Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe - was actually a throwback to Aristotle and Galileo. But "Some Architects are from Aristotle" would be a less catchy title for this article.

The postmodern movement in architecture was a reaction to the logical rigor of early modernists like Mies van der Rohe. It was a movement that tried to give Plato center stage in the built world, when Aristotle and rationalism become overbearing. Postmodernists reverted to classical form because that mode of architecture seemed to have passed the test of time and was deemed "good". Another more recent movement against Aristotle in architecture is deconstructivism. Architects such as Frank Gehry view our rational and scientific approach to architecture as an affront against holism and human concerns. Those architects want to deconstruct or displace order and orthogonal form. Unlike Aristotle, they believe architecture can be great without rational form.

The great early modern architect Louis Sullivan, who invented the simple phrase "form follows function", may have dispelled these questions of objective versus subjective views of beauty in his book Kindergarten Chats.

The master: "I am endeavoring to impress upon you the simple truth...of the subjective possibilities of objective things. In short to clarify for you the origin and power of beauty - to let you see, that it is resident in function and form."

Student: "So is ugliness, isn’t it?"

The master: "To be sure."

Here Sullivan finds a link between objects and beauty that is not subjective; but, he still admits to the student that a building derived from form following function can still be ugly. However, he does suggest that the form of a building should follow function, at a minimum, to be considered beautiful. Like Plato, Louis Sullivan can not separate beauty from truth.

Figure 5: Rationality, Beauty and Truth for Aristotle (not to be taken out of context)

Again, Aristotle rejects form based on a justification of "inherent beauty" and insists on rational explanations. Aristotle, because of his high regard to the scientific method, would be able to graph truth versus beauty in Cartesian coordinates (an assumption I am making, he did not actually do this). He would assign truth as a different dimension to beauty; literally, truth on a separate axis from beauty. (Plato we remember would disagree, for Plato truth and beauty are linked and cannot be separated.) Aristotle would find architects to exist in the lower right of Figure 5. He would find engineers to be closer to truth.

If beauty and truth were valued equally, both architects and engineers would tend to be the same shade of orange. Only the greatest designers of us would be able to transcend this dichotomy and reach lighter spectrum (the upper right of Figure 5). But to do this, one must assume this so-called dichotomy between beauty and truth doesn’t exist, and live and design with that in mind. That is the difficulty. It is important to note both of these approaches are honest, albeit different. Whether the truth of beauty is found through laws of mechanics or archetypal forms may be less important. The question is... who will we as designers turn to next for beauty, Plato or Aristotle? Either way, both represent truth and that is good.

Michael Chusid's Response:

In my opinion, the best architects have their heart in Plato, and their head in Aristotle. This is a difficult balance to maintain, and indeed, many architects flip flop from one extreme to the other depending on whether they are working on the form of the structure or the mechanics of putting the building together.

As a building product sales rep, you may have to speak to someone from Plato one moment, and then someone from Aristotle the next. Either way, your goal is to help someone find the enduring "Truth" in your product.

Reprinted with permission by STRUCTURE® magazine, January 2007,