We are all somewhere. None live solely in our minds, or on the glowing screen you are seeing here. We all have a context, an origin point, a place. Humans are not satisfied with instinct, they create. Everything is made in a place. That place is where the needs and desires of those who wish to make something employ the human creativity it takes to make anything.
Each place, each context – it’s people, culture, topography, climate, geology, even funding and legalities – is a cauldron. What is to be cooked by creation has two parts: first, the need/hope for what is desired and second, the spice of human creativity. That recipe is cooked in the cauldron of context in every thing we make.
What is cooked can be tasteless and bland, even disgusting, or it can be so spiced as to be unpalatable but to all but a few. Or the food that results bastes in function and elevates it’s delight and hunger for it by its spice. The human spice. But you cannot cook without a cauldron.
When architects create, they often have two approaches: “Go along to get along.” where what is here now determines what will be, or, conversely, “My way or the highway.” Where we are has nothing to do with where we will be.
Denial or Mimicry is literally the mind of a two year old.
“No!” Is often the first or second word used by our brains. Between those rejections, children live in a world where familiarity and comfort is virtually central to existence.
We are not two year olds, and architects do not create things solely for two year olds. Making things cannot deny context, but if we Xerox it, it is not creativity, it is mimicry.
There are always a place where we make things.
And when we make things we deal with what is there.
No matter how different the needs are from what is there.
Context can be social, vernacular, but it is transcendentally the environment of where we create. Political, legal, climatic, geographic, funding, materials, technology all, every one, have an impact on what we create. But the land comes first.
We cannot deny the way the land is shaped, how water that is around it flows, and what the soil is under it. But we often do not judge buildings by those arcane factoids that are the essence of design generation. We often just see the results, the outcomes of our making.
We can try, unendingly, to void the past, pretend that the existing realities of the places we build, its population, it’s climate, it’s topography, even its culture, are simply to be transformed by our genius.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (above) does that, but the wall of buildings it pierces are necessary to create its beauty. Seldom does denial of what is there do more than simply be an insult or willful ignorance. When we wish away context, much of what the thing we build will only be for the designer, who seldom lingers.
But if we simply see what exists, replicate it, cleverly adapt new to what is there now, following what is there now, but do not create, we beg the reality of our humanity. We do not eat one food, listen to one music, even speak one language. Humans are a quilt, not a tapestry.
Every addition to every landscape or building lives with it. Is the result a marriage, or a fight? Is it a dance, or an army of unified marchers, thoughtless and following? Creation cannot be either xeroxing the existing or denying it because humanity is neither by rote or by explosion. We create, but we should not fear or deny context.
Unless we see what is there, we deny it. And denying reality is simply not possible.
Context is not about Gravity or Time, because context has our humanity fully subsumed in its reality. Even the intensely private, isolated place is somewhere, used by someone, and nothing stays in the designer’s mind if they are an architect, it gets built in some place, in some context.
If we want to be here, now, and make something for a place, people, culture and in the environment, we cannot wish them away. And if we see the world as it is built, replicate the patterns, and the designs of those who are long dead, our work becomes the walking dead, not a living extension of who we are, now.
Context is hard to deal with in architecture because it is neither the raw food to be eaten (the need) nor is it only the added spice of our human creativity that makes that food sing. It is the caldron of context that contains both the food and the spice, cooks both and what architecture is served from.
Duo Dickinson, FAIA
Graduating from Cornell in 1977, Duo Dickinson opened his architectural practice in 1987. His work has received more than 30 awards and he is a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects. Much of his work is dedicated to pro bono or at-cost work for not-for-profits, totaling over 75 projects for over 30 organizations over the last 30 years. His design work has been published in more than 70 publications, he is the architecture writer for Connecticut Hearst Media Corp. and a staff feature writer for The Common Edge Collaborative and Mockingbird Ministries. He is a contributor to Arch Daily and has written for Archinect and other publications. His blog, Saved By Design has received over 100,000 hits in the last few years. Dickinson has also written eight books, the latest of which, A Home Called New England was nominated for a 2018 CT Book Award. He hosts the radio series “Home Page” on WPKN Radio. Dickinson has taught at Yale College and Roger Williams University. He is now on the faculty of the Building Beauty program at the Sant’Anna Institute, Sorrento, Italy as well as co-chair of their American Advisor Board and is teaching at the University of Hartford.