Critical Thinking for Architects:
Developing a Project Premise and Concept

Barry D. Yatt, AIA, CSI



What does an architecture student do when assigned a design project? Get paper and start drawing? Well, not necessarily. There are two very different ways to approach the design process, both of which work, but for different types of designers:

1. The "Implicit" approach (known as the "Atelier", or "Black Box" method):

a. Concept: Design is a holistic and creative process, and unlike engineering work, is inhibited by the application of too much logic. As one of the arts, it is mysterious and springs from the depths of the designer's subconscious.

b. Process: As an implicit and graphic process, design is best learned by watching. A teacher will tell the student when the design isn't yet "working" based on experientially-developed sensitivity. Once a student's sensitivity is developed, his work will be more sophisticated.

c. Effect: It suggests the design process is best taught through implication. The right design is achieved through recognition based on intuition rather than invention based on issues analysis.

2. The "Explicit" approach (known as the "Inquiry" method):

a. Concept: Design is only valid so far as it addresses the problems underlying the process. As such, sketching can't start until the designer understands, in a fully conscious way, the human problems to be solved by the design.

b. Process: The designer's first effort is to think about, and ask questions of, the problem until it loses its mystery. If necessary, he can gather additional information about the problem. In considering the problem, the designer should know (and be able to concisely express to others) three things about the project:

1) What the project's Premise is. "What is it?"

2) What its Program Concept is. "How will it work?"

3) What his Design Concept for the project is. "What attitude of expression will I use to guide design direction?"

Only when these responses are known can one start design work.

c. Effect: Although solutions may be found through intuitive insight, the level of understanding on which they are based must grow from careful analysis. This is the basis of critical judgement, vital to enriching a project, since one can't really know if it's good unless one knows what it set out to accomplish.

No architect or architecture student can develop a truly convincing and substantive design without a well-considered approach. For some, it is easier to incorporate all the relevant factors through an Explicit approach. For them, starting right-in on design sketches before thinking about the project is likely to yield disappointing results. A building's architecture needs to understand and fit the character and behavior of its occupants and the characteristics of its site in a way almost analogous to the way a tailor must understand and fit, not only the height and weight, but also the lifestyle of the customer for which an article of clothing is intended. Until the customer is understood, any work done on the clothing is wasted. It is therefore necessary to find an approach for understanding the architectural equivalent of the tailor. If a designer can achieve the required depth of understanding through an intuitive grasp of the situation, the Implicit approach will work well. Otherwise, a more analytic methodology may be called for. One way to understand design problems in a focused manner is discussed herein.

By itself, every design problem has numerous possible solutions. When combined with a specific designer, however, a project has only one best solution. This occurs when the designer knows himself well (his values and design priorities, which are different for each unique designer), and the design problem is perfectly described and understood. These two ingredients, the project's parameters and the designer's values, constitute the "Premise" and "Concept", respectively, referred to above. Therefore, an understanding of the project's Premise and the designer's Concepts must precede any attempt to describe a project's goals.


The Inquiry Approach

Before starting work on a project, it is necessary to understand where the problem starts and stops, what its borders are (the project's parameters). When a project is described in only the broadest, most general terms, the borders are too loose to mold the form of the project that will be produced. Goals are defined by describing borders, fences or criteria, that limit the possible solutions to only those which answer the significant problems. Unfortunately, irrelevant borders will just as effectively fence out alternatives as relevant criteria. It is therefore vital to fine-tune the selection of borders.

One approach to this describes borders in terms of a Premise and Concept. The Premise describes what the client (or in architecture schools, the design studio critic), the users and the site want the project to be. It is developed from conversations (or other fact-gathering techniques) with the client (or teacher) and users, often in response to questions posed by the designer. Additionally, data is gathered about the site. The second part of the process, the Concept, describes the approach, philosophy or attitude which the designer wants to pursue in developing the Premise into a Design. It is based on the designer's unique way of interpreting the Premise. It might be best to further break down the Concept into Program and Design Concepts. To describe them concisely:

What follows is a description of the Premise and Concepts, and how to develop and use them.


The Premise

Think of the Premise as a summation of your thought patterns about a project's meaning. For this reason it is best recorded in verbal form rather than graphic form. You should be able to say what you're thinking, what you mean, before you start showing what you mean. So do it before you start sketching. Do it even before you start thinking about a design concept. Many of us are more comfortable working graphically than verbally, and this makes it harder. Do it anyway. It doesn't have to be difficult - think of it as the verbal equivalent of sketching on yellow trace. The point is, if you haven't crystallized your thinking about the meaning of a project before you start drawing, your design will reflect the murkiness of your thinking. The following are guidelines to help loosen up your writer's (and thinker's) block, divided into two steps - a Core Premise and a Developed Premise:

Techniques for reaching a Core Premise - The Five Step process:

The goal here is to clear your mind of hidden assumptions you might be making about the project before you even start on it. Your design work won't take full advantage of your creativity if it is restricted with subconscious assumptions. The following five-step process is a suggestion for jump-starting your brain. Try out this technique as outlined, but feel free to modify it thereafter to work best with your own temperament.

1. Ask Questions: Sit down and think about the project. You want to take a simple client statement like "design a high school in Boston" and break it down into its key aspects. Ask yourself what the project means:

a. What kind of project is it, according to the client, according to the users? What do you want from this project?

b. Who are the users? What kind of people are they? What cultural factors should you allow for? Who are you, and how do your temperament, personality and interests impact on this project.

c. Where will the project be located? What meaning does the site give to the project? Think about geography, climate, imagery, context and local attitudes.

d. When will the project be occupied? Daytime or nighttime use? Winter or summer? How will they differ?

e. Why is the project being built? What is the nature of the demand, and why now?

f. How much? How luxurious or economical? How will it be used? How are the proposed program, site, or users different from those you've experienced in the past.

Another Example: If the design intent is to "embody the mood embodied in" a particular painting or a particular architectural precedent, ask yourself what it is about that specific image or precedent that you want to use as the focus of your work, and why.

2. Brainstorm: Write down answers to these questions on paper as fast as they enter your head. Continue working until you feel that you've addressed all the issues.

3. Get Perspective: Walk away from your work for a few minutes to clear the thoughts from your mind. Have a cup of coffee, go for a short walk, but don't think about what you just wrote down.

4. Extract the essence: Come back to what you wrote down, and re-read it, circling or underlining the key words only. Key words are the ones that define the essence of what you had been thinking. Out of an entire page of writing, you may select only 5 or 10 words.

5. Compile: Read over the words you highlighted. They represent the distillation, at this early stage of design, of what you know to be true about the project. Compile the highlighted words into a concise statement describing the Core Premise of the project. A typical statement might contain three to eight primary points of two or three words each, each point addressing different aspects of the project. This is a preliminary statement, which will be fine-tuned as you explore the project further. It will evolve into a "core of assumptions" which will support all further development.


Techniques for expanding the Core Premise into a Developed Premise:

1. Examine each of the key concepts in your Preliminary Core Premise. Think about the consequences of each word and phrase. Apply the same five-step analytical technique described above, but instead of dealing with the global project description, deal with only one component concept at a time.

Example: If your Core Premise states, in part, that it is intended "for adolescent student users", you might ask:

a. Who are adolescents? What are their needs? What are their values? How do their perceptions differ from my own? What aspects do I want to focus on?

b. What are students? What are their needs? What activities do they partake in? With whom do they interact? Do I need to also design for those with whom they interact? Who supervise them? What are the needs of the supervisors? What types of support do the supervisors need.

You can see how one question leads to another, and another, and pretty soon you start to feel like you have a much deeper understanding of the project than at first. Each of these might be answered with a two or three word phrase that hits on the essence of the question.

With this kind of deeper awareness, your design work will flow, almost by itself, from your understanding. It will, as a result of your methodology, be grounded in the true design parameters and not a superficial acquaintance with the project. But let's not jump ahead to the design concept just yet.

2. Look at all the conclusions you've generated from your Premise Development. Are they all compatible with each other? Do any of your conclusions need to be modified in order to be consistent with any of your other conclusions? Do you see any patterns emerging? Anything that begins to suggest itself as a point of departure for your Design Concept?

3. Re-examine your Core Premise to see if it warrants revision based on the conclusions in your Developed Premise. Do you need to widen it in order to accommodate them all? Remember that the Core Premise should contain the seed for all further development, even if certain characteristics of the seed don't occur to you until it starts sprouting (sorry if I'm forcing the analogy).


The Program Concept and Design Concept

The Concept differs from the Premise in that it must be chosen by the person who is solving the project (the designer), and it must be based on their own unique way of perceiving, their set of values, their interests and their personality. A Concept which is drawn from within the designer can't be invalid (even though it may be unmarketable). It may be strong or weak depending on whether the energy level or degree of focus of the designer is strong or weak, but it can't be invalid.

That being said, it is important for a design critic to identify weak Concepts and to help students to strengthen them, or even, in an extreme case, to recommend that the Concept be abandoned completely for something stronger. In this context, a strong Concept would be defined as one which not only prompts strong reactions, but one which requires strong graphic and architectural involvement.

The Concept, if appropriate, will go right to the heart of the Premise, and serve as the basis on which all further development will be based. It is important for the critic to provide feedback to the student regarding the appropriateness of the Concept to the Premise, since it is entirely possible that the student's Concept will not address the issues raised by that students own interpretation of the Premise.

It is worth noting here that even after graduation, a practicing architect is still the one who must derive the Premise and establish the Concept, since he is often better situated than the client, the owner, the users or any other involved party to do so, and since he will be the one responsible for solving the Premise. Despite this, it is incumbent on the Architect to ground his Premise and Concept on the needs of, and input from, all parties involved in the project in addition to his own impressions of the project.

A. Developing the Program Concept

1. What: The question is "How do you interpret the client's program?". The Program Concept is what results from examining the client's (professor's) program through the lens of your Core Premise and Developed Premise. Think about the client's ideas for the program. Your own ideas for the project are bound to give a unique "twist" to the program elements. This is the first time that you get to have input on the project's eventual outcome. What do you think about the program? What do you see as its most important elements? How about the least important? Where do you think the most aesthetic emphasis should be placed? Use the perspective you gained from the Premise work. Write these ideas down also, so that you have, in effect, an annotated program.

2. Why: You need a Program Concept to bridge between, on one hand, the information you're given (the program) and the Premise, and on the other hand, the design work you will soon start. In effect it serves as an abstraction relative to the building design, or a concretization relative to the Premise. It must establish the criteria from which you'll judge the functional appropriateness of your design.

B. Embarking on the Design Concept

Now, and only now, are you ready to start thinking about Design Concepts.

There is a story about Frank Lloyd Wright and Falling Water. It seems that for six months after the first client consultations Wright did no drawing; he only thought about the project. It wasn't until Mr. Kaufman announced that he would be dropping by Mr. Wright's office that the architect began with paper and pencil. The few hours he had while awaiting the client was sufficient to draw what was to become the approved design, since so much time had been spent thinking about the problem.

The Design Concept summarizes the graphic seed of the project. Take another look at your Core Premise, your Developed Premise and your Program Concept. Ask yourself what design "devices", what "parti" might address the issues in manifest in this project? What metaphor, or overriding image, will guide your attitudes toward massing, detail development, facade design and materials selection? The image you decide on should reflect your own personal view of the project. You may try several different Design Concepts before you decide on which one will guide your design work.

The Design Effort

Design work is the development phase of the Concept. This phase results in an architectural solution which can trace its origins directly through the Concept from which it developed to the Premise which gave birth to the Concept. The goal of the design is to make the Concept manifest, in three dimensions, through the use of supportive design decisions (design "devices"). A good design is one where all decisions support and reinforce the Concept. In a weak design, decisions fragment or run contrary to the Concept.

A. Starting Design Work

1. Look at the necessities of the program graphically: At this point, you can start to look at two dimensional adjacency diagrams, expanding to address vertical adjacencies. Be true to the program requirements, but also be true to your Design Concept. If you did your work properly up to this point, the two should not be contradictory. Revise your adjacency diagrams until all program elements relate to each other as required by the program in as simple as way possible, while conforming to the overriding organizational system established by your Design Concept.

a. Matrix analyses: A technique for getting a better understanding of the relationships between elements of your program. Good examples of this technique can be found in several books on design methodology.

b. Adjacency diagrams: A technique for expanding the Program Concept into an Organizational strategy. One strategy is as follows:

1) Draw one circle to represent each of the program elements. Scale does not matter at this point, although you may want to draw larger elements with larger circles. Similarly, arrangement does not matter yet, just be sure to include all spaces. Write the name of the space on the circle. Depending on your medium, you may use slightly different approaches as follows:

a) On yellow trace: Draw circles in pencil or felt tip.

b) Cut outs: Cut circles out of paper and lay them out on a desk.

c) CAD: Draw circles with text labels.

Circles may be done in different colors to represent space type.

2) Connect circles with lines (if using yellow trace or CAD, pieces of string if using cut outs) to represent different forms of programmatic linkage. Different line colors or weights should be used to represent different types or hierarchies of linkages.

3) Rearrange circles so that lines are as short and as simple as possible. Ideally, you should end up with no crossed lines.

2. Put aside your analyses and do some freehand sketches: Loosen up your thinking and creativity by sketching some ideas for architectural layouts, keeping both the functionality of your adjacency diagrams and the imagery inherent in your Design Concept in the back of your mind as guides.

3. Look at massing: Look at the implications of your design in three dimensions (massing studies). Revise your plan sketches as necessary. Keep in mind your Core Premise, Developed Premise, Program Concept and Design Concept as the guiding principles for your design work. If your design doesn't satisfy these ideas, you should probably reconsider your design.

4. Design refinement: From here, you're free to go on with detail development, facade studies, materials selection, etc. Remember that you already established directions for each of these in your Design Concept. Each level of design refinement should embody and reflect all the work that preceded it. This just reinforces the importance of getting started with carefully considered attitudes from your initial consideration of a Core Premise.


How Critical Thinking ties in with the process of architectural education

1. The purpose of a design critic is first to judge the relative strength or weakness of the student's stated Premise (if he is not, in fact, assigning it to the group), and second to judge the appropriateness of the student's Concept to answering the Premise. Thereafter, the critic's purpose is to provide feedback to the student regarding the degree to which the design achieves the stated Concept. It might involve the critic refering back to the Concept to reinforce the student's sense of self-confidence, encouraging him or her to do more soul searching to make the Design more deliberate and strong. I don't think it is the job of a critic to debate the value of a student's Concept, only its relative strength. Once a strong Concept is established, the critic should act as a mirror, letting the student know if the design devices chosen are, in fact, reinforcing the Concept. If a critic makes a comment that a student doesn't understand, the student should ask the critic to explain how his or her suggestions would reinforce the student's Concept.

2. The purpose of design courses is to acquaint students with the different physical ways in which a Concept can be expressed, to teach students about design devices and how they work in reinforcing or contradicting the original Concept. The reason for learning systems of proportion, for knowing the ways in which different materials affect the expression of a building, for analyzing significant buildings for their systems of order, is to be able to apply these systems to the transformation of our own design premises into full expressions of architectural intent.

This success of this entire issue hinges on one thing: the student's realization that he or she needs to question the meaning of any and all raw information with which they are presented, and successfully probe and analyze that information in order to formulate a Premise and Concept. If this realization is there, the Premise and Concept will be developed properly, and will serve as strong foundations for all design development to follow.