Architecting Human Knowledge
Updated: Apr 3, 2019
In our blog posts in the year that has passed (!) since the founding of the GRASPnetwork in Vienna in March 2018, we have undertaken an examination of the many areas that might yield fruitful paths for GRASP to explore in its mission of rendering visible the increasingly invisible aspects of our daily lives. Over the course of this eventful year, we have looked into a number of professions including philosophy, computer science, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and medicine. And, of course, we have also looked at a number of artistic professions, ranging from the visual arts to theater.
In this post, we’ll take a look at yet another profession that could potentially be a source of inspiration for us in GRASP: architecture. And I will take advantage of a personal connection to an architect I have known for most of my life, and for all of his life – in fact, we grew up in the same house. (I’ll leave that as a small exercise for the reader to sort out.)
Jim Favaro practices in Los Angeles with the architectural firm Johnson Favaro. Over the years they have gradually evolved a specialization in the construction of university buildings and, especially, libraries (for example, they have been commissioned to complete a comprehensive library master plan for the University of California at Los Angeles). They have some interesting ideas about the function of a library that we may return to another time. But for now, we’ll consider some other thoughts expressed by Jim in recent writings.
The first concerns something I mentioned earlier: is architecture a profession, or an artistic profession? There has been a surprising amount of debate around this question, even in my own profession of software engineering. Why would anybody in software engineering care about architecture? It turns out that there is a subdiscipline of software engineering called “software architecture”, and one of the most important leaps forward in that subdiscipline occurred about 25 years ago with the application of ideas published by architect Christopher Alexander in a book entitled A Pattern Language. I won’t go into the details here, but the idea was that you can construct something as big as a city – or as small as a house – out of a set of solutions to individual architectural problems (like where to place a table in the kitchen). The idea became hugely successful when applied to software architecture – but remained controversial in the architectural profession. I summarized a discussion I had with Jim about this controversy here.
It turns out that the idea of “architect-as-artist” is more recent than we might think. One such contemporary architect-as-artist is Santiago Calatrava, who has been accused of preferring artistic innovation over practical functionality in his work. (I remember walking over his bridge in Bilbao, which had needed the installation of a black anti-slip carpet on the decking because people had been falling down and injuring themselves.)
But it was not always like that. As Jim writes, “To this day there are architects who still talk about the building of buildings as a form of self-expression. This would not have occurred to an architect before the 20th century.” So, there has been this back-and-forth, see-sawing phenomenon in the past century of, on the one side, seeing architects as artists who are rendering a vision through their buildings (making the invisible visible!); and on the other side, seeing them as glorified construction bosses getting up buildings as quickly and cost-effectively as possible and just making sure they don’t fall down. For the record, Jim and his colleagues believe that both the artistic and functional elements are necessary, and should draw heavily on a firm understanding of history. On the basis of that alone, I do indeed believe that the architectural profession has something to contribute to our work in GRASP – time will tell.
This belief is reinforced by something else I was surprised and gratified to read in Jim’s recent writing, which revealed that we share some of the same points of view on important themes relevant to the GRASP mission. In that same essay in which he talked about the controversy surrounding the architect-as-artist, he noted with satisfaction the rise of the so-called “maker movement”, whereby educational institutions are now demanding that architects include “maker spaces” and “innovation labs”. When asking himself what was behind this movement, he came up with the following answer:
“It is perhaps the realization of what we the practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession have known forever: making something teaches us something about the world and ourselves, making something engenders a kind of intelligence as human as any other kind of intelligence, we are minds with bodies and bodies with minds, we can (and must) think with our hands, our eyes, our whole bodies to establish true understanding of the world around us, to create the space in which truly meaningful innovation blooms.”
Mind and body – one of the recurrent themes in the GRASP blogs over the past year. Perhaps the gradual recognition that so many diverse professions are relevant to GRASP also provides an explanation of why our Knowledge Huddle format – where we gather together people from all walks of life to create human knowledge – has been so successful.