Improvised Architecture: Who We Are Is What We Do
Updated: Oct 28, 2021
The foundation of adaptable characteristics are present in most people at a young age. For a child it is difficult to understand that it is possible to simultaneously care for the self and for others. Because a child is dependent on others for survival, the needs of others may be made primary in order to receive sustenance from them. The boundary between self and other is then blurred, trapping the child into perpetually attempting to become the person or people they are dependent upon. This was very much the case in my childhood, and it certainly made me effective at adapting to needs of others. On the other hand, as an adult, it is possible to understand the needs of others as separate from the self, and to develop a solution that solves the problem for both. And in time, I tried to learn to listen to my own desire, and to learn how to balance these competing interests both in my life and in my work. Improvisation was an effective tool to adapt to others’ desires, but it is also useful in balancing competing interests.
There are two meanings that can be applied to the concept of improvisation that are important to me. The dictionary definition doesn’t delineate these senses independently, but I believe it’s an important distinction to make. Improvise, in the sense that a weapon can be improvised – pieced together from available parts – and improvise in the sense of inventing something new as it comes to you. They are similar but I believe require very different thought processes.
The first sense is something we practice by taking all the material we have available, and seeing what we might do with it. By material I don’t just mean the physical stuff we make buildings out of, but the thoughts and ideas we make buildings out of as well. This can include the notions or requirements of a government official, an end user, or a developer. It could be our own preconceptions or hopes. And then of course physical site constraints, programs, budgets, time, and available building materials.
The second sense actually seems to require a lack of thought. Instead of discovering ways of assembling given materials, a very active process, it seems that it requires that certain types of thought should cease. In studies that were performed in improvisational artists such as jazz musicians, brain activity in certain areas shut down. Creativity actually required that we stop accessing certain parts of the brain that might impede our openness to free form thought. For me the interesting thing about this last is that it not only allows a fluid stream of thinking, but it also clears a space for accidents. Sketching ideas is an improvisational act, and on occasion, when there is a misplaced line or an ambiguous scribble, it opens a window to a new idea. Often unconsciously.
I sometimes wonder if one of these types of thinking might lead to the other. Or if those early childhood experiences led to a particular type of thought, which then evolved into yet another. It’s as if the necessity to fashion a life by improvising the pieces together engendered a creative mode of thought. Nueroplasticity studies show that reinforcing certain neural pathways through repetition can strengthen them. And both types of thought process are similar in that they require an openness to new, or alternate ideas. In one case, making do with what is available means we need to think of elements in ways we had not considered previously. This manner of thought can then be applied to any set of limitations. It proves useful when interpreting code constraints in new ways, looking at programmatic limitations, or considering building material applications. We devise solutions that meet code in non-prescriptive ways, rethink how spaces can fit together and determine alternate uses for common materials to develop a unique architecture.
And that creative reuse can lead to creative thinking in the whole, where improvising leads to an entirely new form, something previously unseen. This is a bit intangible and difficult to describe, but it can occur each time a pen is put to a blank sheet of paper. The solution seems to develop out of thin air as the pen moves itself across the sheet, seemingly driven by the hand that holds it. We add another layer, draw it again, tightening up areas that feel right, redrawing areas that don’t. One decision affects the next, and earlier decisions are rethought, in a non-linear, to and fro dance. For me, this is where the best work happens.
All of these modes of improvisation are useful in architecture. From collaborating with others, to creating structures that adapt to their environments (like we often do as humans). In both architecture and in life, it is useful to be able to handle situations as they are thrown at you. Neither provides predictable, consistent conditions, and knowing how to adapt to sudden changes in the path that occur with great frequency and at high speeds is paramount for success. In psychological terms, this is considered ‘adaptable personality’. Learning to make do through turbulent moments in life provides the tools to navigate the waters of business, and fosters the creativity required to make great architecture.