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Processing Adaptability

One of the defining aspects of the studio is the notion of ‘adaptability.’ It’s been mentioned before, but it’s a theme we’ll often revisit on the blog in order to both explore what and how the nuances of adaptability can be expressed through architectural practice, and in hopes of generating further discussion to evolve ‘adaptability’ as a concept beyond the commonly accepted premise that it is simply the basis of all design. It’s too easy to say that everything persists in response to everything else around it and therefore architecture is merely design for a mode of inhabitable adaptability. It certainly can be more or less specific and contextualized than that, but can also encompass a wider spectrum of unique expressions and configurations that factor into both the design process and product itself, which ultimately we see inviting collaboration and improvisation.  These things are vital to good design.

For us, adaptability is rooted in the belief that architecture, much like art, often times comes from a place of deep personal struggle. The will and desire to practice architecture extends from the very psychological challenges of having to adapt to the hardships of life itself.  The beauty of the architectural response is that it will always remain profoundly primitive this way, that our ultimate survival instincts—despite the sophistication of our society today—still pronounce themselves spatially, and that some of our most fundamental intuitions as human beings are not only needs of the biological but serve a critical spatial awareness as well. Perhaps this is all the more relevant given how increasingly populated and densely urbanized the word’s becoming. To make architecture today remains a form of therapeutic reconciliation with these various forces and traumas that have and continue to shape our lives. In this sense, architecture is a prism through which to engage ‘adaptability’ as its own kind of design language.

There are many ways adaptability expresses itself, from the dynamically flexible systems and self-modulating structures of what’s called ‘kinetic architecture’ to the final adaptation of the client’s unique use of the space that was never perceived by the designer at all. But somewhere in the middle there lies the potential for an entire range of adaptable articulations. This is the territory that excites us and that the studio hopes to explore through future experiments to be documented here on the blog.

In Annalee Newitz’s fascinating book on the history and speculative future of human mass extinctions, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, she discusses the need to re-imagine the city not for what it isn’t but what it already is: that is, a process as much as an object. “Each city has its own character, its own random, emergent sensibility.” Part of what makes cities successful, she argues, is the need for future urban designers to respect and preserve their stochastic nature. Every city not only presents a repeating set of patterns and rules but a persistent degree of randomness. It is this very randomness and our ability to allow it to flourish appropriately that will maintain the city’s integral flexibility and adaptability to disaster. This essence can be true for architecture in its final product but also in the act of its design as well.

We suggest that part of architecture’s efficacy comes from the degree to which adaptability is actively explored in the design process itself. What the studio is trying to look at more explicitly is a design process that nurtures this capacity for randomness and can be expressed in many different ways. Sometimes good design emerges by spontaneous response to unforeseeable factors presented at the last minute. Many designers simply remain unprepared and suffer from their own rigid approach. The best design is always able to adapt and can even be punctuated in the end by the potential that remains for the space to be customized by the client. In an age where everything we own and use from our iPhone to our smart cars becomes a customizable ambient condition, adaptability reveals itself to be all the more instrumental as a process and not just the potential for varying outcomes. The studio explore this by seeing materials, forms, contexts, not merely as fixed by the architect’s diagram in that classic Howard Roark approach to architecture—a space whose architectural imprint remains on everything from top-down to the extent of completely removing any degree of user flexibility at all. We advocate for a bottom-up design process that embraces the secret phenomena of unpredictable variables—a space that allows for a necessary play of inevitable randomness.  Adaptability as a design language is an optimistically programmatic approach this way; it integrates multiple layers of knowledge and design without foisting design upon anything. There is a saying in sports about athletes who perform at their best when not forcing the game in any way but rather “letting the game come to them” and responding to it.

The field of architecture itself has changed immensely over the last few decades and finds itself at a challenging point in its own history. For the sake of relevancy, the field has imploded to a certain extent and responded by opening up to new and exciting models that overlap with other fields and disciplines. Baran Studio Architecture sees itself well positioned here by approaching adaptability as a process of collaborative initiation balanced by a mode of improvised response. It’s a design framework that is not as didactic as a code, but not quite as nebulous as mere instinct either. It is rather something emergent in between that conscientiously mediates challenges and constraints towards a design more able to not only solve the immediate, but ideally set itself up for accommodating the future as well.

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