Monday, July 19, 2010


There is great confusion regarding the meaning of creativity in architecture. The fact would not be worrisome were it not for its negative consequences for the places where we live. To adhere to a wrong understanding of the concept of creativity has two problematic outcomes. For the public at large, it leads to requests for bizarre objects. For architects, it means at best to the production of irrelevant objects. In both cases, there is a loss of architecture’s ability to enhance people’s lives.

Creativity, according to the first edition of the Brazilian Aurélio Dictionary, is the ability to create things, to give existence to something out of nothing, to originate, to produce, invent or imagine. The same dictionary implies that being creative does not depend on some special quality that sets someone apart from the others; the very fact of creating anything is already a sign of creativity.

For many people not trained as architects creativity is related to the unusual, the unprecedented creation, which is dependent on innate and superior talent. There seems to be a correlation between creativity and variety, movement, visual impact and other features. Thus it is no wonder the many bizarre buildings that crop up everywhere and the praise that is lavished upon them. From this point of view simplicity and elementariness are synonymous with monotony and lack of creativity.

“Creativity” is in fashion and some of its experts suggest that anything could serve as starting point for architectural design: in some circles to design buildings in the shape of, say, an ashtray or a croissant is considered very creative. Some others run workshops aiming at ‘releasing’ the creativity of architects and students of architecture, allegedly stunted by years of dedication to the search of solutions for every-day problems.

I am afraid none of those experts understands the consequences of those concepts and exercises to the practice of authentic architecture, the worst being the implication that form is an independent aspect of an architectural problem, something to be added to its more specific architectural content. A similar confusion relates to the artistic aspect of architecture, by many considered to be something external to the process of architectural design.

I would like to contribute to a more precise understanding of creativity in architecture and thus suggest its meaning is different from both its general understanding and from the meaning it has for the fine arts, advertising, fashion, and so on.

Any creative activity is in essence related to problem solving. What divides them in at least two separate categories is the existence, for some of them, of self-imposed problems –although sometimes in unselfconscious ways– as is typical of the works of painters and sculptors whereas in other areas like architecture the problems to be solved are external –that is, they generally come from the outside of the discipline– and can be more or less restrictive to the designer’s freedom.

Thus creativity in architecture only appears in face of real problems. There simply is no real creativity in architecture without a problem that needs to be solved, be it functional, technical, stylistic or otherwise. In this way, the creative –which some would call the artistic– in architecture reveals itself as a superior way of solving –by way of form– the practical aspects that define a given architectural problem.

If advertising’s problem is to persuade and fashion’s is to give shape to one’s need to dress, what can be architecture’s problem? Several issues establish the fact that creativity in architecture is something specific to it: use, cost and permanence.

The question of use –function– is an obvious one. Without program there is no architecture: in this case what we have at best is some big sculpture through which one can walk. The existence of a program for a building or a definition of use reveals a need for space from a given society; not to provide for it or to go beyond it takes one dangerously close to irrelevance or irresponsibility.

Scarcity of means is second nature to all of us in developing countries but even in the so-called developed nations budgets are tight and under control. Thus we architects are always compelled to do much with whatever we have at our disposal. To adopt any “creative” solution –in the sense of introducing elements not justified by a rigorous design logic– will mean higher costs without any assurance of increased quality.

As for permanence it means not only a building’s resistance through time –which depends on the adoption of adequate materials and techniques– but also its ability to hold its own amidst the visual chaos of contemporary urban sceneries.

By the above I am suggesting that there is no creativity per se in designing objects of unusual shape, employing complicated geometries and featuring diagonals, sharp angles, overlapping curves and so on, because those motifs do not answer any real architectural problem. By the same token, it is not creative to employ historical styles in contemporary buildings, as is still the case in many parts of the world, especially in South America. Much on the contrary, this only demonstrates how limited the promoters and designers of this kind of architectural bastards are.

True architectural creativity appears when specific problems are solved by a formal synthesis of program, place and construction, resulting in objects rooted in their culture, place and time. If we are lucky enough they will be endowed with formal identity, in itself a result of qualities like economy of means, rigor, precision, universality and systemic configuration. 


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Thursday, June 10, 2010

IBERÊ CAMARGO FOUNDATION, Alvaro Siza, Porto Alegre, Brasil (2008) [1]

In case you do not know this building well, I suggest you visit Fernando Guerra’s website at (building S-43) 

Figure 1

After four decades marked by a generally banal and at times vulgar architecture, for Porto Alegre the opening of the Iberê Camargo Foundation Building (henceforth FIC) was a very auspicious fact in many respects. Besides the already noticeable increase in the number of tourists – after all, the design’s author, Alvaro Siza Vieira, is one of the big names of the present architectural scene and the building houses the work of one of the main Brazilian painters of the 20th century – the city will benefit in other ways. An immediate and obvious gain is the fact that this new museum provides not only an adequate house for Iberê Camargo’s work but a place to host visiting exhibitions from the main museums of the world, which was impossible before because there was no place with the adequate technical and security conditions.

Not so obvious is the fact that a direct contact with an architecture built according to European standards may have as a consequence the raising of the standards we are used to. One hopes that such a building – visited by multitudes and commented upon by all who care for art and culture – may open some local minds to more sophisticated ways to practice architecture than the ones that define the essentially mediocre local production.

In my opinion, one of the important contributions of this building to the local culture has to do with time. In Brasil it is generally thought that an architectural design can be done in few weeks, at most in a pair of months. Few understand that for everything in life there is a proper maturation period. This is so for wine and rice, why would it be different for designs? More than four years separate the start of the design – 1998 – and the actual beginning of the construction – June 2003 –, a normal development period by European standards for buildings this size but almost unheard of in Brasil. One hopes that the final result is showing our hasty clients and developers the advantages of giving enough time to an architect to reflect upon what he does.

Another interesting theme raised by the construction of the FIC is the reception it has enjoyed among Porto Alegre’s inhabitants. An initial rejection of the building could be easily perceived even before its opening, most probably due to the fact that most of us are not used to this kind of architecture. It has been common to hear negative criticism about the material chosen for its exterior, about its introversion – many call it bunker because of that – and so on. Regardless of the truthfulness or not of these early appraisals, it is remarkable that nobody seems to care about the horrors usually built here by the building industry: the “neoclassical” buildings and the disjointed aggregations that constitute the majority of what is being built here in the last three or four decades. It reminds me of the aversion to classical music and jazz by people raised on massive amounts of music of low quality.

As Siza’s building appears as a uniform and unarticulated mass ­when seen from middle and long distances it brings to the fore some of the local layman’s architectural phobias, which makes them to get annoyed at each and every elementary solution. If any continuous and windowless wall is immediately despised, any building whose configuration resembles a parallelepiped becomes a “box”, then it comes as no surprise that a big concrete volume with just a few openings should be dubbed a “bunker” by my fellow townsmen.

However, all this has to do with a kind of mental laziness characteristic of the contemporary masses. Few invest any time in understanding what they have in front of them, resulting in hasty and generally superficial interpretations. As understanding any work of architecture implies a knowledge of the object as a whole – inside and outside, as a visual construction and a useful object – architecture is still an illustrious unknown for the majority of people.


There seems to be no point in merely describing this building, or any other building, for that matter: any trained person can understand it from drawings and photographs. What really interests me here is to reflect upon the way this project has been conceived and how it can contribute to the architectural education of the people of Porto Alegre as well as to our day-to-day practice. 

Figure 2 (Source: Arquitetura  e Urbanismo, 171)

The plot chosen for the FIC building was located at the site of an old quarry, and can be understood as the union of a rectangle and a trapeze or triangle whose tip has been cut off. The museum proper occupies the rectangular part – the largest in area – there remaining the trapeze for complementary activities like the cafeteria and the underground workshops. From the outside the museum reveals itself as being composed by two bodies corresponding to the plan distribution just mentioned: the 25 meters high museum block and the supporting wing, just one story high. 

I shall not dwell on the functional distribution of the building if not to say something which is an important feature of Siza’s architecture: he synthesizes program and site into form in such a way as to give his projects a character of inevitability, that is, that there would be no better solution in that specific situation.

What seems to me more consequential in terms of what we can learn from this work is to inquire into the modus operandi employed here by Siza. In my opinion, what he did was to establish as his starting point an orthogonal geometry that was adapted to the site and responded to the program, which was later distorted until he reached the final configuration. The organization of the main body is clear and logical: a sequence of exhibition spaces with both ends occupied by stairs, lifts, restrooms and the access to the ramps. The two arms or wings of this L-shaped configuration define a multi-story space, a void that is the true spatial focus of the building.

Although the preceding description indicates an organization that can be seen as clear and consequential, the final configuration of the building, that which is captured by attentive eyes, is not as easy to describe. The question “what is the building?” does not have in this case an immediate or easy answer. Perhaps in order to advance in this discussion it would be helpful to return to the old tectonic/stereotomic distinction: [2]

“For stereotomic architecture we understand that in which the force of gravity is transmitted in a continuous way, in a structural system where constructive continuity is complete. This is the architecture of stone, massive and heavy, as if it had sprung from the earth. It is the architecture of the podium and the platform. It is also the one that brings light in by making holes in the walls so that it may enter. In short, it is the architecture of the cave.

On the other hand, tectonic architecture is that in which the force of gravity is transmitted in a discontinuous way, through a structural system composed of nodes, in which the construction is syncopated. It is a bony architecture, lightweight, that touches the earth as if on tiptoes. It is the architecture that must protect its openings against the excess of light. In short, it is the architecture of the hut.” [3]

If we apply the above definitions to, on one hand, modern Brazilian architecture and, on the other, to the FIC building we will inevitably conclude that the first exemplifies the tectonic whereas the second is a clear case of the stereotomic. It is exactly for this reason that a clear understanding and explanation of the Siza building becomes very difficult.

All along the evolution of modern Brazilian architecture we became accustomed with buildings of articulated form, that is, consisting of a series of easily identifiable elements – slabs, columns, beams, continuous stretches of opaque wall, curtain walls, marquees, porticos, etc – combined into artifacts endowed with strong formal identity. This procedure is inherited from modern architecture’s procedure of formal construction, in which well defined elements are organized according to equally clear formal rules.

The same terms do not apply to the FIC building, as it is not composed by identifiable parts. Parts and whole, formal relationships and hierarchy are terms that do not make sense in this case as the main volume looks much more like something sculpted out of a giant rock than an object constructed from smaller parts – not an absurd interpretation considering the previous use of the site. We are dealing here with a different kind of architecture, one in which the compositional logic cannot be apprehended by way of observation.

Familiarity with an architecture that presents as salient features tectonicity and articulation coupled with an easily identifiable formal logic makes it difficult for one to understand, on one side, the building’s volumetric configuration and, on the other, the curves and other irregularities to be found in its plans. Perhaps it is there that one can find the “artistic” aspect of architecture, as something arbitrarily superimposed to the original logic of the design – without necessarily having a direct connection with it – and that ends up overshadowing it almost completely. Liking it or not, it is an indisputable fact that we have here an object endowed with a strong sculptural presence; this can be a virtue or a shortcoming, depending on the observer’s point of view.

The above amounts to an apparent lack of systematicity that prevents the FIC building from performing the same role carried out by most buildings of collective importance until a few decades ago, the role of model for simpler constructions. Whenever a building is designed in such a way that its formal and constructive subsystems can be visually identified – as is the case of two important Brazilian museums like the MAM (Rio) by Reidy and the MASP (São Paulo) by Lina Bardi – it allows anyone to learn from it and to apply those lessons in other designs. Although the FIC buildings has a lot to teach about construction, its sculptural form is an end in itself and will hardly generate any authentic descendants. The same comment could be made about several designs by architects as different as Gaudi, Gehry and Niemeyer. However, if it had been a more “didactic” building – that, is, one that could be more easily understood by its users – perhaps the FIC would lose that which seems to be fundamental for the promoters of public buildings: its impact value or the capacity to attract multitudes to it.

Perhaps the most criticized aspect of the building designed by Siza is its scant visual relationship with the Guaiba River [4], just across the road from it and the scene of memorable sunsets. In a city that lost a direct connection to river for more than fifty years [5] it is understandable that people would expect it to be reestablished by so emblematic a building. But this was not to be. As views to the outside are only possible from some tiny openings in the circulation spaces, it is not surprising that the visitors feel frustrated and not at ease in the role of voyeurs of their own city. Some of the explanations for this argue that more openings would harm the works of art and increase the air conditioning monthly bill. Those explanations hold some truth but are frankly lame as placing openings with double glazing and solar protection in places where there are no works of art would have no negative effects. While walking through the museum’s ramps – the three tubes that contribute so much to the buildings outside appearance but whose spatial attractive is minimal – what comes to mind is the Pompidou Center in Paris, where transparent escalators offer views of the city from different heights. Nobody can understand, me included, why Siza did not take more advantage of the views to the river; the openings provided on the tubes are too small and insufficient, as proven by the groups of people who gather around them all the time trying to get a glimpse of the outside scenery. 

Figure 3 (Source: digdol's flickr photostream - )
One of tubes that contain part of the circulation system.


There is another aspect of this design that has baffled more than one observer: while Siza has taken an almost obsessive care of the small details – as exemplified by the exquisite detailing of the marble surfaces and wooden elements – the same is not true for the way the larger elements meet each other, being the most noticeable the crude and uncontrolled way in which the internal ramps encounter each floor. In the same way, the gridded lit ceilings of the exhibition rooms that face the entrance are treated differently, the top one being limited to a plane while the two lower ones turn the corner and become strangely three-dimensional. Those two shortcomings take a lot away from a space that is almost spectacular in its Piranesian verticality and controlled luminosity. 

Figure 4
Detail of the marble facing one of the stairways.

Figure 5
The museum's atrium.

Notwithstanding the fact that the FIC building is in constructive terms by far the most advanced building ever constructed in Porto Alegre – and the fact that it was carried out successfully is due essentially to the strict administration by the local engineer José Luis Canal – it is striking that the final object does not present any of the elements that preserve the physical integrity of other buildings, like cappings, copings and so on. In order for it to keep its immaculate whiteness the FIC will have to be maintained constantly and obsessively, something almost impossible to guarantee in Brasil. I sincerely hope to be mistaken about this.

For all its polemical and intriguing aspects, it is hoped that the FIC building will have a positive impact on the architecture of this city, for its own qualities as well as for the discussions it has generated and will continue to generate. 

[1] Published originally in Arquitetura e Construção, 171, São Paulo, June, 2008.

The concepts of tectonicity and stereotomy were developed by Gottfried Semper in the 19th century. See Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, MIT Press, 2001.

Alberto Campo Baeza, Cajas, cajitas, cajones. Sobre lo estereotómico y lo tectónico, in La idea construida, Buenos Aires, 2000

It is actually a lake but the population of Porto Alegre resists calling it so.

After the famous 1941 flood a wall was built that separates the central part of Porto Alegre from the river to which it opened up since its creation. 

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010


In a recent article, the Spanish architect Carlos Martí Arís defined the present architectural scene in the following way.

“There are only two kinds of architecture: that which resembles the costume of a flamenco ballerina, a mountain range or the aftermath of train crash, and that which looks like other architectures. The latter is what we call ‘cultured architecture’ as it is generated within a shared culture and requires some skill to discern what is at first sight similar, skill that is not in the reach of everyone”.

I propose, for the purpose of this brief reflection, to call the first kind ‘spectacular architecture’ and the second ‘craft architecture’, terms that I will try to define in what follows.

‘Spectacular architecture’ is characterized by formal complication – a feature very different from complexity –, too many elements, arbitrariness, the use of non-architectural references and obscure geometries, resulting in objects that bear little resemblance with buildings and have little to do with the activities people perform in them. This kind of production is based on an equivocal understanding of what is creativity in architecture, forgoing its ability to answer well-defined demands to become something that aspires to be unusual, unprecedented and even weird. It is evident that this phenomenon reflects the cultural present, dominated as it is by values and principles from marketing and advertising, with the consequence that architecture became more interested in causing visual impact than in serving more crucial needs of society.

A paradoxical aspect of the so-called ‘spectacular architecture’ is the fact that it is a direct relative of the postmodern trends that used to accuse modern architecture for its alleged abandonment of tradition as the starting point of any project and incessant search of novelty. By the beginning of the 1970’s architectural modernity’s critics claimed the way to overcome those limitations was to recover historical formal values and to produce an architecture with which the public could identify more easily.

However, what one sees today on the pages of magazines and on the streets does not show any of those characteristics deemed essential to overcome modern architecture, although the authors of the iconic projects we find in several North American, European and Asian cities are the very champions of ‘architecture parlante’, postmodernism, ‘architecture for the people’ or at least some of their star pupils. Much on the contrary: in any manifestation of the brighter stars of today’s architectural firmament we find the most banal metaphors to explain their creations and the exaltation of the new as a primordial principle.

Notwithstanding the above, the reader may ask about what is really wrong about an architecture that is so praised and published everywhere. Beyond the fact that very often its formal stridency comes associated with a scant attention to program and context, the main problems with ‘spectacular architecture’ are: exacerbation of the visual chaos that constitutes most of the cities of the world; lack of perceivable systematic order – opposite to the monumental buildings of the past, which served as models for non-monumental construction, today’s monuments are an end in themselves, do not teach anything and are not reproducible –; and incapacity to become a part of ordered although heterogeneous environments. Even worse, this production is the total antithesis of architecture conceived as a discipline and a craft, a practice based on knowledge that can be transmitted and learned. In this architecture one cannot find universal values nor perceivable criteria, thus preventing the exercise of aesthetic evaluation by an observer not intimidated by its appearance.

The opposite practice to ‘spectacular architecture’ is the one that considers architecture as a discipline, a craft developed through centuries, in which creativity only makes sense in the face of a real problem. In the ‘architecture of craft’ the creative – or artistic, if you will – side of architecture reveals itself as a superior way of solving – through form – the practical problems that define a given architectural situation.

However, there is something that sets apart this two ways of understanding architecture in an irreconcilable way: the origin of its forms. In the architecture made primarily to create visual impact – and to be ‘artistic’– form comes from metaphors that are in general alien to the problem at hand and the whole design process is geared to materialize those images, to the detriment of any closer attention to program – Koolhaas went as far as publishing an articled entitled “Fuck the Program” –, place – no longer a source of inspiration – and construction, which is deprived of all perceivable logic and is forced to adapt to shapes that are preposterous and incoherent from the technical and economic points of view. On the other hand, in architecture as craft a design is a formal synthesis of the program’s requirements – in the broadest of senses –, the suggestions of the site and of the discipline of construction, at the same time as it possesses historical authenticity.

The resolution of a program into form and space is the essence of architecture. It is important not to understand the program as a list of dimensional requirements as it is much more than that: an embodiment of human actions, a structured material upon which the designer establishes a spatial order that, although irreducible to its conditions, is never indifferent to them. As Helio Piñón has said, “architecture appears when the sense of form encompasses the program while not being subordinate to it”. This double relationship between form and program – the first responds to the second while transcending it – is what makes it possible for a work of architecture to keep its quality as object intact even when its original program has become obsolete.

To design is also to establish relationships between the parts of a whole; this is true for the internal relationships as well as for the ones any building establishes with its context, of which it is a part. This relationship with the place where it is built is of fundamental importance to architecture: no competent design can afford to be indifferent to its surroundings, as any intervention brings changes to the site’s previous situations, no matter how small they can be. However, even the most powerful places cannot determine what a design will be. In the same way as there is no direct relation between program and form, the relations between place and form will always depend on the designer’s interpretation of it. A close attention to place can result in a visual-spatial structure related to it but autonomous, in the sense of possessing a formal identity whose identification by an observer is independent from the perception of any relations between object and site.

Construction – here understood as the technical aspect of architecture – is so important to architecture that it could be stated that there is no conception without constructive conscience, that is, without the command of building techniques, materials and structural systems. It is this very conscience that sets apart true architecture from pure geometry and the trends that prefer to elude the physical reality of the artifacts they design. One of the central problems of architectural creation is the friction between the visual and physical structures of any object; the development of any design consists mostly in the continual adjustment between these two structures. Far from constituting an obstacle to creation in architecture, construction introduces in the design a discipline that benefits all good architecture. The importance of construction in the process of design becomes evident when one understands the role that can be played by the load-bearing elements in the definition of the spatial structure of a building and in the configuration of its individual spaces. In some exemplary cases, the formal and resistant structures are totally coincident.

In the above I briefly discussed the three inescapable internal aspects of any design: program, site and construction. Now it is time to discuss that which makes possible the formal synthesis of them into a design and, later, an object: the design materials, a repertory that have served architects in the effort to give form and materiality to programs.

If making architecture has to do with ordering elements, this ordering role of the architect presupposes the existence of some raw material – the object of the structuring activity of a designer – and some ordering criteria derived from the aesthetic values of the idea of architecture within which one works. Architecture’s raw material, the repertory of elements and relationships – formal structures – accumulated throughout the history of architecture, is what is called design materials.

This notion of design material leads to the concept of design as (re)construction, that is, the creation of a new order derived from raw material acquired empirically.[2] The historicity inherent in the notion of design materials means the impossibility of confusing it with imitation or literal reproduction. The specific identity of the new artifact – condition of utmost importance in modern architecture – presupposes to have transcended both the formal consistency and the historical meaning of the architecture used as reference, in such a way that the result – if it is to be called architecture – will be totally different from the reality that is assumed in the design as its raw material.

To put it more precisely, the notion of design materials encompasses strategies for the ordering of a building or a group of buildings, for the relationship between a new building and its pre-existent context, structural systems – seen from both formal and constructive points of view –, relationships between parts of buildings and specific constructive solutions.

Let us see a few examples, going from large to smaller scales. The design for Lafayette Park (Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, Detroit, 1956) is an important reference as it shows several kinds of residential and service buildings distributed on a park and organized in a way that is surprising to many, considering it is a modern urban project: nature and artifice are parts of a single whole, the buildings are close together and create an appropriate domestic scale in which a clear hierarchy of public, semi-public and private spaces is perceivable. 

1. Lafayette Park, Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, Detroit, 1956. Source: Hilberseimer/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., Prestel, New York, 2004. 

Lake Shore Drive, 860 (Mies van der Rohe, Chicago, 1948-51) is a lesson on how to place buildings on a triangular small site, how to coordinate the load-bearing structure of several buildings, how to create flexible residential plans, and so on.

Going from collective housing to individual houses in the 20th century, no study can fail to mention the contribution of architects such as Richard Neutra and Marcel Breuer, especially regarding the integration of houses into natural contexts – generally allowing the interpenetration of both – or how to divide the house into functional sectors while creating open intermediary spaces between house and nature.  

2. Lake Shore Drive 860, Mies van der Rohe, Chicago, 1948-51. Source: Mies van der Rohe at work, Peter Carter, Phaidon, London, 1999 

3. Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra, Palm Springs, 1946-47. Source: Richard Neutra Complete Works, Barbara Mac Lamprecht, Taschen, Koln, 2000. 

4. Robinson House, Marcel Breuer, Williamstown, 1946-48. Source: Marcel Breuer. Casas Americanas, 2G Revista Internacional de Arquitectura, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2001.

In the Yale Center for British Art (Louis Kahn, New Haven, 1969-77) one of the most noticeable features is the way the load-bearing structure becomes formal structure: its presence defines and modulates the facades, which is completed by a system of openings that establishes multiple relationships with the structural skeleton. In the Benissa Town Hall project (Helio Piñón, Benissa, Spain, 2005) the same formal solution is employed in a building related to very different circumstances, showing that its usefulness transcends the event of its creation. 



5. Yale Center for British Art, Louis Kahn, New Haven, 1969-77. Source: The Art Museums of Louis Kahn, Patricia Cummings Loud, Duke University Press, Durhan and London, 1989. 

6. Benissa Town Hall, Alicante, Spain, Helio Piñón and Nicanor Garcia, 2005. Source: Helio Piñón. 

There are two common misunderstandings when it comes to the notion of design materials. The first is to think that they are restricted to the category of global – generic – strategies, leaving the solution of partial problems to the development of the design. This is not so as many times what interests one in a design is the specific relationship between two elements or a way of solving a localized problem as, for instance, the structures developed by Le Corbusier to serve as transition between the pilotis and upper body of buildings like his Unités d’Habitacion and the Brazilian and Swiss Pavillions at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. What is appropriate for the upper stories not always is the best solution for the encounter between building and ground. 

7. Casa do Brasil, Cité Universitaire, Paris, Le Corbusier and Lúcio Costa, 1957-59. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

Another partial solution that is widely applicable is the way the Pepsico Building (SOM, New York, 1956-60) relates to its neighbor: a ‘joint’that consists essentially in a recessed gap whose width is that of the service block of the building. 


8. PepsiCo Building, SOM/Gordon Bunshaft, New York, 1956-60. Source: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. SOM since 1936, Nicholas Adams, Electa, Milan, 2006. 

The second misunderstanding about the notion of design materials is that they all derive from architecture of the highest quality, generally that practiced by the great masters. Nothing could be further from the truth. For those who look and see there can be design materials everywhere. A few examples from my hometown – Porto Alegre – will suffice, but the chosen city could be anyone.

The Roma and 333 buildings – designed by local architects – teach a lesson on how to combine vertical and horizontal elements into residential facades: in the Roma building they are balanced, creating a grid of balconies – a very common feature in the 1950’s and 1960’s – whereas in the 333 the verticals predominate in the more private area of the apartments. 

9. Edifício Roma, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

10. Edifício 333, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz

In the same Roma building one finds a brilliant solution for the entry to an urban apartment building. The raised terrace gives more privacy to the act of entry as well as it allows the underground parking level to be well ventilated. 


11. Edifício Roma, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

Even from anonymous constructions there are lessons to be learned. The succession of horizontal planes that jut out from a recessed and transparent ground floor is a formal structure that transcends the fact it has been found in a nondescript neighborhood supermarket. A few meters down the road, the Plaza Catedral Hotel, has its own lessons to share. The relationship between the yellow beams and the end of the side walls – in different planes – and the way the balconies change sides to create double height spaces and to aid the circulation of air are short but not insignificant design lessons, available to the ones who attentive and have developed a skill to see that most people lack. 

12. Supermarket, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

13. Plaza Catedral Hotel, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

The 20th century has been didactic in many ways. On one hand, it showed the futility of looking for sources of architectural form in nature, philosophy, mathematics, sociology and literature. On the other, by showing the true nature of modern architecture it called attention once more to a way of designing that generates new knowledge from existing information, as any study of the professional practice developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s will show.

In other words, great architecture can only come from architecture itself. 


[1] Originally published in Arquitetura e Urbanismo, 178, São Paulo, January, 2009.
On the subject of design as (re)construction see Helio Piñón, El proyecto como (re)construcción, Barcelona: Edicions UPC, 2005. 

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Sunday, May 9, 2010


To discuss what is the essence of architectural design seems nowadays an old-fashioned pursuit, perhaps the object of idle spirits, some would say. However that may be, it seems to me a timely subject for discussion and reflection, and for two reasons at least. Firstly, because the architectural profession is going through an unprecedented disciplinary crisis which may eventually alter radically its nature or even render it obsolete. Secondly, there is no agreement about which methods can guarantee a minimum of quality in the day-to-day architecture we produce, much less about what characterizes works of superior quality. 

In a historical moment in which it seems – once again – that everything goes in architecture, an introspective look may help us understand the essence of our discipline, in the hope of recovering one’s capacity to teach and practice an authentic kind of architecture, one that can uphold its social and cultural role.


That there is a crisis in the discipline of architecture is clear from the loss of reputation and influence over the important decisions society takes regarding urban and architectural matters. One origin of the present crisis is the phenomenon of globalization, a somewhat recent term to designate something that has been going on since the end of the Second World War.

Briefly, the following are some of the symptoms of this crisis[2]:

- Loss of the prestige and power the profession used to enjoy up to the middle of the twentieth century and its consequent decadence as a relevant profession, as perceived by the society at large, no matter how much architecture appears in the popular press. An irrefutable proof of that is that for the most part the decisions about the built environment or consumer goods are no longer in the hands of architects or designers, being now dominated by the prospective aspects of marketing. [3]
- Reduction of its visible forms to a series of postulates determined by other disciplines like marketing and advertising thus resulting in what is called ‘thematic architecture’.
- Architecture’s entry in the society of consumerism: buildings are now often treated as consumer goods, thereby having their organization and appearance dictated by fashion and trends.
- Architecture as spectacle: it has become common to mix up that which has never been seen with originality, and formal innovation is often taken as a sign of high architectural quality. The consequence of this desire to create visually striking architecture is that most cities are becoming an appalling mixture of Disneyland with Las Vegas.
- Both cause and consequence of our disciplinary crisis, in the last two decades there appeared the ‘global’ architect, a person who is much more of a businessman than a practitioner of architecture. To him it is more important to sell architecture than to make it, his motto is “if it sells it is good”.

The global architect does not serve society by providing services based on what his training and ethics dictate. Much on the contrary, he stoops to the client’s desire and the market impositions, embracing with devotion a practice that changes with fashion, without any care for its relevance or lack thereof. To the global architect it is less important to build for people than to build his own public persona; the profession is but a means to reach fame and, if possible, fortune. In the hands of the global architect our profession loses its social and cultural aspect and this is no small loss.


Given the scenario described above, is there any point in discussing architectural design as a discipline? Fortunately, there remains some room for authentic architecture in today’s society, although it becomes smaller and smaller as time passes. It is only through understanding what can still provide authenticity in architecture that we will be able to resist a crisis that can render the profession obsolete.

“The architect’s obligation is to find his place within the time in which he lives, to absorb the spirit of this time, to do away with nostalgia, to avoid the ridicule of anachronism, to get away from convention as well from fashions and decorator’s novelties.” [4]

We live in times in which there are no certainties and have the conscience that things could always be otherwise. Thus there is always at least two ways of approaching an architectural project. To reach some degree of authenticity it is essential to keep arbitrariness as far as possible from it. Perhaps the only way to do it is to base one’s design decisions on the specific conditions of any architectural problem.

What could these conditions be in the first decade of a new millennium? Two millennia ago Vitruvius said that “in all constructions one must take into account its beauty, its firmness and its solidity”. Up to the middle of the 18th century good architecture was considered to be embodied in works that showed a balance between firmitas (good construction), utilitas (functional correctness) – both objective aspects of knowledge – and venustas (beauty, for some people) – which is the aesthetic component of Vitruvius’ triad, in pre-modern times centered on proportional relationships and the use of the orders in the exteriors of buildings. [5]

In the 19th century a new understanding of good architecture was added to that one. To be considered of high quality a building should present correct composition – which had to do with its formal/spatial organization – and adequate character, an idea usually associated only with the symbolic and expressive aspect of architecture but which in fact is dependent on composition, materiality and on the object’s relationship with context. [6]

Perhaps our duty as architects should be to guarantee some degree of pertinence in architecture, both in the identification of a problem and in the form proposed as a solution for it. To break a situation down into its essential aspects and to know the properties of a given form in such a way that it can be a pertinent embodiment of that specific situation. The architect is a true form professional when he knows exactly the consequences of his formal decisions.” [7]
1. The contemporary quartet, after discussions with Alejandro Aravena.


The program is so important a component of a project that one can say that its resolution in formal terms is the essence of architecture. This is so because the program is the strongest link between architecture and reality. More than a cold list of activities and minimum square footage the program must be seen as a series of human actions that the architecture must provide for. These human actions suggest elementary situations that can serve as a base for the formal and spatial structure of a project. True novelty in architecture is not to be found in the areas of architectural language and expression. Architecture only changes when programmatic conceptions change, as they reflect the relevant societal changes.

Perhaps one source of resistance against the importance of the program in design is a possible association with functionalist orthodoxy, true or imagined as it may be. The problem with the form-follows-function syndrome as understood by some until recently is due to the fact that functions tended to be conceived of mono-functionally, that is, from the point of view of an object with a specific purpose. If instead we think pluri-functionally and see as the source of the functions that revolve around an object not the object itself but its subject, then it becomes easier to accept the program as one way for the subject to affirm himself vis-à-vis the external reality.

The program is a structured material upon which the project establishes a spatial order that is irreducible to its conditions, but in no way unrelated to them. The formal identity of a work of architecture must be based on a structural understanding of the program, instead of establishing connections with symbols external to it. This has nothing to do with that radical functionalism that used to link form and function in a cause-effect relationship, as it used to be attributed to modern architecture by its orthodox critics. As Helio Piñón has said, “architecture appears when the sense of form incorporates functionality without being submissive to it.” [8] This tight connection with the program and, at the same time, the need to transcend it, is what makes it possible for a work of architecture to keep its quality as an object intact even when the program has become obsolete. [9] (Figures 2 and 3) 

2. Edson Mahfuz, Political Party Headquarters, Porto Alegre, 2003. Site plan.

The program and the site influence greatly the definition of the generic aspect of a project, that which in older times was called parti. In this specific case, the setback from the street allows the creation of space for public gatherings. A formal structure consisting of alternating built and void bands guarantees lighting, ventilation and privacy, solving the present program and suggesting further growth. The decision to raise most of the building above ground level liberates the former for use as public space. All the above gives the building its formal identity without limiting its future use in case of change of use.

3. Edson Mahfuz, Political Party Headquarters, Porto Alegre, 2003.

The intention to liberate the ground level and to give it as much transparency as possible led to a structural solution in which the slabs are suspended from cross beams on the top of the building by way of steel tubes.


The relationship with the place in which it is inserted is fundamental to architecture and thus no project can be indifferent to its context. To design is to establish formal relationships among the parts of a whole. This is true for the internal relationships among the parts of a project as well as for the ones this project establishes with its context, the larger whole of which it is a part. (Figure 4)
4. Edson Mahfuz, São Pedro Theatre Complex, Porto Alegre, 1996.

The project relates to its context by following the position and the height of the neighbouring facades.

To insert an architectural object – single building, group of buildings or open space ­– in any place is never without important consequences. It is obvious that architecture is always built on a place but in reality any new intervention actually helps to build the place, as it transforms the existing situation in some degree. (Figure 5) 

5. Edson Mahfuz, Corpo Arts Center, Nova Lima, MG, 2001. Top view. A group of buildings around a covered square creates place where before there was just undifferentiated space.

Every place is a complex totality consisting of topography, geometry, culture, history, climate, etc. However, no matter how strong a place is it will never determine directly how an architectural artifact is to be. In the same way as there is no direct causal relationship between program and form, the link between place and form depends on the personal interpretation of someone to uncover a place’s latent formality. One’s attention towards a place can result in a visual/spatial structure related to it but autonomous nonetheless, in the sense that it has a formal identity whose perceptual recognition is independent from the relationships that may obtain between object and place.

In order to be possible to avoid the figurative excesses of the so-called postmodern contextualism, any place must be seen as containing a latent formality, not as a scenario to be emulated.

“The modern architect builds his artifacts in connection with the fundamental elements of the territory, not with the circumstantial features of its limits.” [10]

One of the negative consequences of making literal references to a project’s context is that the future disappearance of its referent will take away most of its meaning and will emphasize in a dramatic way its formal inconsistency. Other outcomes of a chameleonic approach are the devaluation of the object’s worth as such and the weakening of the active role it can perform in place making.


The technical aspect of architecture – here referred to as construction – is so important that one can say that without a good technical understanding no architectural conception is possible. It is the awareness of the importance of construction that sets real architecture apart from pure geometry and trends that tend to abstract the physical reality of the artifacts they design. It has been rightly put that the central problem of architectural creation is to solve the conflicts that may arise between the physical and the visual structures of an object, as to develop a design has much to do with their continuous adjustment. Far from being an obstacle to creativity, construction introduces a kind of discipline from which a good architect and its projects can only benefit. (Figure 6) 

6. Javier Garcia-Solera, University Building, Alicante, 1998-2000.

A tight budget and short design and construction period led to the use of techniques of fast construction as well as current and cheap materials. Already existent foundations introduced a dimensional discipline that influenced the spatial organization of the program.

One of the most noticeable features of the best architecture of all times is the fundamental role played by the load-bearing structure in the definition of its spatial structure and general configuration. In some exemplary cases, the formal structure coincides so exactly with the load-bearing structure that it is difficult to separate the moments of spatial and technical definition. (Figure 7)

7. Paulo Mendes da Rocha, PMR House, São Paulo, 1964.

Four pillars and two one-way joist slabs define the form and the character of the object. Very little is left to be added for the building to become inhabitable.

The material quality of an architectural artifact is very important but it becomes more so when its character is not dependent on applied historical motifs. For any architecture to be authentic, buildings should be what they are, not what they appear to be. (Figure 8)

8. Edson Mahfuz, A&C House, São Paulo, 2002.
A project whose appearance derives from its formal structure and from the elements, 
materials and construction techniques employed.


One cannot emphasize too much that the final form of an object is not a direct translation of a functional diagram, to be built in a certain way, in a specific place. Durand, Viollet-le-Duc and Hannes Meyer simplified the matter too much in establishing a cause-effect relationship between the objective aspects of a project and its final form.

“To design is to reach a formal synthesis of a program, in the widest sense possible, and of the conditions of a place, assuming at the same time the historical authenticity of the project.” [11]

To reach this formal synthesis referred to by Helio Piñón the architect must have recourse to the design materials that constitute the repertory of the discipline, the external condition that completes the contemporary quartet mentioned above.

This repertory is constituted by concrete elements and abstract formal structures, which are “ordering principles according to which a series of elements, controlled by precise relationships, acquire a specific structure” [12].

These ordering principles come mainly from the repertory accumulated through the history of architecture but can also come from the outside. It is enough to mention the use of perspective in Renaissance architecture and of several compositional strategies borrowed by architects from the artistic movements of almost a century ago. (Figures 9, 10 and 11) By the same token, there are cases in which the form of a building derives from the constitution and even the appearance of artifacts and objects from fields unrelated to architecture and art, although rarely the result is worth a second look, for the reasons discussed below with respect to the conceptualism of some contemporary architecture.

9. Mies van der Rohe, Casa com 3 Pátios, 1934 

10. Edson Mahfuz, Corpo Arts Center, Nova Lima, MG, 2001. Ground floor, Corpo Arts Group HQ.
The same general idea used for two buildings of very different size, containing equally distinct programs: 
a “porous” plan consisting of interior spaces and patios sheltered by a perimeter wall.

11. Edson Mahfuz, Corpo Arts Center, Nova Lima, MG, 2001. Corpo Arts Group HQ. View from entry.
Overlapping planes follow a visual and constructive logic rooted in neoplasticism.

However, authentic architecture always employs those formal repertories in a critical way, bearing in mind the pertinence of the decisions taken in each specific situation. An ordering principle should appeal to us much more for its substance than for its appearance, as this is in general circumstantial and relative. It is only through an abstract interpretation of the past that we can make it useful for current interests.

One of characteristics generally associated with modern architecture is a relentless search for originality, in the sense of creating forms without precedent. Apart from the fact that this only exists in the mind of critics and minor architects – as the built work is a clear refutation of this nonsense – the search for originality is irrelevant to the evolution of our discipline, which is essentially based on the transformation and adaptation of precedents. As the work of most of the great architects of the last century proves, a project should always start from the building that solved in the best way a case with similar characteristics. (Figures 12, 13 and 14)

12. Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House. Plano, Illinois, 1945-50. Plan.

13. Helio Piñón, Martí House, Onda, Spain, 2000-02.

14. Edson Mahfuz, A&C House, São Paulo, 2002.
Three very different buildings in all respects but one: the underlying formal structure that consists in two rectangular prisms of different height shifted in plan.


Although architecture has never been so visible in all media as it is today, it is nevertheless undergoing a severe crisis of identity. Paradoxically, help to overcome this condition comes form a most unexpected source: modern architecture, derided by almost everyone and considered dead and long gone for at least three decades. What it offers us as a foundation for the pursuit of authenticity is the concept of formal construction which, while central to modern architecture, is still very relevant to the practice and teaching of architecture.

Without ignoring the social and technological aspects of modern architecture, its transcendental importance lies on the methodological break it introduced regarding the previous ways of artistic production, substituting an autonomous idea of form – unrelated to any previous or external system – for imitation.

For almost one hundred years architects have had the possibility of replacing the classical mimesis with formal construction[13] which “is the result of a formative action on the part of a subject who strives to give meaning and consistency to the product of his conception”. [14] Formal construction is a logical consequence of the modern conception that demands a subject’s active participation for the completion of any artistic object. [15] As Martí Arís put it, “the modern object reclaims the spectator’s intelligence, turning him in a participant in its game”. [16] If that is the case, in order for this spectator to recreate in his mind the formative action of the author, it must not only be based on generic and intelligible ideas but also the mode in which the object is made must be made explicit.

The methodological break introduced by modernity was accompanied by a radical transformation in the nature of the architectural artifact:

: …in traditional architecture the different sub-systems that constitute a building (load-bearing structure, distribution, spatial organization, access systems, inside/outside relationships, etc) coincide exactly, establishing unequivocally their typological form. In modern architecture those systems can be isolated and abstracted, as well as they can be thought of autonomously according to their particular strategies which, although related, do not have to coincide.

In traditional architecture all sub-systems converge upon the definition of the type which in turn determines and constrains their configuration, making them subordinate to the type. In modern architecture, the sub-systems are not identified with type – which we can also call formal structure – nor are they pre-determined by it”. [17]

If in traditional architecture all sub-systems are mixed up with the formal structure of an object, in modern architecture their independence allows the abandonment of imitation as a fundamental design procedure, making it possible for the designer to employ ordering systems from any source, including the history of architecture itself.

Another way of defining formal construction would be as the means through which one reaches a synthesis of the sub-systems that constitute an architectural design, a synthesis materialized in a formal structured that possesses identity, purpose and consistency. Formal construction is a procedure that constructs a form as if it was a puzzle, by trial and error, instead of adopting a complete solution imported from another situation.

Another very import feature of formal construction is the fact that the logic of its constitution is never unrelated to the programmatic and technical aspects of a project but tends always to transcend it. Place, function and technique, far from determining form, are its conditions of possibility. All authentic works of architecture show formal structures that are capable of responding to specific requirements of place, program and technique without being determined by them. (Figure 15)

15. Edson Mahfuz, Republican Memorial, Piracicaba, 2002.
A long stairway connects all levels and defines two main sectors: the civic one, to one side, containing the paved square, library, auditorium and exhibitions, and the private/contemplative sector, to the other side, containing the day care center and the green square.


Although achieving a specific form is not architecture’s exclusive goal, form is architecture’s inevitable outcome. Free from the inhibitions inherited from orthodox functionalism we can today affirm the formalism of all architectural conception, for two reasons: formal definition is of the nature of any design and to possess a sense of form is a mandatory quality for any designer.

The concept of form has been largely misunderstood, due to the fact that two meanings are assigned to it and used without consistency. While for many people the word form refers to the external appearance of an object and is thus synonymous with figure (gestalt, in German), it can also be identified with the modern concept of structure (eidos, in Greek). It is this second meaning that is of transcendental relevance if we are to achieve any pertinence or authenticity in architecture.

The formalism mentioned above understands form as a relational structure, or a system of internal and external relationships that shape an architectural episode and determine its identity. Understanding form as web of relationships is the absolute opposite of designing objects as something closed onto themselves. The idea of form as a relationship among the parts of a whole is valid for all environmental levels, as form has no scale.

Many will be surprised by the fact that this notion of relational form is one of the main contributions of modern architecture to the conceptual repertory of architectural design. This knowledge refutes the widespread belief that modern objects are indifferent to context as this would violate, in case it was true, an essential creative principle of modernity. (Figures 16 and 17)

16-17.Helio Piñón, Multi-use Complex, Rubi, Spain, 2002. Aerial view and site plan.
A raised platform organizes public activities below and private uses above it. The void at the center serves as a reference for the placing of all the elements of the project, from the larger blocks to smaller elements as the stairways that give access to the platform.

In these terms, the notion of formal identity becomes clearer, as it is the specific order or structure of each work of architecture. The identity of an object is that formal quality that determines its essence and should not be mixed up with the notion of singularity, which refers to the features that differentiate an object from the rest.

The formal identity of any work of architecture depends on the presence of a formal structure that would control its spatial organization and its relationship with its external context. It is exactly the presence of this formal structure that sets apart an architecture of high quality from that cheap functionalism in which the plan derives directly from functional bubble diagrams, so common in the decades of 1960 and 70.

Thus to adopt a frank and openly formalist approach means to give the spatialization of a program a clear visual order, to refuse being satisfied by the simple functional correctness of a project and to strive for formal identity in all design situations.[18] (Figure 18)

18. Edson Mahfuz, CREA/PR, Curitiba, 2009.
The underlying formal structure is clear, independently from the program it houses. The combination of a taller transparent block with a lower one, more opaque, and perpendicular to the first gives the composition a clear formal identity.


What has been discussed so far is in frontal opposition to the “conceptualism” of a considerable part of contemporary architectural production, in which non-architectural ideas are given top importance in the design process. The present-day conceptualism is a consequence of the state of aesthetic orphanhood in which architects were left after modern formal principles were abandoned, forcing them to search for legitimacy elsewhere. Until the 1960’s architects took advantage of existent ordering ideas and formal structures to respond to social spatial needs; to them to use images or narratives imposed from the outside of a specific problem as a means of controlling the design process was a preposterous idea.

The repeated introduction of non-architectural ideas into the design process seems to work, in most cases, as a means to ward off the anguish inherent to a procedure whose result is unknown until the very end. However, to assign a dominant role in the design process to a non-architectural concept means generally the imposition of an arbitrary act of personal will over that process, which from that moment on is geared towards validating the initial concept. As a result, the formal identity of the object will be based on that concept instead of deriving from program, place and construction. It is enough to mention the lack of tectonicity of most contemporary architecture to suggest the negative effects of conceptualism.


Many people believe architecture is an art, others prefer to consider that the artistic is but one aspect of the discipline, among several others. Most agree on the belief that the artistic is something added to architecture, that something else that elevates a work of architecture above mere construction. I would like to disagree with both views on the subject.

While it would be foolish to deny the presence of an artistic element in architecture just accepting its existence does not lead us anywhere. What can really help us here is to understand the nature of the artistic side of architecture.

Helio Piñón has pointed out that the artistic is the sign of architecture’s transcendence.[19] However, in saying that he is not referring to something external that overcomes or replaces the specific components of an architectural problem but to “a formality whose consistency transcends the demands of functionality from which it starts”[20] without neglecting them in any way. Thus when we speak of art in architecture or about the art of architecture, we are talking about a superior way of solving, through consistent form, the practical problems that constitute an architectural problem or task.

To acknowledge the existence of the artistic in architecture is not to say that it is present in all designs; much on the contrary, in very few cases architecture and art are conjoined. However, in those few cases the project appears as an all-encompassing activity that synthesizes in form the demands of the program, the suggestions of place and the discipline of construction.


An attentive scrutiny of the best architecture realized in the twentieth century will show the presence of five fundamental concepts: universality, systematicity, economy, rigor and precision. I would like to argue for their continuing validity for an architecture of pertinence, not only for its creation but also as criteria for its evaluation. [21]


The universality of a design is a necessary condition for it to be identified for itself and to serve other purposes without losing its intrinsic qualities. The possibility of being identified as a form depends on its being based on shapes that can easily understood, as are the so-called platonic solids (cube, parallelepiped, cylinder, pyramid, sphere, etc). The flexibility of a formal structure derives from its generality as a spatial organization, quality that permits actual buildings to be used for other purposes than the original ones without significant changes and for their underlying formal structures to serve as starting point for many other projects in spite of changes in scale, material and location. Objects marked by universality acquire a quality of permanence that allows them to exist for a long time with dignity and to remain useful throughout. (Figure 19)

19. Helio Piñón, Barcelona Tower, Barcelona, 2001.
The same formal/spatial structure can be occupied in different ways to house offices, apartments and hotel rooms.


To work systematically means, on one hand, to be able to solve more than one architectural problem with the same formal structure[22] (Figures 20 and 21) and, on the other, to define compositive rules to guide the definition of parts – big and small – of a project. (Figures 22 and 23)

20. Helio Piñón, Apartment Building, Onda, Spain, 2000.

21. Helio Piñón, High School, Morella, Spain, 2001.
The same formal structure (shifted rectangles) used to solve two design problems: a façade and a whole building, including its landscaping.

22-23. Helio Piñón, Square, Barcelona, Spain, 2002.
Regardles of the synthetic and elementary nature of the design, there is a sophisticated system of relations that controls the size and position of benches, stairs, balustrades and other elements on the two superimposed platforms.

A formal system, far from being a rigid geometric or conceptual guideline, is a solid and flexible principle that has a double meaning: as a procedure to construct form and as an ordered assembly of spatial and constructive elements. Contrary to what many believe, systematic design does not lead to similar results and to repetitiveness, as the meeting of a formal system with renewed concrete situations always results in unique projects. Formal systems are important to architecture as they endow it with the order necessary to its recognition as form.

Another way of understanding this notion is by reference to its opposite, the symptomatic procedure by which architects go solving individual problems of a project without integrating them into an overall system or a superior formal structure. The result of this procedure is invariably an object without formal identity, an amorphous mass of partial solutions and isolated effects. Unfortunately, this is more common that we would like to admit.


Economy of means is a main feature of the best architecture produced in the last century. It has to do with using the smallest possible number of elements to solve an architectural problem and it refers both the physical and conceptual means at our disposal. It is important not to mix the notion of economy of means with that of minimalism – whose adoption is purely stylistic decision – nor with the deliberate scarcity of elements that can be seen in many contemporary designs. To be economic does not mean to eliminate necessary elements – like the ones that would improve a building’s climatic control, for example – to achieve a purer form. The output of an economic attitude towards design are never simple but elementary.[23] The command of the notion of elementariness is a necessary condition if one is to achieve authentic complexity.

A very important feature of economic designs is the intensity that results from a formal structure that contains a reduced number of spatial elements. Those who maintain that economic architecture is related to a law of minimum effort are very wrong: few things require more intellectual effort that creating good and authentic architecture out of a few elements. (Figure 24)

24. Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Forma Store, São Paulo, 1987.
One of the best Brazilian projects of that decade. An apparent simplicity disguises a project of great sophistication in which form and structure are one and the same thing. The way the size of the main structure is disguised by the position and configuration of the display window is anthological.


The notion of precision has to do with the ideal of human perfection that leads man to wish to realize well done works, conceived and built with exactitude. Precision accentuates the formal identity of an architectural artifact. This not only helps the understanding of its formal structure but also its actual material construction. (Figuras 25 and 26)


25-26. Helio Piñón, Plaza de la Sinagoga, Onda, Spain, 2001. Plan and view.
The precise coordination of all elements is easily perceivable. Groups of benches are related by the alignment of their sides and/or centers. There is perfect dimensional coordination between the facing elements of the retaining walls and the steps that come out of it.

If architectural form can be understood as a system of internal and external relations, then to design precisely is essential to the construction and perception of those relations.


To design rigorously is to focus one’s efforts on the most relevant and transcendental aspects of a problem, on that which is essential to a program, place or construction technique. One must be equally rigorous at interpreting the program as well as defining the concrete elements that will materialize its formal/spatial structure. To be rigorous in design does not imply austerity or formal asceticism as an outcome; rather, it suggests a skill to exclude from a design everything that will not contribute to its intensity and formal consistency. The excess of elements, the arbitrariness and occasional historicism of a large portion of contemporary practice are due basically to the lack of rigor with which architecture has been practiced in the last decades. (Figura 27)

27. Edson Mahfuz, SEBRAE HQ, Brasília, 2008.

*       *       *

The above is admittedly a minority vision anywhere, an attitude of resistance that tries to understand architecture from its specific disciplinary traits, and one which is opposed both to its dominance by others disciplines and to its submission to the logic of the marketplace. I am well aware that to adopt this stance requires an intellectual effort and rigor that many architects – and an even larger number of users – are not willing to exercise. However, I am sure that the result of such an effort, applied by architects with the support of their clients, would be to return architecture to standard of excellence it has not enjoyed for several decades.

[1] Originally published in Projetar: desafios e conquistas da pesquisa e do ensino de projeto, Fernando Lara e Sônia Marques, orgs., Rio de Janeiro: EVC, 2003, pp. 64-80.
[2] The subject of architecture’s disciplinary crisis is extensively developed by Fernando Diez in Crisis de autenticidad: Cambios en los modos de producción de la arquitectura argentina, Buenos Aires: Donn, 2008.
[3] As a consequence, programs become divided into two parts – a communicative program and a functional/technical program – conceived independently. The work of the architect has become limited, in the majority of cases, to make them compatible.
[4] Alejandro Aravena, “Los hechos de la arquitectura”, in Fernando Perez, Alejandro Aravena and Jose Quintanilla, Los Hechos de la Arquitectura, Santiago: Ediciones ARQ, 1999.
[5] To Ludovico Quaroni, venustas is the cultural knowledge, the means to manipulate the other two in order to create architecture. See Proyectar un edifício. Ocho lecciones de arquitectura, Barcelona: Xarait Ediciones, 1987.
[6] Ver “Da atualidade dos conceitos de caráter e composição”, in Edson Mahfuz, Summa+, 15, Buenos Aires, OUT/95
[7] Alejandro Aravena, op. cit.
[8] Helio Piñon, Curso básico de proyectos, Barcelona: Edicions UPC, 1998
[9] An example of this is the large number of buildings used for purposes very different from the original ones without having to undergo any significative changes in their spatial structure. This is the case of the Museum Oscar Niemeyer, in Curitiba, whose main pavillion – a raised three-tiered linear structure lit through long and narrow courts – was designed by the architect to whom it is dedicated to be a school, was used for decades as a public administrative building and is now a museum.
[10] Helio Piñón, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, São Paulo: Romano Guerra Editora, 2001.
[11] Helio Piñón, unpublished interview, 2002.
[12] Carlos Martí Arís, Las variaciones de la identidad, Barcelona: Ediciones del Serbal, 1983.
[13] Emphasis must be put on this condition of possibility, as modern conception modes are no imperatives but alternatives to pre- and post-modern practices.
[14] Helio Piñón, Curso básico de proyectos, op. cit.
[15] Although modern art and architecture have always had difficulties in being accepted by the general public – alledgedly for being abstract, cold, generic, etc. – their essential humanism is evident as never before, and rarely since, has the observer played such an important role.
[16] Carlos Martí Arís, Silencios elocuentes, Barcelona: Edicions UPC, 1999.
[17] Martí Arís, op. cit.
[18] This conviction is not shared by many contemporary architects to whom the main task of architecture is to reflect the spirit of the times in its appearance.
[19] Helio Piñon, Curso básico de proyectos.
[20] Helio Piñón., op. cit.
[21] The transposition of the concepts of universality, economy, rigor and precision from the texts of Le Corbusier and Ozenfant to architecture was made by Helio Piñón.
[22] Helio Piñón has said that an architectural problem does not end in itself: a good architect is able to solve several problems on the basis of a solution for a previous specific case (conference in Porto Alegre, Brasil, 2000).
[23] “The simple consists of a single piece; it lacks components and thus composition. The elementary, on the other hand, consists of some elements organized according to some rule or rules”, Carlos Martí Arís, op. cit. 


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