Consensus Design

"We desperately need buildings with soul, buildings in which we feel alive, creative, at peace. The process Christopher offers us here asks much of us; for the client, that we take a degree of responsibility for the design of our spaces and insist on our creative input. For the architect, a degree of humility uncommon for a professional, listening to the site, its spirit as well as to the client’s dreams and hopes. The building, place, master-plan or design-strategy that results is, therefore, something that everyone is happy with."
Preface from "Consensus Design – socially inclusive process".

What is a place?

Place is so easily recognised, but elusive to define. Important ingredients include spatial limitation, usually enclosure, and invitation to linger rather than merely pass through. Even though many things (like season, light, population) change, a framework of constancy gives structure to unify separate memories, assumptions and expectations. Memory itself is elusive - how accurately can you draw a friend you can recognise even at great distance? More than anything fixed and precise it is the individual spirit, manifest in quality of movement, gesture and form, that we recognise.

Urban development typically involves demolition. Rural development, the destruction of a natural place, no less brutal. Both assault that web of context and memories which underpin the identity of a place. What usually remains are the roads, which ask us not to stop, but to pass through.

Redevelopment generally means moving people. Community, with its casual trans-generational acquaintance network, informal responsibilities and minding each others' business, vanishes, just as the place that housed it has. Not surprisingly, such developments record increased juvenile crime, vandalism and attacks on women and the elderly.

In the light of such lessons, redevelopment for social reasons has become smaller scale, more sensitive and more carefully managed. Still, even such development is not without problems. The construction process is by nature disruptive. And when everything around us is completed simultaneously, places can feel artificial, contrived and lifeless. It takes time for the new activities now housed there to feel as though they belong and for the character of the new place to become softened by human usage.

Spirit of place develops slowly. It is always changing and growing. It can be built upon, but if obliterated, it takes a long time - sometimes several generations - to re-establish itself. It helps therefore to look at development sites not as opportunities to do whatever we want, but places that can be improved by conversion - even, or perhaps especially, when there seems to be "nothing" there.

What was there before is not necessarily physical. In addition to the invisible ecology that gives a place wholeness and integrity, human thought and action influence the spirit of a place. How it is used, revered or discarded affects it. What does this mean for the world we are shaping? What sort of spirit are we seeding into places? What does it mean for us who must live in them?

Development is everywhere, and change is a part of healthy life, springing organically as it does from life energies. To many, development in the countryside means its destruction - a view supported by the evidence of recent years. Nonetheless, pre-industrial development has given us a heritage of beautiful farmsteads, hamlets, villages and towns. There has been a way for development to be harmonious. And, as 'development' and 'progress' can never be stifled (nor should they be!), there has to be a way we can re-find this harmony.

Vernacular building (and life-style) resulted from unconscious habitual intuition, wise but unfree. Land, vegetation, climate and society were so much a part of the shaping of daily life, that their qualities permeated human character. Direct experience of what was necessary for survival, refined over countless generations, ensured that humanity was harmoniously enmeshed in a greater ecology. These practical concerns were inseparable from the sacred cosmologies every culture lived by. Harmony between human activity and built forms with the forces of nature were the norm. But it isn't for us, as these forces are no longer an unconscious part of our being. Nowadays we have to consciously choose to act in harmony with nature and struggle to understand how to do so.

Our time demands that we consciously wed our freedoms - fed by our emerging global consciousness - to what we have learned from vernacular traditions. Also, a world where effect is displaced from cause requires that we are constantly aware of the out-of-sight consequences of any action.

Consuming resources, creating waste and interacting with our neighbours with our eyes open, we can see the larger picture into which our actions are enmeshed. This starts with recognising that even in places we don't like and want to change, things have come to be as they are for lots of reasons. Before dismissing them too lightly, it is as well to ask whether a still-relevant wisdom is alive there.

And while financial criteria, technological prowess and de-localised consciousness tend to disregard the time, growth and life forces that have brought places into being, there are ways of uniting buildings and surroundings so that they can belong together as inevitably as do those from the vernacular era.

To achieve this, we must work in accord with organic growth processes. We need to confirm ecologically whole (and visible) life support cycles. And design must be underpinned by (objectively) sensitive techniques of studying place and developing design proposals.

Past and Future

Life is bound to time. Everything that involves life also involves development, movement and interaction - all time-related processes. Places change: if they don't noticeably change with seasons, weather and passage of time, they are neither alive nor responsive to life. Human activity alters places. Always, it alters the spirit of place, and usually leads to physical changes as well. Buildings mature, age, get repaired, altered and eventually are demolished or replaced. This is a natural process. If prevented, by freezing places into unalterable form, they begin to feel hollow and unreal, like museum exhibits. Preserving a "natural" place - just like preserving a city street - in unchanging rigidity is as "unnatural" as demolishing it.

There are of course special places so valuable and irreplaceable they would be a tragedy to lose (including 'ordinary', roadsides, landscapes and industrial heritage). But they deserve conservation, not rigid preservation. To avoid petrification, aging, maintenance and repair, new activities and the minutiae of life need to flow through them, visibly and honestly.

Anyway, whether we like it or not, 'progress' brings change. But Change does not have to disregard what is already there. The new can be in harmony with the old.

Every place has been formed by past events. Ideas for buildings, however, are still in the future, in the realm of imagination. In our century we have seen a gulf widen between past and future. But for occasional preservation - often freezing the past so it cannot live with the present - most buildings are destructively imposed on places. From this has developed the view that progress, though necessary, is invariably environmentally destructive and to balance it certain small areas of land must be protected from any human contact. It is but a short step to view nature as ideal, mankind as solely destructive - an unbridgeable duality widely confirmed by current evidence. Yet all but the most inaccessible parts of the world have been shaped and beautified by human activity in harmony with nature. In different forms, reflecting soils, culture, climate and topography, this "culture landscape" is the product of an intuitive consciousness now lost forever.

Today

...to blend our works as seamlessly into the landscape takes conscious effort. Even this is not guaranteed success because individualised, future-inspired human thought and nature-infused, time-formed place seem so far apart. They need not be, should not be, for these poles need each other. To close this gap we have developed a design method built upon Margaret Colquhoun's*2 - a technique of landscape study.

This she describes as a means of meeting the four layers of landscape:

  1. The solid objects, physical facts, the 'bedrock' of the place.
  2. That which is constantly changing, flowing and growing.
  3. That which lends character to a place, gives its unique 'atmosphere' and appeal.
  4. And that which is the essence or inner reality of a place.

Whether it is the spirit of landscape or place - both so closely related, this 'four-fold' technique lends itself to group work, consensus giving objectivity beyond the personal subjective.

It can be hard to get people to commit sufficient time for this process, but time is an important part of it. Knowledge matures when we "sleep on it" and ideas need time to coalesce, otherwise they are prematurely formed.

We start...

by walking around the place, just silently listening to it, so opening ourselves to (unrepeatable) first impressions. 
Even walking in silence is hard, let alone refraining from value-judgments, inferences, thoughts and ideas, but from these subjective first impressions we can reconstruct the essence of the place.
Next, we observe and record all the physical phenomena we can - everything from land-form to length and colours of grass.
This careful observation greatly sharpens awareness and attunement.
We then attempt to understand how the present place has been formed by the past, from geological times through to yesterday.
This brings us to the place as we see it today.
But what is its future? How, even if we do nothing, will it change next season? In one year? In ten? 
There is no place in the world that is not changing. What will be the consequences of minimal interventions like unlocking a gate, changing grazing regime, or restricting vehicle speed? Or increasingly major interventions? A new fence? Road? Buildings? This starts to tell us what changes it can or cannot accept.
Next, we describe the moods of its various sub-places, and the feeling responses these invoke in us. 
Through this process, the essential being of a place begins to become clear. We can now give words to this essence - this spirit of place. 
 Although starting with material phenomena, solid and tangible, we have penetrated beyond them to objective consensus comprehension of the spirit of place, otherwise intangible and only intuitively accessed.

This sequence we now mirror

Any idea for a project is wholly in the thought realm. What is the essence of this idea? Activities, even invisible, can have more impact on a place than can the architectural form of its buildings.

Imagine a flat landscape; in the distance a grey-blue shape on the horizon. At 0.001 per cent of our field of vision, its architectural qualities are insignificant - but what if it is a cathedral, or a nuclear power plant?

How have the totally invisible internal activities affected how we feel about the place?
What activities will our project generate? Where would they be best located? How should they relate - closed off, open to each other, or linked by a journey? 
These activity moods are defined by spatial, mostly building, edges. 
We can mark these out with poles and string. Recorded onto scale drawings, these can be modified into meaningful plans and then developed into three dimensions in clay. We can now combine eye-level views of the clay model and the place as it is, adding detail, colour and materials - visualising, in other words, physical buildings.

Through this process, that which was a non-material idea needing to be rooted on earth, has become one with an evolving physical place.

However, as development is normally progressive, each phase creating a new "existing situation", a project needs to be seen, not as master plan, but as probable pattern of growth. How satisfactory would it be if only the first phase were completed? The first and second... and so on. In such a way buildings can coalesce out of activities and places develop organically as they did in the vernacular past, but tapping into who we are and what we know now.

Without conscious effort, brand-new places have no spirit. The more biography is imprinted into them the more are they enriched *3. This heritage of memories roots us into time and place. Building upon this, using methods like that described above, can weave past and future into a present both grounded and inspired.

Imitations of the past no longer ring true, but we can translate its lessons into modern forms of understanding, planning, design and landscaping. From vernacular evolutionary development, we can learn how to marry place, past - place - and future - idea. Consciously we can create ecological and aesthetic harmony. Deliberate strategy can stimulate organic development from life-activity growth nodes.

Developments without external infrastructural demands which improve micro-climate and wildlife habitat can benefit the place they are in. With sufficient sensitivity to organic processes of development, to unobtrusive place-responsive appearance, and to rooting in place, new buildings can even be assets, contributing to healthy growth of place. Rare as this is, new development can be integrated, can consolidate, and can contribute. Every living organism grows, but it remains healthy only if that growth is in harmony with its surroundings. In such a relationship of social health, every constituent is both contributor and beneficiary. It is the same with people, buildings and places.

In those limited instances where rural building development is appropriate, this approach can foster wholeness, harmony and health of place. In suburb, town and city it can heal the wounds already built and help non-places become places.

Beyond this, it can help to overcome the schism in our thinking which assumes that the maintenance of untouched wilderness can compensate for desecrating development; that the works of man and nature can do nothing for each other.

These are the bones of the process. Obviously, it involves a little more than this and must be tailored to each individual set of circumstances and cannot be accomplished by a lone architect. We have looked at a design process that engages the intricate interrelationships that make up the spirit of place. It is through the equally intricate interrelationships of the human beings who will live in, use, and help to build that place that we can realize the healthy, healing and sensitive growth we seek.