Rules and Restraints: Valle & Allen

“Simply put, within literature, constraints are no more than a voluntary instrument in a process of moving from the structure language to the expression of writing…our acceptance of rules and constraints – traditionally viewed as limited devices – could be the unlikely passage to liberating our work.”  Giancarlo Valle, Luis M. Mansilla + Emilio Tunon, From Rules to Constraints, ed. Giancarlo Valle

“[T]he hardest thing to communicate to students is the confidence that you will discover things through the process of working itself. You don’t have to figure it out beforehand…students have this idea that if they think hard enough, work the idea out in advance, somehow the pieces will magically fall together. I have two issues with this way of working. First, it’s a completely false way of thinking about ideas, as if they were abstract entities floating out there in a void; ideas are always the product of something concrete – an object or a text, something in the world – and second, the implied linearity of this process seems to me false: the idea that you could ever go in a straight line from idea to project. There is always a detour, and it’s precisely in the course of the detour that you discover things. Ironically, setting more rules actually makes the process more open. When you give the students total freedom to explore, they tend to retreat, but when you add more definition there is more opportunity for exploration.”  Stan Allen, Luis M. Mansilla + Emilio Tunon, From Rules to Constraints, ed. Giancarlo Valle

Contemporary architecture and its education too often misconstrues what creativity means. Whatever architecture is, it is for certain a design discipline, yet a mythical and fictional notion of artistic creativity predominates – that is, the idea that artistic creativity is something that must be free of bounds, constraints, limits or rules. Yet, most artists would tell you this is a ridiculous notion. Under the premise that the practice of architecture has radically changed in recent years (for example, clients require substantial help understanding the potential of sites, briefs may be vague or unknown) and that therefore architects must be vastly more flexible and imaginative students are given few constraints in their design projects. They are regularly asked to find their own sites, develop a brief, imagine or invent a client, and sometimes even invent cultural and societal scenarios* within which they set their project. This approach ends up becoming a kind of educational gesamptkunstwerk** (total work of art) that curiously smuggles back in the idea of unity that postmodern thought had apparently dispensed with. That is, students are encouraged to create air-tight narratives that seamlessly move from conceptualisation to program to resolution. Conflicts, paradoxes, contradictions and difficulties are airbrushed out of the design process. The more airtight, the better the project. Yet the constraints that face architects – economic, regulatory, environmental, social and cultural, to name a few – are not in any way unified or seamless. If anything, they are often contradictory and difficult to manage without compromises and – here it comes – creativity. That is, the kind of creativity, exploration and invention suggested by Valle and Allen.

*This particular approach is odd in that it often relies on a version of social engineering – a concept that is normally used to discredit ideas such as ‘progress’, ‘improvement’ or ‘making better’.

**Gesamkunstwerk is a design philosophy that encourages the design of all aspects of an environment in order to ensure the unity of the environment. One exponent, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the architecture, the furniture, tableware and in a few instances the clothing for clients.


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