building beam with purple overlay

PROGRAM: Towards the Post-Programmatic

This essay was originally published in 33.3 This Point in Time, the fourth Opacity series publication chronicling HDR’s design excellence initiative and our annual design review where outside critics assess work from our global offices. 33.3 includes the voices of six prominent design journalists and critics who reflected on fundamental design principles: context, form, materials, program, space, and sustainability. Like the Opacity initiative itself, the essays are intended to foster dialogue and discourse, sometimes challenging the very essence of conventional precepts in order to advance critical thinking. The following essay explores the dangers of traditional programmatic thinking and proposes new ways of approaching the functional dimension of architecture.

All buildings work. … The Parthenon probably worked perfectly well for the ceremonies that they used it for. … That we should have a front door to come in and a back door to carry the garbage out — pretty good, but in my house I noticed to my horror the other day that I carried the garbage out the front door.

— Philip Johnson, The Seven Crutches of Modern Architecture, 1954

Most architects rely too heavily on programmatic excuses in the design of buildings. They claim that their creations are the semi-automatic translations of the requirements the clients gave them (or that they developed for those commissioners). As a result, the spaces and façades are the direct result of how many square feet are required in what adjacency to each other. The only design elements that escape from the architect’s job of transcribing and organizing are the circulation areas, which they can try to exploit to promote either awe or, more trendily, chance encounters and productive interaction, and the quarter of an inch or less of the façade in which they have the opportunity to express what they think their client or the site is all about.

As a result, most buildings have plans that are predictable and work reasonably well, while countless human hours are spent trying to adjust those standard diagrams to the specific conditions prevailing at the company or institution for which the architect is working. It was not always this way. We used to think that, if you made a good space as part of a well-thought-out building, it would adapt itself to various and changing needs. Then we felt the need to justify our time and efforts, and the bubble diagram and use analysis were invented, leading to the standardization of floor plans and leeching out of anything that might look or feel like architecture.

There are several flawed assumptions in this approach. The first is that it assumes the client and their needs are static. Yet corporations and institutions change rapidly in response to everything from marketing forces to trends in internal management. Private clients change their minds, have children, or find themselves confronted with new technology. The latter issue overrides all others in the case of highly specialized spaces such as laboratories and research hospitals.

Several years ago, Apple spent close to a billion dollars building a headquarters that was also a monument to itself. In Jobs-ian fashion, everything about the building, designed by Norman Foster, was figured out to the last detail, including the circular Dilbertland that sent employees racing around the donut trying not to bump into the perfectly transparent walls. Even before it was finished, however, the company took over a spec building down the road because its headquarters no longer met its space requirements.

In response to these sorts of situations, architects try to find a balance between making designs that seem to meet whatever the program is at the moment they are designing (or, to be more accurate, that the client signs off on), while creating a certain amount of generic quality to their plans so that the resulting spaces can adapt to changing circumstances. It often does not matter; new buildings often have to be renovated or adapted even before they are finished — the only benefit being that architects and contractors wind up making their true profit from change orders.

The second issue is exactly the standardized and generic nature of the spaces that result. What gets lost when the program rules is a sense that every situation, every human interaction, every operation, and every relationship to the surrounding conditions is unique. Granted, you can very easily categorize and abstract most of those relations, and that is exactly what allows programs to be predictive, standardized, and efficient. Yet we also know that this streamlining causes friction when the particulars of a situation chafe at the standardized boxes into which we put everyone, and that it promotes the production of the soulless, banal, and interchangeable environments in which many of us work, live, or play.

Third, and as a result of this continual friction between evolving activities and interactions and the rigid building, we view buildings as constraints, rather than as enablers. For most of us, the built environment is something we react to by trying to make ourselves at home within it. We personalize our spaces, we do little renovations, we misuse spaces for functions other than what they were programmed to accommodate. When things get really bad, we either just leave, or we blow up parts of buildings so that they do work.

Fourth, and for all these reasons, programmatic thinking turns us all into robots going through the motions the buildings define for us. This is true not just for the users: It is equally so for designers, who find themselves trying to believe that they are doing more than just imprisoning people in efficiency and expected behavior. Programming is indeed semi-automatic, and pretty soon it will not need designers; there are apps for it.

Finally, there is the problem of the sheer lack of need for programming. When you can work, play, and live anywhere, and many of your interactions are virtual, why designate space for something specific?

Moreover, fixing assets in spaces designed for a specific program is wasteful — hence the rise of the loft as the answer for everything, from hot-desked working to urban and now suburban living, to pop-up shopping or parties. Only the most specialized functions escape from that corrosive effect of fast-moving information and capital, and even in those spaces the most finicky lab equipment is becoming smaller and more flexible, so that it is not impossible to imagine that pop-up clinics and loft-based labs are in our future.

The great escape valve for all of this is what we used to call circulation space, and which has now become the Great Room in the house, the atrium lobby, the “mixer space,” or whatever name we come up with for something that is purposefully amorphous, promoting different uses and encounters. These spaces are by definition not efficient, and the way architects convince clients to pay for them is usually in that they provide the Wow Factor. They impress visitors, they make employees feel as if they are part of a larger whole, and they let you as a client wallow in all that wasted space that you can afford to throw away at such nebulous effects. Those spaces that save buildings from the tyranny of programs are in effect a kind of potlatch — or a monument to the vanity of both client and architect.

What is more interesting than continually trying to refine responses to complex programs is to engage in a series of activities that offer alternatives to both the overly specific and the too multipurpose. Such an approach, which we might call Post-Programmatic, can take a variety of different approaches.

First, there is the currently fashionable notion of affordances. Based on the theories of the psychologist James Gibson, it is now in use at practices as diverse as Zaha Hadid Architects, Snøhetta, and Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances in the Netherlands. The idea is that we need spaces that neither tell us what to do nor let anything or nothing happen, but that afford a range of different possibilities. In the same way that a bird might find a cozy nook in the eaves to build a nest or a cat finds a place where it has a view and yet feels cozy, so we can design spaces that offer certain cues for a limited range of interactions. These design elements usually combine at least two different scales and bodies in at least two different modes (such as standing and sitting), while offering both a sense of privacy and an openness to a range of social actions.

The second possibility is to trace or track existing activities and elaborate them into spatial conditions that build on them. This is a technique that Koolhaas and his team, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, developed during the mid-1990s, and have elaborated ever since. It uses strong form and articulated circulation to attract and complicate activities. Often based on circulation, it is a strategy that mixes functions such as staircases and theaters (by now such a cliché that you can even find it at airports, but first used by OMA in 1995 at the Rotterdam Kunsthal). It also distends activities by making them bigger or more prominent — for instance, by cantilevering lecture halls out of the building or turning reading rooms into open terraces. You might think of this as Nudge-itecture: By making a strong form or forcing you to do something in a space that looks as if it was designed for something else, it opens you up to social mixing and the invention of new approaches to your work or living rituals.

Finally, there is the notion that architecture can invent programs that are so seductive or troubling that they move us out of our expectations and routines into another space, one where we can fulfill a role in which we reimagine ourselves. This Fairy Tale Architecture is not necessarily completely fanciful or against what was there: It merely rearranges reality, sometimes only slightly. Many people today are used to having to work, live, and play where they can, to connecting in amorphous groups, and to moving around incessantly, so this generation of architects concentrate on designing ways in which we can bring places alive. Their work is one of finding usable spaces and telling good stories. That approach can lead to results as subtle as putting windows in labs or integrating hidden light sources into houses. On an urban level, New York’s High Line is the perfect example of how to open up our environment to show new structures, but you can also find this approach in the way some companies borrow theming techniques from the gaming and film industry that turns toilets into castles reached by skateboard ramps or restaurants into forests. For the two generations that have by now grown up with Harry Potter and the film versions of Lord of the Rings, such a world that opens up if you go to Platform 9 ¾ does not seem that strange — it is those who do not see it that are just mindless muggles.

So it is time for architects to stop worrying about programs, or at least to stop using them as excuses. Instead, they should use them as opportunities, ruins on which to build, or preconceptions their designs will waylay. The program had its day. Now it is time to discover new ways to discipline and vitiate architecture.