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The Circular Nature of Creativity

Apr 02, 2017 12:07PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Last month, I spoke at Pittsburgh's 26th PechaKucha Night, a gathering where creative minds share their latest ideas. I presented a talk titled, Are We the Last Architects? that questioned the roll and impacts of big data and generative design software in the architectural profession. In particular, my concern that in short order, the automated construction site transformed by 3D printers taking direction from Building Information Modeling (BIM) software optimized to generate the most efficient structures in material, energy, and functional uses, may mark the end of architects in the design process.

In an artificial intelligence world where automated systems surpass human abilities in nearly every measure, if not all, what is the role of an architect? Green building practices, the sourcing and implementation of environmentally friendly building materials and their application in the construction sequence, has in recent years become the dominant role the architectural profession has defined for itself, rebranding as LEED Architects, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The "green" issue is important and in my opinion vital to our future. However, as I argued in my presentation, that role will be done far more effectively and accurately by machine learning—computing utilizing predictive analytics—than in the hands of an architect acting traditionally on trial and error. This will not happen overnight; there will be a transition period integrating the insights and experience of humans in a partnership with computers.

But, now that big data has been introduced into the process, it won't be long before human involvement is no longer needed; viewed as a hindrance slowing things down and ultimately seen as a liability. This brings me to the subject of creativity, what I believe is at the heart of the human condition—our ability to leap, attaining new ground by leaping into realms unknown, the creative act. And in the leap, a questioning happens where existing conditions are no longer taken as givens. Alternatives are considered, a search for a better way of doing things compels this creative leap. This speaks to our fullest measure as human beings; it is here that we find our passions and dreams.

As architects, like every creative profession, we are all about the questions. Yet if there is to be a next generation of architects, they will be asking 'Why' we build, not 'How' we build. The houses in which we dwell will continue to become more energy efficient and flow functionally; however, will they fulfill our emotional longings better than the homes we live in today or in the past?

This pursuit I placed above all else in creating a home for my own family. I began with a blank sheet of paper, questioning every convention, ruling out no possibility or opportunity. And, with my interest in indigenous architecture, the circular space of early humans, I wondered how living within rectilinear shaped rooms in our modern existence has changed us. Standardization of dimensional building materials and right-angle assembly has certainly aided the mass production of housing. However, have the benefits been across the board (forgive the pun) or maybe, has something been sacrificed, lost in our rush to progress?

In putting pencil to paper, I took the circle as a starting point, an attempt to infuse those properties inherent to circular form, not found within the orthogonal. Windows and doors were made round, as was the layout of space in plan. As a result, every construction trade—masons and carpenters, plumbers and electricians—had to figure out new ways to install the fixtures and finishes. It was a daily challenge to work against accepted norms, however, everyone who had a hand in the process welcomed the change from the routine, commenting on minds numbed by years of building the same thing over and over.

In this experiment of circular space, not everything was abandoned; it was not merely an exercise for novelty’s sake. This was an act of creativity, a questioning of conventions and by doing so, I came to understand the reasons why with a greater appreciation and connection. And, isn't this the true nature of exploration? To dig deeper, finding the original purpose of a thing, to see if it still serves that intent and if not, figure out how it has gone astray? 

Maybe the houses we build today have lost touch precisely because our response to a changing environment did not prioritize the continual human condition. Despite the shape of the human body, our being is round. Our eyes, the windows to our soul are circular, not just for the pragmatics of capturing light, but more importantly for spiritual reasons. Life is circular metaphorically, as is the cyclical nature of time. Is it any surprise the earth on which we live is a sphere?

One might expect the spaces we inhabit would be round, too. Well, not surprisingly, they began that way, for tens of thousands of years. Only recently has that changed. Maybe we should be questioning why?

This is what I tried to do with the house my family inhabits and by doing so, found creativity in circular space. When my son puts a ball on the round window sill, delighted to watch it roll back and forth, I am reminded of the unlimited spirit of a child, experimenting without preconceptions to learn about his environment. Maybe this is the answer to our changing times, a future without architects, where homeowners create their own houses; a simple reminder to question and consider something alternative, then the ability to leap into new ground, creatively.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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