What is architectural design?

As an architect I am in constant flux of what it is I do. I don’t construct buildings or fund projects — I design. But what the hell does that mean?

The architectural profession has done a horrible job of conveying A) what it is that architects do, and B) why we’re even necessary to society. We can postulate the essence of architecture, and we can criticize architecture on both a theoretical and substantive level, but can we even define what architectural design means?

At least at this point in my life, and this place in time and space, I define architectural design as problem solving by adding value. To try to break it down to its most simplistic state, we design to solve a problem. But design goes beyond just solving problems. I solve problems in my black-belt Sudoku puzzle book (truth be told, I’m more like an orange belt), but that’s not design. Where’s the value to society? Who really benefits by me sitting in the bathroom filling out squares with a number between one and nine?

There’s always been that faint distinction between art and architecture (at least by my turtleneck-wearing brethren), but the true difference is that art doesn’t solve a problem. Sure, it inspires the uninspired, and it ruminates the people who can’t tie their own shoes, but it doesn’t solve a problem. Likewise, architecture that doesn’t solve a problem, such as not fulfilling the intended program of the building, becomes art. If people can’t use the building, then what problem was solved? (Yes, you’ve kept the elements out, and bears are deterred from attacking the inhabitants, but if the program is not fulfilled then the building’s not very useful.)

I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks architecture should fulfill its utilitarian purpose and be good. I think every piece of architecture not only can inspire but should inspire. To make bad architecture into great architecture takes a little more effort (although it typically takes a whole lot more talent).

That is what good architects do, and that is what I do — solve problems and add value.

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