By Gordon Rugg
This article is the third in a short series about finding out what people would really like in life, by looking at images of dream buildings.
In the first article, I looked at why the obvious approach doesn’t work very well. If you just ask people what they want, you tend to get either no answer, because people don’t know, or to get low-aspiration responses, for various reasons that are well known in requirements acquisition research. If, however, you instead show people a range of possibilities, including possibilities that they would probably never have thought of, then their preferences can change dramatically.
So, in this series I’m looking at fantasy and concept art images of buildings, which explore as broad a range of possibilities as the artists and architects can imagine. I’m looking at them to see what regularities emerge within those dream buildings; what sort of world do the creators of those images, and the people who like those images, desire?
In the second article, I looked at how human biases affect our aesthetic preferences. I concluded that a lot of people like really, really big buildings. Those buildings look awe-inspiring, but when you stop to think about details like how anyone is going to clean the windows, you start to realise that maybe those buildings aren’t terribly practical. However, how can you tell what will be practical within the lifetime of a building, when the available technology and the functions of the building are likely to change? There’s the related risk that tastes will change, and that today’s beautiful building will become tomorrow’s eyesore.
In this article, the third in the series, I’ll look at the issue of practicality versus obsolescence, and at changes in fashion.
Thomas Cole, the Titan’s Goblet, and a Vauban fortification; full image credits at the end of this article
I’ll start with an extended quote from Vitruvius, the classical Roman architect, which neatly illustrates two major issues in architecture and lifestyle.
The quote starts with a classical Greek architect meeting Alexander the Great.
- His strange appearance made the people turn round, and this led Alexander to look at him. In astonishment he gave orders to make way for him to draw near, and asked who he was. “Dinocrates,” quoth he, “a Macedonian architect, who brings thee ideas and designs worthy of thy renown. I have made a design for the shaping of Mount Athos into the statue of a man, in whose left hand I have represented a very spacious fortified city, and in his right a bowl to receive the water of all the streams which are in that mountain, so that it may pour from the bowl into the sea.”
- Alexander, delighted with the idea of his design, immediately inquired whether there were any fields in the neighbourhood that could maintain the city in corn. On finding that this was impossible without transport from beyond the sea, “Dinocrates,” quoth he, “I appreciate your design as excellent in composition, and I am delighted with it, but I apprehend that anybody who should found a city in that spot would be censured for bad judgement. For as a newborn babe cannot be nourished without the nurse’s milk, nor conducted to the approaches that lead to growth in life, so a city cannot thrive without fields and the fruits thereof pouring into its walls, nor have a large population without plenty of food, nor maintain its population without a supply of it.”
Vitruvius, The Ten Books On Architecture, Harvard University Press edition, 1914; Translation by M.H. Morgan (from Project Gutenberg).
This story may well have been the inspiration for the first image in the banner, Cole’s painting “The Titan’s Goblet”. The goblet is huge – it has boats sailing on its waters, and a temple on its rim. It’s also a bit limited as regards the practical side of life.
The second image in the banner also shows a huge construction, although its sheer size isn’t obvious until you start looking closely, and realise that the woods in the bottom left of the picture are also part of the structure. It’s a classic fortification by Vauban, the leading military architect of the eighteenth century. It’s designed rigorously and thoroughly, with every feature serving a carefully designed purpose. The triangular motif repeated throughout the design is used to make sure that every inch of the approaches to the central fort is covered by at least one cannon. There’s nowhere that attackers can take cover.
Building for the future: The problem of unexpected obsolescence
So, how well did these two approaches stand up to the test of time? Alexander’s very practical points about infrastructure are still valid today. Vauban’s equally practical points about military design were soon made obsolete by changes in military technology.
Architects are well aware that today’s brilliant design may be tomorrow’s quaint historical curiosity, so they’re understandably wary about getting too far involved in designing buildings for specific purposes. It’s not just massive military designs that can become outmoded overnight. At a humbler level, a good example is the threshing barn. This was a key feature of farms for centuries; it’s a barn with a pair of huge doorways opposite each other, to allow a through breeze. Farm workers would thresh the grain in that breeze, safe from rain that would spoil the grain, with the through breeze blowing away the chaff from the grain during the threshing. Then, in the nineteenth century, new inventions in agricultural machinery made the threshing barn pretty much obsolete.
However, “pretty much obsolete” is a very different proposition from “obsolete”. It’s a crucial distinction, which I’ll explore in the next section.
Obsolescence, survival and building for the future
When you start looking closely at changes in technology, you notice that old technologies can keep going for a surprisingly long time. It’s not just because of die-hard traditionalists keeping something going for its own sake. Often, what happens is that a new technology takes over most of the roles once occupied by the old technology, but not all of those roles.
For example, the invention of the escalator didn’t mean that architects stopped using stairs, and the invention of email didn’t mean the end of the telephone. A lot of the features of a modern office are pretty much the same as those in an office from Roman times: desks and chairs and lights and document storage. The modern features may look a bit different from their Roman equivalents, but their functions are very similar.
Similarly, in architecture, a lot of the features of buildings have remained more or less constant across time. If you’re planning a large public building, for instance, then access and exit routes and times are important; you want people to get in and out with the minimum of delay. The Roman Colosseum compares favourably to the best modern stadia in this respect.
So, although an individual building may be used for different purposes across time, and some of those purposes will entail different requirements, that doesn’t mean that we need to give up and say that there’s no point in looking at user requirements for a building. A lot of requirements will remain the same across a wide range of new uses; also, anyone with any sense will check that the proposed new use for a building fits reasonably well with the features already built into it. Old threshing barns usually weren’t torn down; instead, they continued to be used. The ends of the threshing barn were originally used for storage; they could still be used for that purpose after the change in threshing technology. There were plenty of other ways that the central area between the two doors could be used. The “threshing” part of the building’s role may have become obsolete, but the building as a whole was very much fit for most of its other original purposes, and the two huge doorways offered a lot of affordances for new uses.
I’ve already written about regularities in how people use space, such as the “landing zone” within a building entrance when people come in from the street. Exactly the same approach can be used to identify and design for other regularities in human behaviour, so that a building’s form mirrors the function and makes life easier for the humans using it.
What about the argument that fashions and tastes change unpredictably? That holds some truth, but again, there are longer-term regularities if you know where to look for them.
Society and technology
Fashions and tastes have been studied extensively by sociologists and sociolinguists and social anthropologists, among others. What they’ve found repeatedly is that power and access to limited resources are both deeply involved in most manifestations of fashion and “good taste”.
One very visible example: In most societies up till very recently, having a suntan was an indicator of doing a manual, low-prestige job; the elite were careful to keep their skins as pale as possible, to demonstrate that they did not have to do physical work.
That changed with the Industrial Revolution, when large populations of urban manual workers had indoor jobs, out of the sun, so the elite acquired suntans to show that they didn’t need to work indoors.
There’s a similar dynamic about the accents and dialects of the different groups. When society consists of rural peasants and urban elites, then the rural accents are usually perceived by the elite as rough and ugly. When society consists of rural peasants, urban factory workers and elites, then the urban factory workers’ accents are perceived as ugly, and the peasants’ accents are perceived as quaint and unspoilt.
You get much the same with perceptions of nature. Until the Industrial Revolution, nature was generally viewed in terms of threatening wilderness and wasteland. After the Industrial Revolution got under way, nature started to be viewed as something beautiful and idyllic. There’s a fascinating account of this in Man and the Natural World, which looks at changing attitudes towards nature across the years 1500-1800.
So, if you know what to look for, you can identify a fair number of practical requirements that are likely to remain unchanged for a long time ahead, and a have a fair shot at predicting what changes in people’s tastes are likely to occur.
In a later article in this series, I’ll look at how you can identify those long-lasting requirements. First, though, I’ll look at potential pitfalls in trying to identify people’s dream lifestyles from their preferences in pictures of fantasy houses and fantasy worlds; that will be the topic of the next article in this series.
Notes and links
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
Sources of images in the banner:
“Neuf-Brisach 007 850” by Luftfahrer at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neuf-Brisach_007_850.jpg#/media/File:Neuf-Brisach_007_850.jpg
Overviews of the articles on this blog: