Monday, July 19, 2010


There is great confusion regarding the meaning of creativity in architecture. The fact would not be worrisome were it not for its negative consequences for the places where we live. To adhere to a wrong understanding of the concept of creativity has two problematic outcomes. For the public at large, it leads to requests for bizarre objects. For architects, it means at best to the production of irrelevant objects. In both cases, there is a loss of architecture’s ability to enhance people’s lives.

Creativity, according to the first edition of the Brazilian Aurélio Dictionary, is the ability to create things, to give existence to something out of nothing, to originate, to produce, invent or imagine. The same dictionary implies that being creative does not depend on some special quality that sets someone apart from the others; the very fact of creating anything is already a sign of creativity.

For many people not trained as architects creativity is related to the unusual, the unprecedented creation, which is dependent on innate and superior talent. There seems to be a correlation between creativity and variety, movement, visual impact and other features. Thus it is no wonder the many bizarre buildings that crop up everywhere and the praise that is lavished upon them. From this point of view simplicity and elementariness are synonymous with monotony and lack of creativity.

“Creativity” is in fashion and some of its experts suggest that anything could serve as starting point for architectural design: in some circles to design buildings in the shape of, say, an ashtray or a croissant is considered very creative. Some others run workshops aiming at ‘releasing’ the creativity of architects and students of architecture, allegedly stunted by years of dedication to the search of solutions for every-day problems.

I am afraid none of those experts understands the consequences of those concepts and exercises to the practice of authentic architecture, the worst being the implication that form is an independent aspect of an architectural problem, something to be added to its more specific architectural content. A similar confusion relates to the artistic aspect of architecture, by many considered to be something external to the process of architectural design.

I would like to contribute to a more precise understanding of creativity in architecture and thus suggest its meaning is different from both its general understanding and from the meaning it has for the fine arts, advertising, fashion, and so on.

Any creative activity is in essence related to problem solving. What divides them in at least two separate categories is the existence, for some of them, of self-imposed problems –although sometimes in unselfconscious ways– as is typical of the works of painters and sculptors whereas in other areas like architecture the problems to be solved are external –that is, they generally come from the outside of the discipline– and can be more or less restrictive to the designer’s freedom.

Thus creativity in architecture only appears in face of real problems. There simply is no real creativity in architecture without a problem that needs to be solved, be it functional, technical, stylistic or otherwise. In this way, the creative –which some would call the artistic– in architecture reveals itself as a superior way of solving –by way of form– the practical aspects that define a given architectural problem.

If advertising’s problem is to persuade and fashion’s is to give shape to one’s need to dress, what can be architecture’s problem? Several issues establish the fact that creativity in architecture is something specific to it: use, cost and permanence.

The question of use –function– is an obvious one. Without program there is no architecture: in this case what we have at best is some big sculpture through which one can walk. The existence of a program for a building or a definition of use reveals a need for space from a given society; not to provide for it or to go beyond it takes one dangerously close to irrelevance or irresponsibility.

Scarcity of means is second nature to all of us in developing countries but even in the so-called developed nations budgets are tight and under control. Thus we architects are always compelled to do much with whatever we have at our disposal. To adopt any “creative” solution –in the sense of introducing elements not justified by a rigorous design logic– will mean higher costs without any assurance of increased quality.

As for permanence it means not only a building’s resistance through time –which depends on the adoption of adequate materials and techniques– but also its ability to hold its own amidst the visual chaos of contemporary urban sceneries.

By the above I am suggesting that there is no creativity per se in designing objects of unusual shape, employing complicated geometries and featuring diagonals, sharp angles, overlapping curves and so on, because those motifs do not answer any real architectural problem. By the same token, it is not creative to employ historical styles in contemporary buildings, as is still the case in many parts of the world, especially in South America. Much on the contrary, this only demonstrates how limited the promoters and designers of this kind of architectural bastards are.

True architectural creativity appears when specific problems are solved by a formal synthesis of program, place and construction, resulting in objects rooted in their culture, place and time. If we are lucky enough they will be endowed with formal identity, in itself a result of qualities like economy of means, rigor, precision, universality and systemic configuration. 


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