Monday, January 16, 2012


Visiondivision has done some reflections about concepts, a working method that we're quite familiar with. We thought we might share some of these thoughts with you.


What distinguish our projects and the way we work with architecture from many of our other colleagues in this business are our strong concepts. That’s our opinion but also what colleagues been telling us and what media says about us. Since the start of our collaboration called visiondivision, our work process has always been to first come up with a strong concept and then start drawing. We found that way of working a fun and efficient way to invent new types of architecture but also a great advantage when it comes to pitching an idea and also getting a project built. In this text we will try to explain what we mean by working in a conceptual way and the advantages with this type of work process.

The word”concept” stems from the Latin word”conceptum” which means ”something conceived”. According to John Locke, the father of Liberalism, a general idea/concept is created by abstracting, drawing away, or removing the uncommon characteristic or characteristics from several particular ideas. The remaining common characteristic is that which is similar to all of the different individuals. For example, the abstract general idea or concept that is signified by the word”dog” is the collection of those characteristics which are common to Golden Retrievers, Pit Bulls, Collies, and Chihuahuas.

That means as architects working together you need to find that common characteristics and the uncommon to fit with the program and request for that specific problem you are about to solve. That forces you to discuss wrongs and rights of the request and to form your concept around that and then to simplify it so everyone involved in the process understands what this project want to achieve.
A way to start is with a common headline/motto for the project pointing out the direction on what everyone involved should strive for. That headline includes millions of options but also reduces several. And that is the important thing that it reduces and gives options, then you have a clear concept. To exemplify this we will show some vague and clear headlines/concepts/mottos.

Vague headline/concept:
This quote is taken from the city of Stockholm’s description of a new city area south of Stockholm, Söderstaden 2030.
”Söderstaden is a City area with experiences in world class”.
That statement doesn’t really point out any direction except saying that the architects are trying too good. it doesn’t really reduces options and gives new ones.

Clear headline/concept:
A similar project from the 50s in Stockholm was the “ABC-Staden, Arbete, Bo­stad, Centrum”. In English the ABC city, work, housing and the Center which meant that people can live, work and have access to important social and cultural facilities within short distances. In the project a public transport route into the central city was also part of the concept. A concept that reduces options and gives new ones.

Vague headline/concept:

The motto of the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf ”För Sverige – i tiden” in English for Sweden – in the present. A motto that don’t really says anything witch in this case actually is a good motto since the king is not allowed to actually say anything political in Sweden but still needs a motto. So a motto that doesn’t reduces options and gives new ones is actually what is in the kings interest to achieve although the motto is week.

Clear headline/concept:
The American motto “Land of the free home of the brave” from the national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner. The word freedom has without any doubt formed the American society for good and for bad but it’s a motto that reduces options and gives new ones. Communism is for sure one of the reduced ones while capitalism and liberalism perhaps are the outcome of the word free.

Why work concept based?
The advantages of working concept based are many, there are of course other ways to produce architecture too but this is the process we are used to work with and it is by far the best method we know so far. It is always the concept that helps us through rough decisions, to refine our presentation technique and sometimes also to be very competitive in this business.

- Easy decision making
The biggest advantage with a concept is you have a common goal that actually has meanings and can guide you through the design process. If the concept is clear enough, time can be saved on pointless sketches and lines and you could instead focus on a research more connected to the goal. A strong concept helps you make easier decisions and you often don’t need to go to the drawings in the first phases to make them. If the concept is strong enough you can talk about the project without having a drawing in front of you. And it will take you to places you did not knew existed since you get a new world to discover. The concept determines the hierarchy of your narrative; just like in a book or a movie. If a movie is about a huge meteor which is going to crash into Earth, you know that the part with space shuttles in it should perhaps have more effort put into it than the part about the family’s new car. You would also probably give the movie a suitable name like Armageddon and have a bad-ass all American actor for the lead roll like Bruce Willis instead of choosing a comedian like Jim Carrey for instant.

To have a hierarchy means easy decision making. In most projects conditions change throughout the building and design process. It can be that the client found out he needed some extra space for a washing machine or five more work places at the office, or it can be new facts like regulations or structural matters that force the project to change.
This kind of new conditions often come up after the concept design is finished and even in the building phase since it can take a while for a client not used to the game of architecture to actually starting to understands what is going on. It is at this small crises that a concept that both client and everyone involved knows about is superior to have. Knowing what is important and not in the project is knowing where the change can be made without causing any damages to the final result. These changes can often even make the concept stronger. In our own experience this small crises comes up in almost every project and we been able to keep them as small crisis in almost all of them and often also turning the crises into new possibility.
In one of our own projects ,“Hill Hut”, it turned out to be soil under the construction site when rock was expected. It took a huge void of removed soil to understand it but that void was then used for making caves under the house. since the concept was a house with the landscape going thought it where the client/kids could play the caves made the concepts even better. The extra cost for the caves was possible because we bought cheaper windows from Poland. The concept told us that caves where more important then fancy windows in this project.

Hill Hut

In the project”Spröjs House” the house bathroom was replaced by a workplace late in the design process, since the concept was to let the mullion window carry most of the functions in the house the mullion became a desk instead of a bathtub. The house changed but it was still a Spröjs House.

Spröjs House

Looking at other buildings with a strong concept you can see that changes actually are easier to make then at buildings with out one.
Lets take the Globe Arena for example you could have made it in any color made it smaller, bigger or cheaper as long as it has its spherical form it would still be the Globe Arena.

The Ericsson Globe arena - in its present condition and in an imagined forced Swedish state with red boards.


Since architecture is a lot about communicating with a client and other people involved in a project the concept helps a lot in the presentation of a project.
The concept is what runs the discussion of the project rather than discussions about small details and so on. Since the client knows the main goal in the project he/she gets more involved and criticizes the project from whatever motto you set up. Weird surprises and subjective criticism can be avoided. The concept also helps marketing the project since the headline often becomes the headline in magazines and web pages and so on. Let’s take the Globe Arena again as an
example; the name of the project fits perfectly as headline as it is, “A globe arena is going to be built in Stockholm” which of course is news that travels around the world way better than the head line “A new arena is going to be built in Stockholm”. Knowing the headline, the picture and renderings should of course also fit to the description, which helps you take the right snapshot of your 3D model in the computer or of your physical model and so on. In the case of the globe arena it will of course be an exterior shot, in the case of a new arena with no concept nobody knows. Having a strong concept is a bit like having a strong first page in a newspaper; you have the headline, the front page picture and the ingress which goes a bit more into detail.

The actual drawings come on the pages inside the newspaper.
After some years in the media circus being one of the most internationally published firms in Sweden on the internet with 25 projects on for example, we have noticed that these things actually helps. On the blogs that actually runs the architectural media industry, a headline and one picture with a visual punch is always what is displayed.

Two pictures from Archdaily on December 28, 2011.
The news flash to the left have more clicks, likes, links and comments even though it is not built due to a better headline and a picture showing the concept.

The better you are at these two things the more clicks, likes and comments you get which in return sets the standard of how important your project is. The blogs are then read by design reporters and the circus has begun. The best test if your project really is news worthy is if it makes it to the common media. A project displayed in a child magazine in Korea after an article about dinosaurs is the proof of that you have a concept worth talking about.

D’ecouvertes 8 a 12 ans; a French kids magazine covering Cancer City, a project of ours which is a crayfish community in a river.

Even better is perhaps being on radio where you only have your project description to lean on, then you really know you have a media friendly concept.

The Patient Gardener featured on Italian radio and Japanese television

It is of course easier to punch through media with a huge skyscraper with a waterfall around it but we’re proud to have done it with a 2 by 4 meter big crayfish city or a 8 meters in diameter building in Milan too. The perhaps most sublime and most published Swedish architecture piece the last centuries is the ice hotel. The project has a very strong concept; the two words say it all and it has been a huge success in media and tourism. Taking in to account the money spent on the project and the projects location it is fair to say it is the project with the most Bilbao effect in Sweden. It is the ultimate proof that great concepts works even in Sweden perhaps because it really takes advantage of it context; it’s super Swedish.

Every architect that’s spent some years in this business knows that the factor that mostly decides the projects outcome is the economy. There will for most architects be cutbacks in a project but with a strong concept, the cutbacks don’t need to harm the outcome. Since concept is to have a hierarchy, you simply cut back the least favorable part of the project and it often turns out to be an even stronger project.
Cutbacks often make the concept even more readable and many times better. It all depends of course on what type of concept you have and how flexible it is. If your concept is to have Italian marble in all of the walls, that’s a concept that probably will lose on cutbacks, concrete fetishism, wood fetishism, hovering building parts without any functions will also loose; simply because it is not a concept.
To have a strong concept means that you reduce options but also create new ones.
Concepts need to be on a more abstract level then copying details from different design magazines. If your concept instead is to make a giant Moose hotel you can use the cheapest material possible as long as the hotel looks like a giant moose. Same thing goes for the pyramids and spherical buildings.

With cuts in the budget and a cheaper location the Opera House in Copenhagen by Henning
Larsen looks like a shopping mall. Similar cuts for the moose hotel "Stoorn" hardly effects the outcome.

The ice hotel is once again also a good example, no one bothers if its cold, don’t have running water or acoustic plates, its and ice hotel, its a category of one, if you want running water go somewhere else.
As a young architect your first client will perhaps not be the one who can afford solid marble walls. Then you need to found out your client interest, is he a dog person for example then maybe you should design the pit bull-house! It will be cheaper and more fun than solid marble walls.
To adapt your design to whatever taste or condition your client have is not only an economical success, it takes you places you could not have discovered yourself which is one of the most fun parts of being an architect if you embrace it.

Conceptual thinking on a brand level vs project level

Strategies to get a strong concept vary a lot between different architects and on many levels as well. Many architects don’t care for concepts and some do, but then on a brand level meaning that all of the work from one firm should fit into an overall design concept, this way of thinking is very common among star architects like Zaha Hadid for example and should not be mistaken for what we mean by conceptual thinking.
Zaha has an overall design concept like many other star architects which mean that you can point out a Zaha building when you see one; in her case complex, expensive, fluid shapes.

Zaha Hadid buildings and shoes

Another brand architect; Daniel Libeskind’s shard-like buildings

Frank O Gehrys typical undulating buildings

A similar architect with a similar brand thinking at least if you look on his later works, is Frank O. Gehry who even has developed his own computer program to erect complex shapes which he probably would not have done if he would work with one-project-concepts. The problem with this kind of brand concepts is that it aims on specific markets which in both Zaha’s and Frank’s later works are expensive iconic buildings which perhaps is 1% of the architect’s market.

There are also a lot of contemporary firms who claims to be the opposite of today’s star architects, they are often the most critical people towards the architects just mentioned. But in their will to be the opposite they often do the exact same mistakes. They focus on one market and one overall design concept; in many cases hippie-like structures with a vernacular touch which is also brand making and a way of designing that solves a very small percentage of the world’s problem. Both camps are painting themselves into a corner of what potential problems they can solve. And most of all they decrease their chances to change and to be flexible in a world that constantly changes. To have an overall design concept should not be confused with modernist architects like le Corbusier for example who at first glance seems to have a similar brand thinking; inventing the rules for modernism and all, but his overall design concept really focused on solving major problems, perhaps 80% of the architects market. It was a set of rules that could be adapted to help huge amount of people and it has. It was not a style to be recognized as a brand. Le Corbusier also had the decency to change his design concept when making other typologies of buildings for example churches like Notre Dame du Haut. The trick is to not connect your brand with specific shapes or architectural looks but with intelligence, innovation and constant change instead. OMA, the perhaps most influential architect office in the last century has a more research based brand concept which makes their work more connected with innovation. They even started AMO to emphasis that research and intelligence is what you buy when you contact OMA. Lacaton Vassal has a similar brand although slightly painted into the fixing-everything-cheap corner and Herzog & de Meuron is on the opposite corner; fixing-everything-Swiss-like-expensive, but they still have a brand not connected to certain shapes but to something more abstract which in both cases are connected to intelligence and innovation.

What is similar to these firms is the way of making a new strong concept for each new project which makes them more interesting over time and also more fit to deal with all kinds of architectural problems although some of them seem to be quite comfortable in the high end architecture scene.
The struggle for these kind of offices is almost the opposite from Zaha and Frank, their struggle is to not have a recognizable type of architecture but to be constantly inventive and to create constant change and broaden what architecture is, a strategy that also seems to be the leading trend in business theories for all branches. ”The big difference now is that major change doesn’t happen occasionally, they happen all the time. It is infinitely more difficult to see them coming. That means that not only does a company have to be willing to change and change often, it has to be willing to be wrong. The one thing you know for sure today if you forecast is that you’re going to be wrong. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forecast, it simply means that instead of success being based on always making the right decision or prediction, success is based on being able to move quickly from one decision to the next. Even if you are right, you are still going to have to move on in a very short period of time.“
To avoid having a certain style is almost impossible, especially for star architects. When the architect gets too well known with too many built projects, the process behind the project gets more and more obvious. If you look on an OMA building for example, or many other Dutch offices you can see the cuts in blue foam from the concept design, and how the material is added in the final design in the finished building; OMA’s CCTV, Seattle Public library and Casa da Musica in Porto, Neutelings in Belgium, UN studio in Amsterdam or MVRDVs Rotterdam Market hall or Blue village where they actually kept the color from the foam. They are all children of the same school in developing a project. Being too famous also means getting employees who already know your work and doing the best to repeat that architecture that they already worship which is a huge disadvantage for the famous offices trying to brand themselves as innovative.

OMA’s office building in Beijing, a private villa in Bordeaux and a new flag for the European Union

Two of Lacaton Vassal’s private villa commissions and a competition entry in

The struggle for these offices is that to be really inventive and to embrace constant change they also need to change their work process now and then.
From an economical point of view the overall design concept can be very effective and being at a certain age like Frank and Zaha for example we think it’s OK to be satisfied and focusing on one type of architecture and making a huge amount of money on less effort. They really deserve that, contributing with so much inventive thinking in the seventies, eighties and nineties. And that early stardom is what took them to their position they have today. Another architect that has paid his dues to the architectural world is Adolfo Natalini, a member of the Italian Superstudio.
Superstudio made revolutionary work back in the 60’s but now Mr. Natalia has changed his style.
His new theory:” today architecture has been homogenized by a cynical and a useless experimentalism, the only possible reaction is a return to order or, better, tradition ( the consolidated patrimony of successful experiments) I wish to counter the utopia of globalization with harsh local realities and a great longing for beauty”.

Early works by Adolfo Natalini in Superstudio and the later works

Some examples of typical concepts in Architecture
You could look at architecture as you would at animal species and flowers and trees, they all conjure out of a Darwinism where the strongest or most fit and adapted survive. Who knows how many stupid and ugly houses that has been built that we don’t have a clue about? Many roofs have probably collapsed, many ill-willed neighbors have probably laughed at that impossible caveman’s vain dreams of building a two-story retreat and many architect’s head has probably rolled because of a palace that got approved by some king that later found out that the house was out of style even when they began the foundation work. The building flora around us is a result of extremely many years of experimentation and traditions. To explore this field in search of the new and the brave, conceptual thinking is a must, at least according to our viewpoint. Many of the groundbreaking or outstanding pieces of architecture in history have a strong concept in itself that has been the foundation of their success and their key to enter the history books.
You could classify these concepts into different categories; for example a strong shape, which outlines a clear journey for everyone involved in the building process and which result easily can be judged even by laymen.
Or it could be a combination of functions, making it an interesting hybrid which can be surprisingly good or bad but will still be an interesting contribution to the building stock. Strong traditions like vernacular architecture could also be a concept in themselves, which often are chiseled out to reach perfection or a certain style throughout the years. New typologies that have emerged from new technologies and human progress or just from pure experimentation could also be a conceptual category when handled properly. There are of course many other categories as well, but to give you a hunch we will give you some examples in each of the mentioned family.

A specific shape

A recognizable shape is an easy and good start for the beginner in making concepts; it is a rather shallow approach but can nevertheless make great buildings.
Focusing completely on shape, the piece of architecture can become a strong icon which often gets embraced by people in general. With a strong shape you can seldom go wrong and if you combine this with scale, you won’t miss the goal; this has been known since the creation of the Pyramids.
The shape of Egyptian pyramids is thought to represent the primordial mound from which the Egyptians believed the earth was created. The shape of a pyramid is also thought to be representative of the descending rays of the sun, and most pyramids were in fact clad with polished, highly reflective white limestone, in order to give them a brilliant appearance when viewed from a distance. The Pyramids was built in 2560 BC and was the tallest man-made structure for over 3800 years.

When it comes to the shape concept, there are of course certain aspects to think about as with all concepts, and that is if it has ever been done before. Logically is that the first structures that use a particular form and gets famous for it are the ones that really can use the potential of this category. After the Great Pyramids, there has been other examples that has used the same form like in Memphis, Las Vegas, and in Paris.
Those have attracted attention as well but perhaps not for their good taste even if the pyramid in Paris has a slightly better reputation, perhaps for its transparency.

The Great Pyramids, outside Cairo

Other examples in Las Vegas, Memphis and Paris

Another project that use a strong shape as its core element is Boullée’s theoretical memorial for Isaac Newton in 1778, which wasn’t built but was highly talked about among the scholars at that time and it is still in our time, one of the most prominent paper architecture projects. Boullée developed a distinctive abstract geometric style inspired by Classical forms. He promoted the idea of making architecture expressive of its purpose, a doctrine that his detractors termed architecture parlante (”talking architecture”), which was an essential element in Beaux-Arts architectural training in the later 19th century. The cenotaph which would have taken the form of a sphere 150 m high and the small sarcophagus for Newton is placed at the lower pole of the sphere. The effect by night, when the sarcophagus is illuminated by the starlight coming through the holes in the vaulting. The effect by day is an armillary sphere hanging in the
center that gives off a mysterious glow. For Boullée, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture.

Boullée’s centograph for Isaac Newton

A realized sphere that we mentioned in an earlier chapter is the Ericsson Globe, the national indoor arena of Sweden. The Globe is currently the largest hemispherical building in the world and took two and a half years to build. Shaped like a large white ball, it has a diameter of 110 meters and an inner height of 85 meters. It has seating capacity for 16,000 spectators for shows and concerts, and 13,850 for ice hockey. Using the sphere form instead of the pyramid form for example was a wise decision; the competition was not as tough and with relatively small means they also succeeded in making it the biggest sphere on earth.

Ericsson Globe Arena by Berg Arkitekter

There are also buildings that take an even easier way than mimicking a specific geometrically known form. Those are the buildings that mimic objects like animals and other things. These types of buildings naturally attract a lot of attention but are also by definition copies of something else while the other ones are more abstract in their imitation.
In Learning from Las Vegas from 1968 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown says that this type of architecture was anti-spatial and that communication was more important for this typology.
Architecture being anti-spatial could be quite provocative for an orthodox thinking architect who has been learned that only space matters in their discourse, form follows function and so on. When this type of architecture began to flourish, typically in evolved car-based societies like USA in the 1950s; where clear symbols needed to be shown to make the establishment stand out from all the others that crowded the roadsides.
A hamburger restaurant sold more hamburgers if the building was shaped like a hamburger.
In these days life had begun to move faster and the options in life had broadened.
Therefor some architecture became communicative as Venturi and Scott-Brown points out and almost became signs in themselves.
In Hayward, USA there is a building formed as a giant fish which is The Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, which is the international headquarters for education, recognition and promotion of fresh water sport fishing. Many people also gets married in the giant mouth which is a balcony overlooking the surroundings.
The town of Tirau in New Zeeland has taken buildings like these to their heart and has many examples of them, like a building in corrugated steel for a wool factory outlet just by an information center shaped like a giant dog.

The Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, USA - Big Sheep, Tirau, New Zeeland

Making shapes also can apply to cities, like the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, for example which layout is in the shape of an airplane.
Even back in ancient days there are examples of this, Cuzco in Peru for example was laid out like a puma, a sacred animal for the Incas. The main plaza Huacaypata was the heart, the river its spine and tail and the fortress Sacsaywaman represent its head.
Another example in the same theme can be found in South Sudan where there are plans to transform existing cities into African animal shapes.
Where as Brasilia and Cuzco were planned from scratch to become a shape, these cities
already have their own existing configurations, many of them largely spread slums.
Juba, the region’s rapidly-growing capital, will be re-designed into the outline of a rhinoceros. The city of around one million people will have a park sited in its horn and a 5-star hotel where the animal’s eye would be. The region’s second-largest city, Wau, is to be modeled on a giraffe, with a large industrial estate in its neck. Plans for up to 10 other cities are based symbols on their state flags, including pineapples.

Brasilia shaped as an airplane, Copenhagens Finger plan, Juba’s future rhino-shape

A city that had a lot of use for a conceptual shape to grow is Copenhagen which is famous for its urban planning concept which has promoted sustainable lifestyles and sustainable modes of mobility.
As in the case of the animal shaped cities in South Sudan, Copenhagen also has based its conceptual shaped on existing structure.
The Finger Plan for Greater Copenhagen was introduced in 1947 when a group of town
planners realized that Greater Copenhagen was beginning to spread uncontrollably.
The spreading of the area created difficulties for the public transport system, which was in danger of reaching its capacity. It was necessary to control the urban growth and develop a citywide network of railways and arterial roads. The idea of the plan was to concentrate the urban development of Greater Copenhagen in the urban “fingers” created around the railway network. At the same time, the green wedges between the fingers would remain
undeveloped. Since 1947 the Finger plan has been the main guiding principle of city
planning in Copenhagen.

Other famous examples are the ongoing development in Dubai where artificial islands are made into different shapes like palmtrees or even more spectacular; a representation of Earth itself created from a manmade archipelago with luxury housing.

Dubai Islands by Nakheel Properties

There are also buildings that have a shape concept but that don’t imitate a known geometric shape but which does a certain amount of artistic abstraction that easily can get the associations going.
Take the Sydney Opera for example, with its curves and the location right beside the water.It gets interpreted for being sails or perhaps waves.
In certain cases some architects have made a certain vocabulary of abstract shapes their own trademark. We have the undulating forms of Gehry, the stealth flow of Zaha and the shards of Liebskind, the geometric square white of Meier and so on.
These types of buildings can brand a whole city, and that was the case of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao which was the starting point for shaping up a city with negative trends.
The Bilbao effect is now a term that describes such success stories.
The effect can create a lot of money for a city but it also could have a negative effect among architects in the higher end of the trade, that just focus on spectacular shapes and repeating old successful forms without any regard for the context.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank O Gehry - Sydney Opera House by Jörn Utzon

Vernacular traditions
In early times the buildings around the world were formed according to their surroundings; the specific culture that was using the structure, the setting of the building, what kind of materials that were available and the specific circumstances that was predominant at a certain time. Was there a lot of war at that location, there became higher and thicker walls and more towers. Was there a lot of trade and perhaps that arose certain mutations of architecture with the influence from other cultures.
Given the fact that our planet is rich and has a great variety in its settings and resources, the many cultures that inhabit it and foremost the ingenious mind of these settlers, of course this created a rich palette in the architectural outcome.
Local, specific, often rural architecture tend to be categorized as ”vernacular architecture”.
One book that has influenced our thoughts on architecture greatly is”Architecture without Architects”1 In that book he explores this world of vernacular architecture and broadens the horizon of architecture and introduces a highly interesting building stock that is produced by locals.
In the introduction to his book he comments on this category of architecture;
”Architecture without architects attempts to break down our narrow concepts of the art of building by introducing the unfamiliar world of non-pedigreed architecture. It is so little known that we don’t even have a name for it. For want of a generic label, we shall call it vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural, as the case may be. Unfortunately, our view of the total picture of anonymous architecture is distorted by a shortage of documents, casual and otherwise.”
Some of these vernacular traditions became stronger than others and they became concepts in themselves. If a client wants a typical traditional Swedish house for example, we as Swedish architects instantly get an image in our mind.
Doing something in an old tradition can be a cowardice way sometimes, but also vernacular ideas can be investigated and refined as we will later show you.

Symetrical proportions, red painted wood and a refined entrance is the concept.

Many of the old traditional ways of how to build something was made completely in the
absence of architects, leading to a kind of non-bullshit architecture, but also perhaps without a flair and perfection that the architect often strive for.
In the book the publisher comments on the text in the following fashion:
”In this book... he introduces the reader to communal architecture - architecture produced not by specialists but by the spontaneous and continuing activity of a whole people with a common heritage, acting within a community experience. ..
The beauty of ”primitive” architecture has often been dismissed as accidental, but today we recognize in it an art form that has resulted from human intelligence applied to
uniquely human modes of life. Indeed, Rudofsky sees the philosophy and practical knowledge of the untutored builders as untapped sources of inspiration for industrial man trapped in his chaotic cities.”
An example of vernacular architecture are the root bridges which can be found in the depths of northeastern India, in one of the wettest places on earth, some bridges are grown from the roots of a rubber tree, the Khasis people of Cherapunjee use betel-tree trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create ”root-guidance systems.” When they reach the other side of the river, they’re allowed to take root in the soil. Given enough time a sturdy, living bridge is produced.
The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional, but they’re extraordinarily strong. Some can support the weight of 50 or more people at once.
One of the most unique root structures of Cherrapunjee is known as the ”Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge.” It consists of two bridges stacked one over the other. Because the bridges are alive and still growing, they actually gain strength over time, and some of the ancient root bridges are used daily by the people of the villages around Cherrapunjee may be well over 500 years old.

The root bridges in India made by the Khasis people

Another vernacular delight can be found in Lalibela in Ethiopia, a rather poor village but that has 11 rock-cut churches which is an old Ethiopian building technique.
The churches were built in the 13th century and the architect was Gebre Mesqel Lalibela by a vision from God. Lalibela was intended to be a New Jerusalem in response to the capture of Jerusalem by Muslims, and many of its historic buildings take their name and layout from buildings in Jerusalem. The rural town of Lalibela is known around the world for its
monolithic churches which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture.

Lalibelia Rock cut churches

On the banks of Honghe River in South China’s Yunnan Province are millions of acres of agricultural and ecological wonders - otherwise known as the Honghe Hani Terrace. Making full use of the special geological and climactic conditions in the area, the Hani people have found a perfect combination between human civilization and the environment. In terms of size and coverage, the Hani Terrace is largest in the world.
The Hani People, creators of this wonder, originated from the Tibetan Plateau on the
upper reaches of the Yellow River. After centuries of migration, a group of the ancient
Qiang people settled down in the Ailao Mountains in Southern Yunnan, and became today’s Hani race. About 600,000 Hani people still dwell in the region and their ancestors totally altered the landforms there to grow crops to feed themselves, yet the ecology was not
damaged. In fact, they have made the place even more attractive, presenting a perfect
testimony to harmony between man and nature. The terrace shows that human intervention doesn’t necessarily mean destroying nature.

Crop terraces made by the Hani people in Southern Yunnan, China

Combining different functions

The concept of combining different functions turns the architect into an alchemist and
sometimes the results can turn into gold.The most crucial for a success is what kind of components that are put into this melting pot.
A successful example is the Lingotto Factory in Torino, Italy.
It was built from 1916 and opened in 1923, the design was unusual in that it had five floors, with raw materials going in at the ground floor, and cars built on a line that went up through the building. Finished cars emerged at rooftop level, where there was a rooftop test track. It was the largest car factory in the world at that time. For its time, the Lingotto building was avant-garde, influential and impressive—Le Corbusier called it” one of the most impressive sights in industry”, and” a guideline for town planning”.
The factory became outdated in the 70s and where remodeled into a cultural center.
Still it is a remarkable example of a strong concept.
The key to its success here is that the combination of a test track and factory is strongly linked to each other, like a food store with animals and crops on the rooftop.

Lingotto Factory in Torino by architect Matté Trucco in 1916-1922

Not far away from the Lingotto Factory lies another building with the same concept; a combination of functions. The architectural piece is the classical bridge Ponte Veccio in Florence which was built in 1178 by Taddeo Gaddi.
The position of the present bridge dates to the flood of 1178, which swept away the IX
century bridge; during the same year many of the houses along the streets leading to the bridge burned. The present three-arched bridge was built by Taddeo Gaddi in 1345. The
reconstruction was made possible by the rent from the shops opened on the bridge.

Ponte Veccio in Florence by architect Taddeo Gaddi in 1345

A modernistic classic is the Marina City complex in Chicago which is a mixed-use
residential/commercial building complex occupying an entire city block on State Street in Chicago. The building complex was designed in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg and completed in 1964. When finished, the two towers were both the tallest residential buildings and the
tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world. The complex was billed as a ”city within a city”, featuring numerous on-site facilities including a theatre, gym, swimming pool, ice rink, bowling alley, several stores and restaurants, and of course, a marina.

Marina City in Chicago by architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1959

To mention an example from present days we can take a look at the Prada Transformer, in Seoul, South Korea, which is an unusual building which has one of four different apparent shapes, depending on the function for which the building is needed at the moment. The building is roughly in the shape of a tetrahedron. Cranes rotate the building so that different surfaces of the tetrahedron face downward, thereby changing the building’s form and function. The different faces of the” tetrahedron” are actually shapes other than triangles. The building’s base is a hexagon when used for a fashion exhibition, a rectangle when used as a movie theater, a cross when used for an art exhibition and a circle when used for a special event. The building was funded by Prada, and designed by Rem Koolhaas’ architecture firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The transformer was first used for a fashion exhibition which began April 25, 2009. Its form and function was first changed on June 26, 2009, into a movie theater.
Prada Transformer in Seoul by OMA in 2009

New typologies
One concept that is particular strong when used right is the invention of a new typology.
A typology that never has existed will certainly look like something that never has existed as well, at least if you are a somewhat skilled architect.
During the 20th century, which could be said is the century when modern architecture was born, a lot of new typologies arise due to the high pace of development and complete changes in society. Never before had the pace been so dramatic and there was a change of lifestyle with every generation. Industrialization had been immense in the 19th century as well but now came automatization, mass fabrication, people moving into cities, population that boomed, radio, television, cinema, cars, airports, mass consumption, rockets and computers.
This also affected architecture of course.New typologies comes automatically from this progress in human life like new discoveries in technology, new needs in society or pure experimenting.Our first example is about a change of needs and happened right after the Second World War when there was a severe housing shortage and Le Corbusier answered to that problem; with a new typology which in itself was a vertical village which could accommodate 1600 people.
We’re talking about the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles which was built in 1947-52. The giant, twelve-story apartment block is the late modern counterpart of the mass housing schemes of the 1920s, similarly built to alleviate a severe postwar housing shortage. Although the program of the building is elaborate, structurally it is simple: a rectilinear ferroconcrete grid, into which are slotted precast individual apartment units, like ’bottles into a wine rack’ as the architect put it. Through ingenious planning, twenty-three different apartment configurations were provided to accommodate single persons and families as large as ten, nearly all with double-height living rooms and the deep balconies that form the major external feature.”

Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles by Le Corbusier in 1947-52

On the experimental side we have a Swedish example that is quite visionary.
Many architects have thought about 3d stacked villas with gardens but this is the only realized project we know about. The “Däckshus” by the Swedish subversive modernist hero Erik Friberger is a three story concrete construction where villas are placed later on. The distance between the decks is 4 meters and the plots vary from 144 m2 to 210 m2 and all installation is put in the circulation space. The idea was that the villas would expand with a growing family. Most of the houses were however already fully built from the beginning. The building can be found in Kallebäck outside Gothenburg and was built in 1960.

Däckhuset outside Gothenburg by Erik Friberger in 1960

Another typology invention that also is experimental in nature is the Nakagin Capsule Hotel built in 1972 in Tokyo by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.
Here the typology experimentation was derived from compact living and is a rare built example of Japanese Metabolism, a movement that became emblematic of Japan’s postwar cultural resurgence. The building was the world’s first example of capsule architecture built for actual use. The building is actually composed of two interconnected concrete towers, respectively eleven and thirteen floors, which house 140 prefabricated modules (or” capsules”) which are each self-contained units. Each capsule measures 2.3 m × 3.8 m × 2.1 m and functions as a small living or office space. Capsules can be connected and combined to create larger spaces. Each capsule is connected to one of the two main shafts only by four high-tension bolts and is designed to be replaceable. No units have been replaced since the original construction.

Nakagin Capsule Hotel in Tokyo by Kisho Kurokawa in 1972

Our way to get a good concept for each individual project
The advantages of working concept based in each individual project are many but to be able to do it you need to come up with a good concept for each project which can be quite time consuming. On the other hand as we mentioned before you win in the long term of the project.
After having an in-depth discussion with the client, or if it is a competition entry we read the program thouroughly, we always brainstorm before starting the actual design of a project.
This is a habit back from when we started our collaboration. Our first project together was a school competition called “Koh Chang”. What linked us together was that we did not intend to do the competition because we thought the program was too stupid. The king had received two elephants from the king of Thailand and we were supposed to design an elephant house in Gothenburg for them. The king lives in Stockholm and should of course have his elephants near his royal castle we thought. After several spontaneous meetings in the corridor we had formed our own program and concept for the competition without drawing a line. We later decided to do the competition and we won our first price together.

Koh Chang, award winning competition entry

In the following two years we studied and worked in different locations across the world only communicating via msn (a chat program) that forced us once again to come up with a strong concept through talking to each other before starting the designing. To communicate with drawings and sketches would take too much time. When later starting an office being at the same place together, we continued with our work method to brainstorm concepts before designing.
Brainstorming can of course take a while and the quality of the brainstorming of course depends on what you discuss. The advantage with brainstorming though is that you don’t immediately do architecture. You’re in the stage before the sketches when you can ask yourself if the program make sense, if architecture really is needed, or should we perhaps solve this project from another aspect perhaps an artistic or commercial one and you can also consider the question of if it is really necessary to do anything at all.

Questions that is relevant in all businesses and for all projects.
Joe Calloway has some interesting points in his book "Becoming a category of one".
“More and more companies are starting to ask really big, scary questions like “Are we even in the right business?” and “What is happening outside our industry that we can learn from?” Evolving category of one companies are not only willing, but also anxious, to look at businesses totally different from their own in the quest for what they might do next. Mediocre companies are the ones that always rally around the flag of “But thats just not done in this business”.
It’s just not done until a competitor does it and you end up wondering where all your customers went.”
The most likely way to come up with a suiting concept is to know as much as possible about the context and the object. The more you understand of the context you are working in the more of the questions above will come up. So if you lack a concept do more research try to understand more about the context and the client, there is often much more to it then you think.
Just like in any other business these three statements actually works in architecture too.
“Know more about the customer than anyone else does.”
“Get closer to the customer than anyone else.”
“Emotionally connect with the customer better than anyone else.”
In architecture we might say client instead of customer but they goal just like in most successful business is not to get immediate revenue but to get a product that is outstanding.
If you neglect the brainstorming for a concept and starts the design process directly with sketching, either in software, by hand or in model. Then you already answered several questions without knowing it.
Is architecture necessary? Yes, you are sketching.
Does the program make sense? Yes, that’s what you are trying to solve.
Can we solve this project from any other aspect? Probably not since you’ve just jumped on the architect train, starting to sketch.

Not thinking about this questions and immediately start to sketch you will most likely not form a strong concept. You will instead automatically end up doing something you think is functionally and beautifully which means you will go back to your own database of preferences. You will never actually be surprised of the outcome since it is a colleague of what you already know. If you on the other hand asks this questions and come up with a strong concept it will take you places you did not knew existed. And in a team work you will work in the same direction. Then you can decide in what matter you like to start sketching depending on the concept you have come up with. For many other profession brainstorming might seem to be one of the most obvious things to do before starting a project but in most architectural firms taking actual time to brainstorm and asking relevant questions is a quite rare thing to do. Perhaps because we constantly deal with new projects and with many projects that seem too small to even have the time to brainstorm. Other factors can be for what kind of work we actually charge our client. For example in the Netherlands where conceptual thinking has been way more successful than in Sweden about 25% of the income from one project comes from the conceptual design, another 25% from the final design where as in Sweden most of the income from one project comes from the construction phase. And most calculations on how much you should charge from one project in Sweden is based on how many drawings that will be delivered which of course has nothing to do with quality and innovation. And if you only calculate on drawings and not on the brainstorming and conceptual part of the project you’re most likely not motivated to do those necessary steps at the beginning of a project if you can’t charge for them. This type of calculation of course also devalues the whole branch of architecture in Sweden since it sends a message to the clients that architects don’t think, they make drawings.
In an attempt to try to learn more about the Swedish architectural business model we made the calculation of a project on drawings once and skipped the concept part. After one year of drawings going in different directions we lost the project to an interior firm in Jönköping (the Bible belt capitol in Sweden) simply because we did not have a strong enough concept from the beginning. This method doesn’t work for us and we will never try to do that type of calculation again.

Some final thoughts

So what is common ground for a visiondivision project one might ask?
Visiondivision has never tried to have an overall design concept, at the beginning we just thought that we were too young to start repeating ourselves and after some research in the field of concept we simply understand the stupidity in the overall design concept since it decreases the possibility to change and to be inventive. Our overall design concept is to not have one and focusing on making each individual project unique by inventing a new concept for each project.
Looking back at our earlier projects there is perhaps another important factor that we think is equally important, that is dedication.

Chop Stick, our most dedicated work so far

The most important factor if your concept will succeed is your dedication to go through with it. By being engaged it doesn’t matter if you’re a modernist, post-modernist, capitalist communist, deconstructivist and so on. You are simply a craftsman/explorer who gives a 100% in each project. If the concept demands that you become a classicist architect just be it 100%, and by being it 100% you will improve the whole classicist era. By studying concepts we also learned that in a way you don’t even have to be smart all the time, a life time engagement in stupid things can be equally nurturing for mankind if you are truly dedicated. It’s all about how much time you spent versus how genius your concept is. If you can cure cancer, no one will question the effort put into the process of finding a proper medicine. It is so useful that everybody will accept it without noticing the amount of time you put into it. But if you choose to become an acrobat you really need to work a life time to be able to do something so spectacular that no one could even imagine doing it themselves. The audience just needs to see the enormous amount of time you must have spent to be able to do that acrobatic act. If your act then amazes people, your work has been useful for this planet, If not it has probably been useful for you. It’s all about stop being an audience and becoming a performer. The only thing that you risk by taking the step down to the arena is some ironic remarks from the people you left at the sidelines.
But be patient those remarks are probably the indicator of that you’re doing something right. Architecture is in our mind somewhere in between curing cancer and being an acrobat. It is needed but also seen and being used everywhere and every day.
Most people understand how architecture is produced so to just build a house is not entertaining enough to effect people in a positive direction. So you need to have some kind of a circus act achievement too, that is so refined that people could not imagine being able to make it themselves. In the old days it was different. The achievement of building a city block would be enormous with today’s measurement and the achievement of just the construction workers would be enough to entertain. Today’s much smoother and faster building process is simply not intriguing enough and you can easily see the less amount of time put into it in the final outcome of a building. That puts more pressure on conceptual skills of the architect. Your building will not look engaged by the hard struggle of the construction workers and the height of the building or the speed of erecting the building will not be impressive enough. So the only way that your
building will impress, is by displaying the cleverness of your design process. That is the true measurement of an architect’s achievement. The amount of time put into the design process. Not in just one project but in your whole life time career. Just like an acrobat you need to have trained every muscle with smaller stunts before being able to do a real refined act. And after this tree flipping circus act that we’re currently doing in Indiana, we feel just as motivated as ever before to keep on training every little muscle that we have in our architectural bodies.

Jury Duty

Visiondivision was invited by designboom to act as a part of the jury for the TIFF Award 2012.

Over 3000 proposals from 87 different countries participated and the results will be announced in March during the TIFF fair.