I’m halfway through a pretty fascinating book that I started over the holidays: Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture. It’s leading me to think a bit more about space and structure, both physical and programmatic.
Why We Build makes an interesting point about how designing buildings involves exerting a certain kind of power over the future users and inhabitants. The architect’s choices can serve to constrain and dictate future uses, even as they attempt to serve those same uses. Of course, human ingenuity and intent can confound the architect’s intent—a plaza or parking lot can become a market or place of worship—though within limits set by the permanence of the structures.
I’m reminded of a few lines from the Tao Te Ching:
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
The same goes for nonphysical architecture, such as programs or management practices. For example, I’ve often described effective facilitation (whether of a workshop or meeting) as an effort to create space, which you then expect the participants to fill. Like a good architect, this takes a certain amount of trust in the participants and willingness to give up power. And like Lao Tzu said, you get paid for the structures you create, while the real usefulness comes from the space you leave.
How many development programs focus on the structures and objects being built, but neglect the spaces that they are creating?