Design, Architecture and Urbanism

Design, like art, is an essential part of all our lives. It may be thought of as the extension of our day to day decision making into the longer term. We create artefacts and environments to meet our habitual desires and serve our habitual purposes. The imagining of new possibilities for these artefacts and environments, based on the experience of what has been made before and a vision of what might be possible in the future, is the core of the design process.

Each of us aspires to find somewhere exclusively our own, usually within a cluster of spaces we share with others, that we adapt, arrange and populate with artefacts purchased or inherited. Whether this activity involves the working or assembly of components and materials or not, the process of planning the procurement and ordering for the medium to long term future is essentially an act of designing. Design professionals take on the more complex design tasks that individuals and institutions can’t manage for themselves. Such tasks usually involve the need to procure specialist products and services and envisage creating large and complex fusions of artefacts and environments.

Architecture is a term applied both to an art and the product of that art. It is the discipline and product of the process of designing buildings and their closely related contexts and contents. Buildings are simply the structured and resourced spaces we occupy. Their contexts are the city and the natural environment and their contents are the plethora of equipment, artworks and furniture within that support our lifestyle. Such an objective interpretation is not, however, the most familiar one, since we mostly relate to our built environment through an emotionally charged personal predisposition based on life experience, nostalgia and belief, and explain our views in an essentially personal or peer group determined language. There are thus a number of quite differing languages and belief systems about architecture.

Urbanism is the study and promotion of the city as the essential life support system of humanity as well as its most potent cultural artifact. Architecture and society can only be fully understood in the context of urbanism. The history of the city, its successes and failures, is irrevocably tied up with the advance of civilisation. The city is also the engine of wealth and wellbeing and because of this, the physical footprint of cities has grown enormously in recent years, with populations moving from more dispersed to more compact settlements. But the environmental footprint of cities worldwide has far outstripped the pace of land occupancy by buildings alone and has effectively extended over the whole surface of the planet.

Developed as way to grasp the impact of human activities and settlement on the bearing capacity of the earth, the environmental footprint encompasses the land-take that is required to provide the goods and services that a given institution requires as well as the land it actually occupies. Since there are many ways to calculate this, it is more of an intuitive, fuzzy tool than a precise one. The demonstrable fact remains that the success of the human race in terms of survival and satisfaction of desires is placing severe stress on the bearing capacity of the planet. This perception suggests we need to consider what a sustainable urbanism might be and how we can develop more effective methods of resource efficient design.

The subject of the impact of design, architecture and urbanism on the biota and earth systems will be explored in much more detail later, but for now it remains to be pointed out that we need to strike a balance between the fundamental pressures of ethics, aesthetics, utility and economics when considering design, architecture and urbanism holistically. Such a view is not new, but still requires urgent attention!

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