Thursday, December 10, 2009


View To Kowloon

Lately, I’ve been thinking about context. Traveling halfway around the world does that, I assume. Comparing where I was to where I am is putting contradictory lives aside one another. You can easily draw out the contrasts – the density, the language, even the side of the road people drive on. It ain’t Kansas, as it were.

But, more than comparing this place to that, traveling has made me thing about the idea of context itself - how we as architects or designers use it, speak about it, manipulate it. I mean, we refer to it all the time. I can’t count the times I was asked in a critique, is the design contextual? Or, how has context influenced the product? But, in thinking about my answers then against my experiences now, I wonder if, perhaps, I got context all wrong.

Studio may be the place where context is most revered. I don’t know about you all out there, but every project I ever had started with an analysis of context. Go to the site. Make observations. Photograph, document, sketch. Those were the fundamentals that you made sure to complete before any designing began. Why? Well, as I was taught, by addressing context, the design was grounded with reason. And a design with rationale allowed others to understand the project and critically assess its success.

It is here where my problem with context begins. Maybe it’s in the semantics, but I realize now that, many times in studio, context and site were often interchanged. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, in a place like Hong Kong, a lot.

Hong Kong is constantly in flux. The prevailing attitude, it seems, is: Change is good, New is good. Context, if considered interchangeable with site, doesn’t last long enough to really count, especially if you consider that, within a decade, the island that is Hong Kong has grown in size. Reference points pretty much go out the window.

As I wandered around the maze that is Hong Kong, making a distinction between context and site seemed more are more important. Site became everything physical – the geography, topography, constraints of building code, and so on. Context assumed the ephemeral – the time, the culture, the relationships between a project and things that exist at that moment, but may not in the future.

Why make the distinction? Well, imagine approaching the design for a project whose site didn’t exist a year ago? Or imagine designing a project knowing that, within the very near future, everything bounding it might change? What do you respond to? Plan for?

But, if context is separate from site, then in situations like this, there are still influences to guide a design, both in its development and in its assessment. Maybe this isn’t a concern to others, but for me, it seems like a way into a project that might, at first glance, seem endless in its possibilities.

This site and context distinction is not black and white, by any means. Really, as I write this, there are still plenty of questions – this is something that I kept coming back to, but not necessarily something to write down as rule and law. Maybe I’ve delineated something that will better inform my own design philosophy. Maybe putting this out there helps someone else who has struggled with this. Or maybe I’m completely wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. Whatever the case, it’s bugged me enough that I needed to write about it. So, if nothing else, it’s de-cluttered my head a bit. Which means I might have some room to think about other things, like that small little thing of where do I go from here…


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home