Does the technical side stifle creativity or does it actually enhance it? This question sure sparks a lot of debates. One may think that once a person learns the technical side of things she/he will being thinking in terms of codes or formulas therefore limiting her/his creativity but the key to creativity lies in the process. While the tools we use to generate ideas change from person to person, the design process starts with an abstract concept and then evolves into details. At the first stage of design we figure out the organization, layout and shape of the elements not their material or technical specifications so at the initial stage of design worrying about the technical limitations is not possible; however, the technical limitations do come into the scene later in the project.
While architects don’t need to know any engineering they certainly have to know about the construction methods and materials. Lately I’ve been reading Robert Greene’s book “Mastery” in which he presents mini-biographies of influential people like Mozart, Einstein, Goethe, Darwin and da Vinci. Also included in the biographies is the famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. One of my college professors stated “One can’t design without knowing how a building comes together”. Calatrava goes one step further to truly understand the limitations (or possibilities) of structures by studying engineering.
Below is an excerpt from Mastery.
We live in the world of a sad separation that began some five hundred years ago when art and science split apart. Scientists and technicians live in their own world, focusing mostly on the “how” of things. Others live in the world of appearances, using these things but not really understanding how they function. Just before this split occurred, it was the ideal of the Renaissance to combine these two forms of knowledge. This is why the work of Leonardo da Vinci continues to fascinate us, and why the Renaissance remains an ideal. This more rounded knowledge is in fact the way of the future, especially now that so much more information is available to all of us.
After graduating from architecture school in Spain in 1973, Santiago Calatrava experienced some anxiety at the thought of rushing into an architecture practice. He had ambitions early in life of becoming an artist, but gravitated toward architecture as a more expansive form of expression—something functional yet sculptural, something that could be realized on a large public scale. Architecture is a strange profession. It involves so many constraints when it comes to actually realizing a structure—the desires of the client, the budget, the materials available, the landscape, and even political issues. In the works of great architects in history, such as Le Corbusier, we can see a lot of their personal style in the finished product, but with many others their work becomes overwhelmed by the various constraints and interferences. Calatrava felt that he had not developed a sufficiently large vocabulary or mastered enough elements to be able to assert himself. If he went to work at a firm, his creative energies would be buried beneath all of the commercial pressures, and he would never recover. And so he made an unusual decision: he would attend the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to gain a degree in civil engineering. He wanted to become an engineer so that he could understand the limits of what was possible in designing buildings and structures. He had the idea of someday attempting the construction of buildings that could move, transgressing some of the most fundamental principles of architecture. For such a purpose, he studied designs by NASA in which various devices had been made that could fold up and expand, making them practical for space missions. Such designs required mastering new engineering principles that Calatrava immersed himself in at the Institute.
After graduating in 1981 with an engineering degree, he finally began his practice as an architect and engineer. He was now well versed in the technical aspects of his job and in the basic requirements for completing a work, but no one had instructed him in the creative process itself. He would have to learn and invent such a process for himself.
His first big project came in 1983, when he was asked to design the façade of an already existing structure—an enormous warehouse for Ernsting, a well-known clothing manufacturer in Germany. As the years went by, one important commission followed another. Working on increasingly larger projects, Calatrava could see clearly the dangers ahead of him. Completing a design could often take ten years or more, from the initial sketch to the actual construction. In that time, all kinds of problems and conflicts could arise, which could end up spoiling the initial vision. With larger budgets would come more constraints, and the need to please many different people. If he were not careful, his desire to transgress the rules and to express a personal vision would get lost in the process. And so, as his career progressed, something inside him made him return to the method he had developed for the Ernsting warehouse, and to elaborate it even further.
He would always begin with the drawings. Drawing by hand had become increasingly unusual in the era of computer graphics that had come to dominate so many aspects of architectural design in the 1980s. As a trained engineer, Calatrava knew the tremendous advantages the computer provided for running models and testing the soundness of a structure. But working exclusively on a computer, he could not create in the same way as he could with pencil or brush and paper. The intervention of the computer screen cut off the dreamlike process of sketching, the direct contact it gave him with his unconscious. His hand and his mind seemed to work together in a way that was primal and real, and that could not be duplicated through a computer.
Inevitably, as he moved closer to the construction phase, he would come up against constraints, such as the materials to be used and budgetary considerations. But working from this initial strategy, he experienced these factors merely as creative challenges: for instance, how could he incorporate certain materials into the vision he had sketched out and make it all work? If it were a train or subway station, how could he make the platforms and the movement of the trains fit into the overall vision, even enhancing their functionality? Such challenges excited him. The greatest danger he faced was that his energy would go flat over time as the design dragged on into years, and he would lose touch with his original vision. To combat this, Calatrava would maintain an attitude of constant dissatisfaction. The drawings were never quite right. They had to be continually improved and perfected. By pushing for perfection and holding on to this constant feeling of uncertainty, the project never froze into something rigid and lifeless. It had to feel alive in the moment, as his brush touched the paper. If what he was designing began to feel dead in any way, it was time to start over. This not only required tremendous patience on his part, but a good deal of courage, as he wiped out the work of several months. Maintaining the edge and feeling of aliveness, however, was more important.
We humans live in two worlds. First, there is the outer world of appearances—all of the forms of things that captivate our eye. But hidden from our view is another world—how these things actually function, their anatomy or composition, the parts working together and forming the whole. This second world is not so immediately captivating. It is harder to understand. It is not something visible to the eye, but only to the mind that glimpses the reality. But this “how” of things is just as poetic once we understand it—it contains the secret of life, of how things move and change.
This division between the “how” and the “what” can be applied to almost everything around us—we see the machine, not how it works; we see a group of people producing something as a business, not how the group is structured or how the products are manufactured and distributed. (In a similar fashion, we tend to be mesmerized by people’s appearances, not the psychology behind what they do or say.) As Calatrava discovered, in overcoming this division, in combining the “how” and the “what” of architecture, he gained a much deeper, or rather more rounded knowledge of the field. He grasped a larger portion of the reality that goes into making buildings. This allowed him to create something infinitely more poetic, to stretch the boundaries, to break the conventions of architecture itself.
As Calatrava intuited, this should be a part of our apprenticeship. We must make ourselves study as deeply as possible the technology we use, the functioning of the group we work in, the economics of our field, its lifeblood. We must constantly ask the questions—how do things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact? Rounding our knowledge in this way will give us a deeper feel for reality and the heightened power to alter it.
Understand: mechanical intelligence is not a degraded form of thinking, as compared to abstract reasoning. It is in fact the source of many of our reasoning skills and creative powers. Our brain developed to its present size because of the complex operations of our hands. In working with resistant materials to create tools, our ancestors developed a pattern of thinking that transcends manual labor itself. The principles behind mechanical intelligence can be summarized as follows: whatever you are creating or designing, you must test and use it yourself. Separating out the work will make you lose touch with its functionality. Through intense labor on your part, you gain a feel for what you are creating. In doing this work, you see and feel the flaws in the design. You do not look at the parts separately but at how they interact, experiencing what you produce as a whole. What you are trying to create will not magically take off after a few creative bursts of inspiration, but must be slowly evolved through a step-by-step process as you correct the flaws. In the end, you win through superior craftsmanship, not marketing. This craftsmanship involves creating something with an elegant, simple structure, getting the most out of your materials—a high form of creativity. These principles work with the natural bent of your brain, and are to be violated at your own peril.