Meaning and relevance in architecture. Dr. Amira Osman


Architecture involves discourse and deliberate, studied creative agency. Societies build for various reasons including, but not restricted to, the need for shelter. The layers of meaning that may be identified in the building process are status, power, social convention, values and ideas on aesthetics – combined – ensuring that every built work has complex layers of meaning and is a deliberate act – consciously or unconsciously – to communicate meaning. I have also previously argued that the decision not to build is an architectural decision. This is referring to contexts where the focus is more on occupying open space – rather than elaborately built temples or palaces – for rituals and ceremonies and perhaps in contexts where permanently settling and building is considered an inferior way of existence when compared to the freedom of a nomadic lifestyle, perceived to ensure a stronger connection to landscape among other benefits.

Generally, vernacular settings and traditional responses to space can provide equally valuable lessons for architects when compared to institutionalised architecture. Architectural history traditionally deals with individual buildings. Yet beyond that, building has many times been about the creation of neighbourhoods, where the community is the basic “architectural” unit, the daily face-to-face social networks and patterns of interaction ultimately defining the settlement. Thus, many urban settings are perceived as a “collective” rather than an “individual” form of expression. While multiple authorship continues to be a characteristic of the built environment, individual authorship is emphasised through professional practice, legal responsibility and copyright issues.

As in traditional contexts, people today continue to act on, and influence their immediate environment, this being especially evident in situations where people have difficulty to access the “formal” city structures and markets. These initiatives are perceived negatively and labeled as “illegal” and “informal”. However, they create an energy that needs to be celebrated and managed in efficient ways through innovative delivery, finance and technical systems – rather than being dismissed, eradicated or formalized.

How to intervene in these contexts and how to provide a relevant and appropriate service to these communities has challenged the very principles upon which the profession is built. This has led to the devising of alternative processes that acknowledge multi-actor involvement, the management of complexity and allowing for shared and distributed decision-making in systems that are inherently participative. Working with the unknown, unpredictability and time-based design principles are concepts that ensure the relevance of the profession and challenge the conventional methods of practice.

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