Top-down/Bottom-up

One of the most frequent objections I hear about approaching design work more architecturally is that architecture is “top-down.” By this, my interlocutor usually means that architects come to problems with a prescribed solution that they impose onto the situation, In contrast, of course, to a solution that emerges more fluidly from understanding the context and people served by the thing being designed.

It’s understandable that they’d come to this conclusion since many of the famous architects people know about produce work that doesn’t look intuitive or contextually relevant. It’s hard to see, for example, how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is the result of a user-centered design approach. The worst offender here is perhaps Le Corbusier, whose urban Plan Voisin for Paris would’ve razed large portions of the city in exchange for a de-humanizing grid of skyscrapers:

Photo Wikimedia
Photo Wikimedia.org

Plan Voisin is very famous and very top-down. It’s the sort of thing that turns people off Architecture. (With a capital “A.”)

But much architecture isn’t like this. Think about the place where you live. If you’re like most of us, your house wasn’t designed by a “starchitect;” it was created with humbler goals and a more responsive approach. The house expresses a more realistic balance between contextual forces, human needs, and economic factors than something like Plan Voisin. (Which fortunately for us proved unfeasible.)

Moreover, you’ve probably made some modifications to the place yourself. These could be as simple as the choice and location of furniture, but they could also be more elaborate. This week I visited the house of a friend in San Francisco. Over the twenty plus years he and his family have lived there, they’ve made many changes to the building. For example, they built a rooftop deck that affords beautiful views of the city.

My friend’s house is a response to a general problem: how do you accommodate a family in this particular urban environment, within a particular budget? But over time it’s also become a response to a particular problem: how do you accommodate the lives of this particular group of people? The “finished” architectural product is a mix of top-down and bottom-up gestures, with a good sprinkling of pre-existing patterns in the mix. (I.e., no need to re-think the way the front door ought to work; that’s a solved problem.)

In our polarized time, we’re drawn to extremes, and this issue is no exception: We think top-down = bad, bottom-up = good. But as with everything in life, it’s never that simple. What’s often called for is a healthy balance between the two. You could start with an initial response that takes a tentative stab at the problem. Technically, that would be top-down: your initial response will be idiosyncratic. But you don’t stop there: rather than ram it through to completion as-is, you build in bottom-up feedback mechanisms to allow that initial hypothesis to evolve towards something that better fits its program and context.

The sooner and more frequently you involve others in the design process — particularly users and stakeholders — the better the results will be. And of course, architecture is an ongoing process; over time people adjust and adapt the environment to their needs and the needs of their context. Though not exclusively top-down, the result is still architectural.