Is contextual architecture good architecture?

February 26, 2018 | Posted by Thomas Dunn

Above: Ilsington River Conservation Centre – an example of Dunn Architects’ Contextual Design.

We talk a lot in our studio about context.  We seek to create contextual architecture.  This last statement sounds like a good soundbite but what do we mean by contextual architecture?  In the following examination of this question a second, and perhaps more pertinent question has also arisen; why do we think contextual architecture is good architecture? 

Our clients are increasingly well informed about design, architecture and their briefs.  In design terms they are not just requesting ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ architecture as part of the brief but rather something more nuanced and bespoke to them personally.  As a result, we have increasingly been involving our clients in the design process and explaining our approach to context.  It is this trend that prompted us into thinking we should share some of these processes with a wider audience.

So, what do we mean by contextual architecture?  For our studio, the creation of contextual architecture requires the research and survey of the following headings at the inception of a project:

  • Economic
  • Community
  • Cultural
  • Historic
  • Archaeological
  • Vernacular
  • Adjacent architectural forms (special)
  • Structural
  • Environmental
  • Ecological
  • Geological
  • Landscape
  • Views
  • Personal (this tends to relate to clients and their brief)

These can almost be treated as a checklist at the start of a project and of course more categories can and should be added on a project by project basis.  The longer the list, the richer the material for inspiration.  To some this list of topics might not be surprising but the methods of research used, and the subsequent reactions should be.  This is the key to creating truly contextual architecture.

To illustrate this this point I have chosen three examples of how these topics have been approached on two of our recent projects:

Chorlton Junction and views:

The brief for this project was to create a 3-4 bed family home for a young couple to use as their primary residence in St Agnes, Cornwall.  The site was sensitive as it is in an AONB, an Area of Great Historic Value, an Area of Great Scientific Value and a World Heritage Site.  It was also tricky to deal with because of contamination due to the area’s rich mining heritage.  The plot contains a derelict bungalow which is un-mortgageable as it is starting to collapse and is constructed from mundic blockwork.  The bungalow which is to be demolished is surrounded by a beautiful and well-established garden with some areas of thick vegetation and trees.   From the earliest discussions with the client it was clear that not only did the garden need preserving but that any new house on the plot must address the series of vistas and views which the existing garden set up.  The various entrances to the site, walkways through the garden and areas for pausing, contemplation and relaxation created a mesh of framed and dynamic views of the plot where the building would sit and therefore had a huge influence on the form we designed.  The diagram below plots out these views and was drawn after the first site visit and before the form of the building was fixed.

Above: Diagram of Existing Views Created by the Existing Garden

The beauty about this aspect of the brief was that it worked both ways. The building also had to make use of the amazing views out. The footprint of the actual building had to be located in the lowest area of the site due to the old bungalows position. The client’s initial brief included creating an ‘upside down’ house with the bedrooms on the ground floor and the main living spaces on the first. At the height of the first-floor deck it was possible to take advantage of views of the sea to the North and East but there were also overlooking issues with the neighbours. The diagram below was produced before the form of the building was designed to identify the key vistas of the sea that design must provide, plus a panoramic view of the established gardens. Crucially it also identifies the areas that the form must block out to avoid overlooking of the neighbours.

Above: Diagram of Views Out and Views to Obscure

These two diagrams were instrumental in dictating the overall form of the building. Before the building was submitted for planning the views in and out were checked on site by physically plotting out the proposed building on site with the measured survey.
I’d also like to use this project to explain another item from my list of contextual topics; personal. To some this might be a rather a surprising one to have on the list. When designing private houses for individuals, the client’s personality, their tastes and wishes should obviously be at the fore-front of the designer’s mind. So for the Chorlton Junction project we initially created the diagram below which illustrated their daily routine. This process helps test their brief, interrogate it and then allows us to develop it further with them. At concept stage it also starts to allow one to assign spaces to different activities and identify overlaps. As the property could potentially be a home for life we then produced a series of other diagrams for the client, or another occupier, at different life stages to test our spatial layouts for the house.

Above: Diagram of Clients’ Current Daily Routine

Apiarist Architecture – Ecology:
This scheme was a research project which sought to create a home on a site that not only was in balance with the site’s ecology but that actually actively increased the biodiversity and ecological well-being of the site. Bees are well known as a useful litmus test for the ecological well-being of their surroundings. As a result, the project proposed the study of how bees were behaving on the site and future hives became a key part of the design brief. I observed and recorded the plants that bees were visiting on the site for a year. The diagram below illustrates the waggle dances that bees were performing to communicate the locations of these plants.

Above: Bees Waggle Dance Drawing for Site

As you can image this slightly unusual method of spatial analysis of a site lead to some slightly unusual proposals. More on this project in a future blog.

So why do we think contextual architecture is good architecture?
The short answer is that it is all about process and results. Hopefully the above examples have illustrated the depth of understanding that proper analysis of a site’s context can bring to the design process. The wider the range of contextual topics the greater the understanding; and greater understanding offers more information for inspiration. We love to identify unusual or surprising topics to research as these can lead to unusual and original seams of inspiration. Even if topics are not surprising, evaluating them in unusual detail or with an unusual method can have the same positive effect. Much of the information researched is recording and mapped through the drawing process and is often part of the first intuitive moves to create architectural forms. This nearly always involves the overlapping of different topics and narratives.
The process leads to a highly bespoke and unique product that is often surprising. Crucially it always leads to a design which is heavily routed in place. Each new site, brief and client leads to a different wholly different piece of architecture. As increasingly this is what private clients are coming to us for, we have found that we are taking them through the process in more and more detail. This in part is what prompted us to share our approach with you.