Unbuilding Design

Critiquing the Enthusiasm for the Build-able Unbuilt.
The essay was first published in ‘India: Unbuilt Architecture Vol 1.0’

Buildability of the design is the fulcrum on which its valuation as unbuilt design often turns. Every buildable unbuilt design sustains the contradiction between ‘pure design’ and the messiness of reality that produces it, which it must navigate and alter, and which may defeat it occasionally.

There is, perhaps, little difference between most built and unbuilt designs in terms of attitude towards the task. The difference would be significant if a design were unbuildable, but what purpose would such designs serve? A rich range of purposes, it turns out, in the long history of diagrams and utopian explorations, the expressionistic re-modelling of real space and time by Asian miniature painters, the very European Piranesi, and the very Indian Gautam Bhatia in our time.

I share in diverse enthusiasms for the unbuilt, which has taught me much about how to design, build, experience and analyse space better. Yet, mine is a cautionary reflection. It is not any particular unbuilt architecture that I train my attention on, nor even the idea of unbuilt architecture in general. It is, rather, the niche enthusiasm for the unbuilt – especially the unbuilt that could have been built, like the projects in this volume – that I would like to examine more closely. Along the way, I hope to illuminate problems with how we design the built and the buildable. 

Ways of Being Unbuilt

There are at least three relevant kinds of unbuilt architecture: the unbuildable, the actively un-built, and finally the buildable unbuilt. The tradition of the unbuildable representation boasts of illustrious artists including Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Archigram, and Lebbeus Woods. This kind of unbuilt representation is a completed ‘work’ autonomous from the real world. Here, the representation of space is itself the real thing, not an anticipation or instrument of its realisation. 

A diametrically opposite unbuilt may be imagined. This is the built that has been undone (un-built, literally), as in the ruin or the completely disappeared building – whether from antiquity or from last year (e.g. Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations in New Delhi); the agent of unbuilding may be known definitively – as with the Hall of Nations – or not. Unbuilding is a process or activity in this case, unlike with the conventional usage of ‘unbuilt’, in which nothing happens. 

Finally you have the buildable unbuilt: Le Corbusier’s 1920s proposals for the modern city, or some of Zaha Hadid’s projects that were not built but possibly got her the Pritzker Prize. These may range from the design drawings that never evolved into buildings, or the more common ‘near-miss’ after the completion of working drawings stage, or even the wantonly visionary proposal anchored to a real place and problem like Le Corbusier’s (in)famous plan to replace the Parisian cityscape, or the thousands of competition entries produced annually all over the world. It is this last category, the buildable unbuilt, that I focus on here. 

Experiment and Work

I propose that the value of a buildable unbuilt design may normally be judged in terms of its achievement as an experiment or as a realized ‘work’ (as in a ‘work of art’), often both. When we examine a particular project for its experimental value, we look for new considerations and explorations related to aesthetics, planning, materiality, technology, detailing, or design in general. That value is recognized without reference to the ‘completion’ (as a ‘design’ alone, not as a completed building) that the unbuilt scheme reveals. By contrast, typically, when we approach an unbuilt design as a ‘work’, we evaluate it in totality for its ‘completeness’: it must not require nor allow significant further processing to be completed as a design. It may or may not offer particular experimental advances, but as the fruit of a supposedly valuable creative process, it must embody value in its totality. It may well be enough that an unbuilt ‘work’ encourages us to sustain a larger commitment to good design, without any earth-shaking claims. However, occasionally a particular design may be recognized as something bigger – herald or exemplar of a new strategy, approach, or even paradigm. 

The two aspects are not always easy to disentangle, as in the case of Le Corbusier’s city plans of the early 20th Century, among the most influential buildable unbuilt designs in the history of architecture so far. These plans were experimental both in terms of their specifics as well as their totality. They were also complete and distinctive works which confidently proposed a new paradigm of urban spatiality (as also, misguidedly, of a new and appropriate urban sociality).

It is important to remember that these aspects of value are not intrinsic to the design itself – we cannot always point to features of the design that can be put in the ‘experiment’ or ‘work’ categories neatly. Whether we know it consciously or not, we subjectively ‘construct’ each aspect of the value of an unbuilt design – as experiment or work – in relation to prior commitments and beliefs. Thus, every evaluation of a particular unbuilt work normally moves to and fro between considering its experimental and work value.

Unpacking Enthusiasm

Let us now turn to the enthusiasm for the buildable unbuilt. Evidently, this is a niche enthusiasm – the present book is of a rare kind in India – but one that, I suspect, is more powerful than we may think. 

Since 20th Century modernism at least, the design of a building is a real thing for architects even when unrealized in built form. When I once asked myself the deliberately naïve question, ‘what do architects design?’ I finally landed on the answer: architects design designs. Though partial, the literal truth of this statement is part of the reason for a tendency to fetishise design over and above building, and certainly way above the practices or other realities of dwelling. 

A fetish typically involves separating and overvaluing a part from a whole or a system of relations, as well as from the process that creates or sustains that part. When we consider an unbuilt design a ‘work’ in the above sense, without reference to the larger processes or outcomes of which it is a part, we can be said to fetishise design. After all, its design is only one aspect, or part, of the reality of a building whether it is considered an environmental product, an instrument for a household’s progress through time, or a social process. 

For ordinary people (including clients), a buildable design is only a means to realizing the building, which is the real ‘work’. But since architects usually only produce designs – systematic patterns of intention – and don’t directly build buildings, they often consider a design a ‘work’ close to a realized building in value. When a design an architect is proud of is distorted by poor construction, the architect may take solace in, and focus on, what was in her control: the quality of design, considered apart from the larger process that led to a poor built outcome. When I practiced architecture, this often helped me remain sane and ‘committed’ to ‘good design’. But it is still a routine example of fetishisation. The niche enthusiasm for the buildable unbuilt, I would argue, is a bigger plant that springs from the soil of this modernist attitude. 

Of course, buildability of the design is the fulcrum on which its valuation as unbuilt design often turns. Every buildable unbuilt design sustains the contradiction between ‘pure design’ and the messiness of reality that produces it, which it must navigate and alter, and which may defeat it occasionally. But unlike a built design, it also allows us to isolate ‘pure design’ for serious consideration uncontaminated by life, while retaining a firm foothold in the real world in the form of a real commission and site. This foothold in reality legitimizes the design, protecting it from being dismissed as just an unbuildable castle in the air. Paradoxically then, the more buildable an unbuilt scheme appears in spite of its untested claims, the greater the stakes attached to the ‘pure design’ involved.

Against Abstraction

So, why the skepticism about the enthusiasm for the buildable unbuilt? At the core, it has to do with the relationship between design and reality. People dwell in real natural and social space-time, but after modernism architectural design itself is increasingly valued for how it exists in an abstract space outside time and social life. 

A potentially serious contradiction exists between real space-time and its abstract representations, as Henri Lefebvre has argued in The Production of Space1. Many misalignments between modernist architecture and everyday life, and the resulting conflicts and violence to human life, may be traced to the inadequate attention given to this contradiction. As James Scott2 shows through examples of well-meaning modernist state initiatives that led to disasters in forest management, agriculture, urban planning and other domains of modern governance, this is the quintessential modernist failure.

Like Scott, humanist critiques of modernist architecture and planning – like those offered by Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and Christopher Alexander – as well as more recent environmental ones, implicitly or explicitly recognize two interrelated issues. One, a building process centred on drawings gives the power of decision-making to a remote set of people, who do not have to cope with the consequences of those decisions. And two, technical drawings necessarily reduce the complexity of real space and its uncertain processes to static, abstract diagrams. Scott notes, for instance, that it is impossible to draw a useful map without leaving out most of the information about the reality that it represents. 

Designs, as proposals for construction, are based on a particular understanding of a targeted reality. That understanding must be built on some abstract representations of that reality. But since these representations – whether by sociologists, or by architects – can only capture limited aspects of an existing reality, the understanding they allow is weak. As a result, even where a designer consults diverse representations (or, in other words, knowledges), proposals are likely to be built only on a caricature of the reality they seek to improve. More typically, designers only consult their own kind of representations, recycling professional or disciplinary caricatures of reality enough times to turn them into the ‘common sense’ of professional knowledge. In the best instance, those who evaluate these proposals rely on the caricatured knowledge of a different discipline, but that is less common. Typically, proposers and evaluators share the same disciplinary culture and therefore believe in the same caricature. It is no surprise, then, that designs or ideas that entire professions uphold, but which are based on distorted understandings of reality, distort that reality further when implemented. Since those closest to a development – as users, or as those affected by its collateral impacts, or just politically weak – are rarely consulted in this system, disasters abound. What else can one expect if a cartoon is upheld as a working drawing with which to build a house?

If my argument – about the near sovereignty of abstract space and the design that resides in it – is right, some circumspection is in order. One step is to consider whether the appeal of a particular unbuilt design is for its experimental or its work aspects. I suspect that we are better equipped to evaluate unbuilt designs for the value of their specific experiments, than for their implications when built as a work. The French were perhaps right to reject, as a ‘work’, Le Corbusier’s 1920s proposal to demolish Paris and replace it with the fully realized city of towers. That they, and others across the world, nevertheless realized aspects of the same unbuilt ‘work’ in diverse housing projects or in new towns with equally dehumanizing results, only points to the dangers of uncritical enthusiasm for even specific ‘experimental’ aspects of the buildable unbuilt design (say, its geometry, scale or commitment to the automobile). 

My argument is probably clear now. The often uncritical enthusiasm for the buildable unbuilt can reinforce the modernist prestige that attaches to abstract space, with dire consequences. A critical enthusiasm for abstractions like buildable unbuilt designs, one that proceeds with an alertness to the above considerations, is of course, another step towards a better understanding of real space and its possibilities.

  1.  Lefebvre, H. (1991 [1974]). The Production of Space. (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.) Oxford (UK) and Cambridge (USA): Blackwell.
  2. Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

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