Design integrity

Is our ‘fast-food’ world destroying the heart and soul of design?

Yorkshire-based architect and York alumnus Ric Blenkharn considers the loss of integrity in modern design.

“What is needed most in architecture today is the very thing that is most needed in life: integrity.”

So wrote the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1954. The idea of design integrity is not new and is as relevant to design now as it was 50 years ago. It is a concept of completeness and honesty bringing permanence and quality to design. Sadly this is often lacking in our modern ‘fast-food’ culture.

Today’s demand for the immediate often translates into fashionable, quick-fix solutions, rather than ones of longevity and substance. Across the world, consumerism and advertising have made us think less critically about what we make and buy. Some designs are becoming wallpaper to cover the cracks, rather than a finish with depth and meaning.

Image Credit: Tamarcus Brown
So how do we achieve this sense of integrity in our designs?

For me, the answer lies in an illuminating book called ‘The eyes of the skin-architecture and the senses’, by the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasma. Pallasma argues that the visual world dominates today’s technological and consumer culture. Yet our experience of the world is formulated by a combination of five senses.

He argues that “the suppression of the other senses has led to an impoverishment of our environment, causing a feeling of detachment and alienation.” The result of the quick-fix aesthetic is to affect merely our visual sense, rather than our entire senses.

As an example, consider walking along a narrow cobbled street such as The Shambles in York, where we are confronted by a riot of sensory experience. The texture of the street resonates through our bodies, and the sounds, tastes, and smells of life around are heightened through proximity to other.

Several years ago, I visited the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. I approached the shimmering, bold building across a high-level pedestrian bridge and was full of expectation as I nervously entered. Gazing across into a cavernous space, I stopped still, aware that my skin was tingling and alive to the dramatic interior.

Contrast this with sanitised shopping centres, business parks, and suburban estates where our senses are dulled to an almost zombie-like trance. Much modern architecture has focused on the exterior of a building, at the expense of an understanding of the interior. Yes, it looks good, but what is it really like to live in? Does the building have a soul and a heart?

It was as if the building were alive. I sat within the central space for several minutes, in awe of my feelings; feelings seldom felt until that time in a modern building of sheer integrity. It is a feeling I seek to achieve in design. It is always a pleasure to see people’s first experiences of entering new buildings as their senses are awoken and stirred through design. It comes about through a rigorous brief and a total understanding of place, be it an existing building to convert, or a new building on an open site.

Working with this understanding, ideas are translated into physical spaces, with each material and space evoking the senses. Design should consider every aspect of the building.

Another Finnish architect, Alvar Alto, once remarked: “the door handle is the handshake of the building.” A simple but appropriate tribute.

To design and build with integrity takes time and understanding, but it does not necessarily require a large budget. It is a matter of ignoring the quick fix and concentrating on a long-term solution. With this, fashion is avoided, and permanence achieved.

We often talk about design classics: objects, cars, and buildings even, which seem as good today, as they were when conceived.  It is an aspiration to design classics for the future, yet to enjoy them today.