how does one come up with architectural concepts?

Feb 11 '13 78 Last Comment
Sergei MikhailenkoSergei Mikhailenko
Feb 11, 13 9:32 am

does anybody know of some sources (books, websites, video, etc) of successful architects clearly explaining how and why they come up with their concepts and how they follow through with them until the end of the project? preferably with case studies of their projects.

i have trouble to come up with my own because i always feel like my concepts are either too superficial or lacking an overall idea



Feb 11, 13 11:24 am

I don't think any great building can be defined by a single one line idea.  Teachers like this, but in reality all great architecture is more like a novel.  A great film or novel may seem bland in its one line's the characters, the setting, the struggles, the tone that make it great. 

Feb 11, 13 12:08 pm

I was taught it in some of my early studio classes. One way to start is to analyze various aspects of your design problem, site, context, etc. and try to find some kind of unifying theme, problem or challenge which you think is relevant and interesting. It's definitely better to start out with a concept to develop the rest of your project from than to attempt to post-rationalize an idea afterwards.

John McWatersJohn McWaters
Feb 11, 13 12:29 pm

It varies tremendously, and I believe what some architects say is a concept is actually a concept they created after the fact (after completion). A lot of architecture just happens. It's what the architect wants to see introspectively. There's really no real way to outline the result.

Feb 11, 13 12:55 pm

i agree with John Mac that sometimes you have to figure out the concept after the design is done.  some designers are more intuitive and there's nothing wrong with post-rationalizing the idea.  design concepts become problematic when you try to make your design fit the idea when it wants to be something else.

one project with a strong, simple concept is toyo ito's sendai mediatheque.  probably the best 'my design is like a tree' project out there.

Sergei, what are some projects you like?  let's talk about their concepts ..

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 11, 13 1:18 pm

Define "successful architect".

Feb 11, 13 1:49 pm

in real life, i think a good source for your driving "concept" is listening to your client and providing them what they need and what they hired you for.

Feb 11, 13 2:28 pm

what a way to design..."some architects say is a concept is actually a concept they created after the fact (after completion). A lot of architecture just happens. It's what the architect wants to see introspectively."

If you do this... I promise you: you WILL create architecture- but it will be architecture that no one remembers and will never make a lasting impact on the field... 

Design is a process and if you try to explain a concept after your have just put together some object that is the result of preconceived notions or predetermined conclusions about the design problem you actually have no process and therefore no architecture of any real value...

Feb 11, 13 2:34 pm

design process isn't (always) linear

Feb 11, 13 3:00 pm

I think that this video is a good example of how this architect in particular came up with his concept for a house.

My opinion is that you need a reason (i.e. a concept) for designing something and that you need levels of that concept represented in all aspects of you design. It should to be visible in plans/sections/elevations/details/etc. Then you are designing, then you have architecture.

I don't think architecture "just happens", no matter how insignifican you think the concept is.

Sergei MikhailenkoSergei Mikhailenko
Feb 11, 13 3:27 pm

maybe i was just brainwashed by the magazines but i have this preconceived idea that for a project to be successful, it should have a clear, simple yet clever idea on which everything based.

by successful i mean a project which is highly regarded by the clients/judges and which will give you a good name and more work in the future.

take BIG as an example, they always come up with these simple, one line yet clever ideas of how to solve apparent problems with their architecture. i dont know if their ideas work in real life but they are making a name for themselves and i admire it.

ark1t3kt, i really enjoyed the video because the architect explains clearly what were his goals and how he achieved them, i came here exactly for these examples!

Feb 11, 13 3:37 pm


Your question is a good one, but not easy to answer in a few forum posts. I've been meaning to write down my thoughts on the matter, including my own experience in practice and what I used to teach in design meta-theory and studio classes. This is as good an excuse as any to start. You will find my ongoing thoughts about it here:

Feb 11, 13 3:38 pm

check out Bjarke Ingels Group's website.

their process is alot like OMA's, but they diagram their concept in an extremely simplistic, clear way. the concept is usually a response to site forces/influences, a reinvention of the building typology, or something to do with context.

Feb 11, 13 3:49 pm

its a confluence of factors that determines the final design or conceptual design of a bldg.

In Theory (academic):

-whatever your professor says not to do

-whatever your professor likes

-whatever you can afford  & have time to buy and build

-(My favorite metaphor & Movement)

In practice

-client site & budget

-Client making a statement and budget

-site & budget


Sergei MikhailenkoSergei Mikhailenko
Feb 11, 13 4:11 pm

interesting post gwharton, i look forward to see in which ways one can develop a habit to be regularly creative.

tmston2: can you give a further breakdown of "client, site & budget"? or point me to examples if you know any, where the architect based his design on what the client/site/budget required and which goals (concept) he set to achieve these requirements

John McWatersJohn McWaters
Feb 11, 13 9:08 pm


Many studied architects designed the way I outlined. Would you like to outline for us the correct way to design a building?

chris moodychris moody
Feb 11, 13 9:41 pm


Trial and error. If you were to ask any architect, well known or not, they would probably tell you that its all about trial and error. Sergei, do what speaks to you. Do not try to fashion yourself after any designer. Use books and even magazines as points of reference. Ultimately, its all you. Trial and error.

Feb 11, 13 9:52 pm

check this architect out to see how he does it.

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 11, 13 11:07 pm


Architecture is the practice of designing buildings to solve specific programmatic requirements. Your design or "concept" is a failure if it does not satisfactorily address the programmatic specifications. Where the specifications are not defined there is room for you to create your own. These can be based on whatever you like but are generally successful when they support those that have been specified.

snail summed it up nicely. curtkam points out the ultimate responsibility. McWaters has clearly been studying Whoops at the Univ. of BS. This is what a lot of people who claim to be artists do - they make something then try to rationalize it after the fact. I'll take issue with FRaC for supporting this idea. Architecture is primarily problem solving, which is the essence of conceptualization. The concept may well develop in a non-linear fashion as part of the design process, but if you're done and you have to invent a concept to justify or explain what you've done then what you've done is thoughtless.

Moody points out trial and error as one of many techniques for problem solving. A little research on this will bring up many different strategies. This is one of many things that should be but isn't taught in architecture school. You should be aware of many different strategies, and try as many as you can to see which work best for you. Keep in mind that a strategy that doesn't work can provide valuable insight.

Solve the problem. If the problem is not clear define it further. Or break it down into parts. Find or create an internal logic for the project out of the program, the conditions, the materials, or maybe some combination of sensibilities.

Whatever you do, ignore starchitects and the bullshit Barry Berkus PR videos.

Then again, you could always crumple up a piece of paper and use it for inspiration. Gehry got his inspiration for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by dumping a pile of crap from a waste can onto the desk.

If all else fails there is always

Feb 12, 13 3:59 pm

morphosis perot museum

The immersive experience of nature within the city begins with the visitor’s approach to the museum, which leads through two native Texas ecologies: a forest of large native canopy trees and a terrace of native desert xeriscaping. The xeriscaped terrace gently slopes up to connect with the museum’s iconic stone roof. The overall building mass is conceived as a large cube floating over the site’s landscaped plinth. An acre of undulating roofscape comprised of rock and native drought-resistant grasses reflects Dallas’s indigenous geology and demonstrates a living system that will evolve naturally over time.

so mayne blah blah blahs a lot but the above line is the general concept statement for the project.  simple (not simplistic) enough to apply to other projects, but it gives you (the designer) something to refer to as you make design decisions.

Feb 12, 13 4:07 pm

It's interesting that this thread is generating a variety of different disagreeing opinions about what a concept is, since I've had the same conflict in my design studio classes - there are some schools of thought which involve starting with an idea, and also other approaches which involve more intuitive making, and I personally tend to align with the idea-based approach.

With that said, I have to take issue with the posters who are only discussing concept in terms of concerns like client, site, budget, etc. and using BIG as an example - while a concept can certainly involve those issues, they should not be considered the maximum range of issues which a concept can potentially encompass - architecture's potential to engage society, culture, history, art, theoretical issues, philosophy etc. also needs to be further explored by future architects. BIG's use of designs based primarily on the rearrangement of programmatic blocks is of course in itself descended from Koolhaas's cynical dismissal of the architect's traditional range of artistic expression in the face of rampant real estate development caused by global urban expansion, and anyone who uses the manipulation of program as a primary driver behind their design process needs to be aware of what larger ideas they are implying an association with by doing so, instead of just copying it because it looks cool. Someone who approaches concept only in terms of programmatic rearrangement is thus implicitly endorsing, or at least engaging with, that prevailing contemporary trend, which means that the idea of program-driven design is already to some extent socially/culturally/politically polarized whether architects are aware of it or not. With that said, I like BIG - you just have to be aware that theirs is one possible approach out of many.

Feb 12, 13 4:13 pm

One of my studio instructors taught us the MetaDiagram WTF is that? each of us had to create our own idea of the metadiagram and extrapolate it into architecture. Then we were shown a system similar to BIG and I set up Revit to articulate it.

Feb 12, 13 4:19 pm

@ Frac

I agree it's interesting to see the disagreement over this topic.  I found myself questioning the difference between an idea and a concept.  I arrived at the conclusion a concept is more or less an idea placed within context.

The example you provided seems to me a concept (I'm sure one can argue it's not a concept).  I simply question if Mayne created that concept before the design process began, or if that concept emerged as the design progressed.

I very much believe in the possibility of subconscious design.  It happens in music all the time when a musician composes a song.  They end up with a design (or a song), but do not see the concept  clearly until it's complete and they can reflect.

I don't think it's possible for design to be 'thoughtless'.  Just because one cannot rationalize something doesn't mean it's thoughtless.  Sometimes, one just doesn't realize they're thinking beyond their conscious.  

Feb 12, 13 4:34 pm

Example of MetaDiagram

Feb 12, 13 4:38 pm


You got it - everything comes from nothing

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 12, 13 5:32 pm

@snail: For the most part architecture's potential has been reduced to the commercial interest of marketing: developers are not visionaries. It is often only the architect's sensibilities and willingness to engage / educate / challenge the client that creates the opportunity for social and cultural relevance and responsibility.

@Thecyclist: Concept is simply another word for idea. They are one and the same. Context is the program, goal or purpose, constraints, conditions etc. which the concept addresses.

I find putting a project in a drawer for a couple of weeks and working on something else to be a vital part of the design process. Call it subconscious if you will, but among other things it allows me to take a fresh look and see things more clearly, or at least differently. I tend to think of this more as an intuitive process but maybe they are one and the same. In either case I think a higher level of experience increases the level of function.

Feb 12, 13 5:41 pm

I find putting a project in a drawer for a couple of weeks and working on something else to be a vital part of the design process. Call it subconscious if you will, but among other things it allows me to take a fresh look and see things more clearly, or at least differently. I tend to think of this more as an intuitive process but maybe they are one and the same. In either case I think a higher level of experience increases the level of function.

Whoops!  Univ. of BS

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 12, 13 9:36 pm

FRaC, that wasn't about concept but rather process in regard to comments about the subconscious in design. In my experience, distancing yourself from a problem is a technique that can provide fresh insight. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Feb 13, 13 1:57 am

I very much believe in the possibility of subconscious design.  It happens in music all the time when a musician composes a song.  They end up with a design (or a song), but do not see the concept  clearly until it's complete and they can reflect.

Is this where you, in a school or client setting, see the program, talk to the user some more to gauge some subtleties, visit the site, and you sort of "see" the building in your head?  I have never been big on process as in "try all these different massings and directions."  Generally, I had a snapshot in my head after understanding the requirements, and then pushed and pulled to make it work - geometrically, rhythm and spacing, and functionality.  It usually came together.  My profs told me that a few people go that route - that of visualizing a massing that needs to be refined, while others work at putting pieces of the puzzle together, through varying lengths of exploration.  There's no right answer.

will gallowaywill galloway
Feb 13, 13 3:41 am

Koolhaas uses critical paranoid method because it allows him to make rational designs without pretending to be objective. Bjarke does the same yet when you look at the work there is huge difference. Rem brings lots of intellectual rigor to the design. Bjarke brings bjarke-ness.

Lots of architecture is about exploration. It shouldn't come as a surprise that even the architect is not aware of the conceptual framework until later. You can pretend to be about something anyway, but a certain amount of ignorance about your own intentions is probably a good thing

Feb 13, 13 5:26 am

Great information is provided about the architecture and it is nice to all the posts. But in fact architecture of building is not easy to explain through few words. But it is the soul of infrastructure.

Feb 13, 13 9:52 am

@Sergei Mikhailenko

Hans Holien, Retti candle shop, Schullin Jewellery shop

Feb 13, 13 10:09 am

I am not saying that there is a correct way to design a building... However- I am saying that designing without an iterative process is a bad way to design because it won't create valuable architecture. And I don't mean valuable in terms of real estate value. I mean cultural value. Trump condo buildings are examples that may have high real estate value, but almost no cultural value. I have always believed that as architects, we should always strive to create spaces and buildings that have cultural value. I realize that not every creation of space can be the next best thing. However, too much of the same regurgitation is taking place. We live in a culture of "the copy" where architects open up magazines, books, or even the internet, and say- "oohh.. look at that zaha/ghery etc. building- I'm going to just take an element from that building (or copy the entire thing and change it a bit) and present it to my client and POSTRATIONALIZE...." What kind of manifestation of creativity is that?? 

I read Gwharton's post and there was something very interesting that was written: "Imagination - which is a specific way in which our brains are collecting, categorizing, re-ordering, and generating new ideas in the pursuit of solving some problem or obtaining some goal."

I believe good architects are able to catalog their collecting, categorizing, re-ordering, and generation of new ideas... To post-rationalize something is lazy, and often an excuse for not having imagination ad defined above. 

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 13, 13 10:51 am

"critical paranoid method"

Now there is some serious bullshit that dates back to surrealism and the abuse of alcohol and laudanum. But hey, whatever works for you. Just don't design and drive.

Feb 13, 13 11:44 am

read "Event Citie"s Vol - 1 > 4 by Bernard Tschumi - and "Yes is more" by Bjarke

John McWatersJohn McWaters
Feb 13, 13 2:05 pm

I don't understand how an iterative (repeating) design process is necessary to design a culturally valued building. 

Is the Pompidou Centre a successful cultural building?  What about the Bilbao Museum?  The line is thin - neither of those examples reflect their context (that's arguable of course) but both are quite popular and will be standing for time to come.

Just because a building is 'postrationalized' does not make it copied architecture.  I can argue all architecture today is copied in some form or fashion from a previous work.

Besides, I'm not promoting the idea of postrationalization - you're saying in postrationalization, a concept is created at the conclusion.  I'm more referring to a process where after the completion of the design, the concept is not created but made clear or understood by the architect.  The concept may be in the architects head from the beginning, but he or she may be struggling to develop it into something they can consciously understand.  It was mentioned in an earlier post when one might put away a project for a bit to reflect - when they return, something new might be apparent.

In regards to Sergei,

It's not always necessary to have a clear idea from the beginning, one hardly ever does.  But after doing some quick research and reflection, do what just feels right...still, you might not see a clear concept.  Work with what you got, go with your gut and believe it what you do - a concept will emerge.  One characteristic of memorable architects may be the ability to see the concept emerge.

vado retro
Feb 13, 13 3:48 pm

the diagram is the concept. the concept is the diagram. applicable to all projects.

Sergei MikhailenkoSergei Mikhailenko
Feb 13, 13 5:26 pm

"critical paranoid method allows him to make rational decisions without pretending to be objective"

does this mean that koolhaas' designs are based on influencing factors like site, environment, culture, etc? hence the design decisions he takes are always rational?

is the metadiagram some sort of rational map which helps to understand how a concept is made?

during uni i have always read books which categorised koolhaas as a postmodern deconstructionist but it seems like this "critical paranoid method" is a prevalent style found in many contemporary practices (like in BIG, snohetta, JDS). which are the other contemporary prevalent styles? are there any significant modern theory books (2010 onwards) regarding contemporary design and the direction in which architecture is heading in the near future?

perhaps its time for me to invest in one of those koolhaas s,m,l,xl tomes! does he explain his conception process in detail there? is it worth buying?

by the way, thanks for the many interesting posts you guys

Feb 13, 13 5:35 pm

does this mean that koolhaas' designs are based on influencing factors like site, environment, culture, etc? hence the design decisions he takes are always rational?

Rem Koolhaas: FUCK CONTEXT!

vado retro
Feb 13, 13 5:54 pm

fuck context was taken out of context.

Feb 13, 13 5:55 pm

There are so many different ways to find concept when designing. There are no right or wrong way because there is no right of wrong in architecture, the ones that win in a design concept are those who are better at bullshitting their way through their concept. Convincing with confidence. That's why it's hard for cadmonkeys to break through because they are the ones who have their heads down and work the hardest. No opinion in designing what so ever, just draft. There are so many weird but interesting buildings around, some look ridiculus and very un apealing to the public eye but the concept behind it are so strong that no body dares to challenge it, especially when it's a design from a very famous person.

Feb 13, 13 6:06 pm

fuck context diagram concept is out of diagram concept of fuck context.  koolhaas-able to all projects.

Feb 13, 13 6:15 pm

but yes i can see the opposite reading of 'fuck context' in which ... eww!

Feb 13, 13 7:02 pm

There are so many weird but interesting buildings around, some look ridiculus and very un apealing to the public eye but the concept behind it are so strong that no body dares to challenge it, especially when it's a design from a very famous person.

True.  The funny thing about design is that ORDINARY people react to good design, most of the time.  They know what they like, but can't verbalize it.  Those who are either trained in it, or have a better command of describing what they see, can do so.  Look at how, when a hit in car design hits the market, sales tally up rather quickly, and with what seems like little advertising.

With reference to your comment, notice that a lot of famous buildings which are unique get nicknamed by the general population.  Those which are not well-liked get an unfavorable nickname.  Those which are well-liked get a more affectionate nickname.  Right now, I'm drawing a blank.  The only one that comes to mind is "the corn cobs," to describe Chicago's Marina City towers.  I think most people like them.  Chicago's skyline just wouldn't be right without them!

Feb 13, 13 8:06 pm


Dang, ORDINARY people sounded so jerky.  Should have said "the average Jane or Joe on the street" instead.

will gallowaywill galloway
Feb 13, 13 8:24 pm

smlxl is not informative if you are looking for evolution of koolhaas thinking

recommend Rem Koolhaas / Oma:The Construction of Merveilles instead. 

oma does not aim for objectivity, just rationality.  they are separate things and have zero to do with how a building looks.  so all the cliche things architects are supposed to consider like site and context can be included or not.  there is no need to justify because the rationality is self-contained for each project.  fuck context is just a provocation, i wouldn't pay it that much attention.   still, being modernists at heart oma tends to make objects not fabric.  which is fine.  but you know, getting from fuck context to a masterpiece like Bordeaux house is pretty big step. 

i think the solution is, as mies says, (and i may be paraphrasing here), "architecture is all about doing a fuckload of work.  suck it up."  it sounds better if you hear it in your mind with a german accent.

Feb 13, 13 9:38 pm

smlxl is not informative if you are looking for evolution of koolhaas thinking

When I was in school, any geometries which were haphazard were always questioned and sometimes labeled "arbitrary."  Yet, when a famous architect does that, it's ok.  It seems that Koolhaas, Holl, and Gehry put out geometries that don't have rhyme or reason ... unless you buy an expensive coffee table books which will then tell you their thinking, design philosophy, and the logic of their geometry.  For that matter, even Meier's clean work could have the occasional piano curve questioned as to why and where, but he laughs all the way to the bank ... and I don't.

At any rate, I don't like the Seattle Public Library and the repetitive exterior patterns.  I think people like it for its novelty value, and that it replaces an older and smaller library, but no one calls it a beautiful building.

On the other hand, his Casa da Musica, the signature performance hall for the city of Porto PT, has a volume that is more pleasing to the eye.  It looks small when you are near it, and am sure it is larger once inside.  It would have to be.

will gallowaywill galloway
Feb 13, 13 9:51 pm

so you went to a close-minded school.  arbitrary is fine.  who gives a shit? 

gehry is seriously good architect. so is holl.  on other side of spectrum, in spite of the severeness of the work zumthor's philosophy is grounded in highly personal and arbitrary decisions as well.  if it works i don't see much need to get upset over it all. what it looks like is most likely not so indicative of the process of design in any case.  gehry for instance is hyper-rational when it comes to planning.

Feb 13, 13 10:10 pm

so you went to a close-minded school.  arbitrary is fine.  who gives a shit?

It's all what's current thought, and I'm not responsible for what they think.  Some design profs bristle at the word style because it's reductionist, but how is popular architecture any different from fashion?  That's why some clothing styles endure, and some don't. I wouldn't call these profs close-minded.  They just want to know why you're pulling a line a certain way.  Fair question.  I would ask the same question of a student.  If you don't study Gehry and read that information, you wouldn't know what that hyper-rationalism is.  Even sadder is all the new grads who scraped by to live in cramped quarters for the "privilege" of working in his Venice CA office. I think that's where it was.  The only Holl work I've seen is the award-winning chapel on the campus of Seattle University.   The volumes which look rusted look like crap, about a year after opening, yet people are walking around with the typical index finger on their chin looking impressed.  I don't know the proper term for the "rusted look," but I'm sure there is an "in the know" name for them.

What is a "close-minded" architecture school?  One that is NOT in "cool" area? One of the 2 Oklahoma schools had Bruce Goff on its faculty, and then generated Bart Prince as a disciple.  I don't care for their work, but their organic work had a following.  It looks dated but, at its time, had a following.  They fall out of "style."  So did Antoine Predock.  One of his buildings on the Cal Poly Pomona campus was deemed so unusable, that the wrecking ball was imminent ... or may have already hit it.

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 13, 13 10:50 pm

gehry is seriously good architect

If you measure the quality of an architect by building failures, blown budgets, lawsuits, lost commissions or commissions that are nothing more than corporate branding, Gehry is seriously good

Gehry, Koolhaas and other starchitect's sensational (in the eye of some beholders) sculptural forms, absence of utility and deliberate ignorance of context is architecture dumbed down for mass media and mass consumption: a site bite for a sight bite.

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