/ Ana Teresa Cristobal / Creative Workspace

The Theatre 2016 Conference , attended by our own Nicola Walls, gave us cause to reflect on our role as Architects and the contribution we make to society. The suggestion that buildings, in theatre at least, could be a part of a wider problem, rather than the solution, strikes at the core of our professional existence. With these reflections still ringing in our ears, our Briefing and Interiors CoG explore how we can refine the art of listening to stay nimble, moving delicately between competing requirements and changing perceptions to deliver resilient and enduring solutions.

In the closing keynote of the 2016 AIA convention, Rem Koolhaas spoke of a ‘ballet-like stretch’ between the past and the present, with the unique skill of Architects being our ability to unify these worlds in response to a particular problem. Understanding the contemporary ideal and the energy and pace of technological development, balanced with the lessons of history and the need to be rigorous in our work. The challenge we face is that the world of the present is in constant and accelerating flux. Brian Eno, in his John Peel Lecture, suggests that there is more change in a month today then there would have been in the whole of the 14th Century, so how are we to reconcile this with the legacy of architecture?

One way would be to accept that Architecture, in the form of building, might not be the right solution, at least not straight away. At Rockfield we are working with an energetic and capable client, to help them deliver their vision, harnessing the momentum of the community to adapt what they already have and begin shaping a prosperous future. There is no brief here, not in the traditional sense anyway – it is a balance of strategy and opportunity that will continue to change as the project develops.

At a different scale, our briefing for Student Services at the University of Edinburgh has been about ‘stretching’ between the predetermined brief of the University, based on years of experience, and the views and expectations of today’s students, who are looking for something very different from what might have been the norm even 5 years ago. By listening to both sides and using the tools we have developed, we can find a common language, looking at the problem in abstract before returning to how a solution might be manifest.

These tools are always specific to each project and, as they find their ultimate form, are rarely used more than once, instead being developed iteratively for the next project where a similar approach might be relevant. So much of it is intuitive, informed by a growing catalogue of experiences that shape our understanding.

There is an implied flexibility in this process, to accommodate changing perceptions that are not yet fully understood, which brings its own challenges. How do we build in adaptability without being mundane? How do we accommodate the pace of change whilst creating places of beauty that inspire and support? One thing is certain – the optimum solution begins with asking the right questions, before listening carefully, interpreting the ideas that emerge and testing them thoroughly.

Sometimes the solution posed can be challenging, set alongside societal norms, but this provocation will find its own resolution as the brief develops, perhaps changing our clients’ – and indeed our own – perception of what a viable solution could be.