1. What is a concept?
an abstract idea
a plan or intention
A concept is an idea, a theory or notion, but in architecture we could also describe a
concept as ‘an approach’ to the design.
When we think of an architectural concept, we think of an abstract idea, one that is
unchanging throughout the design process. This is not necessarily the case, a concept
can be linked to many factors, and can evolve as the design grows.
Architectural concepts are the designers way of responding to the design situation
presented to them.
They are a means of translating the non-physical design problem into the physical
2. Design concept generation
While the design theory describes design starting from the parts right up to the
whole, the concept by contrast is concerned with the design in its holistic context.
The difference between design theories and concepts is that the first are
concerned with understanding how designs are developed, describing the
components of existing structures. Concepts on the other hand are concerned with
how design ought to be, considered as a whole in terms of space and form. It is
new design thinking about the way in which the parts may be creatively articulated
within the whole,
in other words thinking about how the whole can be structured in such a way
within which the parts may be articulated in a coherent manner is called the
3. Architects often try to build on the experience of the past (existing forms) and sometimes
develop their designs in an evolutionary pattern. They would be concerned with discovering the
principles of space arrangement, the way space is articulated within forms, and how forms
evolve as a logical outcome of space articulation within them.
This strategy, according to Heylighen & Neuckermans (2000), is referred to as ‘analogy’. When
using analogy, architects call in existing forms or use form-generators as a point of departure,
they observe. They list a number of form generating strategies including metaphor and analogy,
which it is possible to supplement by adding traditional architecture, organic evolution and
environmentally responsive façade geometry.
In the representation of design context architects usually use strategy diagrams, three
dimensional sketches and text forms. Strategies are action oriented diagrams used to transform
abstract ideas into graphical representation of functional zones grouped together into floor plans.
Strategy diagrams are used to represent all the functional spaces defined by design theory, in
spatial relationships such as adjacency, zoning or horizontal and vertical circulation flow of people
7. Approaches to the design
There are several areas the designer may focus on at the early stages of design that
will begin to inform the concept and direction. These areas may be drawn upon
throughout the project, weaved into one another, as the project develops. The
approaches can be categorized as:
The aforementioned themes can be combined and shifted to expand and explore the
different approaches to the development of design and concept.
Should we approach the design with function at the forefront of our minds? Does
the project have more necessity for the functional elements rather than the
aesthetic appearance of the building?
There are certainly some types of buildings that we would make function high up on
our priority list. For example, a factory will have quite particular functional
requirements, or if designing a hospital we would want to ensure that the building
can be used effectively above anything else.
Just because we focus on the functional approach to the design, it does not mean
that we cannot demonstrate creativity and flair. Every project will present
opportunities to problem solve, be innovative, but it may just be that in some cases
the function of the building is our key focus.
We may approach our design looking at the materials of the structure as part of our early
concept. By focusing on a specific material, we will be naturally led towards particular
forms of construction, thus creating a type of appearance organically.
Perhaps we select a material approach based on our site context, which suggests a
historical use of a particular material, which we want to use in a more innovative way.
By selecting local materials, it will give the local visitors a sense of comfort and
familiarity, whilst also giving a nod to the natural surroundings and environmental
benefits of sourcing locally.
A contextual approach to our concept will look at the context of the site and surroundings, the
historical features of the area, the people that occupy the area. After all, pretty much all
architecture is for people. With this type of concept, we draw heavily once again from our site
analysis, exploring the data we have collected about the site, both physical and non physical.
Every project should have an element of a contextual approach, as every design should
consider its context, site and surroundings. Some designs may focus more on this than others,
and some may take this as the most important factor in design.
A contextual approach to a design does not always mean it will sit harmoniously in its
surroundings. The architect may choose to turn the buildings back on the context, or perhaps
create a contrast between the old and the new. There are a number of approaches to the
A conceptual approach to a design is looking at the idea of conceptual architecture. This
suggests that every part of the project is about the concept. The sole focus of the design is
about the idea, rather than a combination of approaches and processes. Conceptual
architecture is sometimes never built, but rather designed as a form of thought provocation,
exploration of ideas.
A formal approach to design looks at drawing on the formal language of architecture to
develop a concept. We look to architecture from the classical period to inform our approach to
developing the formal rules of our design. The classical orders are one of the earliest systems
of architectural language, which give formality to proportion, scale and form.
12. Metaphor as a design concept idea
Metaphor is expressed as a key tool for enhancing creative design. The essence of metaphor is
understanding, experiencing, thinking, and designing one kind of thing in terms of another.
Metaphoric architecture is an architectural movement that developed in Europe during the mid-
20th century. The style is characterised by the use of analogy and metaphor as the primary
inspiration and directive for design.
Well known examples of this can be found in the Palm Mosque at the King Saud University in Riyadh
by Basil Al Bayati, based upon the form of a palm tree,
the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, by Fariborz Sahba, based on a lotus flower, the TWA Flight Center
building in New York City, by Eero Saarinen, inspired by the form of a bird's wing,
or the Sydney Opera House, in Australia, by Jørn Utzon that is derived from the sails of ships in the
Certain architects have also been known to utilise metaphors as a theme throughout their work such
as Le Corbusier and the open hand motif. This to him was a sign of "peace and reconciliation. It is
open to give and open to receive."
13. Biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of
solving complex human problems; biomimicry in architecture and manufacturing is the practice
of designing buildings and products that simulate or co-opt processes that occur in nature.
There are ultrastrong synthetic spider silks, adhesives modeled after gecko feet, and wind-
turbine blades that mimic whale fins.
Biomimetic architecture is a contemporary philosophy of architecture that seeks solutions for
sustainability in nature, not by replicating the natural forms, but by understanding the rules
governing those forms. It is a multi-disciplinary approach to sustainable design that follows a
set of principles rather than stylistic codes.
14. Biomimetic architecture uses nature as a model, measure and mentor to solve problems in
architecture. It is not the same as biomorphic architecture, which uses natural existing elements as
sources of inspiration for aesthetic components of form. Instead, biomimetic architecture looks to
nature as a model to imitate or take inspiration from natural designs and processes and applies it to
the man-made. It uses nature as a measure meaning biomimicry uses an ecological standard to
judge the efficiency of human innovations. Nature as a mentor means that biomimicry does not try
to exploit nature by extracting material goods from it, but values nature as something humans can