On the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation

Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008


__Maria Lorena Lehman
  Interpretation and Evolution: A Scenario



Architectural Evolution

Through time, architecture evolves to better meet human need by adapting with cultural shifts. Architectural evolution does not relentlessly pursue fixed standards. Instead, it adapts for cultural significance – and for this process, interpretation is key. Interpretation helps architecture to mediate and align cultural innovation with cultural need. To accomplish this, architectural evolution depends on design, function and interpretation.

Optimizing architecture can be quite challenging as innovations that advance lifestyle in certain ways can also set-back lifestyle in others. For example, in the 21st century advanced technologies frequently alleviate functional needs; yet, they also contribute to less humane environments. This is evident today as countless healthcare environments hinder the patient healing process due largely to poor technological integration. Therefore, as culture strives to improve healing methods, architecture should evolve to guide innovation and minimize set-back. Architecture should evolve not only to assimilate cultural shifts but simultaneously to improve lifestyles for humanity. For this reason, optimization needs to include interpretation that engages in a process of learning so that each architectural work can improve upon the next.

In the 21st century, architectural developments are redefining scalability. Architecture is evolving not only from era to era or from building to building, but from moment to moment and from occupant to occupant. Also, by injecting interpretation, architecture is capable of yielding plasticity to optimize environments for tuning occupant experience in real-time. Yes, form and function are essential to architectural evolution, but when interpretation becomes part of a building’s nervous system, architecture benefits via feedback into its own dynamic behavior. Such behavior results from communication between design, function and interpretation allowing adaptive architecture to use cultural shifting to leverage its ability to better serve human need. Of course, architects teach each other through their work; however, evaluation will be an increasingly shared responsibility between not just architects that design and elite critics that interpret, but also between architectural occupants that experience and perceive.

Interpretation is integral to architectural evolution so those with keen ability to observe, interpret and express are invaluable. Elite critics contribute to architectural advancement by distinguishing good architectural qualities from the bad. However, their interpretations also frequently blur the boundary between unbiased and biased evaluation. Herein, lies the problem when elite interpretation is based on conjecture rather than on direct experience. All too often, architectural information is unavailable for interpretation causing architectural evolution to lose ground.

Ironically, it is because critics and architects are human that such biases in interpretation occur. For example, the strong human tendency to want to stay with a given group or style may influence critics. Also, since elite critics and architects are highly specialized, they cannot humanly account for every possible variable impacting their architectural interpretation. Because of such limitations, the evolution of architecture has also been hindered, particularly in the advancement of architectural design for the whole human. Yet, in the future there is hope.

In the 21st century, architecture is becoming evermore transient, adapting from moment to moment. This adaptive architecture will learn by tuning to its occupants in real-time. Its memory will facilitate such adaptation by learning from each occupant interaction. Together, these interactions will yield a collective intelligence that will drive building behavior. Elite critics will need to consult with an adaptive building’s collective wisdom for proper interpretation.

Soon, we will be living in “[a] world governed less and less by boundaries and more and more by connections …”[1] Interpreting such ‘connections’ will require more intelligence than can be offered by an elite few. Therefore, the way critics interpret architecture in the future will likely have to change. Architecture will become evermore a complex adaptive system with a learning memory. It will nurture the collective wisdom of its occupants and this will improve not only its inherent behavioral learning but also the effectiveness of architect and elite critic interpretations.

Interpretation as Feedback

Interpretation is essential to architectural evolution. By pushing the conventions of architectural design, interpretation often unveils significant architectural patterns. For architects, elite interpretation frequently promotes self-improvement. While for occupants, elite interpretation serves to educate and enhance future experience. Yet, although it is often quite helpful, in the future elite interpretation will be increasingly limited by its top-down approach. Occupant feedback matters because collectively these opinions yield intelligence. By capitalizing on such collective wisdom, elite critics and architects may increase their effectiveness. Eventually, such bottom-up interpretation methods will serve to strengthen elite influence as well as reinforce reciprocal relationships between elite critics and architects.

Because of its composition, adaptive architecture can help elite critics and architects make better sense of architectural patterns. Its learning memory is ideal for the incorporation of bottom-up interpretation techniques as mentioned above. After all, it is with its occupant’s recorded collective wisdom that its dynamic, fleeting and elusive behavior can be made accessible for interpretation. Fundamentally, the collective must be understood to make sense of adaptive buildings.

Occupants actually become part of adaptive architecture as each of their interactions embeds into the building’s behavioral fabric. Consequently, interpreting architecture becomes the shared responsibility of not simply elite critics and architects but of building occupants as well. In fact, adaptive buildings will also evolve in a perpetual process of self-critique; dynamically tuning between occupant interactions and their own rule-based system. Adaptive architecture will have many opportunities to learn as it gives voice to its collective, making the process of elite interpretation more accurate, effective and relevant.

Of course, the relevance of elite interpretation is crucial as it will directly and quickly feedback into adaptive buildings. Accordingly, the relationship between elite critics and architects will grow ever closer. If they agree there is a problem they can assess the building’s behavior and tweak its rules. For example, when an office building is not optimally helping employees with productivity, elite interpretation can help architects revamp the building’s rules. To minimize employee stress, for instance, elite critics may adjust architectural lighting, acoustics, materiality and vistas to dynamically complement employee behaviors. Thus, with the help of elite interpretation, preexisting adaptive architecture can self-heal. The architect can simply fix the building’s rules to improve its behavior. Of course, adaptive architecture can also heal from the bottom up by using its rules to learn from the wisdom of its collective day after day.

Ultimately, collective wisdom is as important as elite interpretation. Both are expressed to directly impact adaptive buildings, helping to make them more human-centered. In this process, each will regulate the other via the architecture. The quality of elite interpretation will reflect in the quality of the building’s behavior. In turn, the collective will voice their opinion about such behavior, providing dynamic feedback to the elite. Of course, the architect and elite critic will need to factor client needs as well.  But ultimately, architectural interpretation will be a balance between the elite few and the collective. By extracting the wisdom from each, adaptive architecture will thrive.

Adaptive Architecture as a Complex Rule-based System

As adaptive architecture emerges, buildings will radiate with their own character. Extending beyond geographic limitations, this character will be influenced by local as well as global connections. This architecture will bridge the real with the virtual through its interactions and its character will reflect those experiences. Adaptive architecture will be dynamic and goal-oriented. Occupants will be its primary concern and its architect-designed rules will be the basis for its occupant-centered approach.

Rules moderating adaptive architecture will be simple, yet when coordinated, they will yield elegant architectural behaviors. Such rules will form connections between occupant behavior and architectural interaction. Essentially, rules will orchestrate how a building learns. For example, a hospital’s rules may be most concerned with healing while an office building’s rules may be most concerned with productivity. Ultimately, adaptive architecture’s rules will be the foundation for its adaptation process.

Because it will constantly tune to occupant interactions, adaptive architecture will be transient. This transience is likely to make interpretation more difficult for critics not knowing where and how to look. Ever-changing forms and functions may reveal a passing glimpse of adaptive architecture’s essence; but, for meaningful interpretation, elite critics will need to evaluate the building’s learning memory. Within, all occupant interactions will be recorded to yield a collective. This history of recordings will be large, diverse, minimally biased and subsequently, intelligent. By consulting this collective, elite critics will gain understanding of architectural behavior. After all, the character of an adaptive architecture will be nurtured by its collective and expressed in its behavioral fabric. That means that a building’s behavior will evolve over time and its occupants will play a key role in that development.

Of course, the architect will also have major influence on the behavior of an adaptive architecture. As initial rule-maker, the architect will leave an imprint that will become the primary focus for elite critics. Rules are the basis for complex adaptive systems and are key to evaluating how such buildings will learn. Fortunately, the collective reveals wisdom concerning how well given rules were initially designed. Given this, elite critics can interpret how well an adaptive architecture learns; thus, evaluating prior significance and future potential.

The focus of interpretation will evolve from evaluating “what is”, to evaluating “what could be”. For example, as adaptive buildings reach their equilibrium point when their learning curve flattens, interpretation becomes measure for revitalization. Interpretation will not only impact the health of preexisting buildings but will also impact the outcome of those still on the drawing board. Therefore, elite critics will continue to consult with the collective to ensure the advancement of adaptive architecture.

In the future, buildings and occupants will strengthen their relationship as each will benefit from interaction with the other. Adaptive architecture will tap into a fundamental human quality where “[…] the more responsibility people have for their own environments, the more engaged they will be.”[2] This fuels collective wisdom and generates a win-win situation where all benefit; the architect builds better buildings, the client obtains a building that evolves to meet their needs over time, the occupant has a say in their environment and elite critics more effectively impact architectural evolution. Needless to say, the architect, the client, the occupant and the elite critic will all have important functions. However, it is the wisdom of the collective that ultimately links all together to drive the system.

Collective Wisdom Becomes a Portal

Once the architect establishes the rules, the collective makes real-time decisions that influence form and function. In the book The Wisdom of Crowds the author explains that “you can let a thousand flowers bloom and then pick the one that smells the sweetest”.[3] With its wisdom, the collective picks the “sweetest” architectural experiences. Each decision feeds into the next, making the building’s behavior ever “sweeter”. With each successive occupant interaction, the adaptive architectural system refines itself according to its design rule framework. And as adaptive architecture tunes with each occupant its collective grows, making its wisdom evermore intelligent.

Elite critics will soon be able to evaluate, more precisely, how well an adaptive architecture relates to its occupants. Interpretation will focus on architectural learning for architectural tuning. Building behavior will evolve from real-time experience with the collective while building rules will use memory to learn from such experiences. Hence, interpreting adaptive architecture will mean evaluating its system rules.

The designer of such rules will be the architect since they will require design talent, insight and vision. Pressure to design the rules well will weigh heavily on the architect because a building’s success will be dependent upon them. In fact, one could argue that such rules will give adaptive architecture a type of predisposition. In other words, a building’s potential can be strengthened or weakened by its rules, no matter how intelligent its collective. Yet, it is collective wisdom that drives adaptive architecture to realize the fullest potential of its rules. By integrating feedback from the collective, rules yield adaptation. Although this occurs because such feedback from the collective is inherently intelligent; ultimately, a building’s collective will only be as good as its rule-based system. Each will need the other to benefit from their respective wisdoms.

Similarly, adaptive architecture will depend upon elite interpretation. Without this highly specialized understanding, the evolution of such buildings will be limited. Still, how will elite critics and architects gain meaningful insight into fleeting architectural events? Interpretation of adaptive architecture will be akin to an archeological dig because form will be as fleeting as function. Like archeologists, elite critics will uncover buried behavioral clues to be found within the recorded interactions involving the collective. Such information will serve to anchor an adaptive building’s dynamic forms with its functions in time. The same collective wisdom that once steered the building will then guide elite critics as well.

So, the collective will help elite interpretation to transcend space and time. Such need to rely on the collective will increase with the pervasiveness of architectural technology. Although memory will be critical for the interpretation of transient systems, it is its interpretation that must maintain relevance. This means that elite critics and architects will need to incorporate contextual significance to correctly influence systems. For this, the collective will serve as a portal into the connections driving a building’s behavior.

Adaptive building’s will each have their own character, but through them will flow numerous cultures. Each building will tune for individuals at both macro and micro scales. For instance, a building may encompass global communication, national security, local culture and personal preferences at any given moment. Depending on its rules, adaptive architecture can become quite complex in how it blends cultural rhythms. The cultures that it inhales will reflect in the character that it exhales. All the while, its learning memory will preserve what its physical form cannot. As elite critics and architects interpret this living memory, they will be able to piece together details yielding experience of what once was. Even if the building still stands, it will be important for elite critics to interpret its past. In doing so, collective wisdom will facilitate the interpretation of not only what was, but also of what is and what will be. Elite critics will find meaningful patterns within cultural contexts to critique the design of architectural rules.

Critiquing the Rules

Sensory Design explains that “an event is usually far richer in nuance than the language used to describe it.”[4] Once an architectural event has passed, nuance begins to fade and subsequent interpretations suffer. Similarly, when perception is formed from another’s perception, nuance will also be lost. Therefore, the perception of occupants should not completely replace the perception of the elite few. Instead, elite critics should evaluate occupant perception to form their own expert interpretations.

Adaptive architecture will provide critics with different perspectives. Event nuance will be captured within its memory, frozen within the recordings of occupant interactions. This collective wisdom will provide critics with meaningful detail making-up the architectural experience they are to interpret. This calls upon elite critics to make sense of collective data because universally “[t]he crowd is blind to its own wisdom.”[5] In the future, the challenge will not be in the lacking of detailed information about a building, but rather, in the complexity of interpreting large quantities of such information. For this, the collective will pool wisdom from its mass diversity so elite critics can provide more specialized expert evaluation. It is likely that elite critics will become experts in architectural experience via the rule-based systems that form them.

Since adaptive architecture will indeed be rule based, interpretation and critique of such buildings will primarily be rule oriented. Such rules will establish dynamic relationships between architectural elements to yield a variety of emergent behaviors. Equipped with a learning memory, rules will be showcased through the collective. For this reason, elite critics may deconstruct architectural experience to strategically enhance architectural systems. Simply stated, adjusting the rules will alter an adaptive building’s behavior.

Adaptive architecture learns as its rules interpret experience. In fact, achieving its learning potential will greatly depend on the relationship between its rules and its experience. Architects will have to consider occupants in an entirely new dimension as adaptive architecture gains precision in its ability to meet individual human need.

Focus will shift from interpreting form and function to interpreting the rules that yield form and function. Evaluating architecture will involve interpretation at all scales since small and simple system adjustments will have widespread and complex architectural effects. Adaptive architecture will display emergent behavior as such effects ripple through the sum of its parts. In the end, interpretation will evaluate how well an adaptive architecture negotiates between its rules and its collective. The better the building’s rules then the better the building’s behavior.

With collective wisdom, elite critics will interpret an adaptive building’s prior significance and future potential. In addition, architectural memory will turn the passage of time into a help rather than a hindrance. Consequently, the process of deconstruction and reconstruction will become more meaningful for elite critics and architects. As the wisdom of the collective is harnessed, so too, will be the potency and effectiveness of architectural interpretation. Finally, architecture will experience significant evolutionary growth, redefining what it means to design for the whole human.



[1] Flachbart, Georg and Peter Weibel. Disappearing Architecture. (Basel: Birkhauser, 2005), 14.

[2] Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. (New York: Anchor Books, 2005), 212.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Malnar, Joy Monice and Frank Vodvarka. Sensory Design. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 70.

[5] Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds. op. cit., 36.