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The Role of "Unbuildable Ideas" In Your Design Process


Maria Lorena Lehman


Founder — Sensing Architecture ® Academy

‍Image Credit: © taw4 | Fotolia

The Importance of the "Unbuildable" Idea

What if while designing, your creative exploration takes you down a path toward an architectural idea that is "unbuildable"? Once you make the realization that your design approach cannot be physically realized…what do you do next?

There is a tendency only to qualify "extraordinary design" as a buildable idea that can be used. However, does this mean that unbuildable designs have no purpose, or are not extraordinary?

On the contrary, I believe that there is tremendous purpose for the so-called "unbuildable design". For example, a design idea that cannot be realized today, may guide the way for innovations to make it possible in the future. One may need to explore more deeply as to why a design idea is unbuildable. Does the technology not exist to turn the idea into reality? Does the idea only express itself in an impressionistic manner, only to defy the laws of physics – thus rendering it unbuildable?

Really, very few ideas are in fact, unbuildable. The real question becomes: Is your idea worthy of being built? If it is, then can it be built now? Or must new innovations (technologies, materials, etc) be created to bring it into the real-world for use? Or, is your idea a stepping stone toward a bigger and better idea that, without its predecessor, could not have been realized?

As you can see, an unbuilt design can have many reasons for being. And an unbuilt design can impact its viewers deeply. For example, a "paper project" of an enormous glass sphere building may not be feasible or even wanted right now, but this may inspire those experiencing the "paper" version of this idea. Perhaps seeing this idea in its “unbuildable” form is a unique experience as  is.

Discovering Idea Breakthroughs

Within your own design process, it is important to think laterally and to push your creations into unexpected realms. This allows you to discover new insights about a design solution, and to re-frame the design problem. At times, your ideas will lead nowhere. At other times, your ideas will guide you toward breakthroughs that seem to give your work a quantum leap in creativity and quality. Yet, how do you get there?

If all of your idea generation is measured and controlled, you will not be able to make those necessary lateral associations that spark the best design breakthroughs. Thus, the key is to allow a creative path that leads where you probably did not anticipate.

In other words, do not try to avoid the discovery of an "unbuildable idea" – instead, you should embrace it and then analyse its worth. Does it guide the future of technology in some way? Does it change a design paradigm in some way? Does it trigger a next idea that is even better...and perhaps buildable? Or is it simply beautiful as is? If an unbuildable idea has worth, the question is not whether it should be shared, but...How will it be shared?


what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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