Create a hierarchy of ideas

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

15. Create a hierarchy of ideas

Another lesson gathered from teaching a Design Thesis studio last year at the University of Melbourne involved the crafting of ideas. Watching a group of students initiate, develop and refine their projects, I was able to appreciate the pitfalls of confusion and the benefits of clarity.

A building is a complex beast, whose formation has the tendency to attract many ideas: one idea to define its urban presence, another to define its structure, yet another to define its programming. Without careful attention, these ideas become confused or even contradictory. The best students were those who were able to restrict this tendency and distill the entire, multifaceted complexity of architecture into a tiny group of driving ideas. This tiny group instructs a bigger group of secondary ideas which in turn instructs a tertiary group, a quaternary group and so on.

When executed well, even the most insignificant of details can trace its developmental lineage back to that first, core group of ideas. It’s called a hierarchy of ideas and, like a tree, has a clear logic:

  • All the research and early development of the design, the parts of the project never seen but nevertheless integral to its stability, are the tree’s roots
  • The core ideas are supported by this research – they are the trunk
  • Interpretations of the core ideas for specific facets of the project (form, programme, history, context etc.) are the branches
  • Tertiary ideas, for instance relating to space and sequence, are the twigs
  • Quaternary ideas relating to details are the leaves

This distillation requires serious effort but is rewarded when a stranger comes to the final design for the first time and is able to read its core ideas in its final spaces.

Create a hierarchy of ideas.

About Warwick Mihaly

Warwick Mihaly is a principal architect of Mihaly Slocombe, teaches design and construction, and writes.
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