Concept versus Context(s) There is no architecture without a concept—an overarching idea, diagram, or parti that gives coherence and identity to a building. Concept, not form, is what distinguishes_archi- tecture from mere building. However, there is also no architecture without context (except in utopia). A work of architecture is always in situ, or “in situation,” located on a site and within a setting. The context may be historical, geographical, cultural, political, or eco- nomic. It is never solely a matter of its visual dimension, or what in the 1980s and 1990s was termed “contextuaiism," with an implied aesthetic conservatism.
Lwithin architecture, concept and context are inseparable. Frequently, they also conflict. The concept may negate or ignore the circumstances that surround it, while the context may blur or dampen the precision of an architectural idea.
— Should one of these two terms take precedence over the other? The history of architecture abounds in debates between the partisans of tabula rasa (concept) and those of genius loci (context), or between generic concepts and specific contexts. The answer may lie not in the triumph of one over the other, but in the exploration of the relatjonship between concept and context. As a starting point, it is useful to look at three basic ways in which concept and context may relate:
Indifference, whereby the idea and its siting are superbly ignorant of one another—a kind of accidental collage in which both coexist but do not interact. Poetic juxtapositions or irresponsible impositions may result.
Reciprocity, whereby the architectural concept and its context interact closely with one another, in a complementary way, so that they seem to merge seamlessly ínto a single continuous entity.
Conflict, whereby the architectural concept is strategically made to clash with its con- text, in a battle of opposites in which both protagonists may need to negotiate their own "sõíviváfr-
These three strategies—indifference, reciprocity, and conflict—are all valid architectural approaches. Selecting the appropriate strategy for a given project is part of the concept.
If we agree that concept and context invariably are engaged in some sort of relationship, the question arises: can a concept be contextualized, or a context conceptualized? Contextualizing a conceptjmeans adapting it to the circumstances of a particular site or political situation. ^nceptualizing a context means tuming the idiosyncrasies and con- straints of a context into the driving force behind the development of an architectural idea or concept, not unlike the tactic of a judo player who uses the strength of his opponent to his own advantage.
Concept versus Content What about content then? There is no architectural space without something that hap- pens in it, no space without content/Most architects begin with a program, that is, a list of users’ requirements describing the intended purpose of the building. At various
moments in architectural history, it has been claimed that program or function can be the generator of form, that “form follows function,” or perhaps that “form follows contentIn order to avoid engaging in a discourse of form per se or of form versus content, the word “form" is replaced here with the word ‘'concept.” Can one therefore substitute “form follows function" with an altemative formulation, namely, “concept follows content"?
) The concept of a building, however, can precede the insertion of a program or content,
; since a neutral Container can house any number of activities. Conversely, a given programmatic element can be exacerbated or thematized to such an extent that it becomes the concept of the building. For example, in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright takes one implicit element of the program—the movement through a building in a linear fashion from entrance to exit—and conceptualizes it in the form of a continuous ramp that ultimately characterizes the museum. The fact that the ramp configuration may or may not derive from a parking-garage typology is secondary to the determination of the building’s overall concept.
The above example suggests that the relationship between content and concept, like that between context and concept, can be one of indifference, reciprocity, or conflict as well. For instance, one may cook in the open (indifference), in thejthe bedroom (conflict) Or. to use a less domestic example. one can choose to bicycle in a plaza (indifference), a velodrome (reciprocity), or in a concert hall (conflict).
A program or content can also be utilitarian or symbolic. The relationships of indifference, reciprocity, or conflict apply in either case. For example, a memorial can be made of water, trees, and light, or it can consist of a night Club, dancing bodies, and blaring sounds. Consequently, content can qualify or disqualify concepts.
Content versus Context(s) What about the relationship between context and content? Debates about the uses appropriate to a given place generally occur outside architecture, namely, within society at large. The construction of an airport within a nature preserve or a shopping center in a historical district are familiar examples of polemicai juxtapositions of context and content. Yet such oppositions can lead to challenging architectural or social concepts, as exem- plified by the military landing strips built inside tunnels in the Swiss Alps during World War II, or the major shopping mall constructed undemeath the Louvre in Paris.[in other words, a bird sanctuary may or may not be located in a park, a store in a shopping mall, or a swimming pool in the ocean. The relationship between content and context can also be one of indifference, reciprocity, or confíict. J
Fact versus Interpretation Although architects generally make a clear distinction between what is given (context) and what is to be conceived (concept), the relationship is not so simple. Rather than_a_ given, context is something defined by the observer, in the same way that a scientific fact is influenced by the observation of the scientist. Contexts are framed and„defined by. concepts, just as the reverse is true. Context is not a fact; it is always a matter of interpretation. The context for a preservationist is not necessarily the same as that for an industrialist. The preservationist sees a natural habitat for fish where the industrialist en- visions water turbines providing energy for thousands. Context is often ideological and hence, may be qualified or disqualified by concepts.
A Genealogy of Concepts The history of architecture is not so drfferent from the history of Science. It is a history of forms of conceptualization.^Elaborating a concept means beginning with a question or problem that often builds upon previous concepts, but that does not presuppose the exis- tence of a specific answer or solution
Throughout this history, architects have been fascinated by the temptations of utopia and universality, namely, by concepts that can be applie^, unaltered, to all situations and cul- jures. Hence our obsession with ideal geometries, mathematical models, and social archetypes. This applies as much to the digital as it does to the analog era. If one was to try to reconstitute a genealogy of architectural concepts, one would no doubt find that architecture is filled with unquestioned presuppositions, including those preconceived ideas that dissimulate unauthorized, forbidden territories, precluding new inventions or discoveries. Such a genealogy would list general concepts such as order, structure, form, nierarchy, and specific ones such as base-middle-top, or plan-libre. Most importantly, it might also uncover another history, in which concepts simply derive from the very con- texts they have to address. It would also show that concepts evolve through their con- frontation with context and/or content.
Without the generic overview imparted by concepts, no objective knowledge would be possible; yet, without the specificity imposed by contexts and contents. the world would be reduced to the rigid and predictable rule of a conceptual framework. A genealogy of concepts might therefore show a record of contaminations of the purity of concepts by the messiness of their contexts, in which concepts and contexts collide in apparently unpre- dictable and yet strategic ways.