Monday, March 5, 2012

Vision and Constraints: Does the Design Make Sense?

Lately I've been coming up against size constraints in my work. This is frustrating because I have been wanting to make monumental size clay sculptures. Two constraints in particular have emerged as problems. First, kiln size is obviously a limiting factor. Second, the physical strength of the clay both fired and unfired is a problem I'm up against.


I know my readers have all kinds of ideas for me. For the kiln size problem, people have told me to plan my sculptures so I can build them out of several pieces (I do love modular work). For the problem of strength people have suggested I use paper clay. There are all kinds of solutions out there.

Prairie Tower

But I want to step back and look at this outside of the ceramics question. When I teach evolution to my students we always look at the statement that summarizes the "mechanistic theory," BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS ARE CONSTRAINED BY PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL CONDITIONS.

Garlic festival

If we look at this statement from an evolutionary perspective these so-called "physical and chemical conditions" are the same thing as "selective pressures," which were first conceived by Charles Darwin. Selective pressures are the endless random small and large conditions that are "out there," which influence survival of an individual. I think we can look at the mechanistic theory and selective pressures in terms of survival of a clay sculpture too.

Bend in the River

As a matter of fact I extend the idea to architecture and design when I teach the concept to my students at the Boston Architectural College. After a lecture on the history and behavior of evolutionary systems I ask them to shout out their ideas about what "constrains" a design system.

Public space

Their answers are always spot on. Physical, legal, and economic constraints are always high on their minds. As we brainstorm about how the mechanistic theory applies to built environments we start to model constraints to successful design that need to be overcome. By holding our design vision up to these constraints we can ask ourselves, "Does the design make sense?"


Living systems answer this question every day, and have done so through millions and millions of years. Survival and extinction are the only alternatives. As I write this I am becoming aware of the powerful connections between science, art, design, and problem-solving. These connections strengthen our work I think, whether we are collaborating in a team or working by ourselves. What's your opinion?

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