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Design Intentions // Wendy Lai


In architecture, as with any creative field, design intentions are an important and integral part of design process. Without this core foundation, nothing substantial can be produced. This model helps to establish a starting point where ideas can be tested and contested. After all, design intentions help set parameters and constraints so that the main concept and its inhabitant’s wants and needs are kept in sight. But, too often, these intentions become skewed by its creator due to personal expression, philosophy, assumptions and so on. Specifically, this boils down to the architect’s intentions (how it should work) vs the end user’s reality (how it really works). An architect’s intentions don’t always come through.


An example is the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia by Louis Kahn. Kahn envisioned an Italian hill town but created “the image of a medieval city bristling with menacing defense towers” instead (Gutman, 2014). His main focus was on the idea of function. Instead of analyzing the physical use, he philosophically explored the essence of the building’s intended use. Kahn’s design intention now became the answer to the architectural form of the building. “He was consumed by an almost mystical vision of architecture. Buildings for him were not inert configurations of form and space but living organic entities, created by the architect for human use. Thus Kahn asked himself not how to accommodate economically or beautifully, this or that space requirement, but what does the building want to be?” (Gutman, 2014)

One of Kahn’s primary ideas was the division of “served” and “servant” spaces. At the Richards Medical Research Building, the served spaces are the laboratories themselves where light flooded into because “…it is light that brings architecture to life…openings in the wall are not for views or for continuity with nature, but to admit light to the interior space.” (Gutman, 2014) The servant spaces are an independent shaft for ventilation and stairways attached to the outside of the laboratory towers. Kahn had a clear articulation of his concept for the building but he let his creative expression and assumptions take over and therefore neglected the human factors in the design.


Kahn believed that scientists would work better in an open studio environment so he designed a large open room on each floor for laboratories with an abundance of natural lighting. He also thought that by leaving the ductwork exposed in the ceiling he was making an architectural statement and made it easier to reconfigure laboratory equipment when necessary. But in reality, scientists found it hard to work in the space that Kahn designed due to the huge amount of glare from the windows.  They wanted more privacy and separation from each other while conducting individual experiments. Partitions, and in some cases, dropped ceilings were added for labs that required dust control. Yet, with all these shortcomings, Kahn was praised by the architectural community. The Richards Medical Research Building, with its new approaches, was considered breakthrough work in modern architecture for Kahn.


Reflecting back on our Alma City Pool + Park project, we ran into quite a similar predicament of design intentions and ultimately had an interesting outcome. Our team didn’t exactly “win” the friendly design competition to build the shade structure for the city of Alma, but we proposed a radical design that we thought encompassed the characteristics, charms, and culture of this Kansas small town while paving the road to expand and grow in the future. We knew that it was important keep old traditions while exemplifying the “City of Native Stone” as it is one of the few gateways to the Flint Hills and a part of the highly endangered Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem. But at the same time, we wanted to help move things along in this sleepy little town by introducing a “contemporary” shading structure in their public park and pool. We also proposed implementing the overall design in phases to better organize their park elements, more shade, seating, and the opportunity to bring back an Olympic-size pool in the future with intentions of generating community pride, ownership, and economic development. In the end, the city of Alma chose another design proposal because they already knew what they wanted and they wanted more shade and seating in the immediate future. Even though we proposed a shade structure with seating, just like they asked for, our extensive proposal might have chased them away. From an end user’s perspective, we did not meet their expectations/wants but as designers and visionaries, I think we pushed the envelope and came up with a design proposal that was unique.  

Alma City Park+Pool: Phase 4 Master Plan with olympic sized pool

Alma City Park+Pool: Proposed shade structure

Intentions, as much as we would like them to, don’t always shine through in the end. But as a designer, it is important to articulate a clear, compelling vision because it is what elevates and set you apart from others. It also ennobles the problem at hand, one that seems potentially dull and insignificant.  Inevitably, balancing the dichotomy of pleasing everyone while exploring your intentions will always be a challenge. You don’t always succeed but it is important to fight for design intentions because this is how innovation is born.

Written by Wendy Lai

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