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The Tools For Community Co-Design Are Thousands of Years Old

In recent years much has been made about architecture’s inability to connect with the broader public—our tendency to preach to our already converted choirs. Some of this, no doubt, is related to style; some of it is the result of our failure to communicate our value—and values. But we do have living examples of community centered design all around us, from the Parthenon, Chartres Cathedral, and ancient Japanese temples and gardens, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and Faye Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel.

So what do these timeless places and spaces have in common? Why do they resonate with so many people who have little or no formal training? What design tools were used to create them? Some are lessons passed down from the antiquities, while others are more subtle—hiding inside of our own DNA. The following are eight examples of design resources that have, over centuries, been applied to community-centered place making:


For thousands of years, designers have found inspiration in nature: the forests of columns in ancient Egyptian temples, the organic forms of Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral. Architects have long been enamored with manifesting both the functional and formal intricacies of the natural world. These designs draw from many of the scientific laws that lie beneath the surface of nature’s design, which is why they often resonate with both designers and lay people alike. They are literally connected to our bodies. We sometimes hear that there’s no design that can please everyone, but flowers come pretty close. Perhaps the shape of a spiraling young fern was the inspiration for the swirling volutes in the Ionic column capital.



Many architects have discovered design tools through the study of cultural archetypes.  For example, when you ask a child to draw a picture of a house, you usually get a square with a triangular roof on top. Contemporary architect Hugh Newell Jacobson has adapted this enduring residential form to create designs that are at the same time ageless and edgy.




There’s a deep relationship between beauty and proportion. The sunflower, for example,  has long been admired by mathematicians and geometers for its special mathematical proportions, called the Fibonacci Numbers , that can be seen in its spiraling center florets. These same numerical relationships can also be found in the elegant spiral of the chambered nautilus, or in the proportions of our own bodies, where they’re connected with our mind’s perceptions of grace and beauty. The integration of these relationships into the design of Medieval and Renaissance cathedrals resulted in some of the most magnificent buildings in the world.


Buckminster Fuller’s fascination with triangles led to a geometric concept called synergetics, and eventually to the design of geodesic domes. The Lindisfarne Chapel, in Crestone Colorado, designed by a diverse team, including historian William Irwin Thompson and architect Keith Chritchlow, utilizes some of the same physical proportions found in Buddhist temples to create a contemporary space that resonates with the higher orders of geometric harmony in the universe.



Some of civilization’s most iconic architectural creations have been derived from our primitive need to manifest the connections between earth and other elements of the universe. Imagine the fierce curiosity of the stone-age monument builders, as they created designs to track the trajectories of those mysterious, ethereal bodies. These ideas now appear to be simple when compared with the latest thinking about space and time, black holes, worm holes, dark matter and other extreme astrophysical phenomena. But these new concepts also offer fresh ground for architectural cosmology in our own time.




Before the advent of the industrial revolution, human comfort could only be regulated through design principles that were embodied in nature. Cities and buildings were laid out based on the trajectory of the sun, the direction of wind currents, the availability of water and other natural phenomena. These tools are still being used by contemporary designers, including architect Glenn Murcutt, whose design philosophy is to “touch the earth lightly.” Meanwhile, other designers are working to improve solar, geothermal and other technologies that maximize the use of renewable sources of energy.



In ancient times, designers used images of eggs (representing birth) and spears (representing death) to create architectural motifs that manifested nature’s rhythmic cycles. This kind of storytelling often involved collaborations with intuitive visual artists and builders. From ancient Egypt and Greece to the tribal villages of West Africa, this integration of creative artifacts with building design is an art form that is shared between architects and visual artists. Examples include Rockefeller Center in New York City, created by architect Raymond Hood, working in close collaboration with a host of painters, sculptors and skilled craftspeople.



Natural selection is nature’s way of determining more elegant ways of doing things. In our own time we can find many examples of iterative design thinking, such as the progression of furniture design from a primitive three-legged log stool to a more contemporary version created by the renowned Scandinavian designer Alvar Aalto.



Designers who engage diverse groups of stakeholders in authentic co-design can help support community empowerment. Shared rituals, such as barn raising, community gardening, and other collaborative building models, are closely linked to survival in some cultures.

After the earthquake in Kobe, planner Yoshimi Amakawa set about planting sunflower gardens and handing out sunflower seeds as a means of engaging local citizens in the rebuilding process. Soon sunflowers were cropping up all over town, as symbols of the city’s recovery. Samuel Mockbee, whose Alabama-based Rural Studio, rekindled some important collaborative design practices; the group continues their efforts in Hale County, under the direction of Andrew Freear.

The impending impacts of climate change and a potentially catastrophic rise in sea levels are now driving the critical need to both reconnect with these creative resources and add new ones, as we find them in the mathematical, physical, anthropological, organizational and other realms in our own time.


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