Context-sensitive design

This view, in Bundi, inspired Kipling to write Kim - which is full of 'context-sensitive' local character.More design (cities, architecture, landscapes, gardens etc) should be more context-sensitive:

  • it is more sustainable (less energy, local plants, local materials etc)
  • traditions which have survived what Christopher Alexander calls ‘an endless period of time’ are likely to be adapted to local cultural and geographical circumstances
  • local character is what local residents usually want
  • local character is what tourists usually want

I am NOT however arguing against innovation, which local people and tourists can all appreciate. I am arguing that every design team MUST explain and MUST justify the contextual approach they have adopted. Similarity, Identity and Difference are all welcome in the right circumstances. Garden travel is one of life’s great pleasures – and it helps one see that Russian design should not be copied in China, French design should not be copied in Russia, American design should not be copied in Dubai, British design should not be copied in India, Japanese design should not be copied in America, etc etc etc. Mobile phones and cameras are international go-anywhere products. Designed gardens and landscapes should have local roots, however much they learn from elsewhere. Curiously, designers often understand this best when working outside the countries in which they were born.

The photograph is of the garden in Bundi where Rudyard Kipling wrote Kim, and possibly wondered:

Winds of the World give answer! They are whimpering to and fro

And what should they know of England who only England know?

11 thoughts on “Context-sensitive design

  1. Christine

    Definition of MUST:

    Etymology: Middle English moste, from Old English mōste, past indicative & subjunctive of mōtan to be allowed to, have to; akin to Old High German muozan to be allowed to, have to

    Date: before 12th century
    verbal auxiliary

    1 a: be commanded or requested to b: be urged to : ought by all means to
    2: be compelled by physical necessity to : be required by immediate or future need or purpose to
    3 a: be obliged to : be compelled by social considerations to b: be required by law, custom, or moral conscience to c: be determined to d: be unreasonably or perversely compelled to
    4: be logically inferred or supposed to
    5: be compelled by fate or by natural law to
    6: was or were presumably certain to : was or were bound to
    7dialect : may , shall —used chiefly in questions
    intransitive verb
    archaic : to be obliged to go


    MUST does seem to have many definitions….and these are only some of them! (I am supposing some are more dangerous than others?)

  2. stefan

    ha ha. well, all of those sound kind of draconian.

    seriously, there are places where the existing context may be weak or some other solution is needed. i’d hate to approach a design with any sort of fixed ideas

  3. Christine

    Me too. I have always love the blank page approach. And the thrill of discovering the design, letting it unfold, surprise, grow and become more nuanced…

    Can you think of an example of a weak context? Or a place where another (type of?) solution might be needed?

  4. stefan

    perhaps a new build estate, with no history of its own, and where the existing landforms have been levelled and built over?

    there is a strong case for context sensitive design, especially on sites with a long history or a special atmosphere. here you can build organically on what already exists.

    creating a sense of place i think, depends a lot on creating the right mood or feeling, and its the over literal approach to a places history or context that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Tom gave a very good example of this, where the designer of a paving scheme had used stretches of black stone to represent coal seams. but a street and a coal seam dont have much to do with each other, when you think about it

  5. Christine

    Aha. I think with the example Tom gave he was right.

    But it may not have been the concept [wanting to connect with the history of coal mining] or the idea [using black stone to represent coal in the pavement] that was the problem, rather the resolution of the idea and the concept within the design solution.

    Here is how I see it:

    The stream of thought (about the site and how you might approach it)…is a little bit like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good and when she was bad she was horrid.

    Whether the solution is beautiful or not will depend on the resolution of the concept [topographic referencing], idea [pathways and road as streams flowing to an island]. Whether the deisgn is functionally successful will depend on whether you fulfil your design objective [creating inviting patterns of movement and rest into, within and out of the site.]

    Fortuneately, having already seen examples of your work, if I was the client I would have a good deal of faith that you could deliver on your concepts and ideas!

  6. christine

    It depends on your definition of ‘contextual’. See Tom’s comments on identity, difference, similarity and coalition. These theories are broad enough to allow for creative scope (novelty and originality) when designing. In this way contextual design does not inhibit creation and change.

    Contextual design enables the designer to both understand the ‘parametres’ of a design problem and test the ‘strength’ of a design solution. They reflect what we do as designers intuitively most of the time.

    The theories are useful for understanding how to place an object (ie. a fountain)…

    1. What does the fountain look like?
    2. What does the context look like?
    3. What is the purpose of the fountain? What relationship are you trying to achieve between what the fountian looks like and what the context looks like?

    Useful sites for starting to think about placement of fountain are THE FOUNTAIN AT KEW GARDENS (example)and the associated link to FOUNTAINS (range and history of types).


    ….through to considering the placement of facilities for events such as the equestrian etc events in a complex environment such as the historic and evolving Greenwich Park.


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