Form Follows Inspiration

Published 13 September 2023

Written By Olivier Brehaut


As an architectural educator, I have the privilege of guiding students through their journey of discovery and learning. The following text, written by student Olivier Brehaut, offers a glimpse into his exploration of the dynamic and intricate world of architectural design during our second-year design studio at Curtin University. Olivier's exploration of the design process and his thoughtful insight on how inspiration, drawn from architectural precedents and figures, can shape the pre-design stage of a project are insightful and offer valuable lessons. Throughout this article, Olivier demonstrates an astute understanding of the importance of staying connected to initial research and conceptual inspirations to maintain the integrity of a design.

His application of these principles in our design studio, where he skillfully incorporated influences from architectural greats like Bernard Tschumi and Santiago Calatrava, illustrates the potential of a research and precedent-based approach to architectural design. As can be seen in his great set of drawings and diagrams, his skillful transformation of an idea into a fully realised architectural concept, strikes a clear balance between conceptual development, response to the human experience and the context within which it is situated.

Joel Benichou

Form Follows Inspiration: A Student’s Architectural Design Journey

By Olivier Brehaut

Architectural design processes can differ significantly among architects and architecture students. The process may differ depending on several factors such as the intent, project brief, and the client's preferences. As a student of architecture, I discovered the critical role inspiration plays in the pre-design stage. Throughout my studies, the initial research phase has been a pivotal part of the design process, whether gathering analytical data or, more importantly, drawing inspiration for concepts from various architectural figures and works.

In the realm of architectural study and practice, uncovering design inspiration is an intriguing and crucial journey. This journey often varies from one architect or architecture student to another, shaped by variables such as design intent, project brief, and client's specific needs. As an architecture student, my exploration into this led me to understand the fundamental role that inspiration plays in the pre-design stage. During these early days as an architectural student, I have discovered the design process heavily hinges upon the initial research phase - a stage that involves the meticulous gathering of analytical information, and more significantly, the absorption of creative inspiration from key architectural figures and their established conceptual approaches.

For students of architecture, it can be challenging to identify relevant inspiration during the development of the initial concept. This can often lead to final designs that are detached from their original idea and research. Many often forge ahead on designs, with the intent of reverse-engineering a concept once the final form has taken shape. From my personal experience, I have found that such an approach often leads to more problematic outcomes, manifesting a design not rooted in research, and expressing a disregard for the true design process. It is crucial that the journey and steps taken from the initial concept to the final design remains clear and concise. Furthermore, these steps need to be graphically communicated through drawings and diagrams to allow the final design to be traced back to its conceptual roots.

My most recent design studio, led by Joel Benichou, serves as an apt example. This second-year design studio held at Curtin University, demonstrated the importance of sketching and research in the early phases of the design process and allowed me to draw inspiration from several sources in an effort to arrive at a wholistic and complete design concept that reflected the needs of multiple avenues.

I think the essence of any design lies in human experience and the ability to respond to culture, society, context, and the individuals who inhabit the architecture. Characteristics such as these drove me to develop a strong concept that was coherent and reactive to these vital issues. My initial research segmented into key phases, which were specific to the client, site, and experience. I aimed to represent these phases directly in the built form. Initial sketch designs served as a useful tool for this purpose. Sketching, for me, was an expressive means to ideate and graphically represent an idea in an architectural form, further highlighting the importance of the concept and design process.

In the studio, finding inspiration and exploring a robust precedent was important for me. I looked to Bernard Tschumi's pre-design work, particularly his 1981 publication, the Manhattan Transcripts. This collection of Tschumi’s photographs and corresponding sketches expressed theoretical built forms arising from real-life events in New York City. The realisation of form in conceptual drawings based on human movement and sequencing was an entirely novel perspective for me. The Manhattan Transcripts, when combined with my site and client analysis, ignited initial concepts for the studio assignment, accentuating the diverse ways in which architecture can be graphically represented and further explored.

Transcripts by Bernard Tschumi - 1981

When applying this into the project and analysing its relevance, I discerned that this graphical representation drove the design process and concept to focus on human movement and capturing that within the architecture. It emphasised a sequencing of events occurring within space. This concept was visualised by capturing still images of the client during their occupation using a tool known as chronophotography, and further converting key movement moments into an architectural form.

This strategy helped maintain a consistent focus on the client, in this case, a trapeze artist, throughout the concept. Individual trapeze acts aligned well with this theme, as the client's body movement took center stage. By drawing inspiration from the proposed architectural programs of the Manhattan Transcripts, the contemporary project could represent an architecture responsive to an individual or society, just as Tschumi’s did. In my project, I sought to convert Tschumi’s propositional concept into a more developed scheme that integrated the individual and society in its form and function for their benefit. The graphic presentation style was another element I adopted, as laying out the sketches sequentially amplified the graphical depiction of the client’s movement and expressed the continuous instability and unpredictability in the form.

As illustrated above, the initial sketches which highlighted key moments and sequences of body movement from a trapeze act, formed the foundation of the project from initial phases to the end of the process. The Tschumi inspiration sought to use the body movements of the client to design a space with reflections on space, form and event, thus reflecting the client's life and their specific characteristics. In the experimentation phase of the design, I found similar architectural works and ideas by Santiago Calatrava. He too was interested in movement and suggested ideas about how it could be translated into an architectural setting, further adding upon Tschumi’s narrative. He asserted that form and function follow gesture and are rooted in research into nature, the human body, and movement. His philosophy and pursuit of the concept resonated with my design. I connected with the moments and reactions Calatrava sought to achieve and wanted to overlay these ideas in my design process.

The goal was to create a structure that catered entirely to the program and committed itself to the individual inhabiting it, yet was also approachable and incorporated all that way happening on its neighboring street. This understanding of human experience allowed my experimentation of the design to develop thoroughly, even at a schematic stage.

Having already captured the still images of human movement and broken them down, I was able to conceive an ambiguous space that could serve these purposes. The initial sketches then evolved into similar diagrams, which echoed the Manhattan Transcripts of Tschumi in a more individualistic way. The openness this inspiration afforded to the design process embraced iteration and the early phases, making these sketches and diagrams of experimentation and iteration an integral part of the design. These diagrammatic experimentations of form, representing the client's bodily movement, expressed a further architectural development and aided in visualising the concept in a simple and conceptual way. Initially, I aimed to avoid overthinking the practical and pragmatic elements of the space, however, I found that the conceptual drivers of diagrams and sketches provided a platform for the design to be explored more realistically.

When the time came to assemble all the pieces of the design, with a focus on movement and sequencing, it was crucial to ensure that the space remained connected to the surrounding context. The site, Hay Street in Subiaco, embodied individual moments of heritage and assembly, which could be perceived as a core character element of the suburb. Combining the concept with urban engagement proved to be a strong aspect of the design, enabling it to thrive as a responsive proposal. A design that catered to a specific client's needs also reacted to the urban field around it, with human experience as the primary driver of the design.

The final design was a single residency dwelling for a trapeze artist, incorporating features such as an interior courtyard, balcony space, and separate living and dining quarters. These design features were influenced by the representation of bodily movement and the sequencing of spaces through chronophotography and the combination of still imagery. The space serves the client and helps them understand themselves through a built environment, integrating them into the broader urban landscape and connecting them to the exterior community. The final design output included the graphically represented process, from start to finish, capturing depictions of space, sequence, and movement.

The journey of an architecture student is marked with explorations, challenges, and creative triumphs. The process of developing a concept, nurturing it with inspiration, and translating it into a tangible architectural form is an intriguing voyage. Drawing inspiration from established precedents, whether contemporary or historical, can be an overwhelming task, especially when the canvas of creativity appears stretched to its limits. Yet, it is precisely in these circumstances that the richness of architecture is discovered. The experience shared in this project, centered around the representation of bodily movement in design, underscores the effectiveness of a structured approach to the design process - one rooted in passionate research and the careful analysis of topics and issues. Through this lens, architecture transcends the physicality of bricks and mortar, evolving into a unique representation of the client, the context, and the myriad inspirations that feed its inception. Whether it is a second-year studio or a real-world project, this process highlights the importance of inspiration in transforming architectural concepts into built forms. Thus, as architecture students, our task is to continue this exploration, capturing the essence of our inspirations and manifesting them into the architectural narratives we create.

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