When speaking of context architecturally, it is referring to the surrounding character of buildings, landmarks, street patterns, or geography such as land forms, topography or bodies of water. In an urban condition, it is considered by some to be “good design” when a newly planned project relates to adjacent or nearby buildings with similar materials, fenestration patterns, height datum lines, etc. that exist in the area. Planning zones and guidelines are typical to control these situations and ensure some sense of “contextualism” when new buildings are being introduced. This idea of “fitting in” with what already exists, seems to be the very thing that holds architecture to a slow rate of progression.
If architecture is to be a catalyst for the advancement of human culture, then new buildings should not continually relate to the old and banal fabric of existing conditions. Architects must resist the socially accepted practices of blending in…or disappearing without changing anything, when making proposals for a better tomorrow. If we continue to build for the same old today, and often times yesterday, then how can we expect to adopt new ways of thinking and new methods of action through new patterns of behavior? This notion doesn’t suggest that every building be different merely for the sake of being different. But operating within similar boundaries of rules, architects can create environments that challenge the notion of context.
If one thing is certain, that is change is inevitable. This includes change in terms of context. At the scale of the individual, context becomes a continuous flow of sensory information. The shifting of bodies and vehicles on the city street, the sounds of machinery operating or ambient music in a storefront, the smells of a restaurant or the garbage bin in the alley, all are contextual at this scale. Context can be considered the furniture one is surrounded with, the objects on that furniture, the electrical pulses that command the light and the dark, the invisible waves of information that beam conversation to the cell phone and data to the laptop, even the white noise coming from the earbuds of someone’s ipod sitting next to you on the subway. Context is never static. But when making an envelope to contain these contextual events, the architect (many times) offers a static box that relates to other static boxes. Can these static proposals that contain an untold variety of different scalar contexts be considered “good design”. Is there some other way to shelter the activities of society that represents the complexity and continual change that occurs behind the blank facade? Can the very idea of context become a fractal operation of self-similar parts between the individual (micro) and the building (macro)?
This is the challenge for the architect of tomorrow.