Image by Juho Hiilivirta for Antti Pirinen's essay in The Finnish Architectural Review 4/2014. Image by courtesy of ARK.
Image by Juho Hiilivirta for Antti Pirinen's essay in The Finnish Architectural Review 4/2014. Image by courtesy of ARK.

The User – a Thousand-Headed Monster?

Antti Pirinen, who recently finished his doctor of arts degree at Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, His dissertation entitled Dwelling as Product: Perspectives on Housing, Users and the Expansion of Design (Aalto ARTS Books 2014) argued that dwelling increasingly resembles other industrial products and as such, should be approached as a composite adaptive product embedded in material reality that mediates the intentions of producers, designers, users and other actors in the housing regime.

Finnisharchitecture.fi is inspired to re-publish Antti Pirinen’s recent essay by courtesy of The Finnish Architectural ReviewArkkitehti 4/2014.

The user – a thousand-headed monster?

Antti Pirinen

A human, a resident, a user – there are many names for us living in our homes. The highlighting of a user-centred approach to housing design reflects a general change in products and the production methods used in a postmodern society. A resident is seen as a consumer who makes choices based on their individual lifestyle and whose demands the housing product should meet more accurately.

The user as a problem

The word “user” itself could be seen as the production system’s way of assigning people a subordinate role in relation to the products. The industrialization of construction activities, more professional design services and the creation of the housing market have led to a situation where dwellings are aimed at a faceless “user”. The concept of a “user” does, however, offer a fruitful way to approach the design of housing. It encourages you to examine the home and the resident together, emphasizing their interaction and the resident’s active role in one’s environment.

In his book Words and Buildings (2004) Adrian Forty has described the changes in the meaning of the word “user” in architectural discussions. When building the welfare state, the idea of an end user was used to justify the design in a situation where the institutions of society were the architects’ clients. The word often referred to the disadvantaged. Participatory design brought along an ideal view of the user as an active participant who adds value to design. For fear of design becoming too democratic, the user was then seen as a threat to an architect’s goals. Since then the user has, according to Forty, become a tool for architects to criticize their own industry.

Highlighting the user often raises disparaging remarks among housing designers. A common answer is that architecture is always done for the user and that a good designer does not need the user to produce high quality solutions. If an excessive amount of attention is paid to the users, it may actually lead to non-innovative, aesthetically weak and functionally or financially unsustainable architecture.

In the high culture of architecture, ordinary users and their conventional tastes are seen as a disturbance that threatens the artistic autonomy of the industry. With the exception of home projects tailored for individual sophisticated clients, the user-centred approach is associated with the populist, commercial design sector. Jonathan Hill claims in his book Actions of Architecture (2003) that preservation of architecture as a profession is based on the denial of the user. This is seen, for example, in the admiration of architecture as an art form without the presence of the user and the architects’ attempt to control the user’s actions. In practice, people do have many possibilities to be creative in their own way, not following the designer’s plans, and for example modify their dwelling by themselves.

With the user

The debate about the user-centred nature of housing reveals a tense power hierarchy. Ultimately, the question is how much and what kind of individuality a society can allow in the built environment. Good housing design requires skilful balancing of sustainable universality and user specific uniqueness. One of the responsibilities of the design system is to prevent harmful expressions of individuality. On the other hand, pure technical and financial optimization at the expense of the users’ differences will lead to monotonous supply that does not support the well-being of individuals.

The realization of user needs can be described as a process in which the designers form a view of the user, turn it into product characteristics and finally the user adopts the product into use. In this process, powerful structures such as culture, housing ideologies, housing policy, norms and regulations, technology and prevailing housing types affect how the relationship between the end product and the user turns out.

It is useful for design professionals to recognize their own perceptions of the user. The user of housing has many faces. From the perspective of power, it is interesting that some of the users’ preferences, like the sense of community, are seen as “right”, while others, like the desire to live in single-family houses, are “wrong”.

Lifestyles, preferences and needs affect people’s choice of housing. However, almost always their wishes conflict with market realities, forcing them to settle for imperfect solutions. On the other hand, their previous homes and the entire stock of housing shape their experiences and views of what is possible. In other words, housing wishes and dreams reflect the existing architecture.

User-centred housing requires the individually valuable housing characteristics to be identified and turned into concrete design solutions, which could be done through different levels of co-design or mass customization. In apartment buildings the buyer’s power is typically limited to material and furniture choices. More in-depth influence requires the user to have time, money and skills and to take risks. The partly conflicting aims of production, design and the residents should be combined more efficiently. Acknowledging the user’s involvement does not reduce the value of professional design solutions. Good housing architecture always exceeds the user’s immediate expectations.

Text by DA Antti Pirinen, Aalto University, School of Art, Design and Architecture.
Re-published by courtesy of The Finnish Architectural Review. Originally published in Arkkitehti 4/2014, p. 76–78.

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