Recognizing the multiple intelligences required of architects affords a way to think about the act of designing. And it gives design firm leaders a way to evaluate the various skills required to assemble a star team.

Recognizing the multiple intelligences required of architects affords a way to think about the act of designing. And it gives design firm leaders a way to evaluate the various skills required to assemble a star team.

An architect should be a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies. … Those unto whom nature has been so bountiful that they are at once geometricians, astronomers, musicians, and skilled in many other arts, go beyond what is required of the architect, and may be properly called polymaths, in the extended sense of that word. Men so gifted, discriminate acutely, and are rare. … Since few men are thus gifted, an architect who must strive to be generally well informed in all the arts cannot hope to excel in each. Therefore, I beseech you, O Caesar, and those who read this my work, to pardon and overlook grammatical errors; for I write neither as an accomplished philosopher, an eloquent rhetorician, nor an expert grammarian, but as an architect.”- Vitruvius, 25 B.C.

The idea of a multi-skilled architect is not new. In the first century B.C., Vitruvius Pollio suggested that architects develop a generalized skill set in the erstwhile role of master builders. Given the changing nature of the profession and the role of architects, perhaps it is time to revisit the notion of a multi-skilled architect and the resulting implication to design practice.

In a 2000 issue of DesignIntelligence, Larry Barrow affirmed that current design practice is observing a re-emergence of the master builder role, in which architects are challenged to be integrative project leaders in dealing with a dynamically networked team of consultants. Assuming this reality, one can infer that architects need to be integrators of various skills and knowledge. The complexity of design tasks demands individuals with a wide array of skill sets — spatial visualization, logical thinking, emotional reflection, linguistic ability, interpersonal skills, and so on. A designer could then be considered analogous to a decathlon athlete, who need not be specialized in a particular track and field event, but needs to perform consistently in a diverse set of events. It is not untimely, then, that a number of researchers have appealed for skill diversity in architectural design. My own research on design skills has led me to a doctoral dissertation as well as journal articles in which I make a case for the importance of multiple skills in design.

Considering architectural design to be a composite of skill sets has several benefits. First, it recognizes that there are individual differences, representations, and approaches in design. Second, it removes the overt emphasis on graphical and formal logic skills, bringing attention to communication, interpersonal, and situational problem-solving skills, which could be much more critical in dealing with real-world design situations. In summary, understanding design as a composite of different skills leads to more inclusive ways of thinking about design.

Multiple Skills, Multiple Representations

Architectural design problems vary in content, scale, and complexity, and a designer needs to apply a repertoire of mental representations to solve a design problem. Among the various activities involved in a design process, one could include visualization, drawing, formal logic, and emotional reflection, among others. Add to that the process of thinking at various scales (macro to micro) and at varied degrees of abstractions (abstract to concrete, symbolic to literal). Architects also deal with conflicting architectural issues such as aesthetic judgments (heavy vs. light, dark vs. bright), functional conflicts (work vs. life, movement vs. static) and psychological and social issues (community vs. privacy, safety vs. freedom).

To deal with this wide array of activities, architects need to use multiple skill sets and representations. Psychologist and author Howard Gardner is a fierce promoter of skill diversity. He suggests that not only do all individuals possess numerous mental representations and intellectual languages, but individuals also differ from one another in the forms of these representations, their relative strengths, and the ways in which these representations can be changed. Gardner proposes at least eight discrete mental representations by which individuals take in information, retain and manipulate that information, and demonstrate their understandings to themselves and others. The eight representations, popularly known as multiple intelligences, include interpersonal, intrapersonal verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, and naturalistic.

From Vitruvius to Gardner

The use of multiple intelligences in architectural design could be relevant inasmuch as it affords a way to think of the act of designing as a diverse set of skills or representations. These representations could involve emotions (subjective and creative responses to design), senses (bodily experience in relation to the design world), logic (rational and systematic approach to design), or a combination of the above.

Skills that involve emotions. When enough information to make logically correct judgments is not possible, a designer relies on emotions and instincts. In architecture, design can be a completely subjective experience. In Gardner’s framework, representations that involve emotions include intrapersonal intelligence (personal emotions) and interpersonal intelligence (another’s emotions). While intrapersonal intelligence refers to the awareness of and the ability to manipulate one’s own emotions, interpersonal intelligence relates to understanding of the emotions of others, as well.

Skills that involve the senses. Much like the way design is associated with emotions, design could also be associated with senses because designers interact constantly with the outside world. Senses involve perception of the world through seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. In Gardner’s framework, representations associated with such external senses include bodily/kinesthetic intelligence in which senses are brought about by either visualizing or experiencing body movement in relation to the external environment, and naturalistic intelligence, in which senses are brought about by visualizing and experiencing nature and natural phenomenon.

Skills that involve logic. If skills associated with emotions and senses are important to design, then on the other side of this spectrum are skills associated with logic. In Gardner’s framework, logical representations involve understanding of abstract symbols or formulae, formal logical thinking, deciphering codes, numerical calculations, and problem solving.

Skills that involve a combination. In design, some skills require a higher level combination of different skills, such as emotions, senses, and logic. These include spatial and verbal skills. Spatial skills intelligence includes the ability to perceive the visual world accurately and to perform transformations and modifications upon one’s own initial perceptions via mental imagery. Verbal skills involve the ability to use words effectively or expressively.

(Re)Education of an Architect

The construct of design skills as it refers to architectural design is a complex one. The idea is not to pigeonhole design into categories but to demonstrate that design skills cannot be restricted to one set of variables. Design skills consist of a flexible framework of multiple abilities that can be adapted to produce desired outcomes. This loose definition of skills makes design inclusive and empathetic to individual differences, which demonstrates that architecture design problems can be solved in a variety of ways and thereby through alternative viewpoints. If we recognize these multiple skills, then it becomes important for practitioners to value and nurture diversity in design thought, empathize with the variations of individual strengths, and implement diverse tools to evaluate different areas of design thinking.

But how exactly can one facilitate the use of multiple intelligences in design? There can be several challenges. For example, if an architect has limited skills, should that architect be advised to broaden the repertoire of skills? On the other hand, if an architect has several skills, should that architect be instructed to focus on certain skills alone? While these questions are important, they may not always work effectively in all the cases. A designer may possess limited skills but yet be rigorous and effective in those skills, or a designer may be able to compensate for scarce abilities in one area by increasing competency in another. Individual differences should be considered on a case-by-case basis. The role of any practice then would be to recognize the individual strengths and differences in which architects operate. Becoming aware of different approaches may improve communication and decision making in practice.

In this context, professional capacities need to be diagnosed in an inclusive way. Practitioners use a high degree of interpersonal intelligence in the form of client interaction, communication skills, and associated skills to fit into the process of the larger community of practice. Moreover, understanding and applying the shared repertoire of resources that the community of practice develops over time (including routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, and styles) is critical to practice.

Design practice also needs to be evaluated within its own culture, especially if one considers architects as members of a larger community of practice. The concept of a community of practice refers to the process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations. While most communities of practice are formed within a single discipline to focus knowledge sharing and resources, more recently multidisciplinary participation has become inevitable given the complex nature of the technology and the global arena in which organizations function. This is perhaps more true to the domain of architecture than any other, and a multiple intelligence approach could help in advancing this idea.

Newton D’souza, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of architectural studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He earned a B. Arch. From Bangalore University, an M.A. from the National University of Singapore, and a Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Prior to working in academia, D’souza gained professional experience in several firms.