Design as Reinvention


As creatives, it is essential to reflect upon where our ideas and designs come from. It can be difficult. These origins often lie deep within our past, or are inspired by subconscious observations. However, this knowledge and reflection will give us a sound understanding of our own work, and also provide us with avenues to go to for inspiration when it is lacking.

It is interesting, the idea that designers are those who innovate. Creators, pursuing the avant garde, inventors. That when we create, our ideas are our brain’s children, brand new and ground-breaking. Upon reflection I realize a few reasons that our ‘creations’ are, rather, reinventions of what is already in existence around us.

  1. We will inevitably always be reinventing existing architecture.

We create based on spaces we have seen, felt or believed in the past, tweaking and reapplying these things to how they could be bettered for the future.

Peter Zumthor writes in his ‘Thinking Architecture’,

‘I carefully observe the concrete appearance of the world, and in my buildings I try to enhance what seems to be valuable, to correct what is disturbing, and to create anew what we feel is missing.’

This strikes as a simple truth unable to be refuted. Old architecture guides the new. There is no longer such thing as a brand new parti for a building, or a brand new form, or a brand new colour. We learn from the architecture we have seen, and twist it into something we think is better.

  1. Every object (designed or not) around us influences our ideas.

In Zumthor’s statement, I wonder if he means the concrete, architectural world only, or also the entirety of solids around us, perhaps including things like fabrics, solid natural elements, or everyday objects and tools.

This is can be an intended design process. For example, academies like Bauhaus encouraged all solids to be informed and inspired by another, despite being in different formal categories, such as industrial simplicity in furniture inspiring architecture. Biomimicry in architecture is another example – is that not reinvention of what already exists?

However, it can also be subconscious. We learn and absorb forms, textures and colours in each object we interact with, whether that is cutlery, fabric or the trees. This is then reproduced in architectural design.

As well as learning from past architecture’s mistakes, successes and ideas, we learn from all solids around us. We take this knowledge and reapply it in an architectural context. This is creativity in its’ own right: reinvention and reapplication.

  1. Every non-tangible thing we create in our work (such as mood, or interactions) is reproducing something we have previously experienced.

We are also reapplying and reinventing what exists outside of ‘the concrete world’. We feel moods and atmospheres in places or moments, and try to recreate those in our buildings; this is a significant part of architectural design, and our knowledge of moods and atmosphere can only come from personal experience of the past. Furthermore, we observe social behaviours and reapply those to our design; the simple noticing of meeting places on the street commonly being around shelter, for example, guides our design of buildings’ and their meeting areas. Watching a stranger in a café curl up by a corner window and gaze outside, in another example, reminds us of the importance of windows to encourage contemplation, or corners as private, cosy zones. Neither moods nor social observations are concrete, solid or tangible – yet they guide our design process just like the concrete world does.

With these in mind, I begin to know myself as a designer. I remember treasured, but fleeting sensations that would otherwise be forgotten. I remember the feeling of soft, satiny dress fabric in my fingers, and I know I want to recreate the fluidity and folding of that form in building facades. I remember the warmth I feel when my large family gathers around on one bed at night to sit, share jokes, play cards and be together – and I know this influences my treatment of communal spaces. I remember running my fingers over tiled mosaic walls in a Japanese restaurant, and know it affects how I envision people interacting with my own buildings’ surfaces.

Further, I reflect on parti diagrams and ideas I ‘create’. Ideas of horizontality, verticality, materiality… of walls that may push and pull, of ‘brand new’ planning and layout concepts, of ‘innovative’ plays on light… And I realize these are not inventions. They are reinventions of tiny, individual threads that make up the fabric of my memories. Abstractions of experiences. Folds and tears within that fabric inspiring change, the smooth and clean parts inspiring repetition.

However, this realization is not one meant to dishearten. It is still a unique ability, design as reinvention. To experience the feel of fabric and translate that into a built form is spectacular. To be able to analyse existing architecture, find its’ beauties, faults and lacks, and translate that into improved work is commendable. And, sometimes most difficultly, to dig from the rubble of old memories, pinpoint a mood we once felt, analyse why the space we were in evoked that, bring that into the present and try to reproduce it in a new design – that part of design and architecture is the heart of our skills.

Reinvention and reapplication are as respectable and commendable as creation.

To conclude, I dwell upon the definition of creation.

to create (v): bring something into existence.

We do not bring anything into existence that does not already exist, at an elemental or material level, just like no matter or mass can be created or destroyed; it simply gets reused, recycled and conserved. We do not ‘create’ anything new. Yet, we bring into existence a new combination of forms and ideas that may never have been combined, or reapplied in that way, before.

Architects are not inventors. We are re-inventors.




  1. All this points to the fact that we aren’t isolated individuals, but live in a community that forms and shapes us. Even our language forms the way we think, and that language is something passed down to us through our community. Then, of course, there’s our culture and the world around us – man-made and “natural” – that also form us. So, we take the material of our lives and reshape that. Thanks for your reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s right, and a really interesting insight also. I’d like to do another post about architecture’s relationship with language entirely, thank you for your thoughts and for taking the time to read mine! Interesting how we take material, reshape it, and it in turn reshapes us – relating to the idea of Ontological Design as I’ve written about previously. Design is incredible. Thank you!


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