7 Challenges That Prevent Architectural Originality, and How To Overcome Them

"Originality is dead" is not an uncommon phrase to hear in our modern, information packed era of Big Data and easy access to source material. If you take a look at Google’s Ngram Viewer, the use of the word "originality" appears to have waned; it is now roughly as common as it was at in 1800, with its peak use occurring just before 1900. So what was going on around that peak time? In 1893, the first moving pictures were played; in 1989, the first escalator was installed; in 1899, aspirin was invented; and 1901 saw the first wireless transmission sent from England to Canada. [1]

At that time, the development of various forms of technology was allowing and encouraging people to explore and fulfill ideas that could only have been dreamed of in the past. But without this injection of new tools, it's difficult to compete with 200,000 years of new ideas; so to help you do so, here are seven aspects of our modern world that make it difficult to come up with original ideas, and ways you can combat them.

1. The Social Sharing Effect

With the constant media feed that now occupies our multiple screens, it’s pretty much impossible not to see the same things your coworkers or classmates see; and equally impossible not to subconsciously incorporate someone else’s idea into your own. The problem is that if everyone does this, it becomes hard to avoid similarities between projects and presentations.

Taking the extra effort to look for sources that are relevant but not fed on en masse could not only potentially open your eyes to something completely unexpected, but will also work to separate your ideas from the crowd. True originality may be an impossible phenomenon, but this is nothing to be ashamed of. We take previous ideas and experiences, learn from them, and make them better by combining them with something new. You just have to learn to look for original sources.  

© Ariana Zilliacus. Original work using images by Anne Sophie Zolna Gautrelet, Masao Nishikawa, Shigeo Ogawa and Daici Ano

2. New Technological Challenges

New technology that is evolving at an exceptional rate can be intimidating – many of the things you learn will soon be outdated. Yet it's important for some to take the challenge to step out of his or her comfort zone and into this sometimes-ungraspable field of new architectural technology.

Using the new techniques that are constantly popping up, and more importantly, combining these new techniques with age-old tools, is a way to explore largely uncovered ground. Before the Industrial Revolution for example, architecture had remained largely unchanged for years. Then came the age of steel and mass production, and from it emerged the Eiffel Tower and the New York skyline. Of course now building high is no longer a novelty; originality only lasts for so long.

© Ariana Zilliacus. Original work using images by Hufton + Crow, Ibuku and Ariana Zilliacus

3. Geographical Limitations

Staying within one’s home country throughout one’s education and maybe even professional life, can be a very comfortable, safe option to take. The effect that this has on your originality, though, is less than comforting; fortunately, exchange between cultures is becoming a more common design approach around the world, allowing us to learn from one another.

The essence of this is exemplified in projects such as this one by Ingvartsen Architects. Combining ideas and problem solving from a wide breadth of experiences can give birth to design solutions that would have been impossible in the past with less efficient transportation and communication systems. Taking advantage of the resources we have for a wide cultural and geographical understanding can help to fight the generic glass buildings that make up "Notopia."

© Ariana Zilliacus

4. Material Limitations

Despite the specific contextual parameters that come with encoding and programming building design, architecture created in this way has somehow managed to all blend into a single idea of what parametric buildings can be. The originality that catapulted Zaha Hadid Architects, among others, to fame, is perhaps losing its futuristic appeal to the point of being overdone.

Mixing up methods and materials used for different steps in a design process could add a breath of fresh air; instead of using technology to come up with form and sticking to the use of traditional materials, try form finding with old building techniques and experiment with the material components.

© Ariana Zilliacus. Original work using image by Flickr user RonG8888

5. Becoming Attached to Ideas

"Kill your darlings" is something every person along the architecture journey has heard before. It’s hard not to get attached to a design you’ve been working over in your mind, practically lived in and convinced yourself is the best way to go. Unfortunately, innovation rarely comes out of that one great idea. Many of the most successful people in history have had many failures along the way before succeeding. Thomas Edison for example, invented the light bulb, the phonograph and the carbon transmitter needed for telephones within 5 years; what’s less talked about are the over 100 patents he filed for now-forgotten inventions. [2]

Generating more ideas will statistically give you a higher chance for getting it just right. The struggle between quality and quantity, especially when pressed by time and money, is possibly one of the biggest barriers stopping architects from achieving originality. One possible way to try to overcome this is to, for example, take part in competitions on a regular basis. This will allow for a large quantity of ideas to be generated, slowly building up experience that can be used as a resource to come up with original designs in the future.

© Ariana Zilliacus

6. Industry Specialization

Specialization in modern society is another factor playing against originality. In the past there were "Renaissance Men" like Leonardo da Vinci, who essentially knew a lot about a lot, in part because there was less information to acquire but also because up until recently, it was ordinary to fully follow an idea through into production. In other words, one didn’t require very much external knowledge to come up with something new and unique. In current times, specialization has ensured that for every new creation, there are multiple industries with different sets of relevant knowledge.

So what do you do? Study until the age of 75, covering a degree in architecture, engineering, ecology and design? Alternatively you could extend your social circle to include people who are already knowledgeable in these fields; people who feel the same way about construction and design as you do, such that idea generation and communication is as unrestricted as possible. Finding a good team can lead you a long way. 

© Ariana Zilliacus. Original work using images by Patrick Bingham-Hall and Ariana Zilliacus

7. Image Culture

Our modern image-based culture has turned the process of architectural design into one of the creation of beautiful objects. The danger of this is that architects can work towards creating that beautiful object instead of prioritizing the requirements of the design itself, resulting in a very open-ended design process. Let’s not forget that restrictions foster creativity – so create restrictions for yourself.

Writing down a set of values that you hold as an architect, a set of values that your buildings should achieve, can force you to uphold requirements in decision-making situations that your architecture must comply with. Creating something that is so closely tied to your values as an architect and a human being will undoubtedly help you work towards creating something as individual as yourself.


  1. 1890 to 1899 Important News, Significant Events, Key Technology.” The People History. N.p., Unknown. Web.
  2. Grant, Adam. “How to Build a Culture of Originality.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

About this author
Cite: Ariana Zilliacus. "7 Challenges That Prevent Architectural Originality, and How To Overcome Them" 05 Dec 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/800677/7-challenges-that-prevent-architectural-originality-and-how-to-overcome-them> ISSN 0719-8884

© Ariana Zilliacus. Original work using images by <a href='http://www.archdaily.com/448774/heydar-aliyev-center-zaha-hadid-architects'>Iwan Baan</a>, <a href='http://snohetta.com/project/42-norwegian-national-opera-and-ballet'>Jens Passoth</a>, <a href='http://www.archdaily.com/384289/serpentine-pavilion-sou-fujimoto'>Daniel Portilla</a> and <a href='http://www.archdaily.com/339893/bigs-waste-to-energy-plant-breaks-ground-breaks-schemas'>BIG</a>


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