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The architect
and the gardener

November 2002

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Most of the articles in column aren’t about websites. It’s more important to concentrate on the substance (strategy, service, content) that comes before any specific application. But there is a basic concept of site construction that deserves a few comments.

It’s called architecture. And, indeed, the structure of a site resembles a building. It has places, paths and functions. I’ve heard some good web makers say that it isn’t the architect’s job to define content. That’s right, if it means that a good architecture can’t be planned unless there are clear ideas of what it’s supposed to be and do. But it becomes a widespread mistake when too many so-called web experts think that architecture can be always the same, regardless of its purpose.

The architecture of an office building isn’t the same as a supermarket. A stadium isn’t made like a hotel. It makes no sense to build a railway station in the same way as a theater.

Each architecture must be planned according to its specific function. Le Corbusier used to say that a house is a “machine for living” – it’s even more true that a webisite is a machine for service. Hypertext is a wonderful tool to offer the greatest possible complexity in the simplest possible way for the reader. But doing that effectively needs a great deal of thoughtful planning and care in every detail. It isn’t easy to conceive, make, maintain and develop an efficient reading machine. That is one of the reasons why so many sites have poor architecture, hidden behind a cumbersome and annoying smokescreen of appearances.

Many web makers appear to believe that a homepage is like the outside of a building – or a shop window. It isn’t. People don’t need to be attracted or invited in. When they see the homepage they are already inside. They don’t want any time-wasting introduction or confusing decorations. They need a clear and easy path to find what they are looking for.

A good homepage must be functional. That doesn’t mean that it has to be ugly. Efficient, streamlined structures can be much more attractive than unnecessary and boring baroque complications..

Many websites are narcissistic. The owners are busy bragging about themselves instead of telling us what’s in it for us. The webmakers are busy showing off easy visual tricks instead of helping us to find something interesting. Superficial glitz is a cheap and easy trick to stay away from doing any real work or offering any real service.

But – even when there is valuable content, and the “knowledge machine” is well organized, architecture isn’t enough. A building is designed to last over time. A website grows like a tree. The best way is not to build a skyscraper, but to start small and evolve gradually, learning from experience. The architect must also be a farmer and a gardener. I wrote about The cultivation of the internet in this column in 1999 (and later that became the title of a book.)

Everything online can be changed at any time. A website should be updated as often as possible (or appropriate.)  But that doesn’t mean that it should change “for the sake of change” – or lose its identity and continuity. It’s biological, not mechanical. It’s rooted in human relationships, not in technical devices.

An efficient building needs good plumbing and good maintenance. But plumbers and janitors don’t design buildings – or even bathrooms.

A well planned buinding is designed to please the eye as well as for efficiency. But good decorators don’t treat interiors like streets in Las Vegas.

Technologies are the tools, not the substance. The disciplines that drive the conception and growth of online projects come from two basic human activities: architecture and gardening. Both need a deep blend of art and technique, sensitivity and craftsmanship, intuition and reason, talent and competence, imagination and experience.


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