The cornerstone of any empire is a monument that lays the foundation of what that empire represented. The Roman Empire had the Colosseum, the Greeks the Acropolis, and the Egyptians the Pyramids. To be a real empire, you need a building that awes visitors to your capital city.
In 1550 the Sultan of the Ottoman empire, Kanunî Sultan Süleyman, wanted a building that could rival with the empires of old. He saw himself as a “Second Solomon” and wanted to stamp his name into the history books with a building that represented him and his empire. He instructed his chief architect, Mimar Sinan, to design a new complex to be called Süleymaniye, named after the Sultan.
Whilst the building was under construction, Mimar’s would continually test the acoustics so that the builders could adjust the dome accordingly. The method he used to verify the sound was by blowing into a water smoking pipe, known as a nargile, to see how the noise of the bubbles would echo. This involved him sitting in the compound, directly under the dome. Of course, rumours got back to the Sultan that his architect was smoking a peace pipe in the holy sanctuary. On hearing the news, the Sultan rushed to the complex to accost his architect on why he was defiling a religious space. It was only on closer inspection and the Mimars reassurance that he believed there was no smoke, only bubbles.
Sinan faced another challenge during construction besides acoustics. At night, the building would be lit with huge oil candles which produced a lot of smoke. To fix this, he designed an airflow system, which situated several holes around the dome, that collected the smoke.
Each hole was connected to a tube that led to a room known as the İs Odasi. At the end of each of these tubes would be a sheet of paper, in the shape of a cone set to collect the soot from the smoke. The soot was then mixed with various chemicals to create an ink known as lamp black. This functional system was designed not only to create a clean air environment but to produce ink as well. But to the visitors of the compound, the little holes only appeared to be a small part of the dome’s decoration. Beautiful design, created in context, iteratively, that solved multi purposes.
Designing in context is key. To understand the environment we are working in we have to live it and breathe it. When we test our designs, often we’re sitting at our desks, in brightly lite rooms with super fast connections. But even if we use developer tools to create “fake” slow networks, it still doesn’t beat living the real experience. We need to go outside and experience the designs we create to see how they are affected in sunlight or when the connection of our phones is too slow. I feel this is one of the challenges we face in the West, that we sometimes forget the context of users in other areas of the world.
In contrast, designers in India are creating some of the fastest websites in the world. The reason for this is they are designing in the correct context. They are designing for their own environments, where a flaky connection is a commonplace. They have become the pioneers of developing sites and apps that are ideal for users in harsh internet spaces. But this isn’t a problem that only they suffer. The number of times I have been affected by a ‘dead zone’ in London or San Francisco has shown me that designing with travel or weak connections in mind isn’t about designing for emerging markets but rather designing for multiple conditions. Seeing how people use technology rather than “testing” how we use it opens your eyes to what is important. From there we can build layers of beauty on top of our work.
What inspires me most about Mimar Sinan is that even in the 1500’s he was able to use a process of testing and designing that is no different to our own nowadays. This idea that we, as designers, just design magic things out of thin air is a false-pretense. In fact, we just need to sit in a quiet space (away from our desks!) and blow bubbles to hear the effects of the things we create.
NotesThis article is for a new youtube series called “Designer Vs Developer”, which you can see here on our Youtube Chrome Channel. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast.
First appeared in Creative Review.