Author Archive for Ed Barnhart

31
Dec
13

Design Wisdom: Zip it

The “Z” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Zip it.

What do good designers and good bartenders have in common?

A good designer or bartender knows when to zip it versus when to put forth. That is to say, part of being professional in any vocation is being gracious — having a sense of timing and appropriateness.

Z-banner

An example (not from) from design practice

In this final installment of my “Design Wisdom” series, I’m going to invert the rules and not conclude with a design example from my past, but rather start with a story. About a year ago I was sitting at the bar of a local restaurant with a former client, now close friend. We were reminiscing about the contractor we had worked with. We had both been amazed with how friendly and gracious he had been throughout the job, even when difficulties surfaced. A short while later as we engaged the bartender in casual conversation, the seed for the “Design Wisdom” series was planted. It struck me that, in many ways, the skills of a really good bartender could illustrate what it takes to be a top tier practitioner in almost any profession.

Nine lessons from the bar

1. Make your clients feel welcome
Clients should feel welcome, secure, and relaxed in your care. You should view them, and encourage them to view you, as collaborators in artful exchange. The overall focus is to make clients feel as if they are interesting, trusted friends – not unwelcome strangers.

2. Provide good service
You may have just unleashed a new design or product that has new clients queued up three deep at your front door, but don’t be fooled. The backbone of your business is service. The art of providing excellent service to each client is your best engine for generating repeat customers. And a repeat customer, particularly a raving fan, is far more valuable to you than someone who disappears, disappointed after their first transaction. Treat your clients well – hopefully they will become regulars or referral sources.

3. Be observant, attentive and fair
Every client, new or old, is entrusting you, as the professional, with creating a good experience for them. Learn to read people and remember them. Take cues from your clients to anticipate what products and services might be of interest to them. Don’t show favoritism to some clients at the expense of others. No one wants to feel second rate.

4. Keep a sense of humor
Everyone has bad days, both you and your clients. To be successful you need to keep a good attitude. Yes, there are some really annoying clients out there, but no matter how badly your day is going, treat every client with respect. Every professional needs a good sense of humor – as a means of self-preservation and to deflect potentially difficult situations.

5. Keep yourself busy and things fresh
There’s always something to be done. When business is slow, it’s time to re-evaluate and refresh. Check your inventory of resources. Add something to attract new clients or add value for existing ones. From the bartender’s adage: “if
you have time to lean, you have time to clean” comes one for the designer: “if you have time to wait, you have time to create”.

6. Be helpful and knowledgeable
Obviously, one of the reasons clients come to professionals is to benefit from their knowledge and expertise. While many clients may have some degree of curiosity about your craft, in most cases they haven’t shown up on your doorstep for an education. Demonstrate your knowledge in producing artful results; don’t flaunt it for sake of feeding your ego.

7. Be engaged and have fun

When someone is having fun and is engaged in what they are doing, it shows. And it’s inviting and encouraging for others. There are always aspects of any craft that aren’t fun, but putting yourself wholly into the task and seeking out the pockets of pleasure along the way, make it more pleasant for everyone. Think of it as being able to care with flair.

8. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

There is something worse than saying “no” right upfront to a client. Its saying “yes” followed by “no”. To promise and then deny, not only speaks of failure to manage expectations of your client, it also communicates that you are neither trustworthy nor competent. Be in tune and upfront about your capabilities.

9. Zip it!

Your clients have come to you to have a service provided, not to hear about the details of your personal life. If they ask for your opinion of last night’s game, that’s fine. But otherwise don’t assume that they want to be entertained by your personal gossip, impressed with your erudition, or burdened with your tales of annoying clients. Sometimes your role is best as a silent movie.

Yet there is a difference

In the art of service, there is one aspect which other professionals have over a bartender. For a designer, it’s still legal to discuss business with a client over a drink – and even declare it as a business expense.

Cheers for a Happy New Year – 2014!

Regardless of what brought a client to your doorstep, what will most likely turn them into a raving fan is how well you conduct your practice with skill and grace.

Remember, Zip it. 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Z, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Zaffe and Zomp, and a photo Zeroing in on a friendly bartender with clients.

17
Dec
13

Design Wisdom: Yearning isn’t enough

The “Y” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Yearning isn’t enough.

Yearning for the perfect design opportunity is like waiting for the perfect lover.

A college education opens worlds of possibilities and inspires a yearning for realizing the potential of one’s chosen medium. But yearning isn’t enough. You need to find ways to make it happen.

Y-banner

How does opportunity happen?

Think of some of the seminal buildings of 20th Century architecture:
— Saynatsalo Town Hall by Alvar Alto
— Church on the Water by Tadao Ando
— Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas by Luis Barragan
— Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry
— Chapel of Saint Ignatius by Steven Holl
— Kimbell Art Museum by Louis I. Kahn
— Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut by Le Corbusier
— Douglas House by Richard Meier
— Sidney Opera House by Jorn Utzon
— American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsein
— Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
— Val Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor

Do you think the respective clients of the projects above were just sitting there awaiting those particular buildings to arrive? Absolutely not! Take Disney Hall for example. Several years ago I took the architectural audio tour of the building. The recording included architect Frank Gehry relating conversations he’d had with the patron Lillian Disney. At the outset of the project she described how she and Walt were enchanted by masonry castles of Europe, encumbered with climbing vines. She asked Frank Gehry to capture that spirit. There was assuredly no mention of curving stainless steel panels! And yet, she was presumably enchanted by the final built concert hall – with nary a vine or castle-like feature.

The point is, with rare exception does one encounter a patron who shares your yearnings / aspirations. Your job therefore doesn’t end with your being able to imagine a fabulous new world. You need to educate and excite others to join the expedition. And ideally, they are enlisting you to join on their own expedition simultaneously in the project. The best projects are those where client and architects are both realizing their own goals alongside others and finding themselves in a landscape of realization beyond their own ideas.

Realizing good design

To me, the phrase “realizing good design” is rather a double entendre. The first meaning is “becoming aware”, learning to understand and appreciate what good design is – like becoming a detective or connoisseur. The second meaning is “making it happen”. Our education and apprenticeship aim primarily at instilling mastery in the first arena. But it is unquestionably a mastery of the second arena which enables our success in practice.

How to make it happen

How do we as designers “make it happen”? Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer. It really comes down to learning what your own strengths are and how to use them effectively with others. And yet there are some general truisms, some of which have been touched upon earlier in the “Wisdom” series. For instance, having and displaying passion goes a long way. Passion tends to be contagious. Also, taking risks, or “having skin in the game” facilitates people believing in you and taking a risk with you – not having them feel like you’re asking them to assume all of the risks alone.

Most often though, making it happen involves your going the extra mile. This is where yearning is needed as a start. Yearning is what gets you to aspire to more than the client envisions or is asking for. The yearning is what drives you to come up with that idea that no one else has seen or even looked for. Harness that yearning to get yourself to find ways to make things happen – rather than waiting for people to realize the possibilities which you have to offer.

An example from design practice

Early in my career as an architect, my boss “handed off” an interior design project to me for a small town drugstore. Everyone, the client and my boss alike, looked at the project as “routine” without much room for creative input. The functional layout, largely predetermined by operational considerations for staffing efficiencies, resulted in the customer service pharmacy counter being positioned in the rear, as is often the case. The shelving and displays between the entrance and the counter, while critical for merchandizing, felt to be at odds with customer service in the rear.

Analyzing the problem I yearned for there to be some synergy, rather than conflict, between the merchandizing and customer service needs. I recalled the radial geometries of the stacks employed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in several of his libraries. Ultimately I was able to produce a design using radial display shelving (and accompanying radial overhead lighting) which resulted in a more inviting merchandizing environment and an emphasizing of the pharmacy counter. The “surprises” created between the interactions of the rectangular building shell and the radial interior fit-out enabled a richness of spaces for display, customer services and seating. The results exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Use a yearning for better design to serve as your springboard to exceed what’s expected.

Remember, Yearning isn’t enough.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Y, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Yellow and Yellow-green, and a photo of a Yearning adventurer jumping to action.

03
Dec
13

Design Wisdom: X means here

The “X” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

X means here.

While we all have memories and dreams, only here are we fully present.

As an elemental form of signature, an “X” records a human presence. We have only the present and our presence to make a mark, producing work uniquely expressive of our being at this time and place.

X-banner

Beyond somewhere else

If there were a way of recording how much of the time our thoughts were spent “being somewhere else” versus being engaged and absorbed in what’s at hand, I think most of us would be shocked. I’d venture to say that people’s thoughts are mostly about imagining being elsewhere – in time, location and/or activity. Why is this? There are a lot of reasons, and there are plenty that are not bad.

Indeed, one could argue that creative thought, almost by definition is about imagining something different – a future of sorts. As designers we inherently spend much of our time imagining a better future. Also, as students of history, by interest and necessity alike, we spend time trying to imagine and re-construct things from the past. The skills of “looking forward and looking backward” are indeed well developed for most people. I’d argue that the “muscle” that deserves the most strengthening is being present.

Why be present?

As it goes for a having chance in winning a door prize, you must be present to win. One of the extraordinary aspects of our being human is our skill at adaptation to diverse circumstances. Indeed part of our nature is to seek diverse forms of stimulation and engagement. So, while exercising our imaginations for fantasy or history is essential in providing diversity, it is through real-time, authentic experience that we are truly engaged and find occasion to fully realize our essential nature.

And yet, there are innumerable factors as to why people so often want to do anything but have authentic experience – matters of economy, expedience, fear of engagement, etc.  Perhaps that’s the new American dream – being able to win without being present.

What are we to do?

So then, what can and should, we as designers do, facing a public increasingly drawn to fast, cheap and disposable design? Unfortunately, we’re not going to gain any traction on the basis of intellectual or moral arguments. We have to make the benefits of authentic engagement and experience – well, palpable. As designers, we have to take the lead – demonstrating how it’s done, and letting people experience the difference.

Unfortunately too many designers spend too much of their time producing the equivalent of ‘fast-food architecture” – pandering to the quick fix rather than cultivating a nourishing and memorable experience. As architects we must learn how to deliver the most palpable experience we can — engaging the hearts, minds, bodies and souls of others.

An example from design practice

To provide a more concrete example of what I’m touching on with “X means here”, let me use one of my favorite buildings: the library at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire designed by Louis I. Kahn. As it happens, it literally has an “X”.

Before going further, I should point out that, in the best sense, that building indeed was of its time. It pre-dated the internet and personal computers. While the strength of its design endures, allowing it to continue to fulfill its original core purpose, it would not be expressive of what it would mean to design a library today.

Ok, what’s so great about it? Libraries aren’t intrinsically exciting places, inasmuch as they primarily provide storage of and access to books. And yet Kahn rendered the experience of its use as poetic and sublime.

Having essentially eight floors, the library is roughly a cube, enclosing a cubic central atrium space – creating a cubic doughnut if you will. Entering the building one immediately ascends a stair and arrives, a story higher, at the edge of the sky lit central atrium. One immediately feels in the presence of “hallowed space”. A giant “X” hovers over the atrium, formed by giant crossing of concrete beam/walls filtering the natural light from above.

Each of the four perimeter walls of the interior atrium features a single four-story diameter, circular aperture. The apertures reveal the atrium as encircled by the book stacks. Surely we feel ourselves standing at the very core of knowledge. At the outer corners of the square we ascend intimate staircases to access these books, being reminded in so climbing, of the intimate, personal nature of the pursuit of knowledge.

One of Kahn’s more famous concepts was “bringing the book to the light. Accordingly, the perimeter of the building is designed primarily for individual study carrels. Kahn went so far as to give each reader their own sliding wooden shutter to mediate their relationship with outside light and view.

I dare say there isn’t a place in the building that one wouldn’t know where they were – horizontally between orientation of each windowed perimeter façade and atrium core, and vertically, assessing the visible portion of the circular atrium apertures.

Experiencing the building one feels the noblest aspirations of what it means to be human, fully engaging ones senses and intellect.

It is incumbent on designers to produce work of authenticity, expressive of its own time and place, as a means of realizing our fullest nature as humans.

Remember, X means here.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter X, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Xanadu and onyX, and a photo of EXeter Library atrium.

26
Nov
13

Design Wisdom: Woo Wonder

The “W” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Woo Wonder.

Sometimes it’s best to turn off the amplifiers and simply listen.

“Unplugging” is a wonderful tool. Not only does it reconnect you with who you are, it enables you to reconnect with that most basic instinct of childhood: wonder.

W-banner

Remember wonder?

I’m sure you remember numerous occasions from your childhood where you felt awe or wonder –seeing a meteor shower, hearing a symphony of insects, watching a magician, or looking down at the earth from a plane for the first time. Those experiences of getting goose bumps are truly gifts – which seem to get rarer with age.

As adults, although we might work hard to give others a sense of awe or wonder – as a parent and/or working within the mastery of our respective crafts – we often fail to remember to cultivate wonder for ourselves. And it seems to get harder to do, amidst the business of life and sheer weight of accrued experience. But the path to reconnecting with wonder is probably more accessible than you might think.

Making it happen

Based on my experience, there are three “simple” steps to accessing wonder:

  1. Turn OFF your… Put your agenda and to-do lists on “pause”. Allow yourself to take a break.
  2. Turn ON your “beginner’s mind”. This means setting aside your filters of experience and habit; suspending analysis and judgment.
  3. LISTEN actively. Observe. Hear. Smell. Taste. … as if for the first time.

Let’s look at each step a little more closely.

First, turn off your…

As anyone with an active brain knows, it takes effort to turn off all of the voices in your own head; things to accomplish, questions to answer, people to meet, etc.  However, even amidst an active schedule you can practice the path to recovering wonder in your own life. Give yourself permission – whether it’s for five minutes, an hour or a weekend – to pause. Do it once and wonder why it took you so long to give yourself a break.

Beginner’s mind

Turning off the calendar and commitments isn’t enough. You also need to turn off the critics, analysts and project managers in your head. Actively keep yourself from analyzing and objecting. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. After all, you’re not free to readily receive if you’re busy screening and filtering. Beginner’s mind is finding the “blank slate” or “empty vessel” again.

Active listening

Now that you’re in a position to truly hear, observe, taste, smell and feel — you’re the new sponge. Just sit back and simply try to fully absorb what’s being offered in your midst. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re actively just listening.

There are numerous rewards for arriving at the point of listening actively. The two I find most rewarding are: being surprised (pleasantly) and feeling wonder. It’s a true gift to tap into these feelings again.

Cultivating a “beginners mind” while taking a walk, or seeing an exhibition, or attending a conference has the effect of turning most everything into a “sleeper hit”. Doing so enables one to experience each speaker or event as being more informative, fresh and enjoyable – and yes, even the source of wonder.

An example from design practice

Earlier in this year I attended a regional TEDx conference. I didn’t go with any particular expectations. But I did arrive to the conference with intentions, or an intention. I did my best to arrive as an empty vessel.

While I felt most speakers to be inspiring, one was the true stand-out for me. Pam Dorr was billed as a social entrepreneur, introducing sustainable housing development and positive change for over 400 families a year in the severely impoverished county of Hale, Alabama. Barely into her talk, even before describing her work in the rural south, I became transfixed by the explanation of how she got there.

The journey she described, struck me as beginning with self-empowerment in her native community near San Francisco. The seed of her journey was in making a home for herself. I mean, literally.

She showed a “before” picture of a derelict interior space – a ruin, the prototypical definition of a “tear-down”. Next she showed the “after”. I felt like I was seeing the most beautiful space I’d ever seen. Why? It was authentic. She had made it herself, for herself – almost entirely from salvaged scraps. It wasn’t idealized or romanticized or made for how others might react. It was made for her, by her. In fact it was rather elemental — clean, filled with sun, free of clutter and intervening structure, with a sense of an overarching protective roof. It wasn’t about ideal proportions, fetishized details or expensive materials. It was space and light and protection. Above all, it was accomplishment – perhaps her first realization of owning “can do” for herself.

The rest of her talk was how she blossomed… taking what she learned to do for herself, and expanding upon it to help another individual and another… and now helping to lead an entire community towards nourishing and sustaining itself. Ironically, for those coming with expectations of what they were going to hear, that was the delivery. For those of us “unprepared”, Pam Dorr’s delivery was goosebumps — of authenticity, self-discovery and altruism.

Allow yourself permission to take a break from what you “should be doing” and take in a healthy dose of unfiltered raw data from your senses. It just might spark wonder.

Remember, Woo Wonder.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter W, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Wine and Wheat, and a photo of Pan Dorr doing Wonders at PieLab.

19
Nov
13

Design Wisdom: Value others’ space

The “V” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Value others’ space.

Architects’ value in shaping space shouldn’t end with the physical environment.

As designers our work is in creating meaningful relationships among things and people. An important tool for doing this is practicing with grace. That means shaping a different kind of space.

V-banner

It’s all about relationships

As designers, we’re all familiar with ideas of composition and finding balance – creating relationships among lines, shapes, colors, surfaces and materials to achieve elegant results. First and foremost we are shapers of visual and physical space. But what lies beyond the mastery of form-making?

Our work is ultimately about people. Architecture finds its purpose and identity in what it means to people. In other words, beyond mere form-making, designing is fundamentally about structuring relationships with people and for people.

These relationships, personal relationships, are of two types. One is found in the process of creating: the relationships along project participants, from client to contractor and everyone in between. The other is the unique relationship (meaning or bond) a user finds in experiencing the completed work – how it connects with their own life. A design tool (not taught in design school), which addresses both, is learning how to practice with grace to achieve positive relationships.

Defining grace

What is grace? It is the form or elegance of how we practice our art, and shoulder difficulties.
What is graceful? A balanced resolution of forces, evidenced in elegant or beautiful forms or actions.
What does it mean to be gracious?
Graciousness is about valuing others – not assuming that you know their situation, or that your own perceptions or preferences trump theirs. It’s about giving space.

If I had to sum it all up, I’d say grace is: elegant balancing among others.

First rule of composition

If you go back to Composition 101, the first rule is that the spaces are as important as the figures. They help define one another. In achieving balance then, grace is found in space-making.

In terms of shaping personal relationships, this form of space-making, is largely about allowing time. Time-allowing enables participants in a creative process to:
— Assess and appreciate others’ viewpoints
— Gain fresh perspective and clarity
— Find common ground and create alternatives

Practicing with grace

Grace is a calmness granted — enabling individuals to see below a discordant surface, to a deeper reservoir of shared purpose.

In other words, practicing with grace allows participants to find their bearings, assess options and shape their relationship to an experience or environment. If I am graceful with myself, I am allowing myself to take the time to understand and reconcile what I am experiencing. In being graceful to others, I am granting them time to take stock and find their own balance in a situation.

Working with your team

Let’s talk about the role of grace among participants in the creative process. Rather than pushing your agenda on a given project, make space to listen and find perspective. Grant others the respect that their ideas are as valid as your own. There’s great value in taking the time to understand your client’s questions and educating them, to help them understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. In fact, learn to understand the goals of everyone on your team.

Practicing grace leads to a stronger team and results in work which is also stronger. Not only that, but the results are held more dearly – participants are far more invested in owning the results. Remember, true graciousness demands that you have time for others. You always have time. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious.

Grace for users

How can we offer grace to others who experience our completed work? If I were to personify design work, I’d say, your work should allow the user to enter into conversation with it. Carrying that further, your work shouldn’t pretend to know everything and have the last word. As I previously articulated in “L is for Leave Leavening”, your work should be more of a lattice – accepting others elaborations – than a brick wall, affording no further passage.

In being gracious to users of our work, we grant them the means, the emotional and intellectual space to apprehend, appreciate and find themselves in the spaces and objects we have created.

An example from design practice

It is the fourth dimension that gets everyone into trouble most often. What am I talking about? Time. More than anything else, when I look back at a situation gone wrong, the source of the problem stemmed from time – more specifically, from time not taken.

One version of not taking time is: “I’ve got to get this (whatever) finished in time for a deadline.” This means getting to a result prematurely – a shortcutting of the necessary preparations. OK, you make your deadline, and the next one, and the next one and get to a completed building. Then the client or user walks into it and says: Huh? This isn’t what I: a) wanted, b)expected, and/or c)was told. Oops.

What happened? You didn’t provide space in the process. You didn’t allow for a graceful unfoldment of communication, deliberation and rooting of ideas. The consequence for those who don’t manage the relationships along the way with grace is that they find themselves picking up the pieces of the resulting wreckage afterword.

As we practice with grace, we grant for ourselves and others’ the space to reconcile their experiences and achieve elegance in what they do.

Remember, Value others’ space.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter V, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Viridian and Violet, and a photo of Very graceful ballerinas.

05
Nov
13

Design Wisdom: Uncover what is unique

The “U” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Uncover what is unique.

Look beyond the common denominator to find and express qualities of uniqueness.

If our work as designers is to have continued vitality and relevance it is essential that we look with greater specificity into the nature of each project, rather than settle for ready-made solutions.

U-banner

Digging deep

Let’s tackle the Uncover portion of the “U” wisdom first. Incumbent on any professional is the need for mastery of one’s craft. That necessitates a depth of interest and experience on the part of the practitioner. We are sought out by clients because we have far more than a superficial knowledge of our field. The best of clients and projects are those that demand our fullest of attentions, experience and passions. They require us not only to bring to bear much of what we have already learned, but also dig deeper – to analyze, research, and uncover things not previously known.

It is this digging process itself that is so critical to making one’s art form vital and alive. In a word: authentic. Authenticity can be defined as decisions which originate in response to a specific situation. In other words: situation-specific thinking and discovery – not the application of pre-conceived notions. Digging deep is a process of close observation and precise response. At the very least this process assures results which are more than superficial, and at best, resonate profoundly.

Taking a risk?

At the core of an architect’s job is providing for human safety and comfort. Licensure includes the obligation that we put first and foremost the health, safety and welfare of the public. This doesn’t inspire risk-taking. Furthermore, the construction of buildings is time-consuming and expensive. As such, buildings aren’t (and shouldn’t be) readily disposable commodities. In light of these things, it’s not surprising that many clients (and many architects) are in fact risk-averse. I’m not talking here about fear of their roof leaking – I’m talking about fear of doing something other than “conventional practice”.

Unfortunately, all too often, as designers we are sought out precisely for what worked for our last client. Or, even worse, we are called upon to apply a defined style or solution-pattern to a project (i.e. Classical, Modern or “Green”) – to imply status, confer “membership”, or be “of the moment”. Our biggest challenge then as designers is to convince clients to pursue what will work best for them – not simply to try and copy the success of someone else.

Celebrating uniqueness

So, let’s move to the “uniqueness” portion of the “U” wisdom. Uniqueness is an uneasy topic. While on the one hand it often cause for celebration (exemplified by an object such as a rare gem, or a person who is extremely gifted in some way), on the other hand, it is often the source of discomfort and ridicule – a perceived threat to the status quo or what is “right” or “normal”.

Let’s think about people. Think about people you’d call unique. People that you know personally, not celebrity profiles. What makes them unique is the combination or juxtaposition of qualities they possess, or the degree to which they possess them. It’s not as though they are from another planet.

The lesson here is that uniqueness needn’t be extreme or freakish. As one matures, one sees uniqueness, not in manner of appearance, but in manner of being. Our uniqueness is made manifest in how we look into the nature of things and take specific actions, based on our skills and perceptions.

A specific time, place and culture

As of late I’ve returned to re-reading the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz. His core philosophy, which I first encountered in his book Genius Loci: Towards A Phenomenology of Architecture, was that the noblest achievement one could aspire to as an architect was to capture the time, place and culture present at the nexus of a particular project. The idea is that in paying the closest attention to the specifics of what is at hand, you will create works which resonate so strongly that they have the potential to become transcendent.

This resonance is about discovering and revealing the essence of something – finding something inherent as opposed to applying something extrinsic as a novelty. It seems so straight forward. Why is it so rarely observed?

An example from design practice

As should be evident by now, the uniqueness I’ve been referring to isn’t larger-than-life, outlined in bright, flashing LED lights. The uniqueness is about specificity of place and meaning, and can be embodied in small and subtle ways. Indeed, the power of uniqueness is often most profoundly felt when it arrives in a whisper rather than a shout.

A recent project of mine was a seaside vacation house. As with any project, the majority of design time spent had to do with gracefully achieving functional objectives. Throughout the course of the project though, there were always opportunities to express the meaning and nature of this particular project.

Here’s one small example. The living room had a set of shelves and cabinets along one side. The view from the living room overlooked what was perhaps the oldest resident of the property, a small gnarled cedar tree. While few might make the connection between what is growing outside the window to the cabinetry installed within, I chose cedar as a subtle link. It was the particulars of the wood graining of the cabinetry however that conveyed a more visceral connection to the place.

Although the cedar boards were simply plain-sawn boards, they had been cut slightly off-axis, creating highly figural “ripples” of alternating heart and sapwood oval rings – evoking the ripples of nearby bodies of water. The cabinets then, through the specific choices of wood and unique grain, give extra resonance and meaning to being at this particular place in the world – of sea and cedars.

By understanding and expressing in your projects, the unique specifics of place, time and cultural context, your work will resonate as an authentic experience.

Remember, Uncover what is unique. 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter U, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Ube and Umber, and a photo of Unique “ripples” of wood grain on cabinets.

22
Oct
13

Design Wisdom: Take Leave

The “T” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Take Leave.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to just go away.

Anyone who has taken “Graphic Design 101” has heard the advice for when stuck on a composition problem: “Turn it upside down and get a fresh perspective”. That also applies on a larger scale.

T-banner

On being tenacious

Design practice on the whole is not for the faint of heart. It takes a fair degree of confidence and persistence to weather the forces of naysayers, technical setbacks and politics of practice. Accordingly, design fields tend to attract people who expect to be tenacious and persevere. When the going gets tough, designers don’t tend to jump ship in the hope of having an easier go of it elsewhere. Sure, having an easier go of it would be fine, but not at the expense of a design vision!

So, what do you need to do when you get stuck? My advice: Don’t abandon your idea — just give it a rest! After all, we’ve all experienced getting stuck on something, then taking a break – be it a walk around the block or a good night’s sleep – and finding ourselves renewed and more capable of moving an idea forward.

Taking leave…

The message here isn’t to take a nap or turn on the TV at the first onset of difficulty. That message would be wrong on two levels. First, “taking leave” shouldn’t necessarily be construed as “tuning out”. Secondly, “taking leave” can and should be as much a proactive, preventative practice as a reactive, curative one.

Let’s take a minute and define “taking leave”. Taking leave is simply, making a change in your environment, or focus. So, using television as a metaphor, while you literally could leave or turn off the TV, simply changing the channel may well be enough to jog your experience.

Tuning in or tuning out

We all have our ways of recharging our batteries. It may be as simple as picking up the phone to talk with a friend or relative. Or it might be going for a walk or run. The architect Le Corbusier was famous for doing oil painting in the morning in one studio and conducting his architectural practice from another studio in the afternoon. Inventor Thomas Edison on the other hand was famous for taking short “catnaps” whenever he felt the need – right on a nearby lab bench! You only have to discover for yourself what works for you.

Preventative practice

The best advice for “taking leave” is to do it before you find yourself at a seeming dead end. If you’re like many, you tend to say: “when I finish XYZ, then I’ll give myself a break”. Forcing oneself to reach completion before allowing “the luxury” of taking leave is often how they get into trouble. I think the artist Picasso had it right. He claimed that he never finished a painting at the end of the day, but rather left something undone so that he knew where to start the next day.

When practicing “preventatively”, schedule breaks ahead of your work. For large breaks such as a trip, book it six months in advance, while your calendar is still relatively empty. When the time arrives, and you inevitably feel totally in the middle of your project, you can shrug and say “what can I do now but go”? You reluctantly pull yourself away. Invariably, when you return your energy level is higher – and you’ve probably got a few new ideas to boot.

An example from design practice

When in my third year of design studio in college, I was tackling the largest design problem that I’d been assigned up to that point – design of an entire city block in Center City Philadelphia for a high density, mixed-use development with a hotel and single-family residences. Early on in the project I got stuck on trying to find an overall building massing that I felt comfortable with. At the time it felt like I was trying to solve a huge simultaneous math equation – where variables included: neighborhood view corridors, vehicular access and parking, separating public vs. private domains, respecting zoning height and setback constraints, etc.

Weeks went by with my struggling with small site models. I wasn’t getting anywhere. It must have been in about the third week that professor threw me the life-saver I needed. He said: “Instead of focusing on what you don’t know, why don’t you start focusing on what you do know”. This was the “taking leave” I needed. All of a sudden I felt flush with ideas. Suddenly I was focused on making places where people would want to live, as opposed to what was “allowed” by external forces on the project. With a clear idea gained as to what was desirable, working within the constraints became easy.

Be proactive in giving yourself opportunities to “take leave” to renew your energies and enrich your creative thinking.

Remember, Take Leave.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter T, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Teal and Terra Cotta, and a photo of Taking-off on an ultralight.

15
Oct
13

Design Wisdom: Stimulate Senses and Soul

The “S” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Stimulate Senses & Soul.

How often in a project do you find yourself or others taking leave of their senses?

Without question, as design professionals, we’ve been drilled to respond to schedules, budgets and functional needs. But don’t forget — ultimately we are designing for sensory beings.

S-banner

Remembering the places of your childhood

Think back to touchstone places of your childhood. While many may be associated with other people, family and friends, or events – your first kiss, or the site of an injury – I’m asking you to think about the place itself. For instance, when I think of my grandmother’s house, I think of the smell of breakfast – strong coffee (for the adults), bacon, eggs and cantaloupe. My yard at home? A cherished place was the large wild cherry tree in the back yard with a scratchy limb crotch in which to sit, where I pealed the red bark curls and listened to the wind rustling the leaves while contemplating the “big questions” of life.

I would assert that most people, when they remember significant places, experience the recollection not as a detailed photographic image but rather more as a feeling – recalled sensations and emotional connections. This aspect of place is all but ignored in the course of architectural education and in many architectural practices as well.

Thinking beyond the brain

Architecture is a big subject. That’s part of its appeal. It’s a subject big enough to devote a lifetime to – several in fact. Students are asked: “What does it mean?” Heroism is lauded, as are big ideas and audacious images. Unfortunately an aspect which at best is given short shrift, and sometimes overlooked altogether, is the very definition of architecture itself – place of inhabitation. While our brains are certainly a part of our inhabiting places, first and foremost, we inhabit places with our bodies – and accompanying five senses.

Senses of inhabitation

Image is king in our present digital era. Our sensory experience of places is dominated by sight. If you stop with sight as your sole sensory input channel, you will find yourself with a very shallow, dare I say, flat experience. Your experience will be like seeing the world in black and white, two-dimensional silhouettes rather than in fully modeled, three-dimensional figures in color. Experiential depth, that is to say lasting emotional substance, comes from holistic sensual engagement.

Take an iconic example of furniture design: the “Wassily” chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-26. One can certainly appreciate it in terms of aesthetics, technology, cultural history, etc.  However, to look at one strictly in terms of “meaning” and function is to miss the sensual experience of sitting in (inhabiting) one. In sitting, one usually first reaches for an arm and feels the smooth, cool of the slender chromed steel frame. Landing in the leather seat is often greeted with a squeak of the leather as it tensions around the frame. Its broad surface, initially cool and stiff as one sits, quickly warms and softens with one’s body heat. The tensile stretch of the leather is contrasted with the springy buoyancy of the slender steel frame. Depending on the age of the chair, one’s nose is treated to smells, somewhere between new leather and an olfactory patina of inhabitation and aging. What richness – and without a mention of sight! Our charge therefore as designers, as we look to enrich our work, is to think with our whole bodies – leaving until last, the input of our vision.

An example from design practice

When I was a teenager, already knowing I wanted to become an architect, my parents took me to visit Fallingwater, the famous house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Before visiting, all I really knew of it was the iconic image of the thin concrete trays perched over the stream waterfalls. I had assumed that that image captured one’s approach to and essence of the house. It doesn’t. In fact, a visitor never sees that view (unless they set off to bushwhacking in the adjoining woods).

Like the best of Wright’s work, Fallingwater rewards all of the senses and certainly is meant to be experienced bodily, that is to say, in person rather than as an image. One arrives to the house by crossing first the stream over which the house is built further downstream. The drive loops “behind” the house – leaving the expansive feel of the stream and replacing it with a sense of compression between the house and uphill bank of the forest valley. We are being prepared for changing places.

To enter any of his houses is to immediately feel intimacy – with an unusually low ceiling. Among the myriad of Frank Lloyd Wright quotes was his assertion that “anyone over 5’-10” tall was a towering weed”. The physicality of the house is palpable: Stone, wood, stucco/plaster, glass and steel –creating dramatic variations in textures. A boulder pushes up from the river bank into the fireplace. The fireplace, with its huge orifice becomes a place in and of itself, not merely a decorative feature.

The relationship of inhabitants to the river is nuanced and varied – not merely a single “perfect” vista. Indeed, from within much of the main living space, the stream isn’t visible at all! Yet, as one approaches the cantilevered edges, the stream beckons. A stair descends directly to the river “for bathing access”. Here is the most intimate of places, a place of private communion with the cool dampness in the shadows, smelling of woodlands and echoing the ripples of the flowing water. That is the immersive place I remember most vividly of that house – not the postcard view.

By cultivating the experience of place as being rewarding to all of the senses, not just sight and intellect, we nourish the soul.

Remember, Stimulate Senses & Soul.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter S, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Saphire and Sand, and a photo of the Streamside Spot at Fallingwater.

24
Sep
13

Design Wisdom: Respect Context

The “R” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Respect context.

As a designer, you don’t work in a vacuum. It’s important to respect your context.

Just as it is said that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”, those who are arrogant enough to disrespect their surroundings are doomed to suffer the consequences.

R-banner

Respect, not fear

I’m guessing I’m not alone in having been confused as a child by religious teachings that stressed the need to fear God. It probably wasn’t until about college age that I learned that fear in this case had two meanings – neither one being about hiding from a vengeful superpower. The first was to have reverential awe, that is to say, an overwhelming deep feeling of respectfulness. The second was in realizing the (negative) consequences for failing to understand and respect [someone or something]. Ultimately the root meaning of fear has to do with acknowledging respect.

A broader definition

If you look up the definition of “respect” in the dictionary and do a speed reading, rather than parsing out the shadings of meanings, you get something like: …a relation or reference…sense of worth…deference to a person or position.

One of the consequences (and benefits) of growing older and having more years of design practice under ones belt, is the enlarging of one’s sphere of reference or relations. With that comes humility as one becomes more deeply aware of the amazing achievements of earlier figures in history. Whether you are learning more about your favorite architect or a former statesman in history, often what emerges is reverential awe. With knowledge of history comes appreciation and respect. In my view, the accomplishments of historical figures are mostly about working the warp and weft of their contexts into different meanings, not ignoring them. They made a difference in respecting their context and working to transform it.

Designers aren’t superheroes

Over the years I’ve served as a design critic on a wide range of college architectural studio juries. One of the recurring themes, from my perspective, is a desire [among students] for shear transcendence, rather than transformation of a place. (Or, put another way: Revolution before evolution.) First and foremost, most students are very angry with gravity. “Oh what a bother” they say! (In my days as a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute I heard many a peer invoke the use of “Rensselonium, a fictitious element capable of spanning infinite distances with infinitesimal thickness”. After all, if you don’t have a cantilever that spans at least half a city block, who would ever notice your design? Even materials can be a bother, with students focusing solely on form – at the expense of everything else.

Just as it is said that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”, those who are arrogant enough to ignore their surroundings are doomed to suffer the consequences. Yes, even if you make your building all white to transcend nature, it’s still going to get dirty after all. Recognize and respect nature rather than fighting it and having “to fear” with respect to consequences.

What I’ve come to realize is that success as a designer (and human being) comes in respect, rather than transcendence of our context. Taking this to a more philosophical level I would subscribe to the idea that transcendence is achieved as a result of embodying (respecting) our nature (context) to its fullest.

An example from design practice

The earliest paying commission I ever had was design-build of a dollhouse. (I’m guessing I was about thirteen years old at the time.) All told, within the course of about a year, I was commissioned to design and build three of these structures – each about 2-1/2 feet tall and 3 feet long, open in the back and with a hinged roof revealing an attic.

I got my first power tool for the job, a single-speed jigsaw. Working with both a jigsaw and plywood for the first time I got an expedient lesson as to the “nature” of each. The jigsaw seemed to have a mind of its own and was often at war with the plywood, tearing large splinters of face veneer loose, spoiling any chance of a clean finished wall or floor surface in the model. After trying to will the saw and wood into obedience (and failing repeatedly) I finally came to realize that what was needed was understanding and respect for the limitations of both my tools and chosen materials. At that age I was far from understanding the potential for expressing the nature of materials. It was enough to not fight them. Respect has to start somewhere.

As my career evolved I pursued construction experience alongside the study of architectural history and design. As a semi-professional carpenter I helped build a geodesic dome, a boat dock, decks, numerous house renovations, and cabinetry for several residences. I learned my limitations as a novice bricklayer, plumber, electrician, drywaller and painter too. The repeated lesson was: learn to respect the tools of the trade and the nature of the materials you are working with. With respect comes fluency – the ability to discern the flow – and being able to just go with it.

Rather than trying to transcend the context of your design project by ignoring it, learn and respect its nature and use that power as the ultimate transformative force.

Remember, Respect context.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter R, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Rust and Raspberry, and a photo of woodworker Respecting grain of wood.

17
Sep
13

Design Wisdom: Question

The “Q” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Question.

While clients most often seek answers, they may be best served by questions.

Rarely is it beneficial for designers to accept things at face value. It is only through asking questions, of our clients and ourselves, that we arrive at results which are meaningful and fulfilling.

Q-banner

Business as (un)usual

As architects and designers, we are often billed as “problem-solvers”. A client wants a particular set of spaces or functions fit onto a particular site. They have time constraints and budget limitations. There are maintenance questions and problems with obtaining municipal approvals. From a business standpoint, other people’s problems are a designer’s livelihood.

The nature of something being characterized as a “problem” is its being perceived as a speed bump, if not an outright roadblock to “business as usual”. The mandate of problems is a need to re-think – or call things into question. This is the source of the cliché that every problem is an “opportunity” to re-evaluate or question. A problem means: not business as usual.

Problem-solving expertise

At the most fundamental level, what a designer brings to the table first and foremost is a deep knowledge of their craft – whether it is designing websites or skyscrapers. As much as designers (or artists of any kind) are loathe to admit, we are specialists. We specialize in determining how things are put together. When a client comes to us with a problem, they are saying in effect, that something needs to be put together differently, and we need to rise to the challenge.

As design-craftsmen we hone our skills in problem-solving – using new materials, or alternative techniques or doing end-runs, revising projects so as to eliminate a particular problems altogether. As design practitioners, these skillsets are the bread and butter of our trade. However, if we limit our design practice strictly to this, we miss what is probably the most crucial aspect of what a designer can, and should bring to every project.

External versus internal questions

Answering a client’s questions isn’t enough. A designer needs to formulate their own questions. To some extent, a designer should re-define every project. The primary tool for this is a different form of questioning. Rather than responding to the externally “imposed” questions of others, the designer needs to exercise a broader level of questioning. The paths of inquiry they bring to any project provide the greatest differentiating factor among designers. Think of the philosophical musings of Louis Kahn in “asking what a given thing or institution wanted to be”, or Robert Venturi’s insistence that the vitality of architecture is in acknowledging and expressing the clashes between competing ideas and functions.

Digging deep, questioning both the client and your own motivations, facilitates design work which is fresh and vital – and different from what your peers are doing. Why sell yourself or your client short with anything less? A client’s questions are never enough.

An example from design practice

Early in my career, in fact my first commission as a licensed architect, I was hired to design a vacation house in the Adirondacks. As is most often the case with residential projects, at the outset of the design process the clients didn’t have a clear picture of their needs beyond an initial list of probable rooms and a not-to-exceed construction budget.

I started the project asking a great many questions, trying to learn their likes and dislikes, and how much they cared about various things. Ultimately they sheepishly brought out a file of clippings from magazines and newspapers, which included three proto-type designs from mail order house plan services. One was a “raised ranch”. The second was a “split level”. And the third was a two-story “mountaintop retreat”. They were confused by the fact that they liked each of them in different ways, but had no idea of how to create a coherent house design from the disparate styles.

This was good for me because it made me dig deeply into the client’s heads. They weren’t looking for any particular superficial style, but rather about achieving a “feel” (e.g. a particular sense of flow among the spaces and functionality that felt natural to their lifestyle). I delved into their childhood memories, analyzed their present home, prepared functional diagrams and questionnaires, took sightseeing trips to gauge their reactions to places and buildings, and learned their color preferences and favorite activities.

The process was one probably not too dissimilar from that of an actor who studies a character role so intently as to become capable of “inhabiting” the character and thus being able to express his/her character’s nature instinctively. In the case of this couple, after internalizing and gestating on who they were and what they were trying to achieve, I was able to produce, in a single scheme, a design which perfectly synthesized what they were seeking. Now with grown children, they still cherish the house on the lake I designed for them so many years ago. Their project set a benchmark for me for deeply questioning the nature of a client and their project.

Problems are an invitation to dig deeper. In seeking answers to your client’s problems, inject the project with questions of your own – generating a compelling and fresh vision.

Remember, Question.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Q, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Quartz and Quinacridone magenta, and a photo of a Quizzical man.




Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 29 other followers

Contact AxD


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers