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.


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