Posts Tagged ‘architecture


Design Wisdom: Question

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


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.


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.


Design Wisdom: Navigating t/here

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

Navigating t/here.

Design requires leading people from a known world into an unknown one.

While 3D visualizations are bridging the gap between initial conception and final completion of buildings, for most clients, deciding what to do still requires a leap of faith – and that means trust.


My mousetrap is better than yours

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door is a common paraphrase of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Don’t we all, as designers, wish we could simply build the building (or other product) of our imagination and have it be admired and purchased – like the proverbial “better mousetrap”? Unfortunately, although some designers can bring their own projects directly to the market (essentially as developers), the majority of designers must instead serve more as shepherds in guiding clients, building officials and contractors through a process of visualizing and decision-making in order to get to a finished product. A crucial skill to have as a designer is leadership ability – navigating from the known world to new frontiers.

 I’ll know it when I see it

Anyone who has been in design practice for any length of time has had a client, or prospective client, who has uttered some version of the phrase: “I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”. Most people are adept at shopping. That process involves making a selection among a set of fully realized products – mostly mass-produced. So, not only is “the thing” already fully present for evaluation, it probably has been used and reviewed by a myriad of other consumers already. For more complex products there is often a “trial period”. Ultimately with most products, unsatisfied buyers have the option of simply returning the product and getting a refund. None of these factors play very well in the arena of architectural design. When was the last time someone tried to return a building for a refund?

Design isn’t shopping

While people frequently “shop” for places to live – choosing among apartments or houses available for rent or sale, these are not a designer’s clients. Designers are hired to conceive what does not yet exist. That process is more akin to that of research and development (R&D) than that of shopping. Furthermore, in architecture in particular, most often there is a production run of exactly one. Every project is a prototype essentially.

Going on a journey

Setting sail into the wilderness of R&D with your client, your job as designer is threefold: 1) Understanding them, 2) Engaging and educating them, and finally, 3) Gaining their trust. I think of the trilogy as: Doing my homework, Getting the client to do their homework, and Strengthening the ability to work together — particularly through difficult patches of the process.

If your client did their homework when they selected you, part of the reason they hired you was feeling they understood and/or could trust you. If you are hired by an individual (or couple) to design a house or place of business, there is a rather direct relationship and development of trust. However, most projects are done for “multi-headed” clients – corporations, governments, non-profit groups, etc. In these cases you are leading a group on a journey. Regardless of the type of client, practicing design is less about having the perfect solution, and more about leadership – getting people to do their homework and effectively trust one another in order to get to a realized vision.

 A world of ideas

In my experience, working with church groups and other types of all-volunteer committees represents the largest challenge for leadership (outside of large-scale, public projects). I’ve worked on projects for a variety of religious organizations over the years. How does one get from here to there with this kind of a non-hierarchical, volunteer client or user group?

Every designer has their own style of leadership. A crucial part of that is understanding who your constituents are on any given project and having a framework of how best to work with them. I have found the single-most important key to success is allowing everyone, and I mean everyone who is a stakeholder in a project, to feel that they have been heard.

 An example from design practice

Years ago I led a master planning study for improving a thirteen acre urban church and daycare/school facility. The site already had a church on the National Historic Register, an education building, an apartment building, a carriage house, a columbarium, on-site parking lots and several playground areas. As architects hired from “out-of-town” we were welcomed to our first meeting by a large and enthusiastic group of church volunteers. Everyone wanted to impress upon us his or her own version of what the real problems and acceptable solutions were…and also to tell us which of the others in the congregation we should muzzle!

There was one congregant more than any other whom nearly everyone seemed desperate to silence. The individual, a retired engineer, was convinced that the single-most important component of any master plan would be to create a new bridge for pedestrians to cross a public street from the largest existing parking lot to the historic church. Not surprisingly, this very idea struck terror into the hearts of most of the congregation.

So, long story short, when it was time for discussing people’s ideas of what was needed, the second person I selected to speak was the “bridge engineer”. (I ignored the glares of congregants who had counseled me to avoid him.) When the next speaker began by attacking the bridge idea, I immediately clarified that the session was to brainstorm and simply hear people’s ideas – not select or defend which ideas were best. In the end, people became freer to hear ideas in a non-parochial manner. And even though the bridge idea was ultimately replaced (by a less costly and less invasive design solution), the engineer became a staunch supporter of the ratified approach that replaced his initial conception. By leading the congregation to give full voice to everyone, people were able not only better trust one another, but also trust in the process of getting to a well-balanced, well-supported final solution. One which went on to receive a national American Institute of Architects design award!

At the end of the day, your skills as a designer are more about leadership than having the perfect idea. If you are unable to get a client and collaborators to realize your vision, you can’t succeed.

 Remember, Navigate t/here

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter N, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Navy and Neon green, and a photo of skiers Navigating a glacier.


Design Wisdom: Materials Matter

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

Materials Matter.

As virtual reality becomes surreal, designers have the opportunity to make it real.

As we expand new digital design, modeling and fabrication technologies, we may find simultaneously a reawakening to the sensual potential of physical materials themselves.


Looking at history

As my 10th grade history teacher pointed out, in mankind’s quest to put an astronaut on the moon, the unexpected benefit was looking back and seeing the earth for the first time. In our present era, computational technology is at the forefront of our cultural imagination – constituting our present giant step forward. Computers and invention of the worldwide Web have, and will continue to, transform our contemporary culture in extraordinary ways. So, the question is: What will the exciting “look back” be with regards to our burgeoning digital revolution? I believe the answer lies in a re-evaluation of the nature of materials themselves.

One would be tempted to look to the Arts and Crafts movement as a somewhat comparable precedent. The origins of that movement however were rooted in reform of the practices and effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pioneer of the movement, artist and writer William Morris, sought an antidote to shoddily mass-produced decorative arts, often created under oppressive working conditions. In some respects the movement was reactionary – seeking a return to a simpler agrarian era. As such it’s not a good model for our present era.

I believe there’s a better art history precedent. The first photographs created and publically shown were unveiled in 1839 to the French Académie des Sciences, by artist-inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. These daguerreotypes as they were called were photographic images upon highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper. Is it a coincidence that scarcely a quarter century later in the same culture, painters developed what came to be known as Impressionism?

Most contemporary art historians consider that it was primarily the development of photography which enabled, indeed provoked, artists to seriously explore the expressive potential of painting. Especially as the technology of photographic reproduction became more accurate in rendering realistic images, artists were, in some respects, “freed” from obligations of producing objectively faithful imagery. Ultimately color itself became “the subject” as painting moved into new realms by the “Fauves” and later Abstract Expressionist “Color Field” painters. That inquiry subsequently moved even beyond the use of pigmented paint as contemporary “light painters” such as James Turrell explore terrestrial optical color effects.

Real or virtual?

What is the design opportunity of the present era? The digital revolution is emphasizing conceptual thinking and virtual experiences. As a result we are becoming less bodily present. More and more, perhaps without realizing it, people are “walking with their brains”, not their bodies. As technology “frees us” to fly through virtual worlds inhabited by fantasy creatures, it unexpectedly concurrently creates a greater potential for physical (embodied) sensual experiences. Herein lays the unexpected opportunity of the present era. The newest frontier will be the re-engagement with our physical environment. We will again truly inhabit places, not merely use them in a functional way.

When was the last time you delighted in your actuality – the authentic, real-time presence of the where you were in the universe? The opportunity is to re-engage our bodies through all of our physical senses. It’s time to design to create that new bodily awareness. It’s time again to savor the smell of cedar shingles in the hot afternoon summer sun (or just smell the roses).

An example from design practice

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite buildings is the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark. A traditional house in a residential neighborhood was expanded into a world-class contemporary art museum. The site, abutting the coast, slopes significantly in all directions and has numerous mature trees. Rather than creating a “tabla rasa” (or clean slate) on which to efficiently set a flexible, generic exhibition gallery, the architects (Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert) intentionally chose to respect and harness the natural particularities of the existing site. As a result, the exhibition space is attached to the original house, but is broken into discrete pavilions, strung together as a necklace, each oriented to unique site views. The connecting “string” is a casually mendering glazed corridor which actually slopes with the adjoining ground and bends here and there – at once showcasing and avoiding disruption of mature trees along the way. I can’t think of a more successful synthesis of culture and nature.

Clearly the architects and client could have found a cheaper alternative than literally working around trees and slopes, but not one that would have so substantially contributed to creating the most heavily visited museum in Denmark. It is a true joy experiencing a particular place, engaging ones mind and body.

The opportunity of our present era is to reawaken our senses and bodily awareness. In this pursuit, the materials of our craft will take on renewed significance.

Remember, Materials Matter

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter M, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Maroon and Mint, and a photo of Material-free (virtual) house.


Design Wisdom: Leave Leavening

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

Leave Leavening.

Most times the best answers (and designs) are open-ended and invite further inquiry.

Ever been in a conversation with a “know-it-all”? First, it’s not really a conversation if someone feels they already have all the answers. Great design, however, is like good conversation: it invites participation.


Why leavening?

Leavening is essentially a fermentation process used in baking to produce air bubbles that cause breads to rise. The metaphor here is about making space – literally and figuratively. Without leavening, breads can be dense and impenetrable. As a designer, you’re creating (in whatever medium) objects, performances, or buildings that you want others (your audience or user) to find engaging and accessible. For our purposes, then, leavening is about providing space for audience members to inhabit in some form – physically, emotionally and/or intellectually.

Leaving room for the imagination

Think of a world devoid of imagination. Everything would be reduced to nuts-and-bolts knowledge. Just the facts. There would be no room for “What if?” Without imagination, our world would be a pretty dull, predictable, mechanistic environment.

It might be tempting to say that imagination is in the eye of the beholder. After all, anyone who’s spent any time around young children has witnessed their endless capacity to imagine all sorts of amazing things in the most banal of environments – like the laundry basket transformed into an intergalactic space station. But simply to leave imagination to the beholder is a cop-out by you, the designer — and a serious lost opportunity for the audience.

An essential mission of a designer is to engage others – to provide room and encouragement to experiment, wonder and fill in the blanks. Leavening is what makes the design all the more engaging for the consumer.

Leaving room for serendipity

Besides creating space for the consumer’s imagination, you need to leave room for serendipity. By serendipity, I mean chance encounters or juxtapositions, or more fundamentally, room for discovery. In this sense, “leave leavening” means allowing some openness for spontaneous and even quirky personal responses, which in turn means surrendering some control over how other people will experience your design. Like a place without room for the imagination, a hermetically self-contained “know-it-all” design is also dead. Having chance encounters is an essential part of the human condition.

Making room for serendipity is easily illustrated in architectural practice. Dating back to at least when Louis I. Kahn was designing the Salk Institute laboratories, there was increasing awareness that scientific breakthroughs weren’t the sole provenance of the lone scientist toiling in his laboratory, but rather often occurred at the nexus of private reflection and collegial exchange. At least since that time, we’ve understood that providing space for random social interaction can be as essential as places for structured work in learning and research environments.

Think about it this way: If students were found to learn best from staring at an instructor or display surface, why would any classrooms have windows? The passing bird may offer more to the lesson than anyone might expect!

An example from design practice

As this “Design Wisdom” series has evolved, I’ve realized that I use the label “design practice” to mean any form of creative authorship for public consumption. In that sense, it applies to virtually all artistic fields — so it’s not unfitting that I turn to creative writing as the source of an example from design practice.

Back in college, I took a writing class as an elective. It was a crash course in looking structurally at stories – with the twin goals of increasing our appreciation of the craft of writing and helping us write better ourselves.

One of the exercises involved writing a careful description of a specific place from memory. It was important that it not be an invented place, but rather a real place from our personal experience… a place we knew intimately. We then exchanged papers with another student and silently read each other’s place descriptions. Finally, the entire class was given a list of specific questions such as: How big was the place? What was the predominant color? How would you describe the smell of the place? How did the place make you feel? What kind of light was there?

We had to answer the questions based on the other person’s description. The results amazed me. I had described my grandmother’s long wooden Greek Revival porch in Upstate New York, choked with concord grape vines in the summertime. My partner in the exercise intuited some answers right in line with my own memory – the size of the porch, for example. Other characteristics, like the quality of light and sense of feeling I had in the place, were rendered in a quite different (but very compelling) way by the other student – based on his own sensibilities.

The “take-away” for me was two-fold. First, as definitively as we might try to “nail down” every detail of our project, some features will inevitably remain (and should remain) ambiguous. Secondly, a reader (or viewer, or audience member) must be able to find room in your design to inhabit and make their own. In that long-ago classroom exercise, I realized that “my” place description became richer for having shared it with someone who could enhance it with his own perceptions.

If you’re designing to engage an audience, your work shouldn’t end the conversation. It must leave space for the imagination and serendipitous discoveries. 

Remember, Leave Leavening.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter L, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Lapis Lazuli and Liver, and a photo of statues which Leave us wondering.


Design Wisdom: Humans have needs

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

Humans have needs.

When was the last time you were somewhere you thought you didn’t belong?

Probably within the last 24 hours. I’m talking about buildings and places where your comfort as a human user seemed to have been the last thing anyone took seriously.


Who are you designing for?

Surprisingly, it often seems that the accommodation of users and their needs is secondary to some other agenda. How many times have you walked into a corporate lobby and said “Wow!” (wondering why they created such a vast 3-story glass-walled atrium) only to end up feeling sorry for the poor receptionist, blinded by sun glare and buffeted by blasts of frigid outdoor air every time the door opened?

You may be the owner or architect, but the question is the same: Who are you designing for? Are you designing to impress your competition? Are you designing things simply “because you can”? Or are you actually designing to deliver the best experience for the users?

Good design shouldn’t ever have to say it’s sorry. By that I mean to say that a well-designed building or space doesn’t require apologies for what it didn’t get right – because good design means getting the things that matter right. And guess what? People matter. One of the most fundamental aspects of “getting it right” is achieving ease of use and providing a sense of comfort for the occupants.

Suffering for (your) art

It’s fine for designers to suffer for their art. That’s their choice. However, they should never impose suffering on their clients without their consent. As a designer I would argue that our mandate, in terms of suffering for our art, is to achieve the “both-and” of beauty and functionality, not allowing one to fall aside at the expense of the other. Owners and architects alike should take as “standard operating procedure” that the buildings they commission or design both inspire and comfort users.

Interestingly, the size or complexity of a project isn’t relevant to whether it can offer both inspiration and comfort. Let’s look at a few notable famous failures and successes. All of them are inspiring. (They wouldn’t be in the history books if they didn’t inspire.) However, only some of them are comforting.

In terms of size and functional demands, single-family homes should top the list for comfort and ready accommodation of user needs. Apparently Mies van der Rohe needed a reminder: after completion of his all-glass Farnsworth House, Mrs. Farnsworth sued him for creating an “unlivable house.” The Franks didn’t fare much better when architect Peter Eisenman created a house that forced the owner couple to sleep in separate beds.

Museums arguably have more complex functional demands to meet – and yet they can achieve sublime comfort. For example, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (located, oddly enough, in Denmark) is quietly nestled, in a very unassuming way, in a residential neighborhood north of Copenhagen. Your experience as a visitor is like walking through a garden in full bloom in beautiful weather. Similarly, architect Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a tranquil oasis – heroic in its transcendent luminosity, yet humble in scale.

An example from design practice

In most projects there are power struggles among the various stakeholders. Corporate departments or married partners often fight against a real or perceived constraint to obtain more of whatever their interests are. In these cases, your role as designer is as referee or counselor. Surprisingly, you often find yourself fighting to defend the most basic human accommodations in your designs.

In one case, I was working for a very dynamic and forward-looking CEO who had commissioned my firm to design some large meeting spaces for his institution. At some point, in exasperation, he demanded that the number of toilets be reduced by half. I explained that the number shown was required by the building code as proportional to the number of people being accommodated in the meeting spaces. When I asked why the restroom quantity was a problem, his response was: “I can’t find donors for bathrooms.” In the end, the code requirements were met – but not without my insisting that I would resign from the job if he insisted that we provide any fewer! Funny thing is, after graduating from architecture school, I had never imagined myself fighting a client in order to provide more toilets!

As architects we revel in designing spaces that inspire. Yet it is equally important that we provide comfort and utility for the joy of the humans using our buildings.

Remember, Humans have needs

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter H, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Harvest Gold and Hunter Green, and a photo of a Human happily hanging out.


Design Wisdom: Get Grounded

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

Get Grounded.

Riddle: What do electrical work and artistic painting have in common?

Answer: They both require being grounded. Granted, they have very different grounding techniques, but the point is: any work requires a prepared context, or ground, upon which to safely rest.


Figure versus ground

Every designer is well acquainted with the formal distinction of figure versus ground. In my last article I talked about the need to establish a focal point or figurative aspect in any design project. In this context the importance of having a ground is in clearing away, making space for the figure to stand out and be appreciated.

If you want to make a statement, verbally or architecturally, you figuratively need to have the floor. If we were to take this to a deeper level, we might say you need to have the ground. One might be tempted, then, to think that it’s a bit like public speaking. A speaker’s first task is to gain the audience’s attention by becoming the focal point… in other words, by asserting control over the space and silencing any peripheral noise.

Are you making a speech?

Unfortunately, all too many designers end their conception of grounding with this clearing away or silencing. Yes, this approach can work for a small minority of projects (a public monument, for example) where you want the finished design to stand alone delivering a resonant soliloquy. But in most cases, architecture isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about giving a speech. You need to find a different type of grounding.

A better metaphor for most architecture design commissions might be constructing a conversation. In this approach, grounding is about understanding, acknowledging and reshaping your environment or context. Grounding becomes engagement with your neighbors. You can neither afford to ignore what people are saying nor simply repeat what they are saying and expect to remain welcome.

Using this analogy, it’s clear that the most valuable contribution of the designer is neither shouting down nor silencing the others in the room, but rather in shifting and elevating the ongoing discourse. The design process starts by finding common ground before you find the figure.

An example from design practice

At a corporate level, many business organizations seek to ground themselves by formulating mission statements, branding concepts and strategic plans. And yet, my experience tells me that such strategies rarely take on a tangible role in developing an architectural project.

Coming full circle back to electricians, a notable recent exception in my practice was in developing a new regional headquarters for NECA, the National Electrical Contractors Association. Working with these electrical contractors I was blessed with a client group who took their mission and constituents seriously and used them to effectively to ground their project.

Only rarely does a client’s full “wish list” find its way into a completed building. Even without “tangible” limitations – funding, for example, or the restrictions of the physical site — some degree of grounding  becomes essential if you want to shape a project into a more vital and distinctive whole.

My intake from the design meetings with the NECA Board was that they would repeatedly return to their core mission and strategic plan to balance the program and design decisions. Frequent questions included: Should a visitor’s first impression be about member services, trade mentorship or public outreach? Is a particular feature adding value for membership at the expense of the staff, or visa versa? Are we anticipating and encouraging growth or supporting a static vision?

This continual looking back to the core objectives of the organization proved to be really grounding for the project – both in the sense of stripping away the “noise” of unnecessary frills, and (to use another electrical term) ensuring connectivity between the organizational purpose and the resulting facilities.

Any successful design requires a prepared ground – the creation of which entails both clearing away and rooting to the established fabric of the surrounding environment.

Remember, Get Grounded 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter G, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Grape and Green, and a photo of a Grounded plug.


Design Wisdom: Find the Figure

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

Find the Figure. 

When was the last time you were accused of not seeing the forest for the trees?

In our caffeinated, attention-deficit inducing Information Age, the deluge of imagery in our daily lives makes it far more likely that you’ll fail to notice, let alone get captivated by, individual trees. And yet, successful design requires that we recover the ability to do so.


Problem Solving

As a designer you’re typically hired to solve a specific problem. It could be designing a website or a skyscraper. Sometimes your client comes to you without a clue about where to begin because the problem seems so complicated. Other times, what looks like a simple task at the outset quickly gets bogged down in conflicting details and secondary agendas. Either way, most design projects at some point run the risk of capsizing under too heavy a burden of options and information. How do you work through all the details to find a cohesive solution? Where do you begin?

Being Subjective

Your primary skill as a designer isn’t your likeness to a computer, crunching huge multi-variable simultaneous equations. Your skill is in your subjectivity (and your persuasiveness, but we’ll get to that in a subsequent article). What’s the root word of subjectivity? Subject. A singularity. A point of reference selected by someone with a unique vision, just as an artist selects the central figure for a portrait or still life painting.

But let me be clear:  while the “figure” I’m talking about can be a concrete object, like a table or a tree, it doesn’t need to be. It can be a color, shape, concept, or feeling. The essential idea is that whatever it is, it is a palpable entity. This thingness can be achieved in many different ways, but the result is in differentiating one tree as unique within the forest. It is the capturing of focus that enables meaning to be created and savored. As a designer, one of your most valuable skills lies in making this subjective choice of what that the focus or figure of a given project will be.

Putting a Stake in the Ground

Think of going on a camping trip. At some point you’ll need to find a spot to spend the night. More often than not, you select that spot by finding a figure that serves as a focal point. It might be a view to a distant mountain or the flatness of a large rock at your feet. Finding a figure gives you a starting point. Establishing that figure puts everything else in some kind of relationship to it. Rather than roaming aimlessly in an undifferentiated forest, your perceptions and actions become relational to the thing you’ve claimed.

Granted, having found the figure doesn’t mean your work is done. Think of it as Thomas Edison’s 1% inspiration in relation to the remaining 99% perspiration of work. You still have to shape the subsequent relationships with everything else to make them meaningful and positive. But once you’ve settled on the focal point or theme of your project, you’ve essentially built the foundation for everything that follows.

An Example from Design Practice

A project of mine currently nearing completion is a residential retreat with guesthouse in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. The client acquired the site for its primal natural qualities – a lakefront property surrounded by a mature forest, mostly hemlock. As with any project it had its share of impediments. The 10-acre site had three major zones: a moderately sloped portion which had previously been logged a decade earlier, a steeply sloped portion with virgin forest, and a low, boggy wetlands area. The most readily accessible portions of the site had previously been left visibly scarred from the earlier logging activity. The areas of greatest beauty and best views were deep within the site, heavily forested and steeply sloped with rock ledges just below the surface. The wetlands areas, of course, were environmentally protected and needed to be kept intact.

From the outset of the project it was clear that how we dealt with the existing conditions of the site would be the key to success. We gathered as much information about the site as possible, including surveying the slopes, mapping the major trees, and assessing view sheds. So, you could say we began with a soft- focus impression of site, without knowing the key to knitting the assets and challenges of the site together into a seamless whole.

At some point during our surveying I saw one remarkable tree — a mature hemlock — whose deeply textured bark was being highlighted by the direct rays of a late afternoon sun. Suddenly I realized that the central motif of our project would be a tree – more specifically, seeing a tree through the forest. The story of trees became our narrative glue – starting with reclaiming much of the original logging road as our site access. The largest area of the logging slash became a meadow within which we sited the guesthouse. The site for the main house was nestled into the wooded hillside, enabling approaching visitors to view past the house, through the under-canopy silhouettes of tree trunks down to the shimmering blue surface of the lake below.

While much of our effort was spent in preserving trees and shaping views of them (and through them), some trees inevitably required removal. Rather than treating them as nuisance waste, we chose to transform them into a featured element of our project. With careful handling we stacked the felled trees under a temporary shelter and air-cured them into building-usable logs. The logs became the “signature” front features of both houses – serving as loggia columns on the guesthouse and primary exposed structural elements for the roof and porches of the main residence. A visit to the property now inspires admiration for the many faces of trees, in all their forms of beauty and strength.

Finding a specific idea or object to provide a palpable presence in a project enables you to build meaningful relationships with the greater whole. 

Remember, Find the Figure

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter F, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Fuchsia and Flax, and a photo of a Forest

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