Posts Tagged ‘craft of architecture


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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: Own it. Share it.

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

Own it. Share it.

As it relates to design, ownership is about an emotional or intellectual relationship.

It is incumbent upon designers to engage all project participants along the way, enabling them to invest in the outcome of the project, and in so doing, share ownership.


It’s mine, all mine

In the world of business, people often use phrases like “holding an interest” or “having a stake” or “being invested” in a particular venture. Each is referring to the idea of ownership. But what is ownership? Most people think of ownership rather narrowly – in a legal or financial sense. If someone owns property, they must have the title to it or have paid someone else to possess it.

The kind of ownership I’m talking about isn’t that literal. Ownership, as it refers to design, is about one’s emotional or intellectual relationship to the design process and/or product – hopefully both.

Ownership means possessing a sense of responsibility for: a) shaping an outcome and/or b) maintaining the value it holds. For someone to really own something, an individual must value it for what it specifically means to them. Ownership needs to be personal.


As architects or designers who work with their clients, we shape not only the final physical artifact, but the process of designing as well. Ownership in a project is primarily about being emotionally and intellectually engaged; having participants who feel empowered and effectual in shaping the final outcome. This sense of ownership therefore must be cultivated and achieved as an essential part of the process of design.

By implementing practices that help consultants, clients and contractors feel confident, capable, and in control of the outcome of the project they are working on, they feel empowered to do their work effectively. Ideally, this ensures commitment to the project vision, which results in greater creativity and thoughtfulness about how to enhance that vision over the course of the project.

In terms of the completed project, people with ownership, those who have participated in the process and understand and value the decisions needed to get to the end product – share in the pride of authorship, and as a result, hold the results in higher esteem than their unengaged peers. The happiest of clients by the end of any project are the ones who have been in the trenches with you and faced the realities of the process.

Learning to share

In retrospect, looking back on my own maturation as an architect, it seems to have been analogous to how one thinks of a kid in a sandbox. I started out playing solo in the box – learning the potential of each toy and keeping them to myself. I sought to build the perfect castle or fort. Over time I gained confidence and delighted in mastery. Soon I wanted to share what I’d learned, and as a result, unexpectedly became exposed to new ideas of other playmates. Ultimately, the process of learning and sharing itself became as important as the results.

While our culture idealizes the solo genius artist, our day-to-day sustenance is found in sharing and learning from one another – engaging our humanity. As we gain experience, there comes a shift from the impetuous, narrow, idealistic intensity of youth, to a broader, more nuanced embrace of wholeness in maturity.

Architecture indeed is a social practice. This is perhaps the biggest lesson not taught in schools.

An example from design practice

My own lifelong apprenticeship to architecture mirrors my maturation as a person. Even before reaching my teens I started by designing houses. I imagined places I wanted to live in. So, design began as an extension of self.

Emerging from architecture school I was drawn to designing for institutions – not specific institutions mind you, but to the ideals represented by institutions. (Louis I. Kahn was a huge inspiration in this regard.) Accordingly, I sought out opportunities to design museums, places of education, and churches.

Having worked as a design principal in my own practices for well over a decade now, I have come to delight in working closely with home and business owners – creating places that they truly own for themselves, not with their wallets but with their hearts. Some times this is achieved by discovering new ways for them to see the world, and sometimes it is achieved by bringing along connective tissue from other parts of their lives.

An example of how ownership can be achieved in the smallest of details comes from a recent vacation house project. One doesn’t often think of driveways as an opportunity for reflection and ownership. In this case, I had designed the driveway as a series of concrete pads separated by river-washed stone bands (for storm water penetration). As a link for the owner, I collected leaves from the vegetation of their permanent residence and pressed them into the wet concrete of the driveway pads at their new vacation home. The leaves are impressed into memory for all to see – a bridge between their two homes.

In shaping things for ourselves and others it is essential that we involve others in the journey, not simply as witnesses, but as authors – cultivating a shared ownership. 

Remember,Own it. Share it. 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter O, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Olive and Orange, and a photo of Owner hugging his tree.


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.

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