Posts Tagged ‘design-build

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.

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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.

12
Feb
13

Design Wisdom: Create Courage

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

          Create Courage.

                  Design is a journey to a new place. New means risk. Why go there?

If you don’t have a reason to take a risk, you won’t. Courage means having a bold vision that overshadows the difficulty of taking the first step and persevering to reach a goal.

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Why do you design?

Before considering how and why to take risks, ask yourself “Why do I design? Why is the client hiring me?” Namely: to make a difference. To create something that is different.

“Different” means risk. If you can’t accept risk, you’ll be consigned to maintaining the status quo. So, let me repeat: “Why would someone hire you?” For the new places you can take them. Your brand is the sum of the risks you are willing to take.

Start with yourself

As a designer you undoubtedly strive to make the proverbial “better mousetrap” (or at least one that commands attention). If you believe that making something better means turning it upside down, then you’ll need the courage to face whomever or whatever you’re accountable to – a boss, a client or the bottom line of your business ledger.

The path to courage is redefining failure. Most of us are conditioned to see failure as having made a mistake (or being told that we’ve made a mistake). Cautious souls keep reminding us that practice makes perfect, and the pursuit of perfection overtakes our need to make a difference. In other words, if you’re not doing the same thing over and over again, you’re bound to be making mistakes as you take risks on new ideas. This mindset is fatal to creativity.  Condition yourself to see not taking risk as failure.

One of the lessons I learned from working with Peter Bohlin, FAIA, was his ability to take mistakes in stride. At a design critique he would invariably start a sentence with something like, “Well, I might be wrong here, but let’s try this and see where it takes us.” Ever armed with sincerity of intent, Peter seemed incapable of feeling embarrassed by an awkward idea or change of direction. That was inspiring. It’s not coincidental that he was selected by the AIA as their Gold Medal recipient in 2010.

Make it happen

All committed designers struggle to do the best work they can. A common lament is: “I just haven’t been lucky enough to find the right client.The truth is, clients, and opportunities in general, are more often made than found.

Every client carries a load of fears and inertia similar to your own. Start by doing your due diligence. Hear out the problems and fears. Do your research and analysis of options and alternatives. Assess risks and possible consequences. Then find the compelling vision to get past them.

Your mission as a designer is to engage and excite yourself, your client and everyone else on the project sufficiently so as to redefine failure as not pursuing the compelling vision. If your vision is powerful enough, it pushes past the risks in the foreground and enables everyone’s courage to go the distance.

An example from design practice

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) is a cultural institution devoted to preserving the history of the chemical sciences and promoting awareness of the role of chemistry in society. CHF’s headquarters faces Independence National Historical Park in the historic Old City section of Philadelphia, two blocks from the Liberty Bell. Their anchoring structure is a five-story historic 19th century granite bank building.

Following several renovations to their existing buildings, CHF decided to move ahead with its first addition – a new wing that would accommodate meetings for up to 300 people. When I was hired for the project, the construction manager had already been selected and I was assigned to sub-contract to them as the designer side of a joint design-build team.

Given the historic context of the CHF headquarters on a street lined with 19th century masonry facades, both the client and my construction partner assumed that the addition would also be masonry. I saw this as problematic. First of all, we didn’t have a budget sufficient to construct anything as ambitious as the historic bank building. Just as important, the institution was interested in distinguishing itself as preeminent in its field. Philadelphia is a masonry city. You don’t distinguish yourself by being indistinguishable from your neighbors.

My client needed the courage to go in an unexpected direction. I saw the existing historic building as embodying half of the institutional mission – preserving history. Now we needed to create its complement: a structure that embodied the present and future of chemistry. What if the exterior were to be constructed using materials from the periodic table of elements? After researching potential materials I settled on using solid zinc panels as the dominant element. The oxidized grey of the panels not only demonstrated “chemistry in action” but also harmonized with color of the historic granite.

The CHF addition was the first zinc rainscreen panel building ever constructed in Philadelphia. It went on to receive several design awards as a lesson in how to successfully utilize contemporary design in a historic context.

Redefining failure as not pursuing a vision can give you the courage you need to overcome the fear of making mistakes along the way.

Remember, Create Courage.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter C, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Cobalt and Catawba, and a photo of surfer with the courage to ride a wave.

10
Mar
09

“Nothing to Fear” Facade

Recently we were commissioned to do a design-build facade installation for Peter G.-Ray’s 2009 ‘Nothing to Fear’ painting exhibition at the Bridge Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Two years earlier we debuted his work in the U.S. at AxD Gallery with a solo show entitled ‘CUT’. For that exhibition we built rolled aluminum panels on the exterior of our gallery, creating the appearance of their being cut and peeled away.

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Views of finished window at Bridge Gallery, and the painting "Cut" by Peter G.-Ray, displaying similarly hand-rolled aluminum panels.

The designs for both gallery fronts flowed as fairly direct extensions of the artist’s interests in concealing, cutting, peeling and revealing. In his work, openings, whether rendered physically in cut materials or graphically with painted surfaces, are invitations for engagement. Simply put, Peter’s work invites curiosity. As art critic Ken Moffett has noted: “G.-Ray has combined the hallucinatory surrealism of Dali with the vigor and freedom of Jackson Pollock, metamorphosing these into something startlingly new. He hungers to unite extremes: Precision and free improvisation, the intensely graphic and beautifully painted, exquisite refinement of detail and pictorial force.” All in all, there is plenty in Peter G.-Ray’s work to sustain interest and wonder.

Our design-build exercises to date have all been conducted as “charrettes” of a week or less. In the case of the Bridge Gallery façade installation we had the added constraint of performing all of the work in a single day, including round trip transportation from Philadelphia, with materials and equipment fitting inside a mid-sized sedan.

Fortunately working conditions were absolutely perfect. The weather was very mild for late February. The trickiest part of the project was securing our work to the Bridge Gallery without permanently altering the existing marble façade. We accomplished this by working the head and a jamb of our frame into existing security gate hardware and bolting the base into the concrete sidewalk. Interest in our installation piece increased dramatically as the first aluminum panels were screwed onto the frame. (See “before” and installation photos below.)

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Neighboring shop owners, tourists and random passersby stopped to ask us what was going on. We handed out quite a few postcards for Nothing to Fear during that Spring-like afternoon. As we finished up at dusk, Peter G.-Ray was quite pleased with results … the debut for both of us in NYC. Two days later, it snowed at the March 1st opening reception!

http://www.bridgegalleryny.com




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