Posts Tagged ‘Library


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: Anticipate but…

The first element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

          Anticipate but…

            This involves a dance between two forces – preparedness and stillness.

Consider meetings, for example. They’re a regular fixture of any architecture or design practice.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of meeting it is — it could be with a client, consultant, or in-house design team. How do you arrive at a meeting? Prepared.



What does “arriving prepared” really look like? Many people think that unless they’re running the meeting or making a presentation, all they need to do is show up and stay awake. Let me tell you, if someone felt it was important enough for you to attend a meeting, just “showing up” won’t cut it. I don’t care if you’re an intern who just got hired yesterday… you need to be actively prepared.

Being prepared starts with anticipating what should, could or can’t happen in any given situation. You need to get yourself mentally engaged well before a meeting begins. Who is attending and why? What’s the agenda? Is there a hidden agenda? What do you want to get from the meeting? Is there something you can offer?

Even if you’re not a designated presenter at a meeting, preparing actively lifts your participation to a higher level. It means that you’ve probably come up with questions and maybe done some research or talked to others beforehand. Your curiosity and preparation help you get ready to connect ideas, while others are just warming up. You might not even utter a word at the meeting, but I guarantee that your deeper level of engagement will pay off by enhancing your creativity, knowledge and professionalism.


The “but…” portion of the mnemonic title above refers to stillness. It means: Don’t rush in with preconceived assumptions or with answers. In the world of design, where creative thought is paramount, we often refer to having a “beginner’s mind.” This doesn’t mean you need to be a blank slate. It’s more about having receptive capacity – the ability to take in more. Don’t underestimate the importance of this ability. It represents the “still” side of being prepared, the anticipation of new ideas.

After arriving prepared to your meeting, stay still. You might think you have the answers or know the outcome of whatever endeavor you’re undertaking. But don’t assume that you’re right. In almost any activity, your collaborators will have different ideas as to what the problems are and how to define success. It takes time for everyone to get onto the same playing field. That playing field may or may not be the one that was in your head when you entered the meeting.

If you leave a meeting thinking exactly what you did when you entered the room, the meeting was a failure. Entering a meeting prepared – to both absorb and offer new questions and ideas – means that you and everyone else in the meeting are likely to leave in a different (and better) place than when you arrived.

An example from design practice
Midway into the design of a university library addition we were having difficulty reconciling the client’s “wish list” of needs with their available funding. A meeting was called with the client. In anticipation of that meeting, I prepared by looking at alternative storage systems, trade-offs between seating and media storage, remote storage options, cheaper construction techniques and a host of other strategies for packing the proverbial ten pounds into the five-pound bag. Nevertheless, I was anticipating a cranky client.

I began the meeting, not by verbalizing my assumption that the client would be disappointed, but rather by inviting him to join me in sharing ideas. Fortunately the client had anticipated and arrived prepared for our meeting too. He had evaluated options for: a more robust program of interlibrary loan participation, elimination of the redundancy of materials stored in multiple format types, and increased reliance on digital sources of information, including a variety of on-line subscriptions.

By the end of the meeting we were both pleasantly surprised. Instead of reconciling ourselves to not being able to achieve the original objectives, we found ourselves re-energized – envisioning the library in an expanded role for social engagement on campus. We were able to formulate a workable approach for: meeting the collection needs, while increasing the quantity and diversity of seating and meeting places, and at a cost lower than initially thought possible.

That’s what happens when prepared minds come together: you can always expect to arrive someplace other than where you expected. And remember, this dance of “Anticipate but…” applies to virtually every phase of the design process, not just meetings.

Remember, Anticipate but…

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter A, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Avocado and Azure, and a photo of river rapids representing an anticipated journey.


Diversity in Practice

One of the touchstones at Always by Design (AxD) has been seeking diversity as a means of nurturing inquiry and growth, both personally and professionally. This flies in the face of “standard practice” which encourages market focus and specialization. Indeed, as we’re discovering, diversity certainly isn’t an easy concept to “brand”. Maybe it’s just luck, but on the architectural practice side, our practice has achieved a diversity of clients and project types beyond anything we had anticipated. In this past year alone we have worked on restaurants, a library, an auditorium, government offices, a church, a boutique salon, industrial infrastructure, and several residences.

While, on the art gallery side of AxD, the ability to select artists and artwork is wholly within our control, it’s still gratifying to look back and see the range of artists represented and artwork we’ve shown thus far. Media has included various forms of drawing, printmaking, painting, photography, collage, and sculpture. Subject matter has encompassed non-representational imagery, abstractions, landscapes, portraiture, details of nature, sci-fi and fantasy imagery, and gay erotica.

A selection of art exhibited at AxD

A selection of art exhibited at AxD

We’re confident that the lineup of artists we’ve scheduled for 2009 will continue our commitment to artistic diversity. Similarly, with our architectural practice on the verge of signing an agreement with a major hotelier, we’re looking to welcoming in the new year further diversifying our clientele as well.

Ed Barnhart, AIA


American Philosophical Society: Design-Build

Earlier this year our American Philosophical Society renovations received the Best Design-Build Project Award from the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA). Always by Design (AxD) provided the architectural design leadership while J.S. Cornell & Son (JSC) served as the project lead and construction manager for the four phases of this $6.15M project. This marks the second time that I’ve received a GBCA award working in a design-build relationship with JSC. (The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Ullyot conference center addition received the Best Institutional Project Award the year it was entered.)


In my experience, the strength of the design-build process has been in fostering teamwork and shared responsibility among Builder, Designer and Owner. In contrast to the myopic, mine-versus-yours provincialism and frequently adversarial environment engendered by a conventional low-bid process, design-build encourages thinking in terms of achieving the best shared outcome. Particularly when working with a non-profit institution relying on receiving grants for a phased renovation involving multiple existing buildings, the ability to accommodate incremental funding and concealed or unforeseen conditions is invaluable. The design-build methodology represents a very useful project delivery option, facilitating the shift toward greater teamwork. The evolution of holistic, “sustainable” thinking and availability of new tools (such as object-based Building Information Modeling (BIM) software) is allowing an even more fluid, integrated, and productive approach to design and construction.

[3 Nov. ’08 GBCA awards program – Ed Barnhart, AIA]

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