Posts Tagged ‘Louis I. Kahn

17
Dec
13

Design Wisdom: Yearning isn’t enough

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

Yearning isn’t enough.

Yearning for the perfect design opportunity is like waiting for the perfect lover.

A college education opens worlds of possibilities and inspires a yearning for realizing the potential of one’s chosen medium. But yearning isn’t enough. You need to find ways to make it happen.

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How does opportunity happen?

Think of some of the seminal buildings of 20th Century architecture:
— Saynatsalo Town Hall by Alvar Alto
— Church on the Water by Tadao Ando
— Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas by Luis Barragan
— Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry
— Chapel of Saint Ignatius by Steven Holl
— Kimbell Art Museum by Louis I. Kahn
— Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut by Le Corbusier
— Douglas House by Richard Meier
— Sidney Opera House by Jorn Utzon
— American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsein
— Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
— Val Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor

Do you think the respective clients of the projects above were just sitting there awaiting those particular buildings to arrive? Absolutely not! Take Disney Hall for example. Several years ago I took the architectural audio tour of the building. The recording included architect Frank Gehry relating conversations he’d had with the patron Lillian Disney. At the outset of the project she described how she and Walt were enchanted by masonry castles of Europe, encumbered with climbing vines. She asked Frank Gehry to capture that spirit. There was assuredly no mention of curving stainless steel panels! And yet, she was presumably enchanted by the final built concert hall – with nary a vine or castle-like feature.

The point is, with rare exception does one encounter a patron who shares your yearnings / aspirations. Your job therefore doesn’t end with your being able to imagine a fabulous new world. You need to educate and excite others to join the expedition. And ideally, they are enlisting you to join on their own expedition simultaneously in the project. The best projects are those where client and architects are both realizing their own goals alongside others and finding themselves in a landscape of realization beyond their own ideas.

Realizing good design

To me, the phrase “realizing good design” is rather a double entendre. The first meaning is “becoming aware”, learning to understand and appreciate what good design is – like becoming a detective or connoisseur. The second meaning is “making it happen”. Our education and apprenticeship aim primarily at instilling mastery in the first arena. But it is unquestionably a mastery of the second arena which enables our success in practice.

How to make it happen

How do we as designers “make it happen”? Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer. It really comes down to learning what your own strengths are and how to use them effectively with others. And yet there are some general truisms, some of which have been touched upon earlier in the “Wisdom” series. For instance, having and displaying passion goes a long way. Passion tends to be contagious. Also, taking risks, or “having skin in the game” facilitates people believing in you and taking a risk with you – not having them feel like you’re asking them to assume all of the risks alone.

Most often though, making it happen involves your going the extra mile. This is where yearning is needed as a start. Yearning is what gets you to aspire to more than the client envisions or is asking for. The yearning is what drives you to come up with that idea that no one else has seen or even looked for. Harness that yearning to get yourself to find ways to make things happen – rather than waiting for people to realize the possibilities which you have to offer.

An example from design practice

Early in my career as an architect, my boss “handed off” an interior design project to me for a small town drugstore. Everyone, the client and my boss alike, looked at the project as “routine” without much room for creative input. The functional layout, largely predetermined by operational considerations for staffing efficiencies, resulted in the customer service pharmacy counter being positioned in the rear, as is often the case. The shelving and displays between the entrance and the counter, while critical for merchandizing, felt to be at odds with customer service in the rear.

Analyzing the problem I yearned for there to be some synergy, rather than conflict, between the merchandizing and customer service needs. I recalled the radial geometries of the stacks employed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in several of his libraries. Ultimately I was able to produce a design using radial display shelving (and accompanying radial overhead lighting) which resulted in a more inviting merchandizing environment and an emphasizing of the pharmacy counter. The “surprises” created between the interactions of the rectangular building shell and the radial interior fit-out enabled a richness of spaces for display, customer services and seating. The results exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Use a yearning for better design to serve as your springboard to exceed what’s expected.

Remember, Yearning isn’t enough.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Y, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Yellow and Yellow-green, and a photo of a Yearning adventurer jumping to action.

03
Dec
13

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.

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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.

18
Jun
13

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.

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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.




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