Posts Tagged ‘maine architecture

04
Jun
13

Design Wisdom: Knit together

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

Knit together.

What does “Architecture” (with a capital A) have that transcends mere building?

Architecture is the knitting together of people and ideas to create places of profound richness and meaning. By contrast, building is simply technology.

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The meaning of architecture

Works of architecture always have some utilitarian or commodity value, but the extent to which they are emotionally valued derives from the richness of meaning they convey to the people who experience them. You could say that the core task of any designer is to find meaning and make it palpable to others.

If architecture is about making places of inhabitation, then it stands to reason that works of architecture need to be attractive and accessible to their inhabitants. First of all, yes — physically attractive and literally accessible. But architecture must go beyond the surface and engage people with meaning specific to them. It is through finding intellectual and emotional meaning that a person comes to truly value a work of architecture, or anything else for that matter.

Why knitting?

Knitting (or weaving) as a metaphor for producing architecture has two key components: the product and the process. What is the product of knitting? A net or fabric. Through the joining together of multiple strands of fibers in a particular way, you create a product with strength and visibility. Think of a net that is used to catch fish, or a fabric flag used to attract attention. A knitted artifact is a multi-dimensional, meaningful artifact.

The process of knitting, on the other hand, is about gathering and assembling – coming together. Instead of the finished artifact itself attracting people, it uses the diverse qualities of individual fiber strands themselves as the attracting force. It’s about creating relationships.

A designer should be able to knit in both senses – using overall effect and new relationships to create work that is intellectually and emotionally accessible and engaging.

An example from design practice

Several years ago I designed a home that I dubbed “the treehouse.” The project was located on an island off the coast of Maine, in a mature coniferous forest. Some of the trees were easily sixty feet tall. As with all projects, I sought to understand not only the client’s functional needs and life priorities but also his core values and aspirations. The program for the house was pretty simple: a summer/fall vacation residence with two bedrooms, two baths, a living/dining room, a kitchen, a fireplace and at least one deck. Sun was a relatively scarce and therefore highly prized commodity on the site, owing both to the heavy tree cover as well as frequent fog, particularly in the morning and sometimes even for entire days.

Early on I became aware that the client held a special fondness for having built numerous tree forts in his childhood. To me, that memory became the initial thread of a very special knitting together of diverse inspirations and ideas. I had long been fascinated by the traditional post-and-beam construction used particularly in New England barns. Equally fascinating to me was the “curtain-wall” technology pioneered by Modernists, where the exterior of a building behaves more as a light skin than a heavy armor. I was also moved by the client’s close attention – spiritual affinity, if you will – to nature.

The result of weaving or knitting all of these (and many more) threads together was a slender, 3-story, fully-glazed timber frame tower of a house nestled among the hemlocks. The views and quality of natural light clearly changed as you ascended from the ground floor guest bedroom up to the middle shared living floor and ultimately the top floor, which contained the master bedroom suite. The design process and final expression connect childhood memories, regional vernacular heritage, and contemporary technologies to create a unique and timely architectural vision of living in the trees.

Design places of unique and enduring value by gathering diverse ideas and weaving them together to create a strong fabric imbued with deep emotional meaning.

Remember, Knit together

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter K, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Khaki and Kelly green, and a photo of knitted rattan fibers.

 

26
Mar
13

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.

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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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