Posts Tagged ‘places of inhabitation


Design Wisdom: Woo Wonder

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

Woo Wonder.

Sometimes it’s best to turn off the amplifiers and simply listen.

“Unplugging” is a wonderful tool. Not only does it reconnect you with who you are, it enables you to reconnect with that most basic instinct of childhood: wonder.


Remember wonder?

I’m sure you remember numerous occasions from your childhood where you felt awe or wonder –seeing a meteor shower, hearing a symphony of insects, watching a magician, or looking down at the earth from a plane for the first time. Those experiences of getting goose bumps are truly gifts – which seem to get rarer with age.

As adults, although we might work hard to give others a sense of awe or wonder – as a parent and/or working within the mastery of our respective crafts – we often fail to remember to cultivate wonder for ourselves. And it seems to get harder to do, amidst the business of life and sheer weight of accrued experience. But the path to reconnecting with wonder is probably more accessible than you might think.

Making it happen

Based on my experience, there are three “simple” steps to accessing wonder:

  1. Turn OFF your… Put your agenda and to-do lists on “pause”. Allow yourself to take a break.
  2. Turn ON your “beginner’s mind”. This means setting aside your filters of experience and habit; suspending analysis and judgment.
  3. LISTEN actively. Observe. Hear. Smell. Taste. … as if for the first time.

Let’s look at each step a little more closely.

First, turn off your…

As anyone with an active brain knows, it takes effort to turn off all of the voices in your own head; things to accomplish, questions to answer, people to meet, etc.  However, even amidst an active schedule you can practice the path to recovering wonder in your own life. Give yourself permission – whether it’s for five minutes, an hour or a weekend – to pause. Do it once and wonder why it took you so long to give yourself a break.

Beginner’s mind

Turning off the calendar and commitments isn’t enough. You also need to turn off the critics, analysts and project managers in your head. Actively keep yourself from analyzing and objecting. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. After all, you’re not free to readily receive if you’re busy screening and filtering. Beginner’s mind is finding the “blank slate” or “empty vessel” again.

Active listening

Now that you’re in a position to truly hear, observe, taste, smell and feel — you’re the new sponge. Just sit back and simply try to fully absorb what’s being offered in your midst. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re actively just listening.

There are numerous rewards for arriving at the point of listening actively. The two I find most rewarding are: being surprised (pleasantly) and feeling wonder. It’s a true gift to tap into these feelings again.

Cultivating a “beginners mind” while taking a walk, or seeing an exhibition, or attending a conference has the effect of turning most everything into a “sleeper hit”. Doing so enables one to experience each speaker or event as being more informative, fresh and enjoyable – and yes, even the source of wonder.

An example from design practice

Earlier in this year I attended a regional TEDx conference. I didn’t go with any particular expectations. But I did arrive to the conference with intentions, or an intention. I did my best to arrive as an empty vessel.

While I felt most speakers to be inspiring, one was the true stand-out for me. Pam Dorr was billed as a social entrepreneur, introducing sustainable housing development and positive change for over 400 families a year in the severely impoverished county of Hale, Alabama. Barely into her talk, even before describing her work in the rural south, I became transfixed by the explanation of how she got there.

The journey she described, struck me as beginning with self-empowerment in her native community near San Francisco. The seed of her journey was in making a home for herself. I mean, literally.

She showed a “before” picture of a derelict interior space – a ruin, the prototypical definition of a “tear-down”. Next she showed the “after”. I felt like I was seeing the most beautiful space I’d ever seen. Why? It was authentic. She had made it herself, for herself – almost entirely from salvaged scraps. It wasn’t idealized or romanticized or made for how others might react. It was made for her, by her. In fact it was rather elemental — clean, filled with sun, free of clutter and intervening structure, with a sense of an overarching protective roof. It wasn’t about ideal proportions, fetishized details or expensive materials. It was space and light and protection. Above all, it was accomplishment – perhaps her first realization of owning “can do” for herself.

The rest of her talk was how she blossomed… taking what she learned to do for herself, and expanding upon it to help another individual and another… and now helping to lead an entire community towards nourishing and sustaining itself. Ironically, for those coming with expectations of what they were going to hear, that was the delivery. For those of us “unprepared”, Pam Dorr’s delivery was goosebumps — of authenticity, self-discovery and altruism.

Allow yourself permission to take a break from what you “should be doing” and take in a healthy dose of unfiltered raw data from your senses. It just might spark wonder.

Remember, Woo Wonder.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter W, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Wine and Wheat, and a photo of Pan Dorr doing Wonders at PieLab.


Design Wisdom: Stimulate Senses and Soul

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

Stimulate Senses & Soul.

How often in a project do you find yourself or others taking leave of their senses?

Without question, as design professionals, we’ve been drilled to respond to schedules, budgets and functional needs. But don’t forget — ultimately we are designing for sensory beings.


Remembering the places of your childhood

Think back to touchstone places of your childhood. While many may be associated with other people, family and friends, or events – your first kiss, or the site of an injury – I’m asking you to think about the place itself. For instance, when I think of my grandmother’s house, I think of the smell of breakfast – strong coffee (for the adults), bacon, eggs and cantaloupe. My yard at home? A cherished place was the large wild cherry tree in the back yard with a scratchy limb crotch in which to sit, where I pealed the red bark curls and listened to the wind rustling the leaves while contemplating the “big questions” of life.

I would assert that most people, when they remember significant places, experience the recollection not as a detailed photographic image but rather more as a feeling – recalled sensations and emotional connections. This aspect of place is all but ignored in the course of architectural education and in many architectural practices as well.

Thinking beyond the brain

Architecture is a big subject. That’s part of its appeal. It’s a subject big enough to devote a lifetime to – several in fact. Students are asked: “What does it mean?” Heroism is lauded, as are big ideas and audacious images. Unfortunately an aspect which at best is given short shrift, and sometimes overlooked altogether, is the very definition of architecture itself – place of inhabitation. While our brains are certainly a part of our inhabiting places, first and foremost, we inhabit places with our bodies – and accompanying five senses.

Senses of inhabitation

Image is king in our present digital era. Our sensory experience of places is dominated by sight. If you stop with sight as your sole sensory input channel, you will find yourself with a very shallow, dare I say, flat experience. Your experience will be like seeing the world in black and white, two-dimensional silhouettes rather than in fully modeled, three-dimensional figures in color. Experiential depth, that is to say lasting emotional substance, comes from holistic sensual engagement.

Take an iconic example of furniture design: the “Wassily” chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-26. One can certainly appreciate it in terms of aesthetics, technology, cultural history, etc.  However, to look at one strictly in terms of “meaning” and function is to miss the sensual experience of sitting in (inhabiting) one. In sitting, one usually first reaches for an arm and feels the smooth, cool of the slender chromed steel frame. Landing in the leather seat is often greeted with a squeak of the leather as it tensions around the frame. Its broad surface, initially cool and stiff as one sits, quickly warms and softens with one’s body heat. The tensile stretch of the leather is contrasted with the springy buoyancy of the slender steel frame. Depending on the age of the chair, one’s nose is treated to smells, somewhere between new leather and an olfactory patina of inhabitation and aging. What richness – and without a mention of sight! Our charge therefore as designers, as we look to enrich our work, is to think with our whole bodies – leaving until last, the input of our vision.

An example from design practice

When I was a teenager, already knowing I wanted to become an architect, my parents took me to visit Fallingwater, the famous house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Before visiting, all I really knew of it was the iconic image of the thin concrete trays perched over the stream waterfalls. I had assumed that that image captured one’s approach to and essence of the house. It doesn’t. In fact, a visitor never sees that view (unless they set off to bushwhacking in the adjoining woods).

Like the best of Wright’s work, Fallingwater rewards all of the senses and certainly is meant to be experienced bodily, that is to say, in person rather than as an image. One arrives to the house by crossing first the stream over which the house is built further downstream. The drive loops “behind” the house – leaving the expansive feel of the stream and replacing it with a sense of compression between the house and uphill bank of the forest valley. We are being prepared for changing places.

To enter any of his houses is to immediately feel intimacy – with an unusually low ceiling. Among the myriad of Frank Lloyd Wright quotes was his assertion that “anyone over 5’-10” tall was a towering weed”. The physicality of the house is palpable: Stone, wood, stucco/plaster, glass and steel –creating dramatic variations in textures. A boulder pushes up from the river bank into the fireplace. The fireplace, with its huge orifice becomes a place in and of itself, not merely a decorative feature.

The relationship of inhabitants to the river is nuanced and varied – not merely a single “perfect” vista. Indeed, from within much of the main living space, the stream isn’t visible at all! Yet, as one approaches the cantilevered edges, the stream beckons. A stair descends directly to the river “for bathing access”. Here is the most intimate of places, a place of private communion with the cool dampness in the shadows, smelling of woodlands and echoing the ripples of the flowing water. That is the immersive place I remember most vividly of that house – not the postcard view.

By cultivating the experience of place as being rewarding to all of the senses, not just sight and intellect, we nourish the soul.

Remember, Stimulate Senses & Soul.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter S, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Saphire and Sand, and a photo of the Streamside Spot at Fallingwater.


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.


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.


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