Posts Tagged ‘the wisdom project


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: 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.


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.


Design Wisdom: Question

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


While clients most often seek answers, they may be best served by questions.

Rarely is it beneficial for designers to accept things at face value. It is only through asking questions, of our clients and ourselves, that we arrive at results which are meaningful and fulfilling.


Business as (un)usual

As architects and designers, we are often billed as “problem-solvers”. A client wants a particular set of spaces or functions fit onto a particular site. They have time constraints and budget limitations. There are maintenance questions and problems with obtaining municipal approvals. From a business standpoint, other people’s problems are a designer’s livelihood.

The nature of something being characterized as a “problem” is its being perceived as a speed bump, if not an outright roadblock to “business as usual”. The mandate of problems is a need to re-think – or call things into question. This is the source of the cliché that every problem is an “opportunity” to re-evaluate or question. A problem means: not business as usual.

Problem-solving expertise

At the most fundamental level, what a designer brings to the table first and foremost is a deep knowledge of their craft – whether it is designing websites or skyscrapers. As much as designers (or artists of any kind) are loathe to admit, we are specialists. We specialize in determining how things are put together. When a client comes to us with a problem, they are saying in effect, that something needs to be put together differently, and we need to rise to the challenge.

As design-craftsmen we hone our skills in problem-solving – using new materials, or alternative techniques or doing end-runs, revising projects so as to eliminate a particular problems altogether. As design practitioners, these skillsets are the bread and butter of our trade. However, if we limit our design practice strictly to this, we miss what is probably the most crucial aspect of what a designer can, and should bring to every project.

External versus internal questions

Answering a client’s questions isn’t enough. A designer needs to formulate their own questions. To some extent, a designer should re-define every project. The primary tool for this is a different form of questioning. Rather than responding to the externally “imposed” questions of others, the designer needs to exercise a broader level of questioning. The paths of inquiry they bring to any project provide the greatest differentiating factor among designers. Think of the philosophical musings of Louis Kahn in “asking what a given thing or institution wanted to be”, or Robert Venturi’s insistence that the vitality of architecture is in acknowledging and expressing the clashes between competing ideas and functions.

Digging deep, questioning both the client and your own motivations, facilitates design work which is fresh and vital – and different from what your peers are doing. Why sell yourself or your client short with anything less? A client’s questions are never enough.

An example from design practice

Early in my career, in fact my first commission as a licensed architect, I was hired to design a vacation house in the Adirondacks. As is most often the case with residential projects, at the outset of the design process the clients didn’t have a clear picture of their needs beyond an initial list of probable rooms and a not-to-exceed construction budget.

I started the project asking a great many questions, trying to learn their likes and dislikes, and how much they cared about various things. Ultimately they sheepishly brought out a file of clippings from magazines and newspapers, which included three proto-type designs from mail order house plan services. One was a “raised ranch”. The second was a “split level”. And the third was a two-story “mountaintop retreat”. They were confused by the fact that they liked each of them in different ways, but had no idea of how to create a coherent house design from the disparate styles.

This was good for me because it made me dig deeply into the client’s heads. They weren’t looking for any particular superficial style, but rather about achieving a “feel” (e.g. a particular sense of flow among the spaces and functionality that felt natural to their lifestyle). I delved into their childhood memories, analyzed their present home, prepared functional diagrams and questionnaires, took sightseeing trips to gauge their reactions to places and buildings, and learned their color preferences and favorite activities.

The process was one probably not too dissimilar from that of an actor who studies a character role so intently as to become capable of “inhabiting” the character and thus being able to express his/her character’s nature instinctively. In the case of this couple, after internalizing and gestating on who they were and what they were trying to achieve, I was able to produce, in a single scheme, a design which perfectly synthesized what they were seeking. Now with grown children, they still cherish the house on the lake I designed for them so many years ago. Their project set a benchmark for me for deeply questioning the nature of a client and their project.

Problems are an invitation to dig deeper. In seeking answers to your client’s problems, inject the project with questions of your own – generating a compelling and fresh vision.

Remember, Question.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Q, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Quartz and Quinacridone magenta, and a photo of a Quizzical man.


Design Wisdom: Practice Passionately.

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

Practice Passionately.

When you are “in the zone” of your craft, you feel it, and others do too. Cultivate it.

If you’re not engaged in what you’re doing, no one else will be either. If you’re not learning and passionate about what you’re doing, it’s time you made some changes – for everyone’s sake.


Feel the excitement

One of the most fundamental joys we experience as human beings is the mastery of a skill. Starting as a beginner one feels exhilaration in doing something successfully for the first time. But this isn’t true mastery. Mastery isn’t about if you will succeed, but how well you succeed. True mastery, in art forms especially, isn’t just a matter of attaining a result – it’s about how well you performed in getting there. Think about a chef or a musician. Their mastery is not about being able to reproduce a recipe or tune, but in how they perfected or subtly transformed the composition.

In the company of a Master

Ironically, it seems to me, the pleasure experienced by witnessing someone else’s mastery is often far more intense than that felt by the artisan themself. (Indeed, masters are far more likely to be self-critical than self-congratulatory!) Think of the last time you were in the presence of someone at the top of their game. It’s enough to give you goose bumps.

The witnessing of mastery is a large part of why watching the Olympics or many other spectator sporting events are so popular. And it’s not just sports. Television has profiled people in virtually every walk of life from fishing to sculpting to car repair – showcasing people’s expertise and passions. In literature, John McPhee has written numerous penetrating accounts of people and their vocations (e.g. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed on body development, Looking for a Ship about a U.S. Merchant Marine, and A Sense of Where You Are which chronicled Bill Bradley’s college basketball career. As we become witnesses (spectators) to mastery, we feel respect and awe for the accrued knowledge and heart that the specialist has brought to bear on their chosen vocation.

The rewards of passion

As an architect (or designer of any type) you want to be at the top of your game. You want to be challenged and excited – indeed passionate – about the work you are doing. It makes life more interesting – for you, and everyone else. The greater your mastery and passion about your art, the more likely you are to attract people who get energized by you and your passions. So it’s a win-win.

An example from design practice

Probably the most damning praise I have ever gotten was from a residential client. It went something like this: “My husband and I know that we didn’t take your design advice on one particular issue and proceeded otherwise, but in retrospect we wish you had advocated more strongly for what you believed. You were right.” Ouch. Double ouch.

The lesson there was that one’s role as a designer is definitely a balancing act. While a designer has to listen and be attentive to a client’s interests and requests, it can’t be at the expense of their own experience, intuition and passions.

In working on another residential commission, I presented an initial design scheme to a client. I felt that I had addressed all of the issues that the client had put forth in her brief and responded to the context of the community very deferentially. After asking a few clarifying questions, she asked: “How do you feel about the design?” I paused a minute, wondering how candid I could afford to be. Somewhat ruefully I replied that although I thought the design was very efficient and that her neighbors would be very happy with it, truthfully I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the design. It wasn’t really expressing what was unique about her family or the site. To my surprise, she responded “If you’re not happy with the design, than you need to go back to the drawing board!”

I felt myself very lucky to have had a second chance. The redesign was everything that the first one wasn’t. I felt my design passions re-energized in developing a scheme I wholeheartedly could get excited about. As a result the client also caught the excitement and it went on to receive an architectural design award as well. The lesson learned is to prepare what you’re passionate about on the first go ‘round. One might not be lucky enough to get a second chance.

Do your homework in approaching each design project and then proceed with passion. The enthusiasm will likely be contagious.

Remember, Practice Passionately.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter P, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Pistachio and Persimmon, and a photo of a violinist Practicing Passionately.


Design Wisdom: Own it. Share it.

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

Own it. Share it.

As it relates to design, ownership is about an emotional or intellectual relationship.

It is incumbent upon designers to engage all project participants along the way, enabling them to invest in the outcome of the project, and in so doing, share ownership.


It’s mine, all mine

In the world of business, people often use phrases like “holding an interest” or “having a stake” or “being invested” in a particular venture. Each is referring to the idea of ownership. But what is ownership? Most people think of ownership rather narrowly – in a legal or financial sense. If someone owns property, they must have the title to it or have paid someone else to possess it.

The kind of ownership I’m talking about isn’t that literal. Ownership, as it refers to design, is about one’s emotional or intellectual relationship to the design process and/or product – hopefully both.

Ownership means possessing a sense of responsibility for: a) shaping an outcome and/or b) maintaining the value it holds. For someone to really own something, an individual must value it for what it specifically means to them. Ownership needs to be personal.


As architects or designers who work with their clients, we shape not only the final physical artifact, but the process of designing as well. Ownership in a project is primarily about being emotionally and intellectually engaged; having participants who feel empowered and effectual in shaping the final outcome. This sense of ownership therefore must be cultivated and achieved as an essential part of the process of design.

By implementing practices that help consultants, clients and contractors feel confident, capable, and in control of the outcome of the project they are working on, they feel empowered to do their work effectively. Ideally, this ensures commitment to the project vision, which results in greater creativity and thoughtfulness about how to enhance that vision over the course of the project.

In terms of the completed project, people with ownership, those who have participated in the process and understand and value the decisions needed to get to the end product – share in the pride of authorship, and as a result, hold the results in higher esteem than their unengaged peers. The happiest of clients by the end of any project are the ones who have been in the trenches with you and faced the realities of the process.

Learning to share

In retrospect, looking back on my own maturation as an architect, it seems to have been analogous to how one thinks of a kid in a sandbox. I started out playing solo in the box – learning the potential of each toy and keeping them to myself. I sought to build the perfect castle or fort. Over time I gained confidence and delighted in mastery. Soon I wanted to share what I’d learned, and as a result, unexpectedly became exposed to new ideas of other playmates. Ultimately, the process of learning and sharing itself became as important as the results.

While our culture idealizes the solo genius artist, our day-to-day sustenance is found in sharing and learning from one another – engaging our humanity. As we gain experience, there comes a shift from the impetuous, narrow, idealistic intensity of youth, to a broader, more nuanced embrace of wholeness in maturity.

Architecture indeed is a social practice. This is perhaps the biggest lesson not taught in schools.

An example from design practice

My own lifelong apprenticeship to architecture mirrors my maturation as a person. Even before reaching my teens I started by designing houses. I imagined places I wanted to live in. So, design began as an extension of self.

Emerging from architecture school I was drawn to designing for institutions – not specific institutions mind you, but to the ideals represented by institutions. (Louis I. Kahn was a huge inspiration in this regard.) Accordingly, I sought out opportunities to design museums, places of education, and churches.

Having worked as a design principal in my own practices for well over a decade now, I have come to delight in working closely with home and business owners – creating places that they truly own for themselves, not with their wallets but with their hearts. Some times this is achieved by discovering new ways for them to see the world, and sometimes it is achieved by bringing along connective tissue from other parts of their lives.

An example of how ownership can be achieved in the smallest of details comes from a recent vacation house project. One doesn’t often think of driveways as an opportunity for reflection and ownership. In this case, I had designed the driveway as a series of concrete pads separated by river-washed stone bands (for storm water penetration). As a link for the owner, I collected leaves from the vegetation of their permanent residence and pressed them into the wet concrete of the driveway pads at their new vacation home. The leaves are impressed into memory for all to see – a bridge between their two homes.

In shaping things for ourselves and others it is essential that we involve others in the journey, not simply as witnesses, but as authors – cultivating a shared ownership. 

Remember,Own it. Share it. 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter O, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Olive and Orange, and a photo of Owner hugging his tree.


Design Wisdom: Navigating t/here

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

Navigating t/here.

Design requires leading people from a known world into an unknown one.

While 3D visualizations are bridging the gap between initial conception and final completion of buildings, for most clients, deciding what to do still requires a leap of faith – and that means trust.


My mousetrap is better than yours

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door is a common paraphrase of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Don’t we all, as designers, wish we could simply build the building (or other product) of our imagination and have it be admired and purchased – like the proverbial “better mousetrap”? Unfortunately, although some designers can bring their own projects directly to the market (essentially as developers), the majority of designers must instead serve more as shepherds in guiding clients, building officials and contractors through a process of visualizing and decision-making in order to get to a finished product. A crucial skill to have as a designer is leadership ability – navigating from the known world to new frontiers.

 I’ll know it when I see it

Anyone who has been in design practice for any length of time has had a client, or prospective client, who has uttered some version of the phrase: “I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”. Most people are adept at shopping. That process involves making a selection among a set of fully realized products – mostly mass-produced. So, not only is “the thing” already fully present for evaluation, it probably has been used and reviewed by a myriad of other consumers already. For more complex products there is often a “trial period”. Ultimately with most products, unsatisfied buyers have the option of simply returning the product and getting a refund. None of these factors play very well in the arena of architectural design. When was the last time someone tried to return a building for a refund?

Design isn’t shopping

While people frequently “shop” for places to live – choosing among apartments or houses available for rent or sale, these are not a designer’s clients. Designers are hired to conceive what does not yet exist. That process is more akin to that of research and development (R&D) than that of shopping. Furthermore, in architecture in particular, most often there is a production run of exactly one. Every project is a prototype essentially.

Going on a journey

Setting sail into the wilderness of R&D with your client, your job as designer is threefold: 1) Understanding them, 2) Engaging and educating them, and finally, 3) Gaining their trust. I think of the trilogy as: Doing my homework, Getting the client to do their homework, and Strengthening the ability to work together — particularly through difficult patches of the process.

If your client did their homework when they selected you, part of the reason they hired you was feeling they understood and/or could trust you. If you are hired by an individual (or couple) to design a house or place of business, there is a rather direct relationship and development of trust. However, most projects are done for “multi-headed” clients – corporations, governments, non-profit groups, etc. In these cases you are leading a group on a journey. Regardless of the type of client, practicing design is less about having the perfect solution, and more about leadership – getting people to do their homework and effectively trust one another in order to get to a realized vision.

 A world of ideas

In my experience, working with church groups and other types of all-volunteer committees represents the largest challenge for leadership (outside of large-scale, public projects). I’ve worked on projects for a variety of religious organizations over the years. How does one get from here to there with this kind of a non-hierarchical, volunteer client or user group?

Every designer has their own style of leadership. A crucial part of that is understanding who your constituents are on any given project and having a framework of how best to work with them. I have found the single-most important key to success is allowing everyone, and I mean everyone who is a stakeholder in a project, to feel that they have been heard.

 An example from design practice

Years ago I led a master planning study for improving a thirteen acre urban church and daycare/school facility. The site already had a church on the National Historic Register, an education building, an apartment building, a carriage house, a columbarium, on-site parking lots and several playground areas. As architects hired from “out-of-town” we were welcomed to our first meeting by a large and enthusiastic group of church volunteers. Everyone wanted to impress upon us his or her own version of what the real problems and acceptable solutions were…and also to tell us which of the others in the congregation we should muzzle!

There was one congregant more than any other whom nearly everyone seemed desperate to silence. The individual, a retired engineer, was convinced that the single-most important component of any master plan would be to create a new bridge for pedestrians to cross a public street from the largest existing parking lot to the historic church. Not surprisingly, this very idea struck terror into the hearts of most of the congregation.

So, long story short, when it was time for discussing people’s ideas of what was needed, the second person I selected to speak was the “bridge engineer”. (I ignored the glares of congregants who had counseled me to avoid him.) When the next speaker began by attacking the bridge idea, I immediately clarified that the session was to brainstorm and simply hear people’s ideas – not select or defend which ideas were best. In the end, people became freer to hear ideas in a non-parochial manner. And even though the bridge idea was ultimately replaced (by a less costly and less invasive design solution), the engineer became a staunch supporter of the ratified approach that replaced his initial conception. By leading the congregation to give full voice to everyone, people were able not only better trust one another, but also trust in the process of getting to a well-balanced, well-supported final solution. One which went on to receive a national American Institute of Architects design award!

At the end of the day, your skills as a designer are more about leadership than having the perfect idea. If you are unable to get a client and collaborators to realize your vision, you can’t succeed.

 Remember, Navigate t/here

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter N, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Navy and Neon green, and a photo of skiers Navigating a glacier.


Design Wisdom: Materials Matter

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

Materials Matter.

As virtual reality becomes surreal, designers have the opportunity to make it real.

As we expand new digital design, modeling and fabrication technologies, we may find simultaneously a reawakening to the sensual potential of physical materials themselves.


Looking at history

As my 10th grade history teacher pointed out, in mankind’s quest to put an astronaut on the moon, the unexpected benefit was looking back and seeing the earth for the first time. In our present era, computational technology is at the forefront of our cultural imagination – constituting our present giant step forward. Computers and invention of the worldwide Web have, and will continue to, transform our contemporary culture in extraordinary ways. So, the question is: What will the exciting “look back” be with regards to our burgeoning digital revolution? I believe the answer lies in a re-evaluation of the nature of materials themselves.

One would be tempted to look to the Arts and Crafts movement as a somewhat comparable precedent. The origins of that movement however were rooted in reform of the practices and effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pioneer of the movement, artist and writer William Morris, sought an antidote to shoddily mass-produced decorative arts, often created under oppressive working conditions. In some respects the movement was reactionary – seeking a return to a simpler agrarian era. As such it’s not a good model for our present era.

I believe there’s a better art history precedent. The first photographs created and publically shown were unveiled in 1839 to the French Académie des Sciences, by artist-inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. These daguerreotypes as they were called were photographic images upon highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper. Is it a coincidence that scarcely a quarter century later in the same culture, painters developed what came to be known as Impressionism?

Most contemporary art historians consider that it was primarily the development of photography which enabled, indeed provoked, artists to seriously explore the expressive potential of painting. Especially as the technology of photographic reproduction became more accurate in rendering realistic images, artists were, in some respects, “freed” from obligations of producing objectively faithful imagery. Ultimately color itself became “the subject” as painting moved into new realms by the “Fauves” and later Abstract Expressionist “Color Field” painters. That inquiry subsequently moved even beyond the use of pigmented paint as contemporary “light painters” such as James Turrell explore terrestrial optical color effects.

Real or virtual?

What is the design opportunity of the present era? The digital revolution is emphasizing conceptual thinking and virtual experiences. As a result we are becoming less bodily present. More and more, perhaps without realizing it, people are “walking with their brains”, not their bodies. As technology “frees us” to fly through virtual worlds inhabited by fantasy creatures, it unexpectedly concurrently creates a greater potential for physical (embodied) sensual experiences. Herein lays the unexpected opportunity of the present era. The newest frontier will be the re-engagement with our physical environment. We will again truly inhabit places, not merely use them in a functional way.

When was the last time you delighted in your actuality – the authentic, real-time presence of the where you were in the universe? The opportunity is to re-engage our bodies through all of our physical senses. It’s time to design to create that new bodily awareness. It’s time again to savor the smell of cedar shingles in the hot afternoon summer sun (or just smell the roses).

An example from design practice

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite buildings is the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark. A traditional house in a residential neighborhood was expanded into a world-class contemporary art museum. The site, abutting the coast, slopes significantly in all directions and has numerous mature trees. Rather than creating a “tabla rasa” (or clean slate) on which to efficiently set a flexible, generic exhibition gallery, the architects (Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert) intentionally chose to respect and harness the natural particularities of the existing site. As a result, the exhibition space is attached to the original house, but is broken into discrete pavilions, strung together as a necklace, each oriented to unique site views. The connecting “string” is a casually mendering glazed corridor which actually slopes with the adjoining ground and bends here and there – at once showcasing and avoiding disruption of mature trees along the way. I can’t think of a more successful synthesis of culture and nature.

Clearly the architects and client could have found a cheaper alternative than literally working around trees and slopes, but not one that would have so substantially contributed to creating the most heavily visited museum in Denmark. It is a true joy experiencing a particular place, engaging ones mind and body.

The opportunity of our present era is to reawaken our senses and bodily awareness. In this pursuit, the materials of our craft will take on renewed significance.

Remember, Materials Matter

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter M, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Maroon and Mint, and a photo of Material-free (virtual) house.

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