image is not experience

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Photographers often deserve more credit than architects.

Am I right that other languages have a myriad of words to describe increasing degrees of knowledge? The English language cheats us of this.

As I ride the train returning from this year’s AIA Convention in Philadelphia (#AIACON16), I am thinking about my week and what stood out the most. It seems that words cannot capture what can only be known in person.

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Therefore, I should start by stating that despite the several years of knowing (from blogging and all other forms of social media) a team of talented and intelligent architect friends from around the country, I can now proudly say I know them. Our several meetings and celebrations in person simply cement the point that is manifested in my discussion of architecture. Architecture is like relationships – so much better in person.

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I love photography; I’ve been an amateur since I was fifteen years old. The image can profoundly tell a story – which is why I enjoy Instagram more than most other social media forms. Photography can be evocative for many emotions. Despite my love of the graphic image, it only engages the eyes. Being present in a space has more capacity to be a redolent trigger of memories or the creation of memories.

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During this past week, thousands of architects took time to visit structures in person that they may have never known apart from glossy pages. Perhaps they returned to a place they cherish like an old friend to experience it again. Either way, we leave Philly with a particular awareness and a deeper cognition of those structures and places.

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Architecture can only truly be experienced in person. Sure, we’re mesmerized by the carefully cropped images, but these illusions often lie about the true quality of the building, space, or neighborhood. Our eyes need to see the quality of the light in person, rather than how a photographer chose to tell the story. When all (or more) of our senses are involved, we can accurately assess or judge architecture. With only images, we might be pleased by an image, but can we truly have an accurate opinion of the work?

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There is no substitute for the real thing – and in one of my visits, it did not disappoint. As I walked around, slowly and methodically, I could begin to speculate the intent and strategy of the architects. Simply mind blowing. A narrative was developing in my mind as the story revealed itself in what I saw, what I heard and what I could smell. I felt the materials with my hands, and I sensed the space as I ascended and descended the stairs, and as I walked outside to the courtyard. Had I gotten the last sense involved, you would have either mocked me relentlessly or called to send me away. The experience was truly a gift and one I’ll never forget. I likened it to something spiritual. My images don’t or can’t convey that. I recommend starting by seeing the professional images and commentary by the architects here, then take a visit and see it in person.

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The week was full of great experiences, so I can’t limit it to one afternoon of being in a world famous museum. Even some of the dives where I ate lent a type of experience that added to my memory. Those shared with friends made it all the more important.

My architect friends can attest that you need to experience architecture – in person. Perhaps the reason you suffer from ambivalence or a lack of interest in the built environment around you is due to your lack of interaction with architecture. Furthermore, forget about any fascination with celebrities whom you don’t know and fill your life with your actual friends and family. Put your device down some time and look around you – at real things and real people, real places. This line of thinking is not limited to museums or even to traveling. It involves your community where you live, worship and shop.

  • Are you planning to renovate your home? Why have you only tagged images online or dog eared pages in this month’s copy of Dwell? Have you wondered where you could see similar ideas in person? Tell your architect how you want to feel in your house as much or more than giving them pictures of things you want to see in your house.
  • Are you involved in renovating your church or school? Where have you visited that can lend first-hand knowledge of other’s good decisions (or bad decisions)? Discuss with your architect ways the space can make a better learning or worshiping environment.
  • Are you thinking about making a few changes to your retail store or coffee shop? Where else have you visited to inform your preferences or initial ideas? Tell your architect how your business runs so they can develop spatial and material choices to enhance the experience for your staff or customers.
  • Where do you vacation? Maybe you need to reconsider your plans – I’ll leave it at that.

If you innocently or naively believe architecture is about buildings, bricks, function, or fixtures, you have missed out on so much. Architecture is about experience and it’s about people.

This is why you hire an architect.

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image is not experience

design process :: out loud

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As an architect, far more important than style and making things pretty is a rich process of conceiving and developing good design solutions.

I believe I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to have many nice projects designed and built largely based on process. I’ve developed (actually it’s an ongoing) a process that endeavors to be transparent and participatory. For those that are already getting off track in their mind, client vetting is assumed as part of this, but we’ll assume we have an interested client to begin with in this discussion.

Many events contributed to my thinking, but it largely came together outside of work. One night before bed, I had a rush of thoughts that I scribbled in my sketchbook (that I keep next to my bed). My son happened to be in my room perplexed as he watched. His reaction was far more interesting than what I was doing. I knew it would lead to a post sooner or later.

These were my thoughts that night.

Allow time to ruminate – Before I even make a mark on paper or anywhere with respect to a new project, I need time to think about it. I need to work through the questions (from research) and get to the core issues in my mind. Once the design progresses to a meeting with a client, I believe final decisions should rarely be made at that moment. Allow a few days to go by; it’s almost certain that someone on the team will have another idea or viewpoint about what was presented and will want an opportunity to revisit the presentation.

Multiple ideas are the only way to test an idea. Alternates (and in turn iterations) are the architect’s friend. Rarely is the first idea good or of any value, but all ideas can inform. In other words, don’t throw them away too quickly because you assume the client won’t go for it. The stronger ideas will stand apart from the weaker ones. Choose the best but diverse three options and present them clearly to your client. They’ll be able to see it.

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Engage with the users – Listen for critical concerns or what is most important to them. Next, address the critical concerns first. It’s amazing how much latitude is subsequently given when the client’s primary concerns are addressed.

Explain the thought process – I prefer working sessions over formal presentations. This allows others to experience that architects think differently. For instance, something I aim to do is to link the visual to the functional or operational/perceptual aspects of a project. What frustrates me is when people think architects merely decorate or solely make functional things pretty. Perhaps many do, but it’s important to me that the way things appear have a connection to how they work. If our clients can understand how the visual responses are integrally connected to the programmatic needs, it’s likely they’ll go along with our proposals. Empty decorations will rarely work because there is no reason they can’t be changed or eliminated because they’re thought to be gratuitous or unnecessary.

Allow others to express reaction – Whether within one’s office among colleagues, or during working sessions with clients, contractors, etc., allow others to talk and ramble as they react to what they see. If the architect jumps in too quickly to explain the how and why, it might stifle someone from finishing a thought. There’s always time for the designer to chime in at the end. Read the visceral reactions and make judgments from there.

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Invite multiple viewpoints – This means asking for it and allowing others to go beyond the “I love it” reaction that many architects seek to hear. Don’t ask if they like it, ask if it solves their needs or addresses their requirements. Opposing or differing views challenge one’s thinking, even if they differ significantly. Good ideas might emerge through the initial frustration. If the client gets off track, a good architect can lead the client back to better solutions, even if there’s temporary digression. Sometimes the fun parts are edited out.

Lead to consensus – Ask questions over making demands. It’s hard to be offended over a question. Questions invite a spirit of teamwork and group decision making. No one wants an architect to present a single idea as an all or nothing proposition. At the end of working sessions, summarize by asking questions like “are we in agreement” or “am I correct in this conclusion?” This allows everyone to know they’ve had a stake in the process.

Move forward with confidence, but be ready for more twists and turns in the road.

design process :: out loud