Alchemy and Architecture: How rich is your perspective?

What’s your point of view? How is it the same as or different from that of the users who will inhabit your design? How is it perhaps still different from that of your client?

In quite a few recent posts, I’ve discussed the idea that architects need to provide a value beyond just our traditional scope of services in order to stay relevant. This value often comes with the ability to harness and master data from its collection to application on the project. However, as we go boldly forward with integrated project delivery, evidence based design and quantifications of value associated with sustainability (green) and productivity (lean), it is all too easy to feel that creativity must emerge in spite of - not because of - these constraints. No, you are not off the hook in terms of shifting your practice model to incorporate the aforementioned value streams. You are being challenged to be more than an information generator and processor (overwhelming and boring). Too much of our time and energy is wasted feeling besieged yet unchallenged and uninspired.

The value of the architect in today’s world lies in his or her ability to synthesize. An excellent series of articles by Jon Kolko for Fast Company based on his book, Exposing the Magic of Design, caught my attention because they address precisely what makes us creative, as well as how we can allow our creativity to get lost in translation by being overly concerned about process and data. Kolko uses the term “sensemaking,” which has its roots in behavioral psychology, even going so far as to term the act of design as applying bias. We’re conditioned to view it as a four-letter word, but it’s impossible for anyone not to process the world through their individual filters. Bias represents the personal perspective of the individual designer, and the more interesting their perspective, the more likely they are to bring an exciting design solution to the table. Neutralizing your bias is the equivalent of dumbing down your work. Allow yourself to value the explorer inside of you, to question the status quo and to feel that pushing the envelope is not just OK but necessary.

Being creative begins with being inspired. Being inspired comes from allowing yourself to ask what if? That’s a scary concept, and when we don’t know where to begin, we start following all the rules of design and allow constraints to eliminate creativity by a depressing process of attrition. We fail to approach the subject with fresh eyes, disgruntled that we are doing “another” (fill in blank) and have clients that only care about getting the most amount of building for the least amount of cost. How could anything innovative ever hope to arise out of this attitude?

While budget is certainly a serious concern on every project, our clients want to build the best buildings they can, not the cheapest or most adequate. They want a solution that works for them and supports the activities that need to take place. They understand the difference between cost and value, but they will also uphold cost as a determinant when design seems too wayward and devoid of value. They are relying on your vision to take a quagmire of facts, needs, data and requirements and start to connect the dots to form a solution. That is the alchemy of architecture, to transform a bunch of information into a design strategy that supports an underlying project mission. To apply your vision and design the spaces that make people better.

Those voices you hear are the angels in the architecture, and you have to let them sing.