Design Matters: A Few Views on The Importance of Architecture

When a person is not feeling well, he goes to a doctor. If a person needs his teeth cleaned, he goes to a dentist. If a person needs legal help, he calls a lawyer. But, why does a person go to an architect?

The traditional answer would be… if a person needs a building, he goes to an architect.

But, isn’t it general contractors who do buildings? And what about draftsmen – can’t a person just hire a draftsman to draw a building? One may say, “…all I want is a house addition. An architect… wow! That surely sounds expensive. Should I really hire an architect for a patio cover? Can’t I just use the city’s form and get a quick approval?”

But is that all an architect is good for? Grab a cup of coffee (or spot of tea) and sit back while we explore a few other things that an architect does that can be of service to you, even if you don’t need one for the moment.

Let’s look at things from a ‘big picture’ perspective… namely, an architect is trained in understanding how people live in buildings, and trying to create buildings and spaces that people will enjoy.

As an example by way of contrast, a doctor sees people who are ill – something isn’t working right in the body or the person has an ailment that needs to be cured. The doctor is trained to diagnose what is wrong with people and determine a course of action to insure that the people get better. Same for a dentist, either something needs to be maintained (teeth cleaned) or replaced / repaired due to faulty habits. Very rarely is a doctor called on to see how health may be optimized and problems pre-empted. And, still fewer people regularly go to a dentist for ongoing maintenance of their teeth. These are very concrete things.

An architect, though, can help add quality to life in addition to making sure that things are functional. In other words, an Architect is concerned with the health and enjoyment of the people entering one of his buildings. His concern is for more than functional needs… it extends to how people enjoy the places they inhabit.

It’s a fact. People need food, clothing and shelter from the elements and weather in order to survive. And, many people, especially in the midst of an economic downturn, are very happy to be doing that… surviving. Now, without minimizing the needs we have for survival, one must consider things from a deeper point of view… one must consider that part of our place in this world includes enjoying certain things about it. We enjoy a beautiful sunset. We enjoy family and children. We enjoy a delicious meal. We enjoy a walk in the forest or other lush green places. But, do you enjoy the place you live? If you are like most people, maybe you haven’t given much thought to it. But, that is exactly the door through which the architect enters.

In America for the past 60 to 70 years, we have enjoyed a time of comparative prosperity that very few nations have attained to. The prosperity we have enjoyed is ‘object’ oriented, in that people have seen the acquisition of things as a top means of obtaining pleasure or joy in this world. But, if we really think about it, things don’t have the capacity to keep us happy for long before we are looking for the next bigger and greater thing to come along. And, things break. Things get stolen. Unless something very dramatic happens along the way, it’s easy to get caught up in this pursuit of objects to try to fill up our lives. Things tend toward eclipsing life… in that we are so caught up with the pursuit and management of things, the life we have here and the people we share it with are neglected. In times past, people worshiped objects called idols, and the results were horrendous. Sacrifice of newborn children to idols in some cultures was commonplace. Death results from ways of life that are only ‘object’ oriented.

By contrast to things, people are different. People are not objects. People are living and breathing eternal souls who, in this world, have more value than the things acquired or even the wonderful animals that are all around us. People are special.

As a Christian, I believe that people are made in God’s image, and therefore the things that are done to and for people have an immeasurable value. I take this perspective into my thoughts related to architecture and the design of places. So, what happens to a person or to people as they dwell in the rooms and buildings I design is very important to me.

Now, the movement of people through spaces, whether outside or inside, severe functional needs or not, is a key concern for the architect. Another factor is, how does a person ‘feel’ when they enter a room? A building? Does a person feel uplifted or oppressed? Is the building a ‘healthy’ building to live in, or does it make people sick?

If you think these things don’t matter, consider the millions of dollars that are spent by people each year on vacations and home improvements. Places matter to people. But, what is it about places that take a person beyond the mundane and ordinary to the truly exceptional – the places that add happiness to life?

The key to a place reaching its fullest potential is that the place is designed with a purpose, part of which is to meet functional requirements. Additionally, the other part of design that makes a building go from being merely functional to being ‘Architecture’ (with a capital ‘A’) is the aesthetic side.

Does it work? It Must. But does it help lift you from the consideration of day to day life and help you in being a better human being? Is that the role of architecture? These thoughts go past the mundane, but must be considered in order to fully realize how an architect may help you, if you are willing.

Awesome Experiences

The Grand Canyon is one of the most majestic places on Earth to visit. Whether seeing the canyon from its rim, or descending into its depths and experiencing it from the thousands of places below, it is certainly an awe inspiring place to be. Thousands of people vacation to the Grand Canyon each year to experience the natural beauty of the environment seen there.

Whether it is the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, or other large body of water, the beauty of the waves coming into the sea shore, the sounds, the smells… all of it taken together provide an environment of majestic splendor. The waves rolling in, the expanse of the sky above, the simplicity of the horizon, and the miles and miles of water have an overwhelming effect on most who visit these large bodies of water.

These experiences have a notable impact on the people there… a sense of awe and grandeur at our exposure to the sensory phenomena all around us results in feelings that are complimentary to our existence (we know we are a part of this world), but they also provide a contrast to our experiences (we are different from what we are seeing). In distinct ways, we are a part of the big picture, but because we are different from the world we live in there is a bit of discord that results. Although both are examples from the natural world, we can learn from the design of the natural world and take the strategies we learn and implement them into the things we design.

Seeing the best displays of design in the natural environment, we move forward into the built environment. I believe good design can be summarized as this: To the degree that any object, building or experience is designed well by a human designer, that is the degree to which it emphasizes one of the two extremes of a person’s experience in encountering the building – both being a part of the world and being different from the world, while not losing sight of the other.

Due to these issues being so broad and inclusive, I need to clarify something at the outset; namely that the bare minimum that any building must have to approach the “Architecture” mentioned above is to be that the building functions as it needs to function relative to the need of the users of the building. This is mere ‘Building Design’ at its best. These needs not only include arrangement of spaces in a floor plan, but also things such as, will the building perform economically over time as it needs to in order to satisfy the ‘bottom-line’ of user, client, builder, developer and the like. This proposition is that there is a ‘win-win’ situation for all who are involved in the design of the building. Does the building reach the economic goals of the user and developer? Does it meet the environmental goals of the community? … more questions abound, but the sum total of the bare ‘minimum’ that a building must accomplish is function – does the building work? It is only after those initial questions are addressed that we can at all begin to address issues related to bigger questions of aesthetic consequence. But, those questions must be addressed in order for a building design to be truly considered good ‘Architecture’.

If a building meets all known functional requirements, then it can be considered on the level of adding to or detracting from life. In order for a building to be a true ‘Architectural Masterpiece’, it must meet both functional and aesthetic requirements. The Aesthetic requirements include a dual framework which is a sliding scale, but essentially, it is that the building emphasizes either a person’s “being in the world” or “being not of the world”.

For those familiar with the Christian faith, it is easy to recognize this principle that is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 17 and verses 11 through 18. In it, Jesus is praying to the Father and asking for His protection of His children / sheep as He is about to undergo the suffering and humiliation of the crucifixion. He describes (in verse 11) that His children are in the world (not yet in heaven with the Father) and also not of the world (the Christians are from Christ – having a heavenly and an earthly nature).

So, to summarize, in order for a building to be “Architecture” with a capital “A”, the building must seek to reconcile two different extremes of our experience: We are in the world and we are not of the world. ‘Architecture’ may then function as it ought to in this world… as a host to its users doing what it was designed, as a part of creation, to do.

Architecture as A Culinary Art

Gummi Bears are sweet, tart, chewy and gone really fast.

On the other hand, a steak dinner prepared really well, is meant to be taken slowly. Too fast – – expect to choke. Each bite is meant to be enjoyed and savored. The meal contains proteins, carbohydrates (can’t forget the baked potato and garlic bread), vegetables, and a beverage of your choice.

Experiencing the built environment is like that… depending on its design, it can be more like a Gummi Bear – in that it may be consumed quickly – – or like a steak dinner… consumed more slowly. Both Gummi Bears and Steak Dinners (I’m hungry while I’m writing this) have their places. But, let’s face it, a Gummi Bear has little nutritional value.

Some may debate as to whether the steak dinner would kill a person faster than the Gummi Bear… that’s not really our concern at this point. The point is, though, that some things are meant to be enjoyed over time and other things are meant to be appreciated quickly, with no regard for depth of experience or meaning, etc. The Gummi Bears are what they are… no more, no less.

So, let’s stretch our brains for a few minutes and try to take the ideas I just mentioned and look at architecture (generally as something that is built by people for people to inhabit and use) from the same point of view.

In considering experiences in general and the design of experiences in particular, there is a sliding scale – a spectrum – when it comes to enjoying the built environment.

On one side, we have the Gummi Bears. An architectural equivalent of Gummi Bears would be the themed environments of Disneyland. Now look, I enjoy Disneyland as much as or even more than the next guy. Hey, I even worked for Disney Imagineering for a time. But, for all of the care that Imagineers put into the design) of the place (and other places at other theme parks and other companies as well), you have to admit that Disneyland and places like it are designed to be consumed instantaneously… the person looking at it “gets it” and then moves on to the next ‘land’ or themed environment.

At the other side of the spectrum, we’ll call this the Steak Experience side of life, there are buildings that are not instantaneously consumed. There are a lot of examples I could give, but I would like to settle, for a moment, on the Getty Center by Richard Meier. It is impossible to ‘get it’ upon only one visit to the Getty Center. There, we see a depth of experience for the visitors of the space that goes past the experience one has at Disneyland.

Since we are examining the big picture of what ‘Architecture’ is and the role of the architect, we now move to ‘connect the dots’. The role of the Architect is that he provides a service that will enable one to live in and / or experience a place that a person enjoys over time. The function of a place must be there (see Got Architect, Part 2), but the consideration of the experience of the place over a long time must also be considered.

Ever wonder why Disneyland has to be continually updated?

It gets old. People get bored. They want something new. Disneyland provides a good Gummi Bear for people to chew on, but the fun is over way too soon. The ‘shelf life’ (so to speak) of an instantaneously consumed building is quite low. Its price, from design to construction, is often quite high. It’s a vicious cycle, because as soon as Tomorrowland is updated (!), it starts to get old. Even the reworking of Tomorrowland isn’t looking to the future – it’s looking to the past!

A set of buildings like the Getty Center, though, has a very long ‘shelf life’. It isn’t instantly consumed. It provides a level of resistance to the cravings of those who want Gummi Bears. It gives them a steak dinner. The messages of the Getty Center.
are less easily consumed, and thereby experiencing it in its fullness takes more time.

I can hear it now, “…but the Getty Center is boring. It is modern looking. Disneyland is fun, interesting and exciting.” True; and both have their places. But in hiring an Architect you have to consider what strategy you want him to employ in designing your building – do you want to live in a Gummi Bear? Or, do you want to have a Steak Dinner every time you come home? It’s your choice.

To be honest, the way that many buildings look out there, it seems as though people love Gummi Bears more. And that’s O.K. It’s O.K. to love Gummi Bears!

But, before we leave this topic, think about this: the house a person lives in, or a building that is built for them, is going to be around for a long time. To make a building as thrilling as Disneyland is going to be expensive and will eventually need to be re-worked in the future. Why not invest the cash spent on the building in a way that is intelligently designed and though not as ‘eatable’ as a Gummi Bear, provides increasing levels of interest and satisfaction over time?

There is also a third option.

That third option is the one we call dessert. Having a mixture of substantive and superficial areas of interest provide a means of satisfying one’s desire for both Gummi Bears and Steak Dinners. So, as a client, you need a designer who won’t give too many Gummi Bears, and also will not give a steak dinner that you will choke on. Tender steak, in my opinion, is better than thick and chewy steak. On the other hand, I like Gummi Bears to be chewy.

As the designer, our responsibility to you, the client, is not to be the judge of your values, but rather, to help you realize the things that you value in the design of the building or structures that you want made.

As our client, the choice ultimately is yours. At Grizzly Bear Architecture and Design, our goal is to make you happy with the end product – our service to you. We provide both steak dinners, Gummi Bears and dessert. We love to design, and we love to make our clients happy.

(It is said, “No Man is an Island” – that maxim is true. We are all influenced by others in a number of ways. As an experiment and from time to time and in various places in this Blog, I will have links to Amazon for products that have either helped me or that I find interesting or may be helpful to you. Obviously, you are under no obligation to buy anything, but if you do so from clicking on any of my affiliate links, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. When you do this, it allows me to free up time so that I can deliver more content to you on this blog. I appreciate any support you may give through purchasing through these links.)

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