Missing…but not lost

Being an architect, I occasionally sift through my mental library of built environments wondering what might have been. Then I speculate about why it wasn’t. In previous posts I’ve taken a look at the role that the power of familiarity and personal preferences play in the dynamics of making our built world.

Today I want to shift attention to another subtle, but important influence on the design process – although in this case I’m focusing more on residential design. Here, as I search for what might have been, I’m seeing something that I think is a blank spot in the mindset in the way many projects are approached.

That blank spot sets the stage and ultimately impacts the built landscape, meaning it also impacts our lives through the way we experience our surroundings. The effect is sometimes subtle – below the radar, and at other times unavoidably harsh.

Here I want to shift my focus on the nature of that blank spot – on what’s missing, but that’s in our power to recover. As I’ve commented on before, this has something to do with a willingness to see in ways that may conflict with familiar and perhaps cherished patterns.

Residential design, including home improvements – i.e., most residential projects, often begin with little more in mind than solving practical needsBuildings need to work: they need to keep out unwanted weather, provide comfort and security, i.e., function in ways appropriate to their purpose. In itself that’s not a controversial observation. Solving problems of a practical nature is, after all, an important and basic part of the architect’s skill set.

But, as my own mental tour suggests and any tour you might take of real estate guides and residential neighborhoods will demonstrate in abundance, something seems to be missing. I’m not just talking about the quality of design per se. That would be true, but too easy of a target to take aim at. Other people’s tastes/ aesthetic values will always be open season for critiques. One person’s castle may be another’s shack. That is not the perspective that interests me here.

The thing I want to look at instead is what, far too often, seems to be left out of the process entering into a building project.

At the very start of a residential design process certain issues dominate and take priority, e.g., size, cost, style. Although there may be a desire for something new, e.g., appliances, plumbing fixtures, lighting, wall finishes, floor coverings, furniture, etc., or that it will turn out nice, provide comfort, and be worth the cost, the risk of wanting much more than that is often seen as too great.

Missing from the client’s agenda far too often (and sometimes, unfortunately, from the architect’s) is a compelling desire to explore. What’s missing is a vital curiosity and willingness to look at how this effort at upgrading or replacing ones home might lay the groundwork for new, life-affirming experiences. Instead, the drive to explore lies dormant in the background.

The thought of exploring a project’s possibilities as architecture fails to gain traction. It remains buried by conventional wisdom that says architecture is irrelevant, elitist, extravagant and frivolous, not to mention, indulgent. From that frame of mind a course is laid out with budgets developed accordingly, omitting what is feared to be a one way trip to burying oneself in debt.

The consequence of hyper-emphasizing practicality, of letting caution dictate, is that it too often sidelines further exploration of  alternative life-serving possibilities and ultimately extends into the built landscape of our lives.  A vital option has then been unnecessarily excluded. 

If this is true, can anything be done? I think so. The doors are not locked shut – choosing to see is always an option.

What ‘might be’ always nags ‘what is’. Within even the most mundane project sleeps the seed of greater possibilities awaiting the curious glance of acknowledgement by an owner who, at first, may only faintly, if hesitatingly, sense its presence. The architect, in order to do his or her best, to explore beyond the familiar and acceptable, needs that acknowledgement.

A willingness to explore unlocks the mind.

What are we talking about here?

Everyone wants on some level to feel more alive. It’s our primal spark. It’s there until we die. Exploration, discovery of what lies beyond, of new experiences, new possibilities, is a natural expression of that spark. The impulse to explore moves life ahead.

Architecture is a manifestation of that spark, that impulse,that exploration. 

Someone wanting to experience life on a deeper level – where who they are emotionally, intellectually and spiritually can be brought closer into the foreground, may choose to have their inner life mirrored in the form of architecture. Their functional, practical needs for shelter are then transformed – expanded – into a kind of three-dimensional, spatial equivalent of music composed just for them.

That music’s uniqueness, its theme and perhaps its melody, germinates within the myriad influences underlying the project: how the client wants to live in this new place; their personal aesthetic preferences; their financial priorities; the various conditions of the building site.

For me, speaking both personally and as an architect, the role nature plays in the formation of this music is particularly significant. Site-specific characteristics, prevailing weather patterns, the ebb and flow from hot to cold and light to dark, the daily rhythms of light and shadow, how that light enters into and impacts our lives, the nature of the materials of construction, all these things become integral to that music.

Architecture, successfully executed, is a respectful response to all these factors. Its success derives from its ability, to some degree, to bring us back in touch with the deeper levels of who we really are, and to that particular place on earth where we choose to build our shelters.

But all this ultimately circles back to those responsible for launching a building project, whether it’s a home improvement or any other type of shelter. Architecture begins with a client working in concert with an architect, both willing to entertain a glance beyond the strictly practical – not at its expense, but simply to look beyond and then allow for a process of discovery. 

Rather than initiating a slide into fiscal purgatory, which would require turning a blind eye to ones financial realities – never a good option, allowing for exploration beyond the familiar should not be done carte blanche. But then, it should not be nipped in the bud prematurely by putting the cost-benefit analysis cart before the horse.

If the quality of your built surroundings is important to you and you’re considering a building project, whether it’s a home or any other type of shelter, pushing – stretching – the envelope of your project’s inherent possibilities is an important option you’ll need to decide upon if you want the best possible outcome.

You, the owner, the one paying for it, have the final word – it’s your money. But the architect’s skills at stretching the envelope are an important part of what you’re paying for.

Of course it may be difficult trying to move beyond the expected and the familiar. That the journey from initial idea to completion can be a struggle and/or test of patience is not so unusual, as any glance at the history of forward motion in human history will reveal.

Nonetheless, as common as frustration may be in the creation of architecture, it is still unfortunate when it’s avoidance leads to a dumbing-down of our built environment. There’s no law of nature demanding that particular outcome.

I think it’s important to the quality of each of our lives to acknowledge the presence of that primal spark of life – that it’s always there to take advantage of, to motivate us and to build from. Budgets are important when planning a building project, as is talent. But even more so in this context is the willingness to explore a project’s inherent possibilities. It’s an important decision that can make life more interesting and fulfilling.

See also: a path least traveled p.1&2, Designing Your Ideal Home…Part 1&2, Shelter: A Choice, L.A. now nation’s densest urban area, considerations, built shelter, Bridging the Gap, why Architecture?

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