A Choice That Delivers

Like the first crocus piercing a long winter’s snow… architecture at its best embodies hope.


Ancient Roman Stadium, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; from ALZBlog

Machu Picchu

FLW, Rose Pausen house ruins

casa colina, PACHACAMAC, PeruLawrence Halprin, Ira Keller Fountain Park, Portland, Oregon

Casa Zaror, Jaime Bendersky Architectos

Domus Impluvium, Bernardo Rodrigues

Linking past with future, through experience in a continuous present, architecture bridges time as a marker of life’s wider possibilities. As such, in addition to fulfilling its purpose as shelter where life is enhanced, it also signifies hope for a better life.

But, as we all know, it’s certainly not true that anything built as shelter will rise to this level. Little ever does. And yet, all architecture has in its DNA that potential.

What then determines whether any particular work of architecture will embody hope or dash it on the rocks…or, as is mostly the case, flounder somewhere in the middle?

The capacity for architecture to impact our lives in that way is contingent on the choice made, early in its genesis, of which particular path to follow.

That choice is one that’s fundamentally important. At the other end of that path are all the buildings ever built and yet to be built.

That path exists for all architectural projects. In effect, it’s the criteria, held consciously or not, that guides the direction of the design. The choice of which path to follow sets in motion an important trajectory, one that becomes manifest over an expanse of time on a scale that dots the earth and touches us all.

The path is not a simple one. It actually begins at a fork, a choice right at the beginning of which fundamental direction to take. It’s a decision that will reflect the designer’s core beliefs about where and how architecture begins.

That decision, which is one that ought to be made consciously, derives from one’s answer to this question: what’s my basic criteria for making design decisions? What standard guides my design choices?

What are some choices of criteria and their consequences?

One of them is choosing whether to begin with what is, in order to get to what might be. In other words, do I allow the design to grow in an organic sense from factors that are relevant to that specific project?

Option two, the one often followed, is whether to begin with what was, either as an image or as something physically real, already built, and then, in effect, superimpose that over what is as a template of what might beIn this case, those making the design decisions are drawn towards what’s already been done – projects built for someone else with different needs and requirements and most likely under different site conditions.

Option three: some combination of one and two, which like the color gray, can be broken down into either of its constituent parts. The design might, for instance, contain original ideas combined with a pastiche of things previously tried.

Does it make a difference which path is chosen?

Architecture is a response to the needs and wants of real people, living real lives, wanting to be happy, right now, in a complex world, on a site with very specific conditions that must be respected and where possible, met.

Hope, to be realized must have a reachable end point.

For a built environment to succeed in any meaningful way, especially with regard to the well-being of its inhabitants, it must begin with an exploration of that which is specifically relevant – the conditions giving rise to what it might be, i.e., its context.

We all stand a far better chance of reaping the rewards from our built environments when they’re derived from rigorous respect for all the real world facts from which they germinate, from which they grow, and in which they will eventually speak – or sing – to us for a long time.

We respond strongly to authenticity, honesty, composition of enclosed spaces, integrity, intelligence, skilled workmanship. We want to feel inspired, have hope.

Short of willfully tuning it out, we’re not indifferent to the contrast between authenticity and replication, thoughtfulness and stupidity, integrity and chaos, pride in workmanship and carelessness, delightfulness and offensiveness, inspiration and hopelessness, etc..

But wait, you say, doesn’t second hand, borrowed architecture built to lower standards than I’m advocating here have its admirers? After all that’s mostly what exists out there.

Yes, of course.  But, the ability of such built work to satisfy can only be measured by criteria that’s limited, even if for valid reasons, but that exclude wider possibilities.

Satisfaction in such cases will ultimately be the consequence of, and therefore necessarily limited by, the endless decisions made over the course of the project guided by that limiting criteria.

Yes, we all adapt to some degree to that which is beyond our power to change. My point, however, is that more is possible.

Still, many live in and enjoy these environments. And why not? It’s their life after all, their choice, their money. We all see what we see and respond accordingly. That’s our prerogative. Most importantly, freedom of choice comes first. And besides, as with all forms of art, applying rigid rules to the process of creative exploration succeeds only in stifling creativity.

Nevertheless, it remains unavoidable that, as always, each of us alone is responsible for the choices we make and their consequences. My choices are mine; yours, yours; the architects, theirs. Each of us must take that responsibility.

When those choices made by others differ from mine as they will, assuming I have no influence in making them, I will live with that, even if those choices lead to built environments that frustrate me, that fail to connect with me or the earth in a way that feels more rewarding. After all, those places are not created for me. Except when I’m designing, it’s not my decision to make whether or not they meet my standards. We’re responsible only for our own choices, not those made by others.

It’s also true that many, perhaps most, couldn’t care less about this issue, or if they do, might regard it as a concoction manufactured as a way to vent frustration.

Well, there’s no shortage of reasons for architects to feel frustrated.

As you should know if you don’t already, architects don’t have the final word. And if they value their sanity, they would never expect to. Yes, frustration abounds. Few see what they see, much less approve it.

But if they’re good at what they do, architects know where the path of those early choices lead and will make an effort to implement the ones that meet their standards. They know cause and effect. They want to feel proud of their work. They want their project’s potential to be fulfilled. In this sense it’s their baby that’s coming to life.

In the end, however, whatever direction is followed early on in design, the fact is, we’re all affected to some degree by the consequences – by our built surroundings. Someone is choosing. Everyone is affected.

My purpose here, regardless of how it may seem at this point, is not to direct or rant, but to identify those certain fundamental choices buried in the early stages of design that unavoidably impact our built world, our lives; in other words, to try boosting awareness of the issue and, therefore, the results.

It’s a rare person who doesn’t want the best that’s possible and then some. Getting for yourself an environment that you love to be in, that makes you feel more alive, carries with it the responsibility of making choices on how to get there.

As long as there’s architecture, there’s reason to hope. The rest is up to each of us. The good thing is that we typically have more choices than we realize.

Kerry Clare + Lindsay Clare – Clare Design


Apprentice Shelter, Taliesin West

Schindler House, Kings Road, LA

Mockbee Rural Studio – Mason Bend Community Center

John Lautner, Arango House; photo: Jan-Richard Kikkert

4 thoughts on “A Choice That Delivers

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