I was just reading a post that I wrote two years ago and, being particularly pleased with it, decided to get it out there again. I think it contains an important message that extends beyond the field of architecture. I’ve made a few editorial revisions that should improve its clarity, make it more universal, and for the sake of keeping the emphasis on the written word, I’ve omitted the images that were attached to the original. I know the majority of those who visit my site look at the images and pass over the written content – I understand. Time is precious; there’s just too much out there to take in – attempting to can consume a day. But for the few of you who are up to it and have the time, I hope you find it worth your effort…..
Bridging The Gap
Before jumping in and making myself intelligible, I first need to offer you a quick look at something about me as an architect.
Like you, certain things catch my eye.
Visit my Pinterest site, and you will get a hint of what interests me architecturally. This collection is broad, not easily pigeon-holed, and yet, scanning all these images, you may notice certain common characteristics throughout. This growing collection of diverse architectural possibilities reveals something I probably share with most architects – a drive to discover new ways of experiencing the world we build.
As an architect I’m drawn to built environments as a kind of poetry. But, not just that: I’m looking for a connection, for work that resonates with my core sense of things as they might be, for built environments that attract and awaken me. It’s a search for “yes” moments.
So here’s the rub and my reason for writing this: I’m aware that what penetrates my core as an architect is, in all probability, off the radar of most. Not necessarily because of the absence of shared values, but more likely from the absence of a shared language. And, by “most other people”, I’m of course including those who hire architects.
By inclination, choice, and training I naturally view the world, including the world of built things, i.e., architecture, through my personal lens, my own inner filters. We all do, of course. But, how then, given this barrier, do two people ever join hands; how are agreements ever reached; how does complex art such as architecture involving decisions by more than one person ever see the light of day?
Big questions. I narrowed my search for answers to one particular area: the problem of bridging the gap between what I hold dear, in this case as an architect, and the priorities and deeply held values of others – potential and/or actual clients in particular. The problem is highlighted for me because, like most architects, I see possibilities sometimes beyond the range of vision of clients – i.e., I lean toward being an idealist. On the other hand, I also have a deep respect for reality and, therefore, a desire to surmount obstacles and make things work. With architecture, as in most endeavors, convergence is important.
In tackling this problem I’ve identified a particular and influential, if deceivingly obvious, factor affecting the way decisions are made: our personal priorities – what we hold as important, regardless of whether they are in focus – guide us. They in turn are influenced, at least in part – if not entirely formed, by our ability and willingness to explore unfamiliar options, especially in the presence of that which has more magnetic appeal: the familiar, which is far safer and easier to accept. Ultimately, to get to my main point, that ability and willingness is at the mercy of our attitude toward the more risky unfamiliar. The familiar almost always has a more forceful presence.
In the visual, experiential world of architecture, that attitude has the potential to expand our perception and therefore our experience of the world we create for ourselves. And yet it is my personal observation that for many of us, more often than not, it leads unwittingly to a restriction of it. The unfamiliar too often triggers a strong bias against it and consequently blocks the doors opening up to new possibilities. Discovery of something better far too often gets sabotaged.
If a language is used that is foreign or misunderstood, it can sound like noise, maybe get tuned out. Worse yet, it may cause anger and rejection. Instead of sending a possibly valuable message, it fails to register.
For better or worse, what we create and what we ultimately end up with – our built surroundings, for instance, and its affect on us – is affected by our attitude toward the unfamiliar and that which is foreign to our eyes and ears.
Our ambitions toward improving the quality of the places we build is limited by that attitude. Toss into that pot the futility one might feel regarding the prospects of improving what has already been built by others. The results: more of the same; a status quo with its prevalence and its inertia continuing unabated. That sense of futility then becomes yet another filter limiting curiosity about options, about what might be. Feeling futile encourages us to tune out more and more. Uninspired buildings get accepted as “just the way things are”; its alternative remains buried alive.
In that scenario apathy rules and the loop remains closed. With that as a backdrop, the architect – the white knight – ever idealistic with regard to the built environment, ever driven to improve on the status quo, steps in. Regardless of our individual talents, if we haven’t yet tossed in the towel, we know we could do better. Some even possess the vision to radically lift our experience of what’s possible in life.
And yet, sadly, so much of that dies on the vine. Proposals are made and rejected. Using a language that’s foreign to the client, they get replaced by something more familiar, recognizable, safer. The reasons offered for the rejection are often sound enough, e.g., too hard to build and therefore too expensive. But what remains unstated in far too many cases is that the proposal was not really understood. And far too often, personal animosity toward the unfamiliar triggers that rejection.
It’s no wonder that those who have an unusual vision, who might expand and elevate our experience of the built environment, of life itself, are often often dismissed as eccentric, over-the-top, irrelevant, out of touch, unrealistic, dangerous, from another planet, etc.. In other words, they seem foreign.
As a consequence, visionaries, including those that are perceived as too eccentric or out of touch, and many others who refuse to compromise away the thing they have most to offer, have a tougher time surviving. Many go unrecognized. While some may actually acquire a small following in their lifetime, their message rarely extends very far beyond that circle, falling largely on deaf ears within the public at large, ears accustomed to tuning out the unfamiliar.
These trailblazers, using a language few understand, carve new trails that will more than likely go untravelled, unexplored by most of us. Too often they resign themselves to the fringes, caught in a trap of helplessness over the prospects of ever being able to bridge the gap.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Hopelessness is not part of our gene pool as humans. If we have something we think is important to say, then we need to learn how to be heard and understood. Of course this can be, and often is, a daunting, uphill task.
Regardless, unless helplessness is ones preferred state, we need to acknowledge how we’re perceived when we speak, when we design, when we’re prying open new doors, when we carve new trails. Pushing the envelope in the real world is far more likely to succeed when the party paying for it is on your side, which means they get what you are trying to do. But that, in turn, rests on a will to be understood, a refusal to let helplessness rule.
Having said that, those offering a new way of seeing need allies with sufficient vision and ambition to join in the effort to surmount the limitations of language. In the realm of architecture, built environments that enrich our lives are possible only with clients who want it, who share the vision, who are open to the unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the alternative – more of the same – remains unappealing.
A final comment is needed here to address a certain possible misunderstanding. Obviously, that which is unfamiliar does in fact, far too often, turn out to be atrociously awful when experienced in its final form. Furthermore, as living entities possessing the ability to know the world and therefore to take care of ourselves, we’re ultimately responsible for trying to discern the real difference between good and bad and to reject the latter when recognized.
My emphasis, however, is on our attitude toward the unfamiliar and on whether we make the effort to further understand it before rejecting it. It’s a choice that’s open to all. Choosing something far better for ourselves sometimes requires that we risk stepping outside the comfort zone of the familiar.
See also my companion piece, Cross-fertilization.