"Our thinking is a pious reception". ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today we’re going to open up your brain and look inside for a bit – in order to realize some very important stuff.
Don’t fret, and don’t run away. This is an exercise in meta-thinking. And as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, meta-thinking is a great tool for gaining meaningful insight about your own design process.
After all, once you understand how your thinking process ticks, you’ll be able to determine your cogs in the system, weed them out, and become a better designer in the process.
This post covers something extremely critical: your motivations.
When you handle your studio projects, who are you really designing for?
In going about your design process, whose face are you picturing with each line? Who is the end goal that your architecture must satisfy? With each little move, each element, each nuance, whose nod of approval are you primarily valuing?
You’ll be surprised at the many possible answers, their implications, and what they say about your own aspirations.
So then – as you look purposely at your finished architectural program, sketch on a napkin, get your hands goey with your sketch model, or manipulate shells and fabrics on Sketchup or Rhino, who is primarily on your mind?
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1. Do you think of the client?
Maybe you’re the kind of person who is fixated on the client’s requirements. You see the program and stick to it as devoutly as you would a sacred scripture.
Naturally, in architecture school most of your clients will be hypothetical, but an imaginative and visionary student with this focus will make it a point to visualize their persona vividly in their head.
They’ll gather as much supplementary information about the client for their professors, in hopes to fulfill their mandates to a tee.
Say your client is a big business tycoon who wants to build a new mall in a rural area. With his developer hat on, his main concerns will be decreasing cost, increasing efficiency, widening profit margins, and quickening return of investment.
A design student who is heavily client-centric will be primarily focused on fulfilling Floor-Area-Ratios, costing constraints, managerial concerns, and floor plate efficiencies. Once they see that the numbers add up correctly, they are satisfied.
Naturally, we should all be diligent in processing our clients. They have, and will always be the biggest determinant of our work.
However, being extremely client-centric can condition your design process to be quantified and unimaginative – to be something geared at fulfilling numbers and volume requirements.
It can get limiting when your prime motivation is hitting a set of number targets, and not proposing an experience.
If you’re in this mindset too often, it can devolve your design process into one of putting boxes together, instead of thinking out of the box.
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2. Do you think of your actual occupants?
On the other hand, maybe you’re occupant-centric.
Sure, the client is the one who commissions you and gives you the project requirements – but the he or she is not always the direct user of your architecture.
Let’s go back to the previous example of a business tycoon who wants to build a mall. He might be your client, but the people that will actually use the mall on the daily basis will be the sales workers, maintenance personnel, security guards, building administration, and the like.
An occupant-centric designer will think heavily of these people, and not merely the transient users (aka the mall-goers).
In a case like this, sometimes there are conflicts of interest between client and occupant.
The rich developer, with his profit-oriented hat, will want to squeeze in as much saleable and income generating areas as possible. To him, the exchange of goods and services may be his primary concern.
In order to achieve this, he might instruct you to design a long, enclosed rectangle with a row of stalls on both sides. Very efficient.
He might also want to minimize the money spent on non-saleable areas – like the offices and rest areas devoted for workers.
This effectively translates to room and corridor sizes, cooling loads and auxiliary spaces that would eat into construction and operational costs.
This often (especially in the Philippines) results in spaces that are cold, boring, and uninspiring for the shoppers, and inhumane for the workers.
What of beautiful vistas of nature, skylights, and natural ventilation for the well-being of the shoppers? Nope. A self contained box is cheaper to cool, and easier to maintain.
What of the additional corridor and rest space for workers, and pocket spaces where they can chat and unwind during lunch break? Nope. They lower building cost-efficiency. The workers can just sit down in the windowless corridors like sardines instead.
Believe it or not, a lot of people live like this everyday, because of thrifty clients that are focused on the economic implications and not the people.
An occupant-centered designer thinks primarily about the people. All the people. All aspects of their well-being. From comfort levels to adequate space, physiological and psychological concerns of lighting & ventilation, etc.
This is great because architects definitely must push for an elevated standard of life. It is our rhyme and reason.
However, we too have a duty to fulfill our clients’ requirements. There is a pragmatic line that does have to be considered in the design.
An extremely occupant-centered designer may neglect crucial requirements of the client that really have to met.
As humane as it may not be, it makes no sense to devote so much resources and space to aspects of design that will not benefit the client or instead greatly retard his return of investment.
It’s good to provide recreation areas for the staff, but there is a threshold for adequacy. Devoting 20% of lot area for lush gardens and private lounges for the workers is fantastic in making . But if that eats up a ton of space and effectively forgoes 50% of potential revenue, it makes no business sense. Not only space wise, but also in monthly operating expenses.
There must be a judicious compromise between pragmatic lines and utopian lines.
The client is the one spending resources for something that is supposed to benefit him or her.
It’s the architect’s responsibility to fulfill those requirements in a balanced manner. Between being client-centric and occupant-centric, there’s a unique sweet spot within every project that must be found.
And truth be told, it can be a challenge if you’re an designer with a big heart.
3.Do you think about your professor and jury, and what they would like?
We could classify this as a critic-centric designer. Let’s not forget that this site speaks from the context of architecture school – and most of your design projects in this case are within the framework of a studio work.
Let’s face it; as much as we might not be overly grade conscious- we do appreciate getting good marks from our professors. It’s only natural. When our efforts are validated by approval, it thrills and encourages us. And so we hope to see an “Excellent” written over the fruits of our labor.
But that’s different from going through your entire design process aiming for recognition. Let’s say at the start of your design project’s brief you find out who your jury for the final presentation will be. A critic-centric designer would be less concerned about the intricacies of the project requirements and more concerned about what the jury’s preferences are.
Say the chair of the panel is a well-known proponent of vernacular regionalism. An excessively critic-centric designer will lock this theme as the guiding principle behind their project, regardless of its best fit to the program – all in hopes to appeal to the tastes of the person grading him or her.
Or maybe in the context of a final submission without deliberations, it’s a known fact that the studio professor is a fan of grandiose, parametric architecture. The innate critic-centric individual will harness his inner Libeskind or Zaha, (probably without even understanding their philosophies fully) to create a showy work that is tailor fit to instructor’s postmodern international inclination.
To people with this strong inclination, the authority figures that can bestow recognition and concrete prestige are their prime targets of appeasement.
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It might sound like a far-fetched scenario. But it’s very much akin to tailoring your entry to a design competition at the judging panel’s own body of work, or making architecture that you “feel” fits under the typical “Pritzker Prize” candidate’s body of work.
And to a certain extent, it can work for a student – especially if nothing exceedingly glaring that can be picked up from ten minutes or so of checking.
There really are some professors out there that give high marks when submissions are in consonance with their personal philosophies. You can’t really blame them. It’s a shot of dopamine to see your own beliefs imprinted onto those you teach. Happy prof. Happy grade for a supposedly happy student. Supposedly.
Its benefits aside, where does this practice leave the young designer, in terms of personal discovery and growth? There is much that can be said about the trap of being excessively critic-centric. So much that it would probably cover an entire post in itself. For now, I’ll leave you at a quote to ponder on.
"I have fed on you and on all the men like you who lived before we were born. The men who designed the Parthenon, the Gothic cathedrals, the first skyscrapers. If they hadn't existed, I wouldn't have known how to put stone on stone. In the whole of my life, I haven't added a new doorknob to what men have done before me. I have taken that which was not mine and given nothing in return. I had nothing to give". ~ Peter Keating (From the Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand).
4. Maybe you’re fixated on impressing your audience.
Let’s call this a peer-centric process. It again revolves around designing with an audience in mind.
But as the name goes, this is more geared towards impressing your schoolmates and contemporaries than it is your professor.
The design studio environment, especially one filled with passionate young adults, can be teeming with the air of competition.
It’s actually a good thing, because it brings out the drive to do better. But it can also breed a culture of “showing up” everyone else in order to get ahead of the pack.
And in the heat of this mindset, you could be compromising a careful design process in the pursuit of something that looks mighty impressive on a board.
The beginnings of the cut-throat marketers, perhaps.
The good thing about architecture school is that, for the most part, your projects are theoretical. You work on them for a month or two, you present, submit, and that’s that. You can never truly test if your approach is truly effective, or an occupant’s worst nightmare.
Which is why you may be able to get away with “picture perfect” renderings to hide the truth of a sloppy design process. In an exhibit full of multitudes of colorful printed boards, it’s typically not the brilliantly and holistically planned works that get the buzz.
It’s often the eye-catchers that shine in the student eye of architecture school.
However, behind many a magnificent form, in an even more magnificent photo-realistic perspective – can be a skeleton in a closet.
And the designer knows it. You can tell, because when you mention that particular piece of work years down the road, they won’t want to talk about it. They know how empty and compromised the design was to get something buzz-worthy displayed.
"Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character". ~Horace Greeley
The peer-centric design process in moderation is indeed a useful tool, because it trains you to consider what the public would appreciate. When taken to the extreme, however, it becomes a weak foothold that gives you shallow recognition but not meaningful achievement.
I’ve mentioned private vs public victories in a previous post. I truly think it’s a tragedy when a design’s integrity is compromised in pursuit of short term oohs-and-aaahs, only for you to cringe at that past work for the rest of your life.
Or maybe I just have a strong fondness for personal achievement. You can’t really blame me – I’ve found how absolutely satisfying it can be to have a work that you are truly proud of, inside and out.
And it’s a feeling we all struggle to achieve, over and over again.
Which brings us to the last person you might be designing for.
5. Are you trying to prove something to yourself?
“I can’t do that. I’ve already done that before“.
Yourself. Your own critic, your own audience, your own adversary.
I caution to call this condition as self-centric, because really, it’s not as convoluted as being self-centered is.
A self-centric person is someone who is focused on constantly applying new things and pushing the envelope with regards to what he or she has produced before.
Their objects of comparison are only their previous works, regardless of whatever everyone else will be churning out. They don’t care what grades high; they only want to push themselves farther in a personal intellectual relay.
He or she is driven, internally geared, and an animal at collecting new information and methodologies that they can privately revel in – as they plan out what to integrate in their next project.
They are stalwarts of personal discourse, which is great.
But when taken to the extreme, the self-critic can be setting themselves up for confusion, frustration, and a design that is not truly apt.
When the central premise of first finding and holding onto new “brain toys” for your next work, your methodology might become a force fit brought about by your drive to innovate.
And letting go of an idea you were so giddy to integrate in your next project can be very hard to swallow.
The excessively self-centric individual may need lessons in prudence, patience, and learning to let go of a “spectacular” idea if it is not truly apt for a project.
Sometimes, parcels of things you’ve already done before might actually be the most effective course of action in your current project.
Don’t be afraid to rehash an element of a previous work in fear that you won’t get anything new from a design project.
There’s always something new to learn in every design project. It’s the thought process that truly counts.
And perhaps the most important thing in making an apt design isn’t winning a self-ego, but actually making an apt design.
A small ounce of repetition is not a curse of stagnation.
With that said, having a good dose of self-centric-ness is not a bad thing at all.
"If you are to judge a man, you must know his secret thoughts, sorrows, and feelings; to know merely the outward events of a man's life would only serve to make a chronological table--a fool's notion of history". ~ Honoré De Balzac
Let’s be honest. We are all a mix of the five discussed above.
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Though our inclinations are just typically more pronounced towards one or two. And that’s fine. We all want- in varying degrees – to satisfy our clients, nurture our users, be recognized by people in position, get nods from our peers, and prove something to ourselves.
We are all at a constant flux of balancing all our motivations – in pursuit of better design.
That is, unless you’re insistent that your process is stellar from motivation to translation.
The thing is though, no one’s design process is perfect. You can fool everyone else but yourself.
There are always ways we can improve on, to give our process more coverage. It takes some humility to admit where you lack, but it’s the first crucial step in moving forward.
So, make your self-talk sessions a regular occurrence, and dig deeper on how you can achieve the type of architectural integrity you sincerely yearn for.
Start the road in becoming the kind of designer you really want to be. Think. and then Meta-think.
Rinse and repeat.