Why does it look that way? Where does this stuff come from? What are you thinking? These are questions which when producing civic architecture in a community driven design process we hear and to which we are obliged to respond with authenticity and respect. When tax-payer dollars are invested in buildings meant to serve everyone in the community they deserve to know how and why a building has come to look the way it does and what it has to do with them.
A confluence of forces conspires to inform how a building comes to look the way it does. These are internal and external forces which we seek to hold in balance: principally the site in which the building or buildings are to reside and the purpose or purposes (utilitarian, cultural or otherwise) for which they are to be built. For sure these forces alone offer a complex and subtle interplay of considerations which when put into play can lead to any number of results. No two architects will come up with the same design.
And this is partly because whether we choose to acknowledge it or not a building’s site and its purpose cannot entirely determine what a building will look like. It is never enough (although always necessary) to have an idea. We must also have an image (or images) in mind. Is it therefore ever enough to respond to those questions with the site made me do it, or it’s the building’s purpose that makes it look that way?
A work of art should not and cannot ever be explained away. It must in the end stand on its own. And yet architecture perhaps more than any other is fundamentally a social art. Painters, writers and musicians do their thing then put it out there where it is received or not. We too put our work out there where it must stand on its own, but we unlike the painter or the writer or musician are obliged to collaborate with all sorts of people (who pay us and pay for the work) from all sorts of walks of life with all sorts of interests and points of view as we are making it. This, it turns out, is part of the art. It is less an obligation to be endured and more how we get better at what we do.
It is in the articulation of what we’re thinking and then listening to how it is received that design within the body politic advances. This is a matter of talking up not down to whom we serve, and it is a two-way street. The success of the outcome depends on the quality of the colloquy which in turn depends entirely on the quality of our articulation: what are we thinking and why? And the quality of the articulation depends less on words than on imagery. What we share either resonates or it doesn’t. In an iterative process from which we learn as much as we share our job is not so much to determine the outcome as to curate it.
This is neither a surrendering of authorship nor an entirely democratic process. We don’t vote on design. But neither do we impose our will on it. Inevitably we enjoy our own interests, we nurture an inner life that carries with us from project to project and we don’t share everything about it. Like the accomplished actor who nuances her performance with an inner dialogue that may have little or nothing to do with the words she says the outcome is rendered rich by the intersection of the personal and the social.
We like the actor want to connect. We want to disappear into the role even as the work is recognizable as ours. Not only do we owe it to the people and places for whom we work but the work is better for it. In the wildly diverse, dynamic and democratic places we live populated by the equally diverse peoples of a wide variety of cultural and socio-economic circumstances and backgrounds this is our challenge: to create high quality public buildings in partnership with people and tailored to place, less signature more singular, true and at home.