Wednesday, April 25, 2012


After struggling for years to convey the untidiness of the design process, whether carried out by amateurs or architects, I recently came across a few sentences that captured it perfectly.  I wish I’d written them:

“What usually happens is that you are first led to wrong conclusions by some wild ideas, inspired by something you came across somewhere.  Or you may be guided by rigid rules, instilled by “correct” high school reports.  Everybody falls in love with silly ideas, and everybody lugs around the baggage of unquestioned assumptions...It is only after ruthless self-editing and brutal cutting that the worthwhile ideas remain.”

Ironically, these thoughts weren’t written by an architect, nor even written about architecture.  The author was Jan V. White, in a book called “Graphic Design for the Electronic Age”, written in the late 1980s.  Though the topic is only loosely related to architecture, White’s few short sentences capture the seemingly aimless and largely internal process of design--a process we architects are so terrible at explaining that most people doubt that what we do takes time and effort, just like anything else that’s worth doing.  

The usual image of the architect has been that of someone sitting at a drawing table, or more lately a computer monitor, drafting up elaborate plans as if they were simply pouring out of him or her.  Nothing could be further from reality.

To begin with, architects don’t pull lovely, fully-formed designs out of nowhere, fairy tales about Frank Lloyd Wright notwithstanding.  Nor is the drafting that everyone pictures architects doing an especially crucial facet of design; it’s just a mechanical necessity, roughly analogous to putting a finished pizza in the oven.  

What architects actually do is carry on a largely internal dialogue that, over the course of many days or weeks which may or may not result in any kind of tangible output.  That this is so surprising to people--and sometimes distressing as well--has always puzzled me.  Few people would dare think of asking an artist why it took him so long to finish a painting--and architecture is very much like painting, except in three dimensions, and with vast amounts of technical complications thrown in.   

Another surprise to many people is that the design process is subtractive, not additive. It has much less to do with compiling than with stripping away, leaving--ideally--an end result that seems simple, inevitable, and right.  

The curse of every creative person is that such simplicity, which is the hallmark of good design, is not at all simple to achieve.  A simple solution usually represents more effort than a complex one, not less effort--just as the few exquisite words in a piece of haiku demand more skill and struggle than a three-page rant to the gas company.  The haiku poet strips away words in order to get to a kernel of meaning from which nothing can be added and nothing more can be subtracted.  The architect begins with a labyryinthine tangle of requirements and then slowly begins to strip away everything extraneous to the problem, leaving the irreducible kernel of a solution.

Still, thanks to our own confounded inability to communicate what we do, we architects still routinely hear uncomprehending comments along the lines of, “Gee, why will it take so long? It’s just a kitchen,” or “Two months? You’re kidding!  My brother-in-law designed HIS addition in one afternoon.”

Well, I can’t explain it any better than I have.  Maybe that guy should just hire his brother-in-law.

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