The Space in the Box
Years ago, there was a study to see which kinds of toys held kids' attention the longest. It was not a complex experiment. They gave kids a bunch of different toys and timed how long they played with each of them. They were hoping to learn whether children preferred planes to cars or stuffed bunnies to stuffed bears. But the only correlation they found was that the more moving parts and noises and automation a toy had, the quicker it got boring. This was vindication for grandparents everywhere who liked to brag about playing with sticks and corn cobs as kids. But it was lousy news for toy companies, who were busy at the time stuffing circuit boards into everything.
They had long struggled with the great mystery of why kids prefer the cardboard box to the dancing robot dog inside of it. But to designers and writers, there's no mystery to it at all. The robot dog doesn't need you. It does its thing and you are demoted from participate to observer. And In seconds, you've seen everything it does. Your questions have all been answered. And the moment that happens, you're bored because the experience is over.
That empty box, though, can't do a thing without you. So it demands engagement. And it does this by asking questions. What do you see? What can you do? What can you make out of this? What does this remind you of? If the box is to move, you have to move it. If the flaps are to raise and become wings, you have to think that up and you have to act it out. The box requires your imagination. The robot dog does not. It has seven tricks and it'll do them, in order, whether you're there or not.. But the tricks of the box are yours. They're new and endless and unpredictable. And that condition of not knowing what's next -- in a toy or a book or a movie or a building - is really the end goal of all of them. A sense of wonder.
'Wonder' is a great word when you think about it. When we talk about something being 'wonderful' or creating a 'sense of wonder', we're describing an emotional reaction to something that feels almost like magic. But 'to wonder' is simply to be in a state of not knowing.
Years ago, a friend and I discovered one of the most genuinely full-of-wonder places I've ever been. Down an incredibly narrow ally in a dirty part of Rome, behind a half-demolished brick wall, and through a gate made out of an old mattress spring, we discovered a tiny garden. It was stunning. What the hell was this garden doing here? Who planted this? And why? It was so surprising and magical that we talked about it for years. But looking back, it was actually a very ordinary little garden. There were some tomatoes and flowers in a few pots, a vine, and a concrete bench. If it had been sitting in front of our hostel, we wouldn't have even noticed it. Because the garden itself wasn't the special part. It was the sense of wonder - the mystery of it - that was so thrilling.
When you're creating something, it's tough to be patient and keep your secrets when you're so excited to reveal them. But to make a great experience, you have to withhold answers and create questions. You have to place your audience or your reader or your visitor in the excitement of the unknown. Imagine how dull The Godfather would be if Michael decided in Act I that, hell yeah, he was going to take over the family business. Or if you knew, at the beginning of Citizen Kane, who Rosebud was. And wouldn't the Pantheon lose a lot of its drama if you weren't forced past the dull exterior of the drum and through the dark portico before stepping into the shaft of light streaming through that impossibly high oculus? The excitement isn't in the knowing, it's in the breathless sense of discovery. And if you're to discover something, it first has to be missing. There has to be room for you to step into the gap in the plot, the unexplained occurrence, the dark entryway, the thing left unsaid -- the space in the box.
A few days ago, I was a guest on The Peeky Podcast, hosted by the lovely and fascinating Ann Mahoney. Like me, she has multiple careers, including actor, writer, producer, and kids' clothing designer. Ann could extract an interesting conversation from a turtle, so we quickly fell into a great discussion about how architecture and screenwriting are the exact same job, how constraints feed creativity, and how a curious and rigorous creative process allows you to make almost anything. It was a genuine joy to do and I'm still thinking about some of what we hit upon. You can check it out, plus her other episodes at:
Or listen below, assuming I've uploaded this correctly. I'd give it a fifty/fifty chance.
Who's in Charge of a Design?
No matter how great the idea is, it's still just some useless, abstract thought until you the take tools to it. Tools make things real. And they have a lot to say about what you ultimately make out of all of your ideas. Above are two recent projects. One is an addition (done for the wonderful Feldmeier Galyean) to a traditional Bayou St. John house. The other is new house I designed around the same time. The projects are in different neighborhoods with different clients, of course, but they are both still houses, both in New Orleans, and both on restrictive sites. They use the same materials, are in the same climate, in the same price range, and were developed with some of the same hands at work. And yet they turned out to be very, very different. Not coincidently, the more traditional design was drawn in the more traditional way, in a CADD program that draws with lines. The other wasn't drawn at all, but designed and built entirely within a 3D model, in a Building Information Management program called Revit. The different software tools literally show me things from different perspectives, force me to make design decisions in a different order, and allow me to see materials and forms in a different light. This has to have a huge impact on the resulting product. I have to wonder what would have happened if I had swapped the tools used to realize these little projects.
And also writing it, as all buildings do.
Chapter 1 - A Stranger
It all began, as it should, with a gate. One step through the gap in the fence that separates you from 7 billion strangers. They're out there, and you're in here. The fence is the definition of your world. Just inside the gate, everything changed. The sidewalk changes often into colored stones. Softer than the concrete municipal right angles, the gentle curves your sidewalk recommend that you slow the pace. Some numbers on the house or the mailbox announce the official, legal, one-of-a-kind designation so you can make sure you're in the right place. And a little garden softens the collision. It's nature, but not natural. Yes, there are plants that grow naturally, but here they are arranged in an unnatural way. In the wild, plants don't congregate by height or align themselves in rows. This isn't the natural word, your garden insists, it's your Front Yard, where you clearly exert control over everything, even the plants. You garden also whispers some hints about what kind of place, exactly, someone is getting into on this side of the fence. A box hedge could suggest a desire for order, where a loose collection of colorful flowers and stalks could reveal a little playfulness. Or laziness, depending. A sand garden might signal that you have a more spiritual sensibility. Or that you hope to. But these are all just greetings, an open, but limited invitation laid out in front for the whole world to see. Almost anyone is allowed in your Front Yard. A kid chasing a ball. The meter reader. But it's on a limited basis. This is not a public park. Even if there is a bench next to that bird feeder, it's understood to be strictly decorative. No hanging around. You've entered someone else's world and you're either going right back out, or you're venturing further in.
Chapter 2 - The Man at the Door
If someone continues through the Front Yard, the path will deposit them at a small set of steps at the edge of the Porch. The Porch is raised, if it's a good one, and not just to avoid a flood. A Porch, like a stage or a temple, elevates the occupants just a little bit above the plane of the ordinary. A guy who steps up here is brought to a new level - floor level. This means that, having risen to your level, he has business to conduct, in person, with you. So, the Porch greets him with shelter and shade, welcoming him with a single warm light and a mat set out to make sure he knows where to go. But The Porch won't take care of him. It offers no heat or air conditioning, no protection form the wind. He's still mostly out there. So, taking his place on the mat, he'll face the Front Door.
The Front Door is always the heaviest, widest and most decorative door in the whole place. And it's full of mixed messages. Half solid wood (stay out), but half clear glass (look in here). There's a friendly little decorative plaque (welcome!), but also a lock, a deadbolt, and a chain (I said to stay out!). A scowling surveillance camera is perched above, while, below, a cheery door chime waits to be rung. It's a complicated situation because a complicated thing happens on The Porch - the sorting. Sure, the pizza guy will climb the porch because he does, indeed, have business with you. But it's not personal business. The Porch will let you and the pizza guy carry out your transaction in full view of the whole world and then send him on his way, still a stranger. But if he makes it past The Porch and through the skeptical Front Door, he'll become someone else.
Chapter 3 - A Quick Decision
Entering the Foyer, he becomes known. Or at least specific. No longer just the pizza guy, The Foyer dubs him That Pizza Guy. That Pizza Guy who came inside that time. Unlike all previous pizza guys, you'll remember him. You'd recognize him in the grocery, but you wouldn't talk to him. You don't even know him. And you won't get to know him here. The Foyer isn't a room where you get to know someone, it's a transition, a place between places, strictly for comings and goings. To spur you on, the car keys wait eagerly on the hooks, umbrellas and coats stand at the ready, and the mirror says you look fine, please continue. The whole room is applying pressure, telling you to keep moving. It's too small to hang around in. There isn't even a place to sit. And now That Pizza Guy is standing here and the room seems to be getting even smaller, insisting that you judge this person. Now. Forced so close together, in the nice light reflected by the mirror, you can really see That Pizza Guy's eyes. And there's no fence nor door nor threshold between the two of you. Suddenly he's a person and you are forced to form an opinion of him. He has just enough time to flash a crooked smile and say one funny thing before his Foyer time expires. And in that awkward instant, as the Foyer demands, you make the call and gesture him further inside..
Chapter 4 - Adjacent
The Living Room insists on decorum. You quickly introduce yourself because you know full well that people in Living Rooms are always at least acquaintances and acquaintances know each other's names. That Pizza Guy is now Charles. And in order to make Charles an acquaintance, the Living Room begins to acquaint him. It shows him some photos, giving a brief history of your life to date, letting him know a little something about your siblings and your parents and your love of the outdoors. It might be fibbing just a little to make a good impression. The art and furniture, though, tend to tell the truth about you, or at least how you see yourself. And since becoming acquainted takes time, the Living Room provides lots of comfortable places to sit. Even the table, being so low to the ground, encourages you and Charles to have a seat. And so you do. But the Living Room won't let you get too personal. Not yet. Like a cautious parent, it creates a little distance. It re-directs you, focusing your attention away from each other and toward some big distraction at the periphery, a TV or a fireplace. Even the furniture pitches in, keeping you at right angles to one another, not quite face to face. The low table, the one that offered you a seat, is comfortable with you sharing a drink (it is, after all, called a Coffee Table), but it will make things awkward for a meal. So, you and Charles do as you're told, sharing a drink and a fire and some conversation, sitting comfortably upright, ninety degrees to one another, at a reasonable distance. And, thanks to the Living Room's array fo conversation starters, you have discovered a shared interest in snow skiing and kitsch. But now Charles has to know where he stands. So he stands. This is a test. If he's to remain an acquaintance, he will be directed back to the foyer, which will return his keys and coat and send him on his way. But, if he's to become something more, it'll require heading forward, with your permission.
Chapter 5 - We Come Face to Face
Unlike the chaperoning Living Room, the Dining Room insists on intimacy, gathering your attention from the edges and focusing it all inward. There's a central spotlight over a central table in the dead center of the room. The chairs crowd around this focal point and plant you right across from each other, face to face at last. The windows have moved from the front to the side yard, offering a little more privacy. The table, long and high, conjures up a meal. As the food is shared, so is time and laughter. And so are stories. In the flattering light, gazes are held, and guards are dropped. Charles would never lean back in the Living Room chairs, but he leans back, fully relaxed, in the Dining Room chairs. The makers of chairs knew this would happen and have built the dining chairs accordingly. Through the ritual of a meal, Charles has now been transformed into Charlie, forever changed from acquaintance to friend. But not a close friend. Not yet. He's not in your gang. Hell, your boss has been in the Dining Room and while it definitely made him friendlier, that's as far as it's ever going to go. No, if Charlie's going to become one of your best friends, he'll have to spend some time, as best friends always do, in the Kitchen.
Chapter 6 - The Clubhouse
The Kitchen is the clubhouse. Formality is not allowed. The table is pulled from between you and the lights are turned up. The artwork has left the hands of the artists and landed in the hands of the occupants, leaping from frames to hang at odd angles all over the fridge. Even the food has stopped putting on airs. Unconcerned with fancy plates, it lies about in pots and piles of ingredients, an unapologetic mess. This is where Charlie passes or fails the entrance into your inner circle who gathers here to judge him. No longer hosts and guests, you behave in ways you would never consider in the Dining Room. You eat out of jars, stick your fingers into each other’s food, offer bites on outstretched forks and sips from bottles. In here, even your germs are pals. And at some point, Chibbles, which is what you call him now based on some new inside joke, hops up and sits right on the counter. It's like he's planting a flag. Who but one of your very closest friends would put his butt right on the counter where you prepare your food?! Yes, the initiation is complete and old Chibbie is in! He has a lifetime invitation to all the previously listed rooms. In fact, from now on he can bypass those rooms entirely and enter via the secret clubhouse door around back. He'll step right in and make himself at home. But this isn't his home. There are still deeper layers of the house where even he won't go.
Chapter 7 - Not so Fast, Buddy
There are often doors between the Porch, the Foyer, the Dining Room, and the Kitchen. But there’s an entire corridor separating that semi-public world from the very private core of the house. The Hallway is the DMZ between those worlds. Nothing even happens in here. It's just a buffer, a long narrow gap of windowless, unfurnished space, often decorated with pictures of people who are no longer alive. In the Hallway, we're all just passing through. That's why it's shaped like a road or a tunnel. It's not there to link your public and private worlds, it's there to separate them. The longer, the better. Even Chibbie doesn't belong in the hallway unaccompanied. It's so intentionally awkward, the Hallway requires permission or, at least acknowledgement, upon entry. “I’m just going to get my coat!” Mr Chibs might shout. Or, “I’ll be right back.” Or, if he's looking for someone, “Is Eileen back there?” No other room requires an excuse to enter. But the Hallway is the conduit into one of the most intimate places in the world. And The Chibblette isn't there yet. In fairness, almost no one is.
Chapter 8 - A World for Two
In adulthood, many of your closest friends have never even seen your Bedroom. And you've never seen theirs. Tucked deep into the house, you don't just happen by the Bedroom on the way to some other room. It's hidden behind the last door, down at the dead end of the Hallway, a private destination with a maximum occupancy of two. There's closet space for two and a bed that's large enough for two. Even the windows have been carefully placed, and their sill heights adjusted, to allow room for exactly two dressers. If The Chibbster ever makes it in here, you'll call him something even worse, a secret name, something silly and embarrassing. "Sweetheart", maybe. Or even Charles. Because you can say anything in here. You can even scream. For all of its comforts, this room is a fortress. It isolates and protects you when you are most vulnerable – naked, asleep, crying, making love. There's a lock on the door. Thick curtains block out light and the fluffy bedclothes and extra pillows muffle sound. Your secrets are told here. Your fights happen here. Your marriage is broken here and repaired here. In this room, your indiscretions remain discreet. It’s so private that if your very best friend is in your bedroom, it’s likely they are helping you dress for something special or that someone has died. There is only one room more intimate.
Chapter 9 - Ablution
In the Bath, you're hidden from everyone, even your beloved Charles. Here, you are as far as you can be from the public world, protected by a labyrinth of rooms and walls and doors, alone with your biology. The window is high and small. It lets in light, but not view. The surfaces are hard because the Bath knows things will get messy and need to be cleaned. Systems of moving water and air work to whisk away the things you no longer need. There are bright lights and mirrors allowing you to examine yourself with brutal, clinical scrutiny. Tucked behind one of the mirrors is a shallow cabinet where you can hide the medicines nobody knows you take. Not even your ego accompanies you here as you drop your illusions and become your unadorned self - noisy and hairy and plain. And only here, after being reduced to your most elemental form, can you begin the transition back into the world, exiting the warm water, preparing your hair and skin and teeth to go back through the layers, changing again from individual, to partner, to family, to friend, to acquaintance, to neighbor. Then, beyond the gate, to stranger.
So Many Buildings, So Little Design
Architects only design about 65% of commercial buildings and 2% of houses in the U.S. The 65% includes all the building types -- hospitals, museums, universities -- that require Architects, both by law and by their complexity. The 2% of houses just contain all the rich people. All the rest of the world's buildings are designed by builders, owners, or engineers. Nothing against them, but you shouldn't ask an engineer or a carpenter to design a building any more than you should hire an Architect to size steel beams or hang a door.
Why Don't Architects Design More of Our Buildings?
The easy answer is that Architects are too snotty. And there's a lot of truth to that. My own website recently featured a reel of my work lovingly set to cello music. What's snottier than Bach for cello? But the real answer is money.
I Can't Afford To Take That Job
Design services are structured for large, complex buildings. Our standard AIA agreement is for the production of dozens of sheets of drawings, hundreds of pages of specifications, and a contract that will choke a lawyer. Consequently, it takes a lot of time to produce all this stuff, which means a lot of money invested. Throw liability insurance and consulting fees on top and the margins in Architecture, even on a good project, are lousy. I will typically spend two years designing and overseeing the construction of a building, employing ten years of training, fifteen of experience, and I will assume unlimited legal liability for the thing for rest of my life. Then realtor will step in, spend a few weeks selling it and walk away with roughly the same amount of money I did. So the smaller jobs with few economies of scale simply don't pay enough for Architects to want to take on. And yet, the need is everywhere.
Good Design is Not Commonplace
The result of all of this is that expensive and/or specialized buildings get quality design and commonplace buildings don't. And, as the word makes plain, commonplace buildings are the most common places. So, we have the least design where we spend the most time. Places like our homes and offices and restaurants and stores are often poorly designed and punish us in ways large and small. I saw this in action last week.
A House with No Rooms
I happened to be in the truck with a contractor buddy when he stopped at a small residential renovation he was doing. This house, from a purely functional standpoint, was a hot mess. Doors everywhere, rooms that are impossible to furnish. Everything was a hallway. The whole thing gave me the yips. But at issue this day was the kitchen, or the place in the house they called "the kitchen". It contained no wall cabinets and had weirdly shallow countertops, leaving the front halves of the appliances out in the floor area and providing no place to put anything down. There was an island, but it was too close to the stove, leaving nowhere to stand. Above the island was the area’s lone upper cabinet, a ceiling-mounted unit open on both sides. It was empty, they said, because when you put things in one side, you invariably shoved something out the other side. This whole situation caused no small amount of daily frustration and, I gathered, some degree of disagreement. I had only been there ten minutes and my eye was starting to twitch.
As they tried to sort it out, I listened and watched and squirmed until I just couldn’t take it. "You don't know where to put things in your kitchen," I blurted out, "because you don’t have a kitchen." It was true. And they didn’t have a kitchen simply because they didn’t have a wall. I begged them to let me do some sketches.
I went back to my office and drew up the least special, least design-y, least expensive kitchen ever committed to paper. The ‘drawing set’ consisted of two little cartoony hand sketches on trace paper. I spent a total of four hours on it, including the time spent measuring the room with my shoes because we didn’t have a tape measure. This is not AIA approved behavior.
The drawings were actually a little embarrassing to show, being cartoons. But they worked. One week later, for the price of four linear feet of interior wall and some very nice used cabinets, they have a kitchen. They’re thrilled.
The Road Less Snotty
Architects are taught that success is measured in exquisite-ness. Exquisite details, exquisite materials, exquisite taste. But that, as sure as anything, takes a huge percentage of the world's buildings out of our hands. Many days I want to shove my license and my 3D modeling software and my consultants aside and abandon all interest in fancy commercial buildings and modernist residential gems. I love that stuff, but I want also to get my hands on all the developer houses and warehouses and strip-malls and office buildings that people suffer in every day, not knowing exactly why things don’t work, why rooms can’t be furnished, why the place seems so small, why there's no light, why spaces aren't enjoyable, why people are uncomfortable, and why they struggle to get things done. There are often simple fixes that can make a place drastically more comfortable, more efficient, and more valuable. And often, just more wonderful. That ought to be more commonplace.