Two recent projects, both residences and both in New Orleans. One is an addition done with Feldmeier/Galyean to a Bayou St. John house, drawn the traditional way, with lines. The other, a house on a way-too-small lot for a modernist realtor, designed and down as a 3D model. Same building type, same hand at work, very different results. There's no way I could have swapped the tools and arrived in the same place.
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. The rest of the world's buildings are designed by engineers or builders. Nothing against those 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 it that Architects are too snotty to design strip malls and warehouses and tract houses. There's a lot of truth to this. My own website recently featured a reel of my work lovingly set to cello music. What's snottier than Bach for cello? But the bigger issue is simply money.
I'd Love to Design Your Restaurant, But I Can't Afford To
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. Throw liability insurance and consulting fees for engineering 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 assuming unlimited legal liability for the outcome for rest of my life. Then realtor steps in and spends two months selling the thing and we walk away with roughly the same amount of money.
Good Design is Not Commonplace
The result of all of this is that expensive, specialized buildings get quality design and commonplace buildings don't. Sadly, 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 my buddy Brian when he stopped at a small residential renovation he was doing. From a purely functional standpoint, this house 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 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. Heck, I had only been there ten minutes and my eye was starting to twitch.
The Answer is Often Simple, Even if it Isn't Obvious
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 four 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.
Crappy Little Drawings Are fine - See Below
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 80% of the world of buildings out of our hands. I want to shove my license and my modeling software and my consultants aside and get my hands on all of these houses and warehouses and strip-malls and office buildings that people suffer in, not knowing exactly why things don’t work, why rooms can’t be furnished, why the place seems so small, why spaces aren't enjoyable, why they're 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. How great would it be if that was commonplace?
It has been very interesting to spend more time now in Architecture after spending so much of the last few years in film. I guess it's not surprising that I now see buildings, more than ever, as containers for narrative, and see a critical role of design as support for that narrative. It's most obvious in forms that have developed over centuries, like churches. But once you see it, every building is a story. A house, for instance, contains the story of intimacy.
NOT QUITE A STRANGER
Your front fence is a city wall. Standing between the vast world of everyone and the little piece of it that's just yours, your fence is the first of the concentric layers between the public and private. At the gate, the paving changes from the thirty-six inch wide grey concrete public sidewalk to something a little special, like pavers or brick, to let everyone know they've left anonymity and entered somewhere distinct. A little garden helps make the distinction between out there and in here, between wildness and domestication. It's still vegetation, but it's vegetation of your choosing, cultivated and arranged to display your personal taste. You might even plant a flag here in a very literal way, your name on a little banner, staking your claim. And here your address is displayed, too, calling out the legal description of your small, rectangular portion of the world. Though visible to all, it's to be entered only by those who have business here. A kid that hits a ball over the fence or the guy that reads the gas meter are welcome, but only briefly and no further. Only those you know better can come further inside.
THE PLACE OF NO NAMES
The porch is a point of embarkation. It's a spot for keeping watch and welcoming travelers, the wharf of the house. It's even built like one. Neither inside nor outside, the porch is a weigh station for those who have specific business with you. The canvassers, the salespeople, the Jehova's Witnesses and the pizza guy can stand on your porch. But that's as far as they go. Even inviting the pizza guy inside would instantly elevate him above all other porch-dwelling pizza guys. You would learn his name and remember him because beyond the porch lies a whole other level of familiarity.
THE SORTING ROOM
The entrance hall is a critical junction for sorting and debriefing. Here, names are exchanged and sometimes papers or money changes hands. And here decisions are made about who leaves and who stays. This is where you decide if a date ends or continues and whether or not that neighbor becomes a friend. Notice that this room is well-prepared for such a decision. There are no seats here. There's always a mirror to let an entering person decide whether they're ready to go in and an to let an exiting person to decide if they're ready to go out. There's a coat rack in case someone is staying. The space is big enough to allow some distance, but small enough that the person entering can still make a quick escape if they need. To help them decide, you've dropped some hints about yourself in here. There's a lovely quote in a frame declaring something you believe and there are glimpses of your taste in the furnishings and art. But just a little. It’s too early to show yourself completely. You’ll reveal a little more in the next layer.
If someone has made it to your living room, they are – at minimum – an acquaintance. It's almost certain that you know the name of everyone who has ever been in your living room. Your insurance salesman, who you know a little bit, can come into your living room, but has probably been no farther inside. And if a date makes it this far, they’ll soon know a little more about you because the room will tell them. In here, there are pictures of you and pictures of your people. There are mementos and pieces of art chosen by you and likely made by someone you know. There are places to sit, since people who've made it this far will be around a while. But there is still a little distance, a little formality. The seating in here is at angles or side by side, so we can all stay just a little oblique. The focus of this room isn't directly on each other, it's on a share source of conversation and attention, usually a TV or a fireplace.. For direct closeness, you need to move to the room where deeper conversations are held and where you share an intimate bonding ritual.
In the Dining Room, you're no longer adjacent, you're gathered. Instead of side-by-side, you sit directly across from one another, face to face, centered around a table and a central point of light. And you share the personal, biological, and ritual function of eating. Having shared that, you can drop your guard a bit. Here, you can lean back in your chair and tell stories that would feel inappropriate in the Living Room. You are free to laugh and to use the occasional swear word. The Dining Room magically turns acquaintances into friends and relatives into family. But those to whom you are closest go in even deeper, hanging out – always – in the physical and spiritual center of the house.
Love is expressed in the kitchen. Tis is where you take care of each other, prepare each other meals and hand each other cups of coffee or wine. There is trust in your kitchen. You stick your fingers into each other’s food and eat with your hands and out of jars. You swear freely. Announcements are made in the kitchen and news is broken. Your friends often prove how at home they feel here by sitting right on the counter. You are your best self in the kitchen, which is why we always congregate there. In the kitchen, you know that you are with your truest friends. But beyond the kitchen, the door to real intimacy lies.
Few things are s sacred as the hallway of a house. Crossing this threshold requires overt permission or, at least, acknowledgement. “I’m going to get my coat!” you might shout. Or, “I’ll be right back.” Or, if you're looking for someone, “Is Lauren down there?” You'd never feel the need to announce a trip to the Dining Room, but you need to let someone know you’re going down the hallway. Because unless you live here, you don’t belong in the hall. This is deep family territory, back stage. Old photos of ancestors are often hang in the hall. It's poorly lit and there are no windows. This is the place you have your loudest, most difficult arguments because it's a family DMZ, a dead end, unclaimed by anyone and full of doors to be slammed and behind which you can escape. This is, of course, because the hallway is the transition to the most intimate places of all.
SHARED AND BARED
Bedrooms are secret chambers, strictly for the people who sleep in them. There's no lock - and often no door - on the Living Room or the Dining Room because they contain no secrets. But bedrooms have a door with a lock, often more than one. There are people who you have known for years, people that you count among your closest friends, who have never seen your bedroom. And you've never seen theirs. For adults, this is the place that holds your most precious moments, your most prized possessions, your deepest intimacy. Your darkest secrets are told here. Your silliest dreams are revealed. Your confessions are made. Your marriage is broken and repaired here. The conditions under which you are most vulnerable – naked, asleep, making love – all happen here, so there are heavy curtains to be drawn to keep everyone, even the light, out. It’s so private that if your best friend is in your bedroom, it’s likely they are helping you dress for a special occasion or that someone has died. There is only one room in the world more intimate than this.
WE DON'T SHARE EVERYTHING
In the bathroom, you are hidden even from your partner. Here, you are farthest from the public world, protected by layer upon layer of rooms and walls and doors, alone with your thoughts and fears and your biology. You can drop all pretense and be completely yourself here, gross and noisy and hairy and plain. And you cry here in the shower because it's safe and because there is no place on Earth more private. Here you strip all the way down and here you begin the process of reapplying the layers you need to face the world anew.
As you pass through them, you mask yourself with make-up and razors and deodorant in the bathroom, then cover the rest with clothes from the bedroom. You take water and coffee from the kitchen to sustain you, collect your bag from the living room with the stuff you need, grab your hat and glasses from the entrance hall, and your umbrella from the porch. By the time you step out of the gate yard, you're ready to be a stranger again.