Architectural Narratives

This joy in imagined habitation will be driven out of her in studio courses.
(Image by Zhenzhong Liu, via Unsplash)

I’ve sat on a lot of design juries…

You know, I’m gonna stop right there. Juries. What the hell kind of an educational experience has a jury? Juries exist to deliver an unequivocal binary judgment. Guilty/not guilty. Pass/fail. Next round/off the show. Uphold the call on the field/reverse the call. Just the idea that design education relies so comfortably on the idea and the practice and the underlying horror of standing before a jury… Yikes. Complete pedagogical disaster.

Architecture is filled, in fact, with what feel to me to be pedagogical missteps. The sketch problem, in which students are rewarded for being glib and clever. The charette and the all-nighter, scattered thinking and procrastination and awful time management. The studio/atelier, with no place for the introvert to just sit and get work done. It’s an academic field that needs to be rethought right down to its bones.

Anyway, it’s common enough in design students’ early lives that when they present a project, they do it by walking the visitors through the floor plan on a tour. “So you come in through here, and then the bedrooms are over there and the kitchen in here…” Floor plans, in fact, are behavioral diagrams. They are a predictive record of navigation, of adjacencies, of roles. The rooms are named with labels conveying appropriate and inappropriate activities. So students reasonably give us a temporal and role-based tour.

This practice is seen as an immature first stage of design thinking, to be left behind as quickly as possible for a presentation of a design’s “concepts” and “intentions.” But I think that imagining a designed space as being inhabited—being lived in, by people in particular roles, for a particular purpose, at a particular time—ought to be the singular core function of a designer.

Imagine a courthouse, for instance, a building type that I know fairly well. Imagine all the people who will come into contact with that building. Just in criminal court alone, there will be:

  • judges and clerks and judicial staff. They have to be protected against threats, they have to look like the officiants they are, and they have to have the tools of their work.
  • attorneys for prosecution and for defense. They need to be protected as well, to be able to confer with their clients, to be called to quick conference with a scolding judge.
  • defendants, often arriving every day from jail in police custody. They need to be protected, too. (Courthouses are angry places.) They also can’t receive any contraband or messages from visitors.
  • jurors, who need to be protected and sequestered and have deliberative space after the presentations have ended.
  • “the public,” often divided into unspoken but opposed camps, each there to see their own definition of justice played out.
  • custodians and electricians and sound technicians and facilities staff of all sorts, who take care of the place after hours in ways larger and smaller.

Each of those players have work to do and safety to uphold, and that leads to a lot of technical requirements for separated zones and independent circulation, sallyports and magnetometers, conference rooms and segregated seating. But let’s go deeper than that. Each person who comes into contact with a place has their own desires for it, has a need to be held in love and respect as best we can define it. To be not merely efficient but to be honored, in whatever role they play.

Thinking of buildings as places that support innumerable and divergent desires leads toward a novelistic, ethnographic approach to design. Who ARE these people? What are their habits, their patterns? What do they carry? With whom do they speak, and with whom should they never speak? What parts of their lives should be public and visible, what parts private and protected? What would a productive and enriching day look like? How do we honor their work, and their lives?

The little designer’s impulse to lead us through the dollhouse is not an impulse to be set aside. It is a strategy to be celebrated, and enriched, and brought to vastly greater levels of sophistication. To move from a singular story about how Ms. Bunny goes up the stairs and makes her tea to a novelist’s understanding of multiplicity and intersection of characters and their desires.

It was my drive toward storytelling that made design studio courses such a miserable experience for me thirty-five years ago. I wasn’t all that interested in geometry and ordering patterns and the play of light across surfaces. I wanted to make homes and taverns and restaurants that were comforts at the end of a long and disrespectful day, and I wanted to make workplaces that reduced that disrespect in the first place.

Those things don’t photograph well, and they’re harder for jurors to read quickly in a drawing set or a model. They take a lot of time to parse well enough to be able to talk well about them. But just as so much about high school education is driven by things like bus schedules and sports practice sessions, too much of design education is a reflection of its visual biases and pedagogical conveniences that have little enough to do with the experiences of habitation. Architecture could be a storyteller’s art. I wish that it were more so.

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