Sunday, July 14, 2013

Designing for an Unknown Audience

Opera Romana-Vedare, Bucharest (photo by Mihai Petre via Wikimedia Commons) 
Once again, I’m happy to publish an excerpt from the writings of one of the best teachers I ever had, the late T. William Kleinsasser. He was a great educator, committed to his beliefs. Regrettably, his wisdom is at risk of being of being lost to time. I take great satisfaction in offering his words to a new generation of designers, doing what I can to sustain his legacy. 

Reading his essays many decades after he first wrote them, I am struck by how timeless they are. The following piece is no exception. In it Bill challenged the notion of designing precisely to suit immediate needs. Instead (and going beyond merely designing for flexibility and “loose fit”), he advocates designing places that enrich our life experience, settings that help us realize our full potential as human beings. Read the passage carefully and return to it often:

Three years ago some design students at the University of Oregon attended a lecture about elderly people. Since the lecture was given by a physician who specialized in geriatrics, they were surprised when the physician asked them what kinds of physical environments old people should have. The students had come to learn from him. But it was proper that the physician should ask. 

It is the environmental designer’s responsibility to provide others with insight about the way people relate to and depend upon the physical environment. 

But it is never clear who the people in the environment are: 
  • We don’t know exactly who is there and who will come
  • They will probably stay awhile and leave 
  • They will change as they grow older, as society and context change (their attitudes and aspirations; their points of view and frames of reference; their relationships; their dependencies) 
It seems right that much should be left for the people in the environment to define and complete for themselves: 
  • They need to establish themselves as selves
  • If the environment is too explicit it is often too complete, too clear, unchallenging, un-stimulating, closed
  • And, we cannot anticipate everything . . . 
It is certainly necessary to have concern for particular people, particular actions, particular situations, and particular needs. 

But it is also necessary to be responsive to more general aspects of the human condition, especially the human capacity and need for expanded experience and expanding the experience until it is a new and different scene, or scene within a scene, and then perhaps back again to what it was before . . . 

It seems that we are more alive (regardless of age) if we are able to make meaningful (strongly felt) patterns out of our experience. This is made evident by our need to laugh, to love, to celebrate, to ceremonialize, to dramatize, to have special places and special things, to swing, to turn on, to influence others (and know it), to communicate with others, to withdraw, abstract, identify, imagine, reflect, dream of better things, to be with it and in it . . . not out of it. 

We need to ask how much should be particular (closed), how much general (open), how much to be explicit, how much implicit, how necessary are “brackets” which form ranges of choices (from dark to light, from large to small, from inside to outside, from designated to undesignated, from public to private, from together to alone). 

We could make places instead of objects. We can select and shape their elements. We can determine combinations, juxtapositions, transitions, rhythms, moods. We can differentiate. We can add to or subtract from. We can recall. 

We could make places that can be possessed by people . . . places that are involving, places that can be changed and made more responsive to particular needs or patterns . . . made different more than once, in more ways than one. 

We could make places that provide the possibility of diversity of experience over time . . . different frames each inviting multiple interpretations . . . magic and mystery as well as logic and clarity. 

In so doing, we could make places that evoke (but not dictate), help (but not limit), are powerful (but not overpowering), are exact (but not too particular), are particular (but not closed); they could be PRECISELY AND SIGNFICANTLY GENERAL, intensifiers of life experiences, others, and ourselves . . . developers of our capacities to respond, feel and wonder. 

We could go beyond the current habit of designing buildings which are fixed by naïve preconceptions long before designers are even considered. 

We could go beyond configurations generated by the most careful and thorough study of particular needs and activities. 

We could go beyond buildings that are the result of structural, economic, or building servicing criteria alone. 

WK / November 1971

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