Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Making beautiful places that invite people to be beautiful

Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia. Painted by the Armenian-Swiss artist Agnes Avagyan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bill Kleinsasser’s singular contribution to architectural education may be his career-long crusade on behalf of designing with experiential considerations first and foremost in mind, as opposed to willful form-making. He fundamentally believed emphasizing how people interacted with their environment—how architecture could provide a stage for lives well-lived—should take precedence over matters of style or aesthetics, and even programmatic exigencies. In Bill’s mind, style, aesthetics, and poetic impact would take care of themselves if we first anticipate the quality of the experiences our places support. The excerpt below from Bill’s textbook Synthesis makes this case. 
As I’ve mentioned previously, Bill’s writing style was uniquely his own. It certainly betrayed his passion for and conviction in his beliefs. It could at once also be exasperating. He did have an irksome tendency toward employing rhetorical turns, rather than specifying or prescribing the exact means for achieving the outcomes he believed most desirable. Realizing how old the passage below is, I can attribute some of its shortcomings to Bill’s relative youth at the time of its writing (he was 38). Certainly, no one can doubt the earnestness of Bill’s prose. 
Like many of us, I want to learn more about how architects can help to make a really better physical environment; not just competent and clever buildings, which may be ingenious and stylish, but richly appropriate physical surroundings for people that measure up to the best we can imagine and hope for. 
There are many human characteristics and conditions. People have predictable size and shape, identifiable activities, institutions, movement patterns, biological structure and order, sensitivity and responsiveness, need for engagement or involvement, need for diversity of experience and self-identity, and the ability to change with changed position and accumulated experience. When people with all of these characteristics and conditions come together with that which exists and that which tends to exist (whether manmade or natural, place or institution) there is, if we can see it, a resulting “order-pattern” which suggests that buildings and places for people be made in specific, disciplined ways (rather than “any-old-way” or according to the dictates of the current fashion). In this sense, buildings and places for people can be thought of as being generated by forces, and these forces can be placed into two basic groups. They are both operational (having to do with sizes and quantities: the physical and measurable requirements of people and their actions) and experiential (having to do with how things and places are experienced by people, and the experiential characteristics which these buildings and places have). 
Operational forces are perhaps the easiest to understand and therefore we are familiar with them. They are measurable and observable. To respond to or not respond to them cause an immediate and obvious result. Experiential forces are more obscure. They often seem too personal to be studied, too intangible to be controlled. But the ability to be responsive to these forces is exactly what sets an exceptional designer apart from the rest. To be able to touch that which is meaningful to people—to inspire them, to involve them, to turn them on, to increase their awareness of life and themselves—these are the motives that are probably basic in us all, and why we were interested in architecture in the first place. 
It is certainly necessary to have concern for particular situations, for real actions of people, for particular people, individual people and their experiences, and for the differences among people. But it is also necessary to be responsible for 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 true that we are more alive (regardless of age) if we are able to make meaningful (strongly felt) patterns out of our experiences. This is made evident by our need to laugh, love, celebrate, ceremonialize, dramatize, have special places and things, swing, turn on, influence others, communicate with others, withdraw, abstract, identify, imagine, reflect, dream of better things, be in it and with it—not out of it. 
We could ask what or how much should be particular (closed), what or how much should be ambiguous (open), what should be explicit, what should be implicit, how necessary are dualities (together/alone, in/out, large/small, dark/light), what is the nature of ambivalence? 
We can make places instead of objects. We can select their elements and shape them. We can determine combinations, juxtapositions, transitions, repetitions, rhythms, moods. We can differentiate and thereby establish order. We can add to or subtract from. We can recall. 
We could make places that can be possessed by people—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 include the possibility of variety and diversity of experience over time—different frames which would invite different interpretations of reality—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 significantly ambiguous, intensifiers of life experiences for 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 na├»ve preconceptions long before designers are even considered. 
We could go beyond configurations generated by the careful and thorough study of particular needs and activities. 

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