Architecture| on Design & Asking the right Questions
“The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building”
Louis I. Kahn
Architecture isn’t fixed: it’s open and dynamic—we keep on learning, constantly changing and growing the method and its toolset and what constitutes great design, a superb space, a sensual line, a fall of the light.
All great craft disciplines share this trait; while their essence can be expressed in a few simple learnings, the mastery required to put those learnings into practice can take years to learn and decades to master.
How to get there from here? Architecture, taken at its highest, follows the Socratic method, where, although
solid answers are valued, discriminating questions are valued more.
Is it too provocative to suggest the best design comes from asking the best questions—client and architect both?
The question-driven dialogue emboldens not only solutions, but also shapes entire frames of reference for how
best to tackle problems in any domain of architecture, from rainwater patterns on a roof prototype to mass
timber CNC arcs.
How’s that work?
Gardening: the best work often stems from planting seeds and seeing how they grow—or: planting questions
and seeing how they (to use a botanical term) fructify. The beautiful thing about questions in the hands of an
architect devoted to the work is that great questions are generative.
They lead to discovery, in a kind of disassembly/reassembly of concepts and known/knowns, coalescing in the name of a solution.
But all that amounts to Humphrey Bogart’s ‘hill of beans’ if the design doesn’t excite its audience, spark passion, bubble up simple pleasure.
Here’s the thing: designs are meant to be felt, to incite emotion.
Great design is a profound dialogue about how we as human beings interact with the spaces where we live and work and create, our world and one another—not a one-way street.
Design way more than just ‘something for the eye’—it’s the story we tell ourselves when we are most ourselves, in a relationship with a space or an experience we feel and trust and might even come to love.
That’s the essence of great design. That’s the soul of great architecture.
PODCAST ONE: HOW TO SPEAK ARCHITECTURE p.1| A provocative conversation with Michael regarding collaborating with clients and problem-solving, the art and science of architecture, how architecture won his heart and mind and the spirit of creativity that fuses all else
Architecture| on learning to ‘speak architecture’
“Great architecture is not based on concrete and steel and elements of the soil. It’s based on wonder”
The beautiful thing about architecture is that the more attention you pay to detail—even if that means eliminating details (‘murder your darlings,’ as detective novelist Raymond Chandler advised)—the more profound the experience of the building.
Devotion isn’t too strong a word.
‘Speaking architecture’ means finding a clear and common language about design and design choices. Here’s a piece of guidance: good design is obvious. (Think: a Bodum coffee-press. Terrific piece of design but ‘it is what it is.’)
Great design is invisible.
You can’t take it apart or find the seams or work out ‘how it was done’—the work is ‘of a piece’, a kind of flow, a kind of effortlessness that belies the thinking, legwork, design process and sheer perspiration that bubbled up the solution.
Imitation of great design isn’t only the sincerest form of flattery—it’s an open acknowledgement no one’s ever going to do better.
Legend has it that Apple head of design Jony Ive had a marathon—hours and hours, let’s say, in human time—conversation with Steve Jobs at Jobs’ kitchen table...about corners. Yes: corners. What constitutes a great corner...and why.
How do we know great design ensured from this almost Zen-koan state of inquiry between Ive and Jobs? Well, have you looked at how many laptop designs today are knock-offs of the original Mac designs of a decade ago?
Answer: most...nearly all. The invisibility of the design work—its integrity and irreducibility—paradoxically, speaks for itself.
One familiar example: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao art museum was a revolution in great design because not only was the outcome utterly unique but the underlying design work solved myriad material and engineering problems you and I will never see.
(No, the museum hasn’t solved Bilbao’s increasing rich-poor divide but international tourism has gone through the roof in a time of economic malaise.)
But somehow we grasp the ‘why?’ of Gehry’s masterpiece, even if wordlessly: for some, it’s something like flight, the moment when a piece of art transforms earthly existence.
The quality of light that transports us for one: the clear-as-diamonds light in a Vermeer interior or the portraits of Rembrandt or van Dyck, to focus on the Dutch—or the rich murky light in JMW Turner’s Wind Speed Rain (1844, decades before the dawn of Impressionism)
And it’s all but invisible: design that sees emotion made material and set free, all at once. Now we’re talking.
PODCAST TWO: HOW TO SPEAK ARCHITECTURE p.2 | A cool walkabout exploring and narrating Michael's design influences/mentors, the impact of his global travels in quest of great architecture and why the great architects—Le Corbusier, Gaudí, Mies van der Rohe—continue to leaven his own work