Stand in the Dweller's Shoes

I design houses.

I design houses for my clients.

Not for me, not for anyone else, not for the idea that this house must be unique, must pass some litmus test of originality established by the design magazines.

My clients are so excited about their new house. After all, their primary reason for hiring an architect is the belief that the resulting design will improve their lives, that it will somehow be tailored to them in ways that an existing house could never be. It is the architect’s role to enable people to “be,” to create surroundings in which people see themselves reflected and enriched. At the beginning of the process, there exists a symmetry of ignorance in our relationship. The dweller is largely ignorant of the possibilities of form making and I am ignorant of any true understanding of the dweller's spirit and it's role in the personalization of forms.

I work to understand their lives. The house should enhance the act of dwelling, FOR THESE PARTICULAR PEOPLE. I must challenge the anonymous, break down stereotypes, and encourage the active participation by the dwellers themselves in new ways of thinking about spaces. As Lars Lerup said, “the designer must relinquish control of the meaning making to the dwellers themselves, and realize that the built setting is only one of the aspects of the semantics of space.”

It is the architect’s role to enable people to “be,” to create surroundings in which people see themselves reflected and enriched.

At our first meeting, clients often bring in pictures clipped from magazines. These do not help the process of understanding, in fact, they hurt it, since these images are anonymous, not authentic. When we talk about the pictures, I try to steer the conversation to why they responded to the image. Was it the way the light came through the window, the way the breeze rustled the curtains, the coziness of the window seat? We talk about making places, not images, about substance, not style. We talk about the expressive nature of materials, about how it might feel to touch that railing if it were wood, or, if it were steel. How it might feel to sit on that stone bench in the shade looking out at the garden in the sunlight beyond. We use words like “rituals” and “realms”. I want them to be thinking in those terms, to realize that they can describe spaces in a more intuitive and poetic way.