“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”
A few weeks ago, the Dallas AIA invited Mark Hoesterey to speak at a Knowledge Forum about residential architecture. We were given some minimal guidelines, but after reviewing them, it became clear that he could pretty much talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. This kind of liberty inevitably begs the question: What can you possibly say in half an hour about an entire field that’s worth saying?
Here were our loose parameters:
-Address current trends in residential design
-Share the joys and pitfalls in this area of practice
-Discuss how to incorporate green and sustainable design initiatives
-Explore case studies of collaboration with other professionals
This really does cover, in many aspects, the entire scope of what we do on a daily basis. Four of us met to take an initial stab at putting a presentation together. We knew we wanted to address the four main topics in some way. We knew we wanted listeners to walk away having learned something about life, not just architecture. And we knew we didn’t want it to be all about us. But it was hard to know where to begin. So we took it to the firm, and Mark asked everyone in our Monday morning staff meeting what each person considered to be the greatest joy and greatest pitfall of the profession. Joys included things like:
-The ability to move at a slower, more thoughtful pace
-When clients trust us
-When, at the end of the project, the client feels like family
Pitfalls included things like:
-Fewer people enjoy the spaces we design (as opposed to commercial architecture)
-When clients don’t trust us
-When decision-making becomes difficult because we’re working with the actual user of the space
Because I’m what the office jokingly calls a layperson (in relation to architecture), I held off from answering these questions until the very end. Mostly I observed. And what really jumped out at me as everyone offered up the joys and pitfalls of their vocation is that residential architecture is an incredibly humbling field. Our architects spend hours and hours and hours designing and redesigning spaces that are beautiful and functional and meaningful, and at the end of it all, only one family gets to regularly enjoy and appreciate what they’ve done. And sometimes they’re designing for people who are really difficult to work with—people who don’t trust them, who can’t make decisions, etc.
The trends question was an interesting one, primarily because we don’t adhere to them. The firm’s goal is to create timeless architecture by using universal principles of design. At its core, what we do isn’t sexy—it’s human. What I mean by this is that we’re not designing spaces to showcase the newest gadgets, bells and whistles, etc. (though our projects do often feature these); we’re designing spaces where people live. Spaces where people are born and people grow up and people grow old and people die. Spaces where children create their earliest memories and parents learn how much they didn’t know. Spaces where plates and bones and hearts are broken. Spaces where time tears at the seams and spaces where time stitches them back together. Spaces where the stories that form the most essential parts of who we are unfold into being.
If we really stop and think about the impact of what we do, we have to admit it’s a high honor. But it’s also humbling. We’re designing relatively small spaces for relatively few people, while also being charged with the enormous task of creating a place for people to be, well…people. People in their fullest, truest, ugliest, most beautiful sense.
While our goal is to create spaces where people feel like they belong, a huge part of that entails a respectful consciousness about the environments in which these spaces are built. In the least mawkish way possible, we have to ask ourselves very earnest questions about, say, the value of a tree, as it relates to both the psychological and physiological impact on the homeowner and the topographical impact on the site. The challenge and the joy of this kind of consciousness is that our work is subject to others’ needs, not just wants, and sometimes part of a cool design gets thrown out for the sake of the beauty in a tree.
Then, of course, it’s a team effort. We’re the designers. But what we do couldn’t be done without the client, the builder, the interior designer, the landscape architect, the engineers, the workmen, the craftsman, and so on and so forth. This, too, is humbling. No one person gets the glory, if glory does in fact exist. And while this is sometimes hard to swallow, I think we can all agree that this is how it should be—that this is right.
The more I think about it, the less I think this is specific to our field. In any profession, the services offered are valued because of the knowledge and experience acquired by the one who offers it. But those who are best at what they do are those who can share their knowledge and experience while still remembering the time before it was acquired, and the long and sometimes painful process by which they acquired it. We all, in other words, have to stand in a place of equal parts knowing and not-knowing. What we don’t know should humble us. What we do know should humble us even more. And I think Eliot is right—that’s ultimately the only wisdom we can hope to acquire, or share.
—Emma Hamblen, Executive Assistant