The “B” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Whether you’re arranging flowers or designing a building, this concept is crucial.
We tend to think of balance as a state of harmony between extremes. We find it with difficulty and lose it too easily. Certainly, the process of finding (and maintaining) balance must be at the heart of any design practice. But balance alone isn’t enough. It’s really just the beginning.
Begin by balancing
Finding balance is about the process of inquiry – learning what works. In terms of design, finding your balance really means learning your craft. Without a fundamental understanding or mastery of craft, it’s as though you’re a toddler learning to walk – you put all your effort into merely staying upright. You might have plenty of brilliant artistic ideas, but unless you can demonstrate mastery of your craft, you’re not likely to communicate your creative ideas effectively enough to have them embraced.
Basic mastery is about achieving fluency in a medium. It’s like learning a language – the process by which you gain the ability to explore ideas and communicate them to others.
Learning your craft means equipping yourself with a first-rate set of intellectual, creative and professional tools. This learning process has a pretty steep admission price for architects. Aesthetic mastery alone involves developing an understanding of how to work with proportion, color, form, texture, and light and shadow. Furthermore, the craft of an architect requires an ability to translate ideas to real “bricks and mortar”. A fundamental grasp of the nature of materials, structure, technology, and construction methods is essential if you want to gain competence in real-world practice.
In truth, though, finding your balance is a lifelong pursuit. Even masters of the craft continually try to take their mastery to the next level. This is where beauty comes into play.
Unfortunately, since the advent of Modernism, the concept of “beauty” is often seen as being morally suspect or superficial. However, I’d challenge anyone to look at Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion and say that a search for beauty wasn’t integral to the design of the building.
Seeking a deeper level of balance is what I’m referring to as the search for beauty. Without beauty, all that remains is utility. Beauty is the notion of investing a level of craft sufficiently to convey a sense of effortlessness or grace. Think of a ballet. If the principal dancer were grimacing in pain, wobbling through her steps, the audience would hardly be enchanted. Harnessing techniques (or tools) adeptly enough so that they’re no longer the focus enables you to envelop others in a search for something larger and deeper – a place where beauty is revealed.
It is significant that beauty is subjective. Your searching to achieve a level of beauty puts you in control of how to harness your craft. Your unique vision and set of abilities will differentiate you from everyone else as you seek and ultimately find what balances beautifully.
An example from design practice
Shortly after becoming a registered architect I joined the office of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia. It was a heady time for the firm, which was involved in a multitude of projects — including museums in London, Seattle and Austin. My first project there was working on the new Sainsbury Wing of England’s National Gallery of Art.
Venturi’s three-story office was crammed with models, full-sized mock-ups and drawings tacked up everywhere. At first I wondered why there seemed to be an infinite number of versions of any given portion of each project. But as I worked on the museum addition, I came to understand the vast difference between merely “solving the problem” and finding a beautiful balance.
In addition to being a brilliant theorist, Robert Venturi had an incredible sense of proportion and visual rhythm. Nothing was ever “just pick a product.” Even the skylights for the galleries, visible only from neighboring buildings, were composed as minor fugues — featuring four mullion sizes and carefully proportioned glass panes. Every detail of that project was considered and re-considered for meanings beyond utility. As a result, the pieces of the completed project don’t just balance… they balance beautifully.
Only after we’ve attained sufficient mastery of our craft — so that it no longer consumes our conscious thoughts (or those of our benefactors) — do we have the freedom to invest our fullest imagination and effort toward shaping designs that inspire.
Remember, Balance Beautifully.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter B, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Burgundy and Brass, and a photo of boulders balanced at Stonehenge.