The “K” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
What does “Architecture” (with a capital A) have that transcends mere building?
Architecture is the knitting together of people and ideas to create places of profound richness and meaning. By contrast, building is simply technology.
The meaning of architecture
Works of architecture always have some utilitarian or commodity value, but the extent to which they are emotionally valued derives from the richness of meaning they convey to the people who experience them. You could say that the core task of any designer is to find meaning and make it palpable to others.
If architecture is about making places of inhabitation, then it stands to reason that works of architecture need to be attractive and accessible to their inhabitants. First of all, yes — physically attractive and literally accessible. But architecture must go beyond the surface and engage people with meaning specific to them. It is through finding intellectual and emotional meaning that a person comes to truly value a work of architecture, or anything else for that matter.
Knitting (or weaving) as a metaphor for producing architecture has two key components: the product and the process. What is the product of knitting? A net or fabric. Through the joining together of multiple strands of fibers in a particular way, you create a product with strength and visibility. Think of a net that is used to catch fish, or a fabric flag used to attract attention. A knitted artifact is a multi-dimensional, meaningful artifact.
The process of knitting, on the other hand, is about gathering and assembling – coming together. Instead of the finished artifact itself attracting people, it uses the diverse qualities of individual fiber strands themselves as the attracting force. It’s about creating relationships.
A designer should be able to knit in both senses – using overall effect and new relationships to create work that is intellectually and emotionally accessible and engaging.
An example from design practice
Several years ago I designed a home that I dubbed “the treehouse.” The project was located on an island off the coast of Maine, in a mature coniferous forest. Some of the trees were easily sixty feet tall. As with all projects, I sought to understand not only the client’s functional needs and life priorities but also his core values and aspirations. The program for the house was pretty simple: a summer/fall vacation residence with two bedrooms, two baths, a living/dining room, a kitchen, a fireplace and at least one deck. Sun was a relatively scarce and therefore highly prized commodity on the site, owing both to the heavy tree cover as well as frequent fog, particularly in the morning and sometimes even for entire days.
Early on I became aware that the client held a special fondness for having built numerous tree forts in his childhood. To me, that memory became the initial thread of a very special knitting together of diverse inspirations and ideas. I had long been fascinated by the traditional post-and-beam construction used particularly in New England barns. Equally fascinating to me was the “curtain-wall” technology pioneered by Modernists, where the exterior of a building behaves more as a light skin than a heavy armor. I was also moved by the client’s close attention – spiritual affinity, if you will – to nature.
The result of weaving or knitting all of these (and many more) threads together was a slender, 3-story, fully-glazed timber frame tower of a house nestled among the hemlocks. The views and quality of natural light clearly changed as you ascended from the ground floor guest bedroom up to the middle shared living floor and ultimately the top floor, which contained the master bedroom suite. The design process and final expression connect childhood memories, regional vernacular heritage, and contemporary technologies to create a unique and timely architectural vision of living in the trees.
Design places of unique and enduring value by gathering diverse ideas and weaving them together to create a strong fabric imbued with deep emotional meaning.
Remember, Knit together.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic feature the letter K, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Khaki and Kelly green, and a photo of knitted rattan fibers.