The “G” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Riddle: What do electrical work and artistic painting have in common?
Answer: They both require being grounded. Granted, they have very different grounding techniques, but the point is: any work requires a prepared context, or ground, upon which to safely rest.
Figure versus ground
Every designer is well acquainted with the formal distinction of figure versus ground. In my last article I talked about the need to establish a focal point or figurative aspect in any design project. In this context the importance of having a ground is in clearing away, making space for the figure to stand out and be appreciated.
If you want to make a statement, verbally or architecturally, you figuratively need to have the floor. If we were to take this to a deeper level, we might say you need to have the ground. One might be tempted, then, to think that it’s a bit like public speaking. A speaker’s first task is to gain the audience’s attention by becoming the focal point… in other words, by asserting control over the space and silencing any peripheral noise.
Are you making a speech?
Unfortunately, all too many designers end their conception of grounding with this clearing away or silencing. Yes, this approach can work for a small minority of projects (a public monument, for example) where you want the finished design to stand alone delivering a resonant soliloquy. But in most cases, architecture isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about giving a speech. You need to find a different type of grounding.
A better metaphor for most architecture design commissions might be constructing a conversation. In this approach, grounding is about understanding, acknowledging and reshaping your environment or context. Grounding becomes engagement with your neighbors. You can neither afford to ignore what people are saying nor simply repeat what they are saying and expect to remain welcome.
Using this analogy, it’s clear that the most valuable contribution of the designer is neither shouting down nor silencing the others in the room, but rather in shifting and elevating the ongoing discourse. The design process starts by finding common ground before you find the figure.
An example from design practice
At a corporate level, many business organizations seek to ground themselves by formulating mission statements, branding concepts and strategic plans. And yet, my experience tells me that such strategies rarely take on a tangible role in developing an architectural project.
Coming full circle back to electricians, a notable recent exception in my practice was in developing a new regional headquarters for NECA, the National Electrical Contractors Association. Working with these electrical contractors I was blessed with a client group who took their mission and constituents seriously and used them to effectively to ground their project.
Only rarely does a client’s full “wish list” find its way into a completed building. Even without “tangible” limitations – funding, for example, or the restrictions of the physical site — some degree of grounding becomes essential if you want to shape a project into a more vital and distinctive whole.
My intake from the design meetings with the NECA Board was that they would repeatedly return to their core mission and strategic plan to balance the program and design decisions. Frequent questions included: Should a visitor’s first impression be about member services, trade mentorship or public outreach? Is a particular feature adding value for membership at the expense of the staff, or visa versa? Are we anticipating and encouraging growth or supporting a static vision?
This continual looking back to the core objectives of the organization proved to be really grounding for the project – both in the sense of stripping away the “noise” of unnecessary frills, and (to use another electrical term) ensuring connectivity between the organizational purpose and the resulting facilities.
Any successful design requires a prepared ground – the creation of which entails both clearing away and rooting to the established fabric of the surrounding environment.
Remember, Get Grounded.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic feature the letter G, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Grape and Green, and a photo of a Grounded plug.