The “H” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Humans Have Needs.
When was the last time you were somewhere you thought you didn’t belong?
Probably within the last 24 hours. I’m talking about buildings and places where your comfort as a human user seemed to have been the last thing anyone took seriously.
Who are you designing for?
Surprisingly, it often seems that the accommodation of users and their needs is secondary to some other agenda. How many times have you walked into a corporate lobby and said “Wow!” (wondering why they created such a vast 3-story glass-walled atrium) only to end up feeling sorry for the poor receptionist, blinded by sun glare and buffeted by blasts of frigid outdoor air every time the door opened?
You may be the owner or architect, but the question is the same: Who are you designing for? Are you designing to impress your competition? Are you designing things simply “because you can”? Or are you actually designing to deliver the best experience for the users?
Good design shouldn’t ever have to say it’s sorry. By that I mean to say that a well-designed building or space doesn’t require apologies for what it didn’t get right – because good design means getting the things that matter right. And guess what? People matter. One of the most fundamental aspects of “getting it right” is achieving ease of use and providing a sense of comfort for the occupants.
Suffering for (your) art
It’s fine for designers to suffer for their art. That’s their choice. However, they should never impose suffering on their clients without their consent. As a designer I would argue that our mandate, in terms of suffering for our art, is to achieve the “both-and” of beauty and functionality, not allowing one to fall aside at the expense of the other. Owners and architects alike should take as “standard operating procedure” that the buildings they commission or design both inspire and comfort users.
Interestingly, the size or complexity of a project isn’t relevant to whether it can offer both inspiration and comfort. Let’s look at a few notable famous failures and successes. All of them are inspiring. (They wouldn’t be in the history books if they didn’t inspire.) However, only some of them are comforting.
In terms of size and functional demands, single-family homes should top the list for comfort and ready accommodation of user needs. Apparently Mies van der Rohe needed a reminder: after completion of his all-glass Farnsworth House, Mrs. Farnsworth sued him for creating an “unlivable house.” The Franks didn’t fare much better when architect Peter Eisenman created a house that forced the owner couple to sleep in separate beds.
Museums arguably have more complex functional demands to meet – and yet they can achieve sublime comfort. For example, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (located, oddly enough, in Denmark) is quietly nestled, in a very unassuming way, in a residential neighborhood north of Copenhagen. Your experience as a visitor is like walking through a garden in full bloom in beautiful weather. Similarly, architect Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a tranquil oasis – heroic in its transcendent luminosity, yet humble in scale.
An example from design practice
In most projects there are power struggles among the various stakeholders. Corporate departments or married partners often fight against a real or perceived constraint to obtain more of whatever their interests are. In these cases, your role as designer is as referee or counselor. Surprisingly, you often find yourself fighting to defend the most basic human accommodations in your designs.
In one case, I was working for a very dynamic and forward-looking CEO who had commissioned my firm to design some large meeting spaces for his institution. At some point, in exasperation, he demanded that the number of toilets be reduced by half. I explained that the number shown was required by the building code as proportional to the number of people being accommodated in the meeting spaces. When I asked why the restroom quantity was a problem, his response was: “I can’t find donors for bathrooms.” In the end, the code requirements were met – but not without my insisting that I would resign from the job if he insisted that we provide any fewer! Funny thing is, after graduating from architecture school, I had never imagined myself fighting a client in order to provide more toilets!
As architects we revel in designing spaces that inspire. Yet it is equally important that we provide comfort and utility for the joy of the humans using our buildings.
Remember, Humans have needs.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic feature the letter H, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Harvest Gold and Hunter Green, and a photo of a Human happily hanging out.