Monday, July 21, 2008

A double-edged sword

Being an architect is a mixed blessing. Guy and I have spent nine and eight years, respectively, in the profession (after spending five and six years, respectively, in school), learning the ins and outs of architecture. Good practice and experience makes it such that our eyes pick up details that no one ever sees. I've heard it said that the only people that look at ceilings are prostitutes and architects, and there's something to be said for that. (I also think that sometimes when you say "prositutes and architects," you're repeating yourself, but that's another post altogether.) Architects cannot just walk up to a building or into a room and go "there's a building" or "here's a room." Because we know what goes into making a built structure, we see all the pieces and parts and processes that go into the scene that most folks take for granted before their eyes.

My sister has made this observation when walking through a building once with Guy and me. She kept saying, "Wow, that's nice, that's pretty," while Guy and I were walking around going, "Jesus, that cost a fortune" and "Oh, they're gonna get water in that, they didn't flash it right" and "Why did they use that tile? That's gonna be a bitch to keep clean" and even "How are you supposed to find the bathroom from here?" Finally, Miss Kitty said in exasperation, "Can't you two just enjoy a building? Please?" The answer is, yes...and no. We are enjoying a building by understanding all the pieces that go into it. Kitty and I enjoy music like this because we both spent 6+ years in band, and when someone plays certain notes in a song, we can see all the sixteenth notes on the sheet music and know how hard it is to stick the glissando or patter cleanly through a flam paradiddle. However, this same knowledge--the double-edged sword--makes it so that we can't look away from bad details, mistakes, strange plan configurations, bland or overly-trendy color choices, jumbled exteriors and material choices, and inappropriate planting material in a landscape.

It's even harder on us to look at our own buildings. We look at them and can only see the missed opportunities, the botched details, the "oh-shit-you-built-it-just-the-way-I-told-you-to" details. You have to go look at the building you drew so that you can see 1) that what you draw isn't just abstract lines on a computer screen, but are really getting built; and 2) that not everything you draw is a good idea. You have to see how your drawings become reality so that you can learn from those mistakes and learn how to draw what a contractor needs to know to build it the way you want it.

You also need to know, through trial and error as well as learning from your colleagues, about the fine line between telling your contractor what to do and letting him or her tell you how it needs to be done. Some things you'll draw thinking you're helping the contractor by doing the hard work of detailing it out for them, but then the contractor will call you up or point it out in the field and say, "If I build this how you drew it, it's gonna look like hell; would you mind if I build it like this and that?" A good contractor will call you with a problem and a solution. Even if you don't use his or her solution, it gets you thinking. By that same token, you have to be able to save the contractor from himself or herself. Example: at Wheatlands, the contractor wanted to save money by using a lower-gauge (read: lower thickness) steel in the studs in the interior walls. However, the major metal stud manufacturers have charts that tell you the maximum height a stud can be, depending on its gauge and deflection. We showed the contractor that the height of the interior studs at Wheatlands were going to be taller than the allowed height by the charts. When they pushed back, we responded with "Okay, if you want to go with a lower-gauge stud, then you have to guarantee that the drywall won't crack and the ceramic tile won't pop off the walls in the first three years after construction is complete." When they balked, we made our point. The thicker-gauge studs remained in the project, and now whenever someone shuts a door in Wheatlands, you don't feel it in the next room or see the adjacent drywall shimmer. I've seen it happen.

I'm coming up with a few ways to show y'all what it's like to be an architect, better than me just going yada-yada-yada on a blog all the time. Interactive fun and intrepretive dance to come.


BaxtersMum said...

I think every "artist" (artist being "creator") has that same feeling - there's a bit of accomplishment in the job well done, however, its really hard not to look at the finished product and go "damn. wish I had just tinked that SO, and done this THAT way."

In pottery, it is the difference between a pretty good piece and then shoving the clay past its limits and ruining the piece. Experience is what teaches you how far you can push it, and your drive tells you when YOU are okay with giving up as "good enough."

Unforch, I think it comes with age. The impatience of youth, the lack of a discerning eye of the inexperienced.

I am finding that as I get older, I wince at the things I thought were "pretty good" a while back.

There's a point when you come out of the cave, like Plato said. You just can't be happy with shadows once you've seen the world.

That said, I've been walking around power plants going "WTF??? why on earth was that designed like that?? I bet you have problems with X, Y, and Z!"

This gets me a stare and an offer to take over the project to fix X, Y, and Z.


It is fun being right, though.

Wilderness Gina said...

Carpemters do it too. "MY GOD!!! I can't believe they poured this with voids like that in the form!!! BROTHER! You can't get good help these days. No Professional Pride. Sad. Sad. Let's water board them all!

faded said...

I don't practice architcure anymore but I still look at buildings the way you do.

Now that I am in the business of facility management my bias has changed a bit.

I will look at the building hardware and think, they used cheap stuff, somebody is going to spend a lot of time fixing it.

I look at the placement and types of light fixtures and I can hear the curses comming from the poor guy who has to change the light bulb.

The worst example I have seen was the use of several hundred 30 watt incandescent light fixtures flush mounted into a 20 ft. high ceiling. To change the bulb the fixture had to be removed from the ceiling and taken to the shop to be disassembled. Changing a bulb to 90 min. The building owner just let the blubs burn out one by one and left the fixtures dark.

Other times I see some astonsishing beautiful spaces with rich thoughful details.

When I am outside I always look to see how a multistory builing meets the sky. What sort of cornice or roof detailing did the architect use? How does the color and texture contrast with the color of the sky?