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More than just a pretty picture

The hidden world right under our noses
by Steve McKee on March 25, 2010

An engineer buddy of mine likes to joke that architects just create “pretty pictures,” while engineers deal with real things like forces and loads. He knows this statement is simplistic, but that’s just all the more reason for him to chuckle.

How easy it would be to just draw the alleged pretty pictures and be done with it. But really, it’s so much more interesting to go beyond “pretty” and also infuse a building with a multitude of nuanced choices that will enhance the quality of everyday life. Like the way a second floor window that is obviously there to frame a view also happens to less obviously send a shaft of afternoon sunlight down a stairwell to help out a sitting area below that has lost its morning sun. Most of these choices will add no expense, and they’ll be there forever. You just need to be thinking about working them in.

The big gestures of design are easy to notice, like the wrap-around porch or the ten foot tall wall of windows. But many design choices will be so small as to not seem like choices at all, but more like lucky coincidences. But they will loom large in the livability of the building. We can be living right in the middle of such realities and yet not be overtly aware of them.

Try this pop quiz. Which Benicia shopping center do you think has the better design? Your choices are the “Southampton Center” (the one with Raley’s), or the new center at the base of Rose Drive (it has the CVS Pharmacy.)  Think it over.

The Southampton Center was built in the early eighties, is painted beige and has a simple nondescript roof line. The other is new with varied colors and shapes and accents like sloped awnings and steel trellises.

The new splashy one probably seems more like the design winner when considered at a glance. But think for a minute about how they truly live for the users. The long colonnade at the Southampton Center rambles with occasional turns and angles to break up its scale, and creates an intact pedestrian experience. The big overhang provides shade and protection from rain. People stroll between shopping errands and have chance encounters with friends. Girl Scouts sell cookies in the shade. Edges of raised planters serve as sitting areas where socializing breaks out (usually our Middle School kids developing their social skills.) Pet rescue groups have gatherings in front of Pet Food Express to find homes for dogs.

The new shopping center is fine in the usual way. But wide rambling colonnades are expensive and non-rentable, and we now live in an era when designers are expected to maximize the leasable square footage. As a result, new shopping centers tend to forego user-friendly arcades in favor of artificially chopped up storefronts with a lot of brassy colors and cool-looking (but non-functional) features like trellises in order to look exciting. (Check out the new Nut Tree the next time you’re driving through Vacaville. Oy, what a hodge podge.)

If you can learn to evaluate the reality of a design beyond just the visual components, you will have taken the first step towards becoming a Jedi Knight of design. The best five seconds I had at UCLA came when I got this concept, truly “got” it in that way deep down inside where I could feel tuning forks going off in my soul. Look beyond the surfaces, Luke. There are hidden worlds happening right in front of us.

Even in houses that we live in day after day, these less visible advantages become known only over time. Like the way a fireplace hearth that is raised eighteen inches will serve as built-in seating during get-togethers. Or the way a second window next to a bed creates natural light for reading, but also allows for cooling by the westerly Benicia cross-breezes. It’s easy enough to include these things, just take the time during the design to think things through.

This is the life calling of the small town architect: we simply try to make each house as good as it can be. Last week while finishing up a remodel design, a homeowner and I figured out how to position one of the light fixtures in the master bedroom so that it would illuminate the path from the door to the bathroom and closet without shining on the spouse already asleep on the bed. Put a dimmer switch on this light and this couple has an easy way to make their life a little bit easier and more comfortable.

I’m just glad there’s a job for someone who thinks about this stuff all the time, does things like pause movies in order to pore over and sketch the details of a house in the background, reads tomes like “A Pattern Language” for pleasure, and then gets to make a living at it by helping people figure out their own houses. And while we’re at it, we can also create some pretty pictures along the way.

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