Friday, August 15, 2008

Come on, take a walk with me darlin', tell me who do you love?

I thought some more this morning about the idea of narrative design. And it occurred to me that you have to have a peculiar, somewhat non-professional way of thinking in order to do it well. You have to think like a writer, to get inside people's way of living, to really work hard to understand what it is that they do and value and believe. And that not only is way difficult and takes a lot of time, but it actually de-emphasizes the outcomes of our work in some complicated ways. If you're going to be a good _____ (your choice -- teacher, architect, parent, anything dealing with providing for the welfare of others), then you have to love those people more than you love the thing you're making.

The building is nothing. The lives of the people who will encounter it are what matters, and the building, if it has any value at all, works in ways that benefit them. And they get to define "benefit," not you. You can help them think more deeply about the benefits they may be overlooking, you can help them prioritize from among all of the wonderful things a place might provide, but in the end, the building does not belong to you.

There's an easy proxy for this hard work, of course, and that's building for your client. But aside from the rare case of single family homes, your client merely provides the checkbook. She or he also is making something that will touch the lives of countless others. So architects may have to hold an extra serving of love to make up for the developer's balance sheet, may have to find ways to serve the larger community that don't cost extra money and thus get value-engineered out of the project.

Working this way is not lucrative. It requires a lot of non-billable hours. And it doesn't get you much attention. But on those rare occasions when you do get to sleep, you sleep well.

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