Musser Architects / AnOtherArchy  / Architects See Things Differently

Architects See Things Differently

ArchSeeDiffnlty-smI was conversing with an engineer the other day about a public works project for a local city we had been asked to help his firm work on. We were going to prepare renderings of the proposed street elevations for the property where they were designing and installing a water tank and a pump house building.

The project manager for the city – a city engineer – asked to see examples of our work prior to authorizing the engineering firm to engage us for this work. We submitted a couple of examples of rendered street elevations we had done for recent housing projects. They showed trees, walls, landscaping intent, massing of the buildings and other structures beyond the walls, as well as the relative level of the street to the proposed construction.

The city project manager, after viewing the submitted sample drawings, asked whether or not we had any examples of pump station buildings in our resume’ that she could view. At first, I laughed, and then fired off an email to the engineer we were attempting to be hired by, somewhat facetiously asking – does it matter what kind of building it is behind the wall and landscaping, we are architects, we can draw it. We are professionals. It is a building for goodness sakes!

Subsequent email exchanges brought home the fact that for the city engineer, this was a deal breaker. Without specific pump station experience, she would not allow us to participate in the contract by drawing a pump station elevation with a wall and landscaping in front of it.

This caused me to consider, why architects see things differently, sometimes dramatically differently, than a large portion of the population, including other design professionals. What can we do within the confines of our imaginations that large portions of the population cannot do. I won’t even get into why people like my wife have no problem making statements like…”just because you are an architect doesn’t mean that I should believe you when you tell me what this will look like”. I believe this and similar sentiments are due to a general inability of the non-architect to visualize things in the same way we architects do, even after very eloquent and detailed descriptions of our visualization by us. They may trust us, but they still seek verification.

I will use my long-suffering wife as anecdotal evidence for this claim. I recently constructed a stacked stone wall to enclose the garden in my back yard. To make sure that my wife was not unaware of what I wanted to do, I took her with me when we went to the masonry supply store to select the stone system for the wall. We looked at pictures of completed walls. We discussed color selections for the materials. At home, I walked her around the area of the yard where the garden was to be placed. She understood, I thought, what I was proposing to build. My wife is smart, and even has some artistic perception. Several months later, when the garden wall was completed – those stones are heavy – upon viewing the completed wall, she admitted she had thought it was going to be different than the way it turned out. She was not disappointed, she just did not see the final result as matching what I had so eloquently explained a few months earlier.

An architect composes space. We do it with a variety of building and site components and subcomponents, including, but not limited to, walls, roofs, openings, paving, landscaping, lighting, and colors. We plan for the spaces using our internal visual capabilities that allow us to envision what something will look like before it is actually built. We use a range of tools, including drawings and models, to convey our understanding of what the final product will look like. We take satisfaction, sometimes immense satisfaction, in squaring our design proposal with the actual construct. And we are somewhat oblivious to the details of the process, because they tend to be second nature to us.

Back to the city engineer/project manager. She felt that unless we could demonstrate some specific experience with pump buildings, that we were not qualified to perform any artistic presentation of that project. The fact that the pump building is a spatial construction, that its relationship to other elements such as walls and landscaping and streets and such is not unlike other buildings was beside the point. We could not possibly understand this particular type of building, and thus could not competently produce a street rendering of it.

The city engineer, someone who I imagine is a very intelligent and talented person in their field, could not see beyond the description of the function of the pump house building to understand that it is very much like any other building – it is a spatial assembly designed to enclose specific functions. We were not hired to do the job.


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