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A Humanist Architect

David Marlatt At Office Door

I am an architect, and I think of myself as a humanist. There are many definitions of humanist (it makes sense that there would be), but among the shortest I have found is “an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity, recognizing that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone.” As a self-defined humanist, I tend to accept people as they see themselves, assume they know more or less what is best for them, and do what little I can to help them along their way.

As a “humanist architect” (as opposed to a humorist-architect, which is just a hobby) my work is less concerned with adherence to a given style, advancing a school of architecture, or defending an idiom. It is mainly concerned with facilitating people as they navigate their environment and use buildings for whatever purposes they are suited. This is not the same as the “client knows best” or blindly following orders, far from it. If the client really knew best, they would be their own damn architect. Clients come to architects because they don’t know what to do and often architects have to deliver bad news. Moreover, the people that we are facilitating in our work are not just clients and their families, but everyone who will interact with the building and everyone else potentially impacted by the building’s very presence and carbon footprint. In this way, architects are analogous to doctors. A patient seeks out a doctor to diagnose some kind of ailment, and frequently hears some bad news at first.  Then the doctor prescribes the treatment, not the patient.

Translating this approach to practice into design, I think of architectural styles as silos representing such movements as Modernism, Roman, Edwardian, Art Deco, International, Victorian, Mountain Rustic, Bungalow, etc… Many architects identify themselves by one silo resulting in a body of work that is consistent, easily recognizable and an ongoing refinement of that given style. Certain clients seek out these architects precisely for this reliability and happily subsume their own requirements to be part of a larger movement or collect a trophy.

But no matter what style or “silo” a work of architecture, or any art form, belongs to, it can also be classified as simply good or bad. Imagine that spanning across all these vertical silos of architectural style are broad horizontal bands representing a spectrum of quality from bad to good. This is where most people live and circulate – often unknowingly and uncaringly –from one silo to another as it may suit their needs and desires. Styles are defined academically and can be evaluated objectively by comparing current works with historical precedents, writings, and occasional theory. Good or bad design, however, is judged empirically. A building works well for the people who use it, or it doesn’t, no matter the style badge it may be wearing.

If there is a consistent thread to our work during almost 25 years of practice and hundreds of projects, it is that we have placed the practical needs of clients and their communities first. We conceive of the floorplan as a diagram for living and try to anticipate how the building will live over time. In an essay about his own house, Mark Twain wrote, “to us, our house … had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; … it was of us, and we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.” Put less poetically, the house is an extension of its users; through organization of spaces and myriad other design decisions, it anticipates and facilitates movement and delivers emotions that are needed – coziness, security, elation, energy, aspiration, and more. For homeowners, the house becomes a character in their own play.

In practice, we do “diagnose” the problems presented by a client’s site, program, and budget, but architecture is more than just solving problems. It both addresses reality and expresses aspiration. We solve problems, but our work is foremost an attempt to honestly reflect and project our client’s lifestyle and priorities rather than to fit into a preconceived architectural style.

If almost all our completed work lands safely within the “contemporary” or “modern” zone, it is not a coincidence or an agenda. It turns out that people of the 21st century have 21st century lifestyles, with their modern stuff and modern habits and modern tastes. They drive late model cars, almost always have two careers, work sometimes from home, stream movies and order out using Doordash. They are concerned about their impact on the environment, their children’s futures and just saving money on utility bills. They are less concerned with societal hierarchy and more fluid in their relationships. They are influenced by car and fashion marketing mantra that teaches “less is more” (ironically an expression originating in architecture). While it may be theoretically possible that an “honest reflection of our client’s lifestyle” based on these criteria, results in a Palladian villa or Victorian gingerbread house, those clients would be very strange time travelers indeed.

Our approach to design can be messy, highly iterative, and ambiguous – just like people! We joke that “design process” is an oxymoron. Rather than moving in a straight line, design is more like riding on the rim of a large wheel. In one dimension, it feels like you are moving backward and forward as the wheel rotates. As long as the rotation also moves in one direction, however, the project advances. We use analogies and metaphors a lot (analogies are like metaphors, a garden of ideas).

Style silos, diagnosis, personification, analogies, metaphors, rotating wheels… these are only devices to smooth the winding road to great buildings. At the end of the day, they are just convenient tools without inherent value. Only built work counts as Architecture. Everything short of construction, whether drawings, renderings, or scale models, is a representation of what might be. We work to build, and our clients hire us to get that done for them. As a team, we make their dreams manifest. Often the buildings include ambiguities, some unresolved details, and some placeholders for potential change. There can be something like a symbiosis between spaces and the people who occupy them. We try to build those opportunities. After the project is complete and the architect and contractor have moved on, our greatest goal is that a client experiences their building over time and, for whatever reasons thinks, “this is me.”