In the spirit of the American Institute of Architects’ national campaign, “Look Up!,” a public awareness campaign designed to convey the value that architects bring to communities, I’ve been reflecting on our approach to architectural practice and the value of design.
As architects, we believe in an ideal that says SPACE—space within a building, space between buildings, space defined by the landscape, space defined by an urban context—has a profound effect on what happens there. The proportions, size, surface materials, texture, decoration, and lighting of a space coalesce into a forum for experiences. Noticeably unique and inspiring spaces, like a cathedral, a grand performance hall or a special garden, are widely recognized as influential—culturally, we even acknowledge that the qualities of these spaces are integral to their purposes. What about “everyday” spaces, like a classroom or an office? Does our public culture appreciate design in that context; do we think it’s important or irrelevant? Running through the litany of different types of spaces might produce an equal litany of responses, with the conclusion that design matters more for some spaces than others. Evidence abounds that “everyday” spaces are routinely assigned less design value—an approach we consistently eschew. With the media marketplace’s increasing efforts to provide personal access to residential design resources (have you watched HGTV lately?), it seems reasonable to hope that design for public spaces will eventually enjoy the same cultural emphasis.
It’s easy to see how a well-proportioned, sunlit-drenched room can make us feel uplifted and cheerful. Data has proven that the presence of natural sunlight in classrooms that have ample windows and skylights positively impacts test scores. Less noticeable or measurable, but just as important, is the calming effect created by a clear, intuitive public path through an unfamiliar building. Likewise, inviting, comfortable campus gathering spaces, placed in an easily accessible location, facilitate a sense of connection and community—but they may not get the credit. Thousands of decisions made during a design process, individually and cumulatively, create either a tremendously effective building or one that is merely functionally adequate.
At GWWO, we’ve devoted our practice to designing spaces for lifelong learning—spaces for K-12 and higher education, as well as interpretive education, where visitors are learning information about a cultural, historical or natural resource. Learning takes place in many ways and in many spaces of a building—so our work extends well beyond traditional learning environments to the collaborative, interactive spaces where people are exchanging ideas. Beyond simply satisfying the functional requirements, we design for effect—to elicit a response, or inspire a feeling, or facilitate an interaction which will enrich learning experiences. Critically, what purpose and what message is the building’s owner trying to convey with the new or renovated space? This could be as simple a message as the importance of education conveyed by a well-designed K-12 school building, or something as complex as an interpretation of a historic building’s materiality and proportion in a new visitor center. Our designs touch millions of people, so our sense of responsibility to provide a clear design benefit and to ensure the building’s design makes a recognizable contribution to the owner’s mission is fundamental to our work.
We’re grateful to our clients for consistently recognizing the value of design, and for enabling us to work towards truly enhancing their environments through our projects.