If you were to ask someone on the street “What does an architect do?”, they would probably tell you that architects design buildings. Taken a step further, I would suggest that architects design spaces.
About 6 minutes after my last review in graduate school, I was in a Jeep (with two other people) towing a trailer containing all of my worldly possessions westward. A Jeep is a very small space, and when the trailer (a deceptively small space) fills up, things end up in the car. Small becomes smaller. Conversations of space lead to conversation of scale. You sleep in a bed every night, but do you know its dimensions? Better yet, do you know its scale as it relates to other spaces? It looks well placed within your bedroom, but it looks positively titanic when placed in a Uhaul.
Since I arrived in Denver 2.5 years ago, I have lived in 317 square feet. To put this into context, some people have bathrooms larger than this. In this space I have a queen sized bed, five bikes, a wall mounted shelving unit, a desk with my computer and separate monitor, a printer, a media cabinet with a sizeable TV, a refrigerator stove and sink, and a small concrete counter underneath which I have mounted a microwave. My bathroom is separated by a door and is 5 steps away from the side of my bed. Everything is out of scale, and the idea of “space” is non-existent. However, ample lighting, a yellow stripe I painted on the wall and ceiling, and a large South facing window are among the things that have made it more than livable. In three weeks, I move to a much larger space. Along with this come new sights, sounds, smells and a changed sense of scale.
My partner and I have a condo in Columbus, and he has made it a great space. The ceilings are high, the floors are bright, the lighting is dramatic but comfortable and the couch is a great place to drink Sunday morning coffee with your feet propped up on a reclaimed transport sled rescued from an abandoned factory. The scale of everything is just right, it feels good to be there, and when I come back after a visit, the contents of my suitcase have a wonderful smell that reminds me that I have been there.
I think something has been lost on my generation of architects. With so much time spent in front of the computer, programs like AutoCad and Revit have robbed us of the opportunity to build models, hold them in our hands and begin to understand their relationship to the human scale. The experience of the design is removed from the production. On a recent site visit, I was surprised at the scale of a structure I had been staring at on screen for months. What seemed manageable, almost small on the computer screen was, in reality, large enough to allow emergency vehicles to drive underneath. Think about that for a moment. A structure that covers thousands of square feet can be convincingly displayed on a screen that measures 27” diagonally.
My point here is admittedly a bit convoluted. I say to those of us that design space, look up. Look up, look out, look down, look at and look through. Touch things, smell things, and take the time to really see things. Don’t just order the sample, visit an installation. Time the drive to get there and take note of how you feel staring down at the carpet. Build a model, hold it up to your eye and begin to put yourself inside of it. Take a walk around your studio space. Count the steps to the coffee maker in your office. How long does it take to fill your mug? Keep your yoga mat next to your desk so you remember what it smells like. And if you have to work in the computer, drop a scale figure just outside the front door of that fabulous Revit model you have slaved over. It might just help you remember what it will feel like to the people that have the pleasure of walking through that door.