Superficial Importance

The surface is a big part of architecture. It is the primary way that people interact with buildings. They walk on floors, touch walls, open and close doors, and they sense how enclosed or open a space is based on the surrounding surfaces.

The surface is the final product; it is the public face of a design. For a large chunk of the population, the surface is architecture. The look, the appearance, the veneer of a building is the building. This notion is something that is reinforced by the majority of print expended over architecture. The visual image captures only the skin of a building and yet the image is the primary medium by which architecture is discussed. The picture of the building is the starting point for the discourse; it frames the following discussion in terms of the visual or more appropriately, the surface. The critique, the commentary, the review of the work is stuck inside that framework.

That concept struck me in a situation that had little to do with architecture proper. I interviewed an architect this past week for the lead-up to the Practice and Design Conference (shameless plug, go the website for more details!). For almost a half-hour, we spoke on topics ranging from his personal history, his designs, to lighter subjects like his favorite word. I had put a significant amount of effort into reviewing the architect’s history, his projects, and his approach to design so that I would be prepared to speak with him. All told, I spent several hours on it and I went into the interview feeling confident in my familiarity with him and his projects. The interview went well and I recorded it for posting on to the Conference website.

Out of curiosity, I re-watched the interview on my computer. I was struck by the disconnect between the image of my interviewing the architect and my own thinking brain. How the video didn’t show my nervousness, the range of questions I had thought of asking but decided against, how much I admired his work, etc.

It is something that I know intuitively, we have a level of control over our outward appearance. We can choose to an extent what we want to express to the public. That is both a strength and a weakness, our inner workings would reveal the amount of work and effort put into a project (or the lack of it). When our public faculties failed us such as nervousness or a halting delivery, a view into our inner workings would be a window into the concern and care taken to meet the demands and requirements of a project. But as is the case for the majority of our professional and personal lives, this inner world with its’ wealth of information, is hidden, shown only when we decide.

I find that my personal take on the notion surface has an application to architecture. As architects, we can choose to what extent our buildings show their intentions and the surface is the primary medium we use for that. The surface of architecture, an over emphasized, over publicized piece of our buildings, is a tremendously important part of architecture whether designers like it or not. It is how the majority of people sees and experience architecture. How we as designers treat that surface, how much we choose to reveal and show to the public, is one of the more difficult design decisions to be made.

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