creative process

Inspired Innovation

I like to draw parallels.  Literally and figuratively.  Literally speaking, it's a habit from doing line exercises in first year architecture school.  Figuratively speaking, it is comforting to see what lines up, who is on track with you, the familiar, that which follows expectation.  On the other hand, it is very interesting to see where things starts to veer off in another direction, why and how, the twist in the tale!  Is it new?  Is it novel?  Is it exciting?  Eyes peeled, ears perked up, everyone wants to know, we make the time to find out. Last weekend, I went to see the world premiere of Belle Redux/ A Tale of Beauty and the Beast, a modern ballet produced by Ballet Austin.  It was very different from anything I had seen before or expected in a ballet performance.  It was no familiar fairy tale.  Quite the contrary.  It was dark (literally and figuratively), daring, layered, interpretive, inquiring, lingering.  In an encore following the ballet, director Stephen Mills talked about the project, the process, and the result.  The directive was to be innovative, plain and simple.  No small feat there, but I think they hit the mark.  And I say that not because they used multi-media or donned contemporary costumes, although that certainly set the stage, but because of the power of the narrative.  It's been 4 days since, and I am still thinking about the performance, and digging up the story behind the stage.  I'm still peeling the onion, exploring the interpretations, and thoroughly enjoying myself.  Isn't that the purpose of art?

There are three things that have been lingering on my mind - the act of innovation, the subjectivity of beauty, and the fruit of criticism.

Mills describes innovation as "the act of making something better, more interesting, or more useful."  I cannot help but draw a parallel to the art of creating architecture.  Architects are known to be creative people; innovative, however, not the first adjective that comes to mind. Why the heck not?  We make things better, more interesting, and more useful!  Well, some architects certainly do, more so than others.

Aren't creation and innovation intricately woven together, being two sides of the same coin?  In the context of architecture, what exactly is the difference between an innovative idea and a creative idea? Is innovation so intimately tied to processes, execution, and well, technology, that it seems irrelevant as a concept in architectural design?  Where do you draw the line between creativity and innovation in the arches and vaults of ancient Roman architecture?  Would you say that creative architects gave us the likes of the Sagrada Familia and innovative architects gave us the skyscraper?

Some might argue that innovation lies in the process of turning creative ideas to reality, and while an idea might come from a single person, it takes a team to innovate.  Any creative person, scratch that, everybody knows that ideas are aplenty; turning that to reality is the mountain ahead of you.  Was it Edison who said "Innovation is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."  Every practicing architect knows the long journey from concept drawings to getting the keys to the building - you don't get from point A to B without team work and collaboration.  Solo architect is a misnomer.

In my work in residential architecture, it is very evident that the client sitting across the table from me is there because they want something better.  From the initial bubble diagram, there is an opportunity to be creative and innovative.  Perhaps it's a challenging site or orientation, a personal pet peeve that needs to be addressed, the building material selection, the construction detailing, a project delivery method; there are opportunities at every step of the way. Maybe it's not the concept or the design, but the client's experience working with the architect that was the best aspect of the project.  Or maybe the waterproofing detail is the most innovative thing about the house.  It is simply better than it could have been.

Something that Stephen Mills said after the ballet resonated with me.  He said, "Who decides what is beautiful and what is beastly?" and then of the show he said, "some people might love it, some may not get it, and some might hate it, and I'm okay with that."

In the architecture profession, there is a lively debate about architectural style, with the architects in one camp bashing the others.  Our work is criticized by our peers, the public, and the media.  Have you ever seen the show "Extreme Homes" on HGTV? They showcase houses from all over the world that range from bizarre to spectacular, low-tech to ultra-modern, mundane to beautiful, yet extreme in some unique way.  I like to watch it, mostly because it's interesting to see what personal architecture looks like in other parts of the world, but also to understand what motivates different people and how it reflects in their built environment.  One size does not fit all.  Standing at the curb, it's easy to pass judgement on the aesthetic choices or the architectural style.  But if you get to know the narrative behind the facade, you might not be so harsh.  Indeed, you might be inspired.



Architecture daily - more discovery, less creativity

Many of my non-Architect friends (some* of who went to Architecture school with me, but no longer practice architecture as they had the good sense to pursue a lucrative career) carry the impression that architecture is a field of  creativity - a profession where the creative genius roams free and untethered; that imagination is the agenda for the day; that if inspiration does not strike, there is no need to go into the office. Kind of like design studio back in architecture school - headphones, coffee, hoodies and jeans, trace paper crumpled up in the trash can, sketches all over the drawing board, books showcasing the works of celebrity Architects stacked high on the floor, large windows with sunlight bathing the room, yet a wilting plant on the window sill, budding architects lost in their computer screens ... you get the picture! Certainly, when I think of other creative professionals like musicians, writers, artists, or even other designers, I am guilty of the same perception. Are they encumbered by the mundanity of an 8 to 5 office structure? No, their creative juices flow whenever their genius strikes, might be the middle of the night or middle of a shower/ run/ swim or whatever they are in the middle of in their care-free life. Thereon they work relentlessly (in their pajamas, of course) like a madness has taken over, until the work has reached its pinnacle, whereupon it is presented to the world so everyone may appreciate the stroke of genius.

While there is a small nugget of truth in that notion, the reality of everyday practice of architecture is, I'm sorry to say, not so footloose and fancy free.  On the contrary, we labor each day investigating, exploring, discovering, questioning, drawing. Always discovering through drawing. What reveals itself when you cut that section? How tall is the space at this intersection of roofs?  Does that look proportional? What does it look like in plan view? Finding answers. Does this fireplace come in an 8' length?  Who will manufacture this custom door, and how much will it cost?  How far can I cantilever this beam?  Where can I buy this rubber membrane?  Where in the code book does it say so? But also important, asking the right questions. What exactly do you like about this picture?  Are you aware that doing "x" means getting rid of "y" which is actually a nice feature? Some answers only lead to more questions and you chase many rabbits down many holes, sometimes only to discover that the client does not have the budget for it.  And some answers bring the project to a grinding halt, such as a crippling discovery that a WQTZ (Water Quality Transition Zone)zone covers half the site meaning that our design concept and scheme went out the window.

What I am trying to say is that there is only a limited creative genius when there are real world constraints. Don't get me wrong, challenges often present opportunities for amazing design solutions that are truly inspiring. But creativity is a process and architectural creativity is a process of discovery.

There are days when I go into the office and all I do all day is review shop drawings, field questions from builders, troubleshoot consultants, and there is only problem solving. Then there are days when I can focus on architectural design. And then there are other days when the creative juices flow freely, unconsciously, and without effort,  sometimes when I am in the shower at the end of a long day of discovery, and it's just like poet Ruth Stone described her inspiration (to author Elizabeth Gilbert) -  it comes without announcement, rushing through me at a high-speed, in fullness and such vivid clarity, and in that moment I know this is genius. Then it passes almost as fast as it came to me and I fear that I will forget, and the idea will escape me, and I will be left empty.

Sharon George

*okay, I should say most, because really I've not made too many friends since those days