(The following article is re-printed from Garth Sheriff Architect, a portfolio of residential and commercial projects available from the author for $25 by sending an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org).
The artist Michelangelo was repeatedly asked how he could take a block of marble and create a masterpiece like the David or the Rome Pieta. Legend has it that he would invariably reply that he was simply chipping away to free the sculpture from the confines of its marble prison.
The idea that the solution to any artistic problem already exists within the problem itself (and that it is the artist’s job to see and express that) holds a lot of truth. My architecture is a detective story hidden in every vacant lot, every remodeled home and blank space waiting to be an office or restaurant. It is my job as the artist and collaborator with the client to discover “what it wants to be.” That implies that every design vision can succeed, no matter the budget, the style or the criteria, and as far as I can tell in over 30 years of design, that is always true.
As architect-detective, my sleuthing involves a set of tools and techniques. Mine exist in the words of a friend in the realm of the sublimely modern. That of course is different than a particular style: I have discovered the answers to design problems in styles from Zen minimalism to New England vernacular; from high concept modern to highly soothing tropical contemporary.
It is a life search to come to the conclusion that the answer is in the problem; which is that the David is already in the block of marble. Many designers start from a different place. They are tied to a set of design details and use them over and over, many times over the objections of the client. One very famous architect who shall remain nameless mandated that one of his homes have glass block down the middle of the Master Bedroom floor as the result of a pre-determined design language. His answer to “where does the bed go” was a dismissive “sleep in twin beds.”
I choose to start the detective story with a blank slate and create the tools of discovery from the clients’ needs and the site or building with which they have to work. So it is that I am fond of saying that “The shape of your life (or business) is the heart of our design.” That way, the vision that I create is always collaborative as is any good detective story!
In the creative vision of freeing architecture from its prison, THAT is what it wants to be.