The ability both to listen and to hear prevented a premature end to one of the first projects Allies and Morrison ever undertook. The commission was for a new building for a private school for girls in Belsize Park, London. The school had started life in a big Edwardian house and was planning to move to a new site.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
The designers started enthusiastically, producing different plan configurations to show the headmistress what they imagined. One proposal was for classrooms around courtyards and another placed a hall and dining hall together by an entrance with classrooms in a long line, all facing south and overlooking the playground.
When the architects made their presentation to the headmistress, they could see her thinking, "This is going nowhere. This is not my school!" What Allies and Morrison realized was that their proposals did not reflect her school.
She was used to being right in the center of things, in a big house where all the rooms, including her office, were located off a central staircase. In the new schools they had proposed, her office was disconnected from the rest of the school.
Allies and Morrison did not try to convince the headmistress to accept their proposals. Instead they paid attention to her reaction and found an alternative that would draw everything more closely together.
As Bob Allies said, "We all had in our heads what a school should be like, but what this head wanted wasn't one that we had thought about at all. In the end it worked out rather nicely."
People tend to assume that everyday words have the same meaning for everyone. Differences in the meanings of a word, however, can be quite subtle, and architects need to attend carefully to whether what they are hearing is what the client intended, and to keep checking that they have understood.
Also, interpreting statements literally is risky. Looking behind the words, seeing them in context and working to discover what they may stand for will help architects form a more complete picture. Hearing is as important as listening.
Fortunately, Swedish architect Mats Fahlander did not take Maria Nordenberg's desire for a "traditional house" literally. He "understood that it should be built with wood with nothing plastic or fancy like marble." As she explained, "Of course it is not a traditional house, but it has the values of a traditional house and Mats understood that."
He understood what she meant because he spent a lot of time talking with her about how she lives, how she uses her house and what is important for her.
The point is that architects need to give themselves the opportunity to take in what is important to the client in terms of spatial experience and unspoken needs.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Karen A. Franck is a professor in the College of Architecture and Design and the College of Science and Liberal Arts at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Previous books include Architecture from the Inside Out, written with Bianca Lepori, and Loose Space, edited with Quentin Stevens.
Teresa von Sommaruga Howard is a practicing architect, organizational consultant, and group analytic psychotherapist with a specialty in conducting dialogue groups. She lectures and writes about the dynamics of large groups, culture and change, and involving people in the design of their environments.
This article is excerpted from Design through Dialogue by Karen A. Franck and Teresa von Sommaruga Howard, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.