Society has a tendency to take art for granted. Art is often perceived as something for the ‘select few’, often not going any further than being considered something ‘nice’ or ‘interesting.” But unless it sustains a career or is talked about in more places than the classroom or the studio, art is relegated to something akin to ‘special interest.’ However, the reality remains that art surrounds everybody on a daily basis and affects the way we interact with the world at every turn.
Perhaps the most influential example of art on our daily routine is that of interior design and architecture. It surrounds us and it exists as something we experience every day. But while most of us don’t stop to consider architecture’s impact on our lives, it would not be an exaggeration to say that most of us are living or working within the bounds of someone else’s vision or design. In a very real sense we become a part of that person’s art.
James Woolum is a widely experienced and variously accredited architect who has worked to design buildings that force the inhabitants to stop and appreciate the artistic side of architecture, and he has shared what it means to build inhabitable art, with photos from HMC Architects’ projects.
Looking at styles that have come and gone, and others seen today, what kind of architecture do you try to avoid creating?
JW: I actually think anything that’s honest, well crafted, and well executed –regardless of style- can be quite beautiful. What I think is good to avoid is anything that’s not well made, not true to the material used, and not true to the spirit of the times. For example, even though I’m a modernist and minimalist at heart, I think an ornate antique gilded picture frame has more inherent design quality and is far less pretentious than, say, cheaply made golden brass bathroom faucets that are meant to elicit a sense of luxury or expense.
What are the various factors you consider when approaching a design?
JW: You really can’t have good design solutions unless you include all three factors in your process; budget, functionality and design. No client is going to consider their project a complete success if, for example, the building functions perfectly and was on budget but looks awful, is badly constructed, and is an eyesore in the community or neighborhood. In my studio we are constantly asking ourselves how to push the limits of design and creativity as we solve the client’s functional and financial needs. The art of design is often as much about understanding complex sociological and psychological systems as it is about form-making or materiality. We just finished a major office building renovation and besides solving for function and budget, we realized that none of the people working in the building were happy! Our design focused on open collaborative spaces, access to views and natural light for everyone (not just private offices), and a lot of break out spaces. Walking through that building now people literally stop me to say how much they love the renovation. People are visibly happier, less stressed, more engaged, and energized. THAT is the power of design!
When designing a building, when do you know that you have the design you want and move on to the construction phase?
JW: Knowing when to stop is a huge problem for architects and designers. Like any other creative art form, there are lots of questions and lots of answers…but very few that are clear cut. Architecture is definitely not an endeavor of right/wrong or black/white…you definitely have to function in the gray to be successful. We try new ideas all the time; sometimes they are successful and other times not. As long as the ideas are well executed and well-crafted I am totally satisfied by the exploration even if the end result is “well, we won’t try THAT one again”. Honestly, it is hard to let go and I admit that I constantly redesign projects in my mind even after they are completed. Ask any of my clients….they’ll tell you I still rearrange the furniture when I visit a building I’ve completed years before!
Have you ever made any mistakes in designing a building or could you have approached a building differently?
JW: A number of years ago I did a favor for a friend and essentially redesigned his entire house. There was a really strong idea, it was very thoughtfully and rigorously detailed, it could have been a spectacular little house. The design drawings were turned over to a design-build contractor and the house was produced without my involvement. The results were disappointing (to say the least) because the builder applied his own thoughts and really watered down the idea. I’ve realized over the years that the only thing worse than a great idea unrealized is when a great idea is realized really badly. I think for me the takeaway – other than never doing design favors for friends – is that it’s crucial for the designer to remain involved. I am very hands-on with my team and intimately involved in the realization of our projects through construction and occupancy. A few years ago, I actually tried to buy that poor little house with the intention of finally doing it right!