"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

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You Are What You Build

Since beginning my own architectural “odyssey” some forty years ago, I have been surprised by the public’s high level of enthusiasm for, but lack of specific knowledge about, both Architecture and building as subjects of discourse and the types of artistic and technical activities on which architects spend their time. Individual enthusiasm is evident by the many occasions on which I have been told by someone, upon learning that I was an architect, that he or she “once wanted to become an architect” or considers himself or herself “to be an amateur architect.”

The origin of this fascination with Architecture aroused my curiosity. After giving the matter some thought, I realized that this interest exists, in large part, because the process of making something — carrying an idea, thought, or feeling forward to become a physical reality — satisfies a creative need we all have inside us. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction felt by seeing, touching, and experiencing a physical result from one’s labors, particularly when that result has an inherently large size to it that impacts everything and everyone around it, as is the case with even the smallest building. Further, in a world in which people spend increasing amounts of their time simply servicing the businesses and institutions that exist, the act of designing and building something remains a positive, constructive activity in our minds because one is actually adding to what exists.

For over 5,000 years now, individuals and groups of people have undertaken building efforts of many types and sizes ostensibly to satisfy pragmatic spatial needs that have arisen at different times. But they have also used these opportunities to achieve what was, and still is, viewed as a far more important and long lasting goal. They hoped to tell others about the general quality of their lives and the specific values, beliefs, hopes, and dreams that were held as important — in essence, to celebrate the combination of characteristics that made them special.

Today, the process of designing and building possesses the same potential for expression that it always has. It remains a rare (for most of us), but magnificent opportunity to show our enthusiasm for certain aspects of life, our values and attitudes about things, and our sensitivity toward the importance of fitting well into the surrounding environment that we all share. It gives us a chance to make manifest our own uniqueness, to make our mark — a most natural human urge.

I have never met a client who did not think of himself or herself, or of his or her organization, as in some small way special. Our living and working environments are direct extensions of ourselves. To the degree that they are unique, they support our claim for being special, and add to the richness we so enjoy and seek out in our urban milieu. More revealing than any words, the actions that we take to achieve a high level of quality and distinction in our homes and places of work reflect, to ourselves and to others, our true commitment toward the achievement of quality in our lives and in our work.

It must be remembered that when all the seemingly insurmountable and critical financial, managerial, and technical hurdles that are common in any building project have been overcome and, indeed, eventually forgotten, the only thing that remains is the quality of the work itself. It is primarily on that quality that we shall ultimately sense whether our building efforts have been worthwhile and meaningful.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767