The Whys of the Work

| June 2, 2020

by Ben Willis

“What,” “how,” and “when” questions occupy most of our professional life: What mechanical system to use? When are these drawings due?  Zoom or GoToMeeting?  These map out our work, but their daily piling up can separate us from the “why”: Why have we committed to the work of physical places?  At the current global inflection-point, it’s worth reconnecting with some stronger whys.

There’s a metaphor that our principal, Don Powers, uses: Think of community like a coral reef.  It’s a complex, living thing, and designers have no power whatsoever to design that reef.  What we can do is create the sunken ship that provides the armature on which a reef can grow.

This is humbling and clarifying. And sometimes, a shipwreck metaphor is on point when considering communities.

Communities are messy for the same reason they are magnificent: They are an assemblage of people with the power to stymie themselves by holding onto expired norms, or to forge an optimistic path forward.  At minimum, our role is to create physical space that serves people in community. Serving people effectively is why we rely on accumulated wisdom from the past and present, and think twice about where we put the mailboxes, and research healthy building materials.

The allure of strong communities compels us to find ways that physical space can empower people. The physical backdrop we set can do things like encourage residents to see more of the sun, or linger in an unexpected conversation with a neighbor, or resist over-reliance on a personal automobile. Spaces don’t make people active, but they can subtly impede or encourage it.

Empowerment also happens in the design process: It starts when those most affected by a project are consulted early and provided with accessible and trustworthy information to make informed contributions. It continues by researching unintended consequences and taking stock of missing perspectives. It rewards humility in the design team and value in long-term community relationships. None of these are simple, but the desire to do well by people is a strong motivator.

Coral reefs are also an example of the importance of balanced ecosystems. While our work tries to center the people it serves, we are also more aware of the cost of human needs to our larger ecosystem.

Why are we stalked by the carbon impact our decisions have? Because there can’t be future human communities if we are obliterated by the disastrous effects of status-quo, uncreative decisions about our resource use. Cultivating goals that are bigger than any single project – like how a new building could restore parts of its ecosystem – keeps our understanding of “end users” as broad as the effects of our work demand.

The highest and best work of architects and community designers is an act of stewardship: caring for something that doesn’t belong to the steward.  And the land we work on doesn’t belong to any of us when you consider a long-enough timeline, or nature’s unyielding forces.

As our “whats,” “hows,” and “whens” continue to be in flux, we can find steadiness in our “whys” if we keep them centered on people and ecosystems.

Ben Willis

Ben Willis is architect at Union Studio Architecture & Community Design.

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