The moral obligation of a designer

By Arnaud Marthouret, ~5 min reading time.

 Image courtesy of  @kaboompics

Image courtesy of @kaboompics

Let’s get a little personal, shall we?

Years ago, I attended a world-famous design school, which shall remain nameless, that had just completed a brand-new shiny building the year before I enrolled. Said building was designed by a Tier-B starchitect. Not someone of the caliber of a Frank, Renzo or Zaha, but rather the architecture equivalent of a minor TV celebrity. Well known in the design world, but a virtual stranger to non-architects.

This architect was notorious for designing buildings which were colorful, playful and whimsical, but also equally painful to inhabit. From difficulty to maintain, to poor construction, without forgetting being highly uncomfortable to their occupants. At the time, this new design school building was the talk of the town and the reason I even knew the school existed in the first place. It was an exciting time to be part of a cohort of students who were pegged as a pioneering class in a visionary school. This new shiny building that I was to spend two years of my life in, alas, was no different from the architect’s previous designs, as my experience would later demonstrate.

It turned out that all the hype about the building was just that. The visionary culture the school seemingly demonstrated, was but a thin layer of shiny but fragile varnish, much like its flagship building was but a vacuous shell, colourful and playful on the outside, with nothing of substance to show for inside. The designers had spent so much time, effort and money into making the building look unique and radical, that they had completely forgotten some of the most important stakeholders in the process: the users, who were living in the building day in and day out, burning the midnight oil on a regular basis. We had to put up with suffocating, generic spaces, poorly lit and even more poorly climate controlled, too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark. It was never to be comfortable.


Up to code or up to snuff?

Needless to say that the building was up to code, but like many, many other buildings before it, it turns out that up to code is hardly a gauge of quality when it comes to the way we, little humans, inhabit space. It begs the question: what is the responsibility of the designer in those matters?

It is understood that when it comes to executing something as big and complex as a building, there are many moving parts to oversee and that some of it is bound to fall outside of the designer’s responsibility. Contractors, consultants and sub-trades all have a part of responsibility in the ultimate success of a building. However, when a building turns out to be a monumental pain in the ass, for reasons which can be traced back to the way it is designed, then the moral responsibility of the building’s failure to perform falls squarely on the designer.

This is where, we have the moral obligation to take ownership of the work we do. Mike Monteiro wrote about it when speaking about visual designers. I believe designers of buildings have the same responsibility. The responsibility of ensuring that what is being built is not only going to stand up for a long time, but is going to have a positive impact on its occupants. We now have a pretty good grasp of what constitute good, healthy environments for their occupants. Natural light, colours, acoustics, temperature, social interactions, access, vegetation, air quality, textures, materials, etc., all play a part in the way we perceive and gauge the quality of an environment. The science behind each and every one of these factors is by now well established. How is it that buildings that cannot accommodate their occupants in ways that are if not positive, at the very least neutral, are still being built?


Less Facebook, more Bruce Campbell.

Facebook has a history of causing damage to some of their users, because they fall between the cracks and are considered statistical outliers. These statistical outliers are people and what facebook does to them affect their lives. The same goes for architecture. There are examples of places where certain categories of users are completely forgotten and left to deal with spaces that make their life and work miserable.

This is not to say that there aren’t good buildings out there, because there most definitely are. But, I believe the tendency to cut corners because budgets are low and clients want their project completed yesterday. I get it, we’re often squeezed between a rock and a hard place and it’s quite stressful. However, there is hope.

By taking ownership of the value of your work and start pushing clients back when they insist on cutting corners and doing short-sighted or even indubitably dumb things, there is an opportunity to build an expertise in a particular niche where you can over time, become comfortable with defending your ideas and expertise, which in turn will be more valuable because now you stand for something and can demonstrate the value of your thinking tangibly. While it may turn some people off, it will also attract people that are aligned with your values and willing to pay a premium for your services.

Deep expertise in one area comes at the expense of unfit clients, a good thing to thrive for in my opinion. Not unlike a good horror b-movie, it’s not for everyone but those who like it are usually very engaged fans.

Strive to be the Bruce Campbell of architecture.


Further reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/14/communities.arts

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2007/jul/21/architecture


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

Timing your visual communications to run a better business

~ 4.5 minutes read

In the typical cycles of business, we are now fully in the 100-day sprint, the roughly 100-day period between now and the holidays where businesses are the most productive. People are coming back refreshed from vacation, kids are back in school and summer is gone, so there is no more excuses to play hooky and go hide at the cottage. Lake water is too cold anyway. That is, until the end of the year, before people take off again for the holidays to go skiing in Gstaad.

In the realm of visual communications and specifically architectural photography, not only we are subject to business cycles as described above, but even more so to seasonal conditions. That translates into a shooting season - without guns -  that extends from roughly May to November, coinciding with vegetation being in a suitable state and the weather being cooperative to allow for good photographs of your buildings and spaces. In that timespan we get all kinds of colours and textures, from the vivid bright greens and flower blooms of spring to the colourful fall season, without forgetting the deep greens of the mature, midsummer vegetation.

When you superimpose the seasons with the traditional business cycles, it looks something like this: post-christmas coma and hibernation from January to May, spring awakening in May-June, Summer slump (a.k.a. Spending summer at the cottage) in July-August and 100-day sprint from September to Christmas time a.k.a. “Shit! I need to wrap up my projects” period.

  Photography seasons

Photography seasons

Why should I care?

We are in the last 50 or so days of good, predictable weather and decent vegetation before we are stuck with cold, shitty weather for the following 6 months which makes architectural photography quasi-impossible. Some projects are suitable to be photographed in winter, but these are the exception to the rule. Timing a project with a snowfall is also extremely challenging as winter snow tends to turn into slush in the city after a day or two and believe me when I say you don’t want to shoot in those conditions. If you’re an interior designer you might think “Haha, nice try, but this doesn’t apply to me!” as you’re not subject to weather.

While you’d be correct in thinking so from a technical and logistical perspective, let’s not forget the dreaded award season, from post-christmas to the early summer, where most award submissions are due. Marketing professionals spend most of that time working on submissions, on top of the million other things they usually have to do like managing social media, RFPs, etc. Based on my experience, most of them do not want to deal with managing photoshoots on top of that.

Ok, so all of this is self-serving, but how does it apply to me?

I’m glad you asked. Well, taking into consideration all of the above, what that means to you, is that by and large, you are left with 60 days (90 for interior design projects) to plan, execute and complete your photography projects before everyone in your office switches to holiday mode and slows down to a crawl for about a month, spending more time thinking about that vacation in Gstaad or the dreaded presents they need to get for their incredibly hard to please in-laws.

Considering that it takes easily 3-6 weeks to plan, prepare for and execute a shoot, there isn’t a lot of time left to get that accomplished. With professional pictures in hand before the the season’s end, you will be able to do the following:

  • Promote your latest 2018 projects to prospects with the goal to sign new clients, and keep feeding new prospects in your pipeline.

  • Have your images ready for your winter slump, when your marketing people will want to have them handy for the 10 million + 2019 award submissions they’re going to prepare. Believe you me, they will thank you.

  • Wrap up the current year with completed projects, which should bring a sense of accomplishment to your practice and boost morale before the seasonal affective disorder sets in. Happy employees = productive employees.

  • Take advantage of the winter slump to plan and prepare your 2019 press submissions and scour the newest editorial calendars, in order to time your media relations accordingly and increase your chances of being published, not to mention that beautiful photographs will help you in the matter.

All of the above, accomplishes one thing: it makes your practice more efficient and more effective on many fronts. Which results in less time spent scrambling to get something done at the last minute, more time to do other important business things (or more time for yourself) as well as a long-term increase in your profitability because you now run a lean, mean business development machine.

After all, who wouldn’t like more time and increased profits?

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to book your fall 2018 shoot, you can reach us at hello@rvltr.studio.



How I was inspired by a writer to look at architecture differently.

The State of Architectural Journalism.

I love talking to people in the architecture industry to find out what makes their jobs exciting, learn about their challenges and use that information to try new things. I often do this with journalists and editors and find it fascinating to learn how to think like they do, and it helps me help them to find good stories for their publications.  

When I met with Dave LeBlanc, columnist for the Globe and Mail and well-known for his weekly column, “The Architourist”, I learned a lot about architecture from a non-architect’s perspective. Dave is not a trained journalist, he spent his whole career in radio production and serendipitously fell into writing about architecture a couple of decades ago when asked to produce short radio stories on Toronto architecture. Having been a fan of design and specifically mid-century modern architecture since childhood he jumped at the opportunity, which eventually led him to become a weekly columnist at the Globe.

Dave is as much interested in stories as I am and, similarly, thinks architectural narratives in their current state are a bit dry and factual, too often forgetting to speak about the human stories unfolding within the built environment, in favor of the building as an object, replete with facts, statistics and bombastic declarations, which are no-more than transparent, ego-inflating statements that makes the designers feel good, but leave the people who are looking to connect with architecture on a deeper level a bit hungry for a relatable story.

 

How Kahn and Mies brought this home.

When I think about some the best and most memorable buildings I've ever had the chance to visit and get to know intimately, like Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe and the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the spiritual experiences that I've had in those space had very little to do with the architecture itself, but rather with my experience of the space, specifically through the way natural light was managed and let into the building in very specific and deliberate ways.

I didn't care that much that the building was made of metal, concrete or wood but rather that these materials provided me with an phenomenal sensory experience and therefore deeply influenced me. The Kimbell with its silvery natural light flooding from the slits at the top of each vaulted ceiling, grazing the galleries’ surfaces and revealing the textures and warmth of the wood and concrete combination. Crown Hall through the enormous amount of natural light flooding the space from all sides, and reflecting the seasons and time of day, while blocking a direct views on the outside, the black steel curtain walls, terrazzo floors and wooden partition walls taking a back seat to that experience.

I believe this is what Leblanc is trying to convey in his weekly column: how architecture is a machine for sensory experience, to paraphrase Le Corbusier. Perhaps that's what his "Machine for living " idea meant? After all, what is life if nothing but a succession of sensory experiences?
 

More experiential narratives, less verbosity.

The lesson to retain from this, is that aside from other designers and self-proclaimed design nerds, very few people care about who designed a given building, how much of a celebrity the designers or how expensive the finishes are, because these facts are completely irrelevant to the physical experience of a space. There is a reason the best writers and magazines in the design world are more interested in how the architecture is lived in and like to include the users in their stories. That reason is that it makes for quality content that will capture a reader’s attention. It is an absolute necessity that the story you tell speaks to your audience, or you run the risk of losing their interest.

There is no shortcut for getting to know your audience. You have to spend time engaging with them. It helps greatly to be able to show a vulnerable side of yourself that they may not know about. Digital and social media allows for unprecedented levels of access to your audience at a very low cost, making it easy to be in dialogue with the people who are interested in your work.

Spending the time to craft compelling narratives that speak to the way your building is lived in is the way to go. I know it’s tempting to wax lyrical about the technical achievements of your project, but if they do not directly contribute to the human, dare I say emotional, experience of your space, they can be ignored. Instead the focus should be put on what it feels like to experience your space from a user perspective.

In these days of instant gratification and casual consumption, most people will probably not pay attention to what you are putting out. However the level of care that you put into it will be noticed by the people who relate to what you have to offer. This minority of ardent supporters will go to bat for you. Once you have a few of those, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

A community of followers, the kind of people who will fervently support you and promote you because they believe in your vision, cannot be bought. It is primarily based on trust and that trust has to be earned. There are no shortcuts.

What can you do today to build such a following?

If you liked this, share with a friend and let us know in the comments!

Hambly House on the cover of Canadian Architect

Cities such as Hamilton are rapidly growing and being designed to accommodate the sheer influx of people moving to the downtown and surrounding areas. This is a reversal of the strategy of the 1950's when the United States and Canada preferred to build cities around highways to promote easier travel and automobile use. Thus, today the surrounding areas of Toronto (Hamilton, ON in this case) are becoming more architecturally sound, interesting and diversifying the neighborhoods. The Hambly House by DPAI and Toms + McNally featured on the cover of Canadian Architect this month is a prime example of bridging the gap between old and new. Further reading HERE!

Hambly House at dusk

 

 

révélateur in Dolce Magazine

Weiss AU's boathouse was featured in the Spring 2015 edition of the magazine. Kevin Weiss' design deserves the kind of attention it's been getting lately and we hope to see more of his work published in the future.

Stay tuned for future publications of our images.

 

Yorkville Residence on the cover of Designlines Magazine

révélateur is proud to announce its first magazine cover! Our shoot of the Yorkville residence by Audax Architecture was featured in the the Spring 2015 issue of Designlines magazine.

Spring 2015 cover

Interestingly, this is our first ever commissioned project and turned out to be a client favourite from day one. This reno of a 70's modern house turned a very dated dwelling into a sleek, contemporary, state of the art dwelling that reflects the personality of its owner, a 30-something successful entrepreneur from Toronto.

Click here for full article.