Life in Melbourne: Intro
Gratitude and Mentorship

"Architecting" institutions

Every once in a while, I have these epiphanies about design practice that causes a major shift in my thinking. One was the realization that designers make prototypes, not the finalized product (which has to go through this manufacturing phase). This explained to me why some designers who do not adopt a human-centered perspective have a hard time conceptualizing the consequences of their designs. They are removed by two layers of abstraction from the effects of their designs on the people who will interact with them.

Another one is that architects don't design houses that they will live in. Yes, architects do design their own homes, but in general, they design homes that other people will live in. This changes the relationship that an architect has towards the edifice she is building. Designers have a way of separating their identities as designers from their identities as human beings in way I never understood as an anthropologist. All of a sudden it makes sense to me why designers can feel a sense of alienation from their work. If you are building a house for someone else, the decisions you make and passion for them when building  for yourself is quite different than those made for others, where you have to be less passionate about having your way. This need for empathy for others is what I teach to my students about why they need to conduct research to inform their design decisions. Yet, it also requires that you have to separate yourself from your own thoughts and feelings if they come in conflict with the clients. Thus, designers spend a lot of time trying to manipulate clients into accepting their way.

This really hit home for me because my new boss, Ken Friedmen, asked if I would have a spot on the American Design Council when it is formalized as an Federal Advisory Committee. I told him that I wouldn't and that my role would be taken over by the Designated Federal Officer. This discussion happened when I was choosing between two options for offices and thus was thinking deeply about the effect of architecture on human interaction. I thus realized that in terms of being an architect for the U.S. National Design Policy, I am building a house I will not live in.  There is a way in which I have attempted to constantly mute my feelings about the Initiative because it is not my house. I work diligently to make it happen, but I try to stay away from the emotional highs and lows of the experience. I thought I was doing so because I was trying to be Taoist about the whole thing, but I realize in part, that I distance myself from the experience because I'm not designing my house.

I wonder is this the right way to architect all institutions or if you slowly kill the passion for the craft of making them. I remain unsure.

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