Architizer continues to explore how architects experience the emotional realm during the process of creation, presenting the points of view of some of the profession’s most actualized practitioners. Today, Saxon Henry, author of Four Florida Moderns, interviews Bob Borson, AIA, LEED, AP — principal of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects — who experiences architecture with an interesting mixture of joy and pain.
Do you have a normal emotional starting point once you know you are going to take on a project?
The very first thing I do — and I couldn’t even begin to tell you why — is that I start to think about who the person is as a human being: Am I going to like working with this person? Are they the sort of person I would like to have as a friend. It seems to matter to me that I work with people I like and ones I have a connection with on a few different levels. I seem to work a lot (it’s hard to separate my job from my hobbies), and I have the good fortune to walk away from projects and people who don’t seem to fit well with my personality.
Do you know when you’ve “got it,” meaning you know emotionally when you have the best design for a building you can possibly create at any given time?
Ha! I don’t think so, although that’s not to say I don’t have plenty of moments when I think, “I’ve got it!” I am constantly amazed at how a design comes together; it’s almost magical how it goes from this chaotic mixture of programming, legal restrictions, budget constraints and seemingly irrational but emotional responses from the client, to this coherent solution. That’s when you have your first, “I’ve got it!” moment. Then something happens, a mind is changed or some outside influence is introduced and something has to be revised. You’re looking at this plan that you think is graphite poetry only to have to mess it up with something…and then it gets better. Maybe that’s more of a head-slapper moment, but either way, there are plenty of instances when you think you’ve got it all figured out.
Ravens Lake Ranch, Malone Maxwell Borson Architects
Do you feel that different emotions come into play as an architect matures, or is temperament a set piece of the personality?
I definitely think that as I have aged my work has changed. I am a different person now than I was just a few years ago, and my life experiences affect how I see the world and the priorities I set in my work. The way I like to work on my projects and with my clients is that I chat a lot with them; I get to know who they are as people before I start solving their architectural challenges. This personalization process is helped along through the stories and anecdotes I share with people about what we are doing and the things I have experienced in my own life. And it’s not very difficult to conclude that the stories happening to a 46-year-old family man would be different from the ones someone younger and with different influences on their life experience.
Do you do active charrettes in your studios with your teams and, if so, how does emotionality come into play during that process?
We actually don’t do a whole lot of charrettes in our office, although we are trying to do them more frequently. Since the majority of the work I do is private residences, the personalities and characteristics of the individuals I work with shape the projects more than any architectural tendencies the firm could imprint. That having been said, I also bring in the team to talk through what we are doing and why, and, as a result, everybody who works on the project has their thumbprint on it in various manners. I tend to solve problems in a similar but evolving way. I frequently use narratives to build a story about the people I work with to imagine how they might use the space we are creating for them. It’s an effort of trying to get inside their heads, and it is one of the more interesting aspects of the creative process for me.
Do you experience different emotions when you are walking through your built projects that surprise you in any way and can you give me an example?
Of course! It’s an interesting mixture of joy and pain if I’m being completely honest. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from seeing an idea come into reality — the knowledge that all the time spent working towards this moment was worth the investment of resources. Shortly after that moment, when you are still in the glow, that’s when you start evaluating the varying degrees of success. There are so many decisions that are made along the way that push the original intent off course. Sometimes those decisions are an improvement over the original, and sometimes those decisions are not an improvement.
Hackney Residence by Malone Maxwell Borson Architects
Do you remember from architecture school if the emotionality of what you were reading and/or studying took you to a new plane of thinking or feeling in any way?
I don’t think I was all that aware of what I was doing when I was in school and I certainly wasn’t dialed in to my emotional state (is lack of sleep an emotion?). I recall a moment in my fourth year of school when I finally felt I had turned a corner as a designer, even as a student. During my first few years of school, I can recall looking at the work of others and having this sense that I was out of my league, that I had no business being in the program or even attempting to become an architect. That created this weighty feeling that I carried around for a few years as I struggled. I’m not entirely sure why things clicked into place for me, but starting fourth year, school became much easier and I began looking at my own work as the bar with which everyone else’s would be compared.
Do you find any one type of project more emotionally challenging than any other?
I’ve had the good fortune to work on many different building types in my career, and I would have to say that the residential work I do is both the most challenging and rewarding from an emotional standpoint. In the simplest of terms, my residential clients have a lot more skin in the game than my commercial clients, not from a financial standpoint, but from a balance of wants and needs. I also have to change my temperament when I work with residential clients because most of them have always lived in houses so they bring a lot of personal experience and opinions to the process. As a result, I have to be careful while navigating those waters because most of the logic assigned to the decision-making process is shaded with some sort of emotional baggage. They like certain spaces to be handled a certain way because that’s how they’ve always had it; it’s what they understand. When I introduce a different way of how to do something, there is almost always immediate pushback. As a designer, I need to get to the underlying reason — to understand what it is about that particular something that causes them to have such a strong opinion so that I can replicate what they like without repeating the solution.
Courtesy of Bob Borson
For more from Bob, check out his blog, "Life of an Architect