The State has hired the Baltimore architectural firm of Ayers Saint Gross, which is nationally known for its work on campus master plans, to help create its plan. ASG has created plans at schools such as the University of North Carolina, Arizona State University, the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia and Johns Hopkins University.
Principles Versus Style
By Adam Gross
"About style - swim with the tide, about principles - stand like a rock..."
- Thomas Jefferson
This is a provocative time to be an architect who works for colleges, universities and other non-profits. At this juncture of tumultuous imageries of "new" architecture, I find myself ever more interested in issues of quality over style. This is reinforced by the trend in our culture to focus on the heat rather than the light - particularly true in the architectural press - where being different is often championed over being good.
Our work is a constant search to identify what is good, and best, for the individual and the community. This search - whether it be the design of a building or the planning of a campus - transcends style. It begins with looking at the site, analyzing the programs that need to be accommodated, and listening to the vision and mission of the people who will use the spaces we design. In terms of the "image" of a particular campus or building, it is possible to be of your place and of your time, and, like a good academic curriculum, to combine tradition and innovation. This approach does not result in an idiosyncratic style, but it encourages solutions that grow from a realistic understanding of urbanity, a commitment to ecology, and a belief in the interconnectedness of "systems".
In designing anything - a desk, a room, a building, a quadrangle, or a campus - we start with understanding that we are dealing in domains that are part of larger interconnected systems. With this comes the need to balance what may be competing issues in order to create harmonious and comprehensive solutions. So, when we develop a college town, we must think of how it will benefit the campus and the region. When we dislocate parking spaces from a campus, we need to ensure that proactive policies are in place to encourage alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. When we design a residence hall, we think of how our decisions might convincingly affect the image of a visiting high school senior. When we plan a classroom building, we think of how the design affects and/or reflects the pedagogy and research philosophy of a particular place. When we design a science laboratory, we think of how the arrangement of the building can encourage serendipity and invention. In these ways, we must realize that each design decision is a fragment of a larger system.
The desk is a fragment of the classroom, the classroom is a fragment of the building, the building a fragment of the quadrangle, the quadrangle a fragment of the campus, the campus a fragment of the town, the town a fragment of the region. Designs that are successful reflect the importance of these inter-related systems, along with the imperative to respect and reflect the genius loci while creating a balance between the natural and built worlds.
We are gratified when our clients tell us that this analytical approach to design changes their awareness of their environment, for we try to create new ways for people to see their campus, their buildings, or even their budgets. This approach allows us to develop solutions through a series of well-defined sets of values and intentions, allowing us to judge the intellectual concerns of a project. This, in turn, informs and structures our designs. Then we arrive at the enjoyable dynamic of balancing occasional competing views toward solutions that are much less about compromise than they are about finding a balance. And upon that point, we strive to create designs that are parts of a composition rather than those that play the role of soloist.
While believing that design deeply matters, we often observe that it is a sometimes forgotten tool that can be used as a strategic weapon. Design communicates mission and values while it signals the intellectual commitment and vision of an institution. Everything we do has some aesthetic implication, and nothing is too insignificant to be well designed. It was one of John Dewey's contributions to point out that a real understanding of life is synonymous with aesthetic enjoyment.
To create architecture of aesthetic value, one needs audacity, and to combine it with energy, tenacity, optimism, and intuition to transform human enterprise into built form. Without it, we could not do our work. Audacity fuels that leap of imagination that envisions the future as a better place. It breaks with convention, while it deters complacency.
These are some of the principles that guide our work - quality over style, interconnectedness, balance, and audacity. These guideposts help us see past current trends so we can design buildings and spaces that transcend style and reflect the goals of our clients, the spirit of the place where we are working, and a respect for ecology.
Adam Gross, AIA, is a principal at Ayers/Saint/Gross.