UT College of Architecture & Design Screen Wall and Reception Desk
We were told the wall needed to house all of the college’s office supplies, administrative mailboxes, fax machine and copier as well as a receptionist. The wall will be the face of the school they said- “what can it communicate to visitors and prospective students?” I was then told I had three weeks to design and build it.
The task was daunting, but ultimately urgency breeds decisiveness. Only certain materials could be afforded and there was not time for precise drawings. Decisions had to be made in process and they had to be made fast.
The challenge was injecting meaning into the thing. How could it communicate, advertise or make a statement, and what was a legitimate statement for such a thing to make? We are always skeptical of overtly poetic projects. If there was ever a reason simply for a beautiful wall then this was it. Why shouldn’t it glow? Why shouldn’t it employ the color day-glow orange? The questions of why quickly changed to statements of why not! It is immeasurable how much this disturbed our every sensibility as designers and rationalists.
INTENT VS INTERPRETATION
A correct interpretation of design can never be guaranteed. All one can really own is intent. By employing free material in terrifying repetition one message could be blood sweat and tears; as we could not have chosen a more labor intensive way to build something than stacking slivers of sheet goods like masonry. Maybe it talks about workmanship: some areas are constructed to absurdly tight tolerances while others are what they are based on performance or the need for timely results. Ultimately the thing stands and engages the visitor with the question “what is my purpose, and why was I made this way?” Does not every design silently ask this question to those willing to listen? One could go on and on about the theoretical underpinnings for the design intent but does anyone outside the intimate circles of the academy care? One thing people can quickly (and sometimes only) grasp is a fleeting image- a first glance gut reaction. Architecture is lucky if it even gets that.
For a prospective student to see the thing and state, “whoa, this is badass!” or a visitor to tell our receptionist that she has the coolest desk in the whole university at least starts a dialog. One hopes that initial attraction or interest leads to criticism and discourse, but at the end of the day design is mostly judged by its image; like the glossy centerfold architecture that grace our profession’s publications. We have always been critical of fancy form and seemingly irrational techniques but if such a work is the handshake that introduces the masses to the potential of design then so be it. I just hope we can sleep at night with this newfound realization.