Design Viewpoint – Structure And Balance

When teaching students and clients about design and its principles, we often utilise metaphor as a means to reflect on some of the more abstract ideas. One of my frequent approaches is to think of buildings as you might consider your family and their relationships.

So an old building is like a grandparent, with a life of experience, change and memory that has to be dealt with more sympathetically and is potentially more fragile. Newer buildings are like children, less experienced but in some ways tougher and more willing to experiment though potentially less able to cope. The relationship between adjacent rooms or buildings or new and old parts of buildings can be confrontational or loving, they can be opposites or complimentary. As in any family it can all work if the structure is there and there is a balance between the elements and all subject to the appropriate contextual considerations.

This thought becomes useful when designers or clients want to change or create new spaces. Like people, buildings and spaces are far more complex and layered than a superficial collection of parts. Changing or removing one part will require replacing or rebalancing of the whole. It is not a single piece that changes but a whole set of  relationships within a system. By thinking of a space as you might a person or family you can be more sensitive to the effects of those changes.

A space or building works as a complete system and should always be considered thus. Any part of that system is there for a reason, whether structural or decorative and removing or changing it requires consideration of that reason. You can do almost anything to a building, change anything around, add or subtract but it will have different consequences from the financial to the fatal. It is not recorded if anyone has died because a wall was painted a different colour but there are regular deaths related to ill-considered structural alterations, poor specification
(slippery tiles when wet) or substandard electrical work and so on. Design can be dangerous.

Once again we can consider the risk-taking of youth against the conservatism of old age when looking at the design, as metaphors for reconsidering a space; the quick fashionable trend or the safer predictable and conventional. There are situations when one or other of these approaches is the better option or when a more subtle balance of both is required. The lifetime of the space or building also comes into play, designing something with a short life of months clearly has a different strategy to one that lasts years or decades.

Making these choices comes back to a thorough understanding and analysis of what already exists from a technical, aesthetic and emotional perspective and how the space is and will be used and occupied. The best changes and the best design will always have a deep understanding of the current context prior to making any design decision. This is particularly important if you are changing a few things at a time or spreading work to several spaces over time, either due to financial or practical considerations. You should have the full picture in mind before making the first step in order to avoid choices that you will later regret. If that sounds like your parents
when you were a teenager, well, I guess we all grow up to know they were (more or less) right but remember how we enjoyed the thrill and carefree attitude of youth.

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