My Imaginary Conversation with a Dead Architect

Eames Quote

O wise and honorable, dead architect, what do you mean the details aren’t the details? If they aren’t the details, then what are the details?

There are no details.

Huh? There are no details? How can…?

Of course there are details, they make the design. They create the big picture. Aren’t you paying attention?

Wait a minute. Didn’t you just say [finger quotes] there are no details? Yet somehow, these nonexistent details create the big picture?

[slight, enigmatic smile] There is no big picture, either.

O.k., Yoda, now you’re just messing with me.

Calm down, apprentice. Perhaps you are familiar with Schrodinger’s cat, a thought experiment in quantum mechanics that posits we cannot know the state of a cat’s existence until it is observed? A similar concept applies here. If you observe (focus on) the big picture, then there are no details. Observe the details, voila, no big picture. We are incapable of focusing on both simultaneously. You know, can’t see the forest through the trees and all that.

So, there are details and there is a big picture, but never at the same time?

Think of it this way, the whole is the sum of its parts, right?

Right.

Wrong.

Oh, c’mon!

The whole and the parts are one and inseparable. While the whole may be considered as merely the sum of the parts, the whole is also the raison d’être for the parts. The parts cannot be conceived without the whole. So, the parts are as much of the whole as the whole is of the parts.

Uh…[hesitantly] yeah.

Let me give you an example. Most houses designed today are functional, but uninspired. And, frankly, uninspiring. Why? Because, when most people create a house, they focus on the big picture and work linearly to create the parts. They inevitably start by designing the floor plan, erroneously assuming that it is the most important aspect of a home. When the floor plan is complete, they extrude the walls up about 10 feet, throw in some windows and cover it with a roof.

But, dead Master, that is not great design. That is not even good design.

Of course not, but it is easy, and most people have neither the time, talent, training or patience to create good design. The focus is typically on expediency, speed and cost.  That is why we so value good design when we see it. It is rare.

Hey, this is starting to make some sense.

To craft an exceptional home, one must start by designing the whole and all the parts at the same time, the roof, the walls, the plan, the landscape, the kitchen, the exterior, and especially the three dimensional spaces. Each part affects the design of the whole, and in turn the whole affects each Part. Parts also affect other parts. It’s as though you are a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between parts, as they all slowly coalesce into a whole. The plan is but one piece of the whole.

Remember Schroedinger’s cat? Well, there are lots of ways to skin it, just like there are countless alternatives for a good floor plan. Why lock in on one plan at the expense of everything else? We must let all the parts of the home shape the plan, in addition to the plan shaping the parts. Keep in mind, we don’t live in plan. We live in three dimensions, and that is how we should design.

Now, I understand! This explains why I am always flustered when a potential client asks me to just “do a quick design” of a home to see if they like it before we get too far along in the process. I cannot do it because the process of good design does not allow it. How can I know what the exterior will look like when I haven’t designed the interior spaces? How can I design the interior spaces before I know how the landscape will affect the views from those spaces? It’s all a giant tapestry, or puzzle, where everything affects, and is affected by, everything else.

Very good. You have made much progress. I shall leave you with one last thought. All along you have assumed I was discussing architecture and design. You were so focused on the details of your own profession, instead of [finger quotes] the big picture, that you didn’t realize I was, in fact, actually talking about… life. 

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Tim Bjella

Principal architect and interior designer for Arteriors / Bjella Architecture.

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