Why must the villain in movies almost always live in a modern house?
One of the early lessons learned in architecture school is the issue of design and context. When introducing a project, our professors would allow us to choose if we were going to “respect the existing context” or “disturb the site” with our design. You would think that the persuasive word usage of “respect” vs “disturb” would have swayed us all towards a more positive, cooperative solution. Not so.
There were some students who would choose to respect. First understanding and working within the existing context of scale, materials, streetscape and building height. This group would arrive at a design that was creative, solution driven and most important, an improvement to the environment. Then you had the group who wanted the attention getting structure – something often out of scale, certainly unconventional in its form and construction and not coming close to being a good neighbor (and I must admit, early on I belonged to this group!). My reason for choosing this option was to use every creative trick there was in one building – “why waste it on being boring and conventional” I would think. As I have gained more experience and matured in my design anxiousness, I now lean more towards understanding and respecting an existing context. I sometimes question the motives of designers who knowingly choose to disrespect a neighborhood, community or its surroundings with a structure (house, building, etc.) that could be viewed as insensitive.
A modern house within an existing context. This image came from the blog Life of an Architect where the question is asked, is this house being a good neighbor?
This image could be from anywhere – these situations are present in almost every city…
Context is not only about neighborhoods. Sometimes it affects people and systems beyond the residential lot lines. The Walk Disney Concert hall underwent a $90k “renovation” in 2005 to remove “the shimmering stainless steel panels in an effort to reduce the heat reflected across the street to condominiums whose air conditioning system is being overwhelmed” (NPR).
The issue of appropriateness should be an underlying question every designer (interior designer, architect) visits often and responds to. Sometimes it IS appropriate to be the big, shiny building and sometimes it is the client that wants that iconic design. The intent of our profession is to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the general public while at the same time addressing a context, solving a problem and – my favorite part- making it beautiful. Creativity and expression should not take a back seat to these issues as there are plenty of superb examples of iconic designs that are good neighbors to its surroundings.
When a design is overdone or insensitive, it comes off like the man with too much cologne or the woman with too much make-up and jewelry. Simply inappropriate.