Sunday, May 06, 2007


Working in a world of creative production has many real and imagined perks. The chance to be a designer is, to many I speak to, something admired, even envied. “You get to create things!” they enthusiastically say, a wistful look in their eyes. “It must be so amazing.”

In school, perhaps more than any where else, that was true. Days, months, years, spent pursuing the creation of things. It was, indeed, a wonderful way to get a diploma. The models and drawings I have scattered across the multiple places of my past are a testament to that. Oh the secrets those junkyards hold.

But, while creation was always given, creativity was quite a different matter. In school, it was the one thing I constantly struggled with – the idea of creativity. A constant question sat at the back of my mind; was I really being creative, or was I just remaking someone else’s inspiration?

Inevitably, the first week in your new studio will be filled with precedents. Studies of what has come before. You build a quick history of your building, a review of what has come before, what people have admired, what works. You make drawings, analyzing the spaces, the ideas, the programs, of others. And you do this work faithfully, in the hopes of finding inspiration and learning from what you have seen. Why remake the wheel, they say.

I thoroughly enjoyed precedent work. The mining, the analysis, the conjecture. It was time dedicated to the discovery of purpose, meaning, intent. Not just, well, if it was pretty. It was to appreciate a building for both its successes and its failures, and gather insights that could inform future design work.

But, once the design work began, I often found myself hesitant in the avenues I would pursue. Was the layout too much like a house by Paktau Architects? Wasn’t this double layer façade nearly identical in detail to that of Renzo Piano? Weren’t these forms a bit too reminiscent of Zaha Hadid’s graphic paintings? I battled a flood of uncertainty, second-guessing, doubt. Moments when I wished that those images, those ideas, of all those precedents could be purged, with a simple click, from the random access memory of my mind.

Originality. Does it exist? In the truest sense of the word? That was the constant challenge heralded by out professors. Be Original. Propose new and inspired ideas about how one might live, work, exist. Think Outside the Box.

The irony of their words, a cliché used to promote innovation, underlies the conundrum of creative, well, creation. I believe that any artist, be in architecture or some other creative field, aspires for moments of divine, transcendent, inspiration. To be the proprietor of revolutionary ideas that might just transform the world. To be a Picasso, a Gaudi – to generate a movement, rather than be apart of one. Okay, that might be a bit grandiose, but you never hear of a designer aspiring to be a copycat, do you?

The line between inspiration and imitation is thin. Especially when you hear “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” running through your head. As a student, you have leeway. You are learning, growing, as a designer. Exposing yourself to the ideas, forms, images of established artists assists in expanding the way you might see the world. Hopefully, by trying some ideas out, you broaden your expectations and abilities, finding, in the process your own hybrid, your own vision, to explore in your work.

In the professional world, I always imagined the line to be much more defined. After all, there are the whole legal issues of infringement and what not. Plus, wasn’t the point of establishing your own firm, or career, about defining your own approach to building and design?

But, I realize, working, that the line is perhaps even more tenuous. The collusion of client desires, economics and time make flattery an easy way out. You can’t bill for excess hours of thinking. So you find inspirations to show the client, visuals to help them understand your vision. Until the images hijack your meeting, and the client fixates on what sits before them, rather than what you are trying to imagine for them.

Perhaps that is why movements begin, why suddenly an obscure idea seems to be everywhere. The rise of blobs, the “new” modernism, going green. Somewhere an idea was born, one that some adventurous soul pushed forward, and with client support, got built. And seeing the idea built inspired others to try versions like their own, eventually moving the ideas into the realm of the popular. The “I want that” phenomenon.

Not to say that participants in movements are just copying the progenitor. They are likely adding a spin to the ideas percolating in the collective pot of shared knowledge. But there are still those moments when you look at something and say, “doesn’t that look a lot like….” I look back at my own work and see the strong influences of those who I studied. Sometimes that disappoints me. Other times, it inspires me, showing me how much I have developed from those moments of my design infancy.

I still struggle daily, sitting at my computer, working out details with a copy of Graphic Standards by my side. Is this creativity? Tweaking generic details to fit my needs? How much change makes this work my work, and not a copy of another’s? And will I ever have a moment when a book can’t help me, and I will be left, on my own, to find a solution? I look forward to that moment with anxiety and expectation. I dream that I will rise above the challenge, and really invent something unique. I fear that, at that critical moment, I’ll choke. But the moment has been elusive, as of yet. And for my past work, I still see little to make me feel comfortable calling myself an architect. I don’t know if I will ever feel comfortable referring to myself with such a title.

But, if one day, in my old age, I find someone’s work bearing a remarkable likeness to my own, I might just be able to. Well…that’s as long as they, in some way, acknowledge me as a reference.