Self-Knowledge

/ Isobel Lutz-Smith / Arts & Culture

There is a common misconception that architects design architecture for themselves. This impression might be the result of media focus on a few individuals, and because the efforts of the full design team are overlooked it seems as if one person does everything. The client is vital to the team. Architects design to reflect client needs, by drawing out a full understanding of these needs through a briefing process.

What do we mean by briefing? One way of understanding a brief would be to equate it to a list, not a shopping list but what you need a building to do for you. A list of these requirements might include how much space you want for an activity, what temperature you want that space to be, whether you want daylight or darkness.

We think there is however another level of briefing, which we call ‘intimate briefing’. At this level we seek to uncover the aspirations and dreams of our clients. Architecture is more than just the built result of hard quantifiable facts. There is a hidden ‘soft’ qualitative aspect to simple lists, which we aim to discover. As our colleague Sarah Jane Storrie puts it : "how to bring out the joy in between the schedules and lists".

Finding that joy is not as difficult as it might seem at first – there are techniques that we can use to get under the skin of the schedules and lists. One we like is drawing up a chart which describes how the current spaces the client is in are valued on a scale of 1 to 10. A simple follow up question of what they would like the score to be can create a whole range of amusing and useful discussions. For example, the simple act of acknowledging that within a score of 1 their space is dreary and dark and they would prefer a bright airy space with a score of 9 maybe self-evident, but often a simple statement provokes fresh thoughts.

Different projects provide different levels of opportunity to engage our briefing processes. In some cases, such as the Woodside Health Centre, we are initially provided with a mass of ‘hard’ briefing documents within which we have to discover aspirations for the ‘soft’. We use different methods tailored to the individual situation whether that commences with inquisitive workshops for all those concerned, as used for the Glasgow Academy Science Building, or observations of existing work patterns as used for the development of new offices for New Gorbals Housing Association. For Dovecot Studios the initial requirement to review their storage led to other significant improvements in their spaces as a result of the enquiry processes we used.

The briefing process informs both the client and ourselves, making us both more self-aware. The client’s ambitions have been documented, their ideas for their new space confirmed on paper. `We – the architects – are working with tangible and fully expressed client requirements which serve as a constant reminder of our purpose in design. We see this self-knowledge as a foundation for the subsequent evolution of the project.