Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Art of Procrastination

“There is no ‘try.’ Do or do not." – Yoda

There’s a fine line between waiting for inspiration and just putting stuff off. There’s a time to wait and a time to just do it. There’s a time for deliberation and a time for decisive action. Success might hinge on being able to properly identify which is the proper course.

When designing, a graph of the energy of my process is sometimes decidedly an inverse bell: starting off by immersing myself in the design problem – site, program, users, doing research on precedents – and then leaving it behind to pursue something else entirely, followed by a burst of production in the last part of the phase or project to document and communicate the solutions.

Some may say that’s just a symptom of an attention deficit, which is at least somewhat true in my case, but I firmly believe we have the ability to subconsciously process information in the background. I’ve spoken to designers who almost rely on this as part of their process, while others insist nothing happens unless they are actively (reading; writing; but for architects, typically drawing) attending to the problem.

There’s a great story about Frank Lloyd Wright involving the design of his 1935 masterpiece Fallingwater for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann. The story has been told often by the Taliesin Fellows who worked with Wright at the time. Kaufmann unexpectedly called Wright at Taliesin North in Wisconsin to advise he was in Milwaukee (at the time three hours from Taliesin) and on his way over to see the first drawings for his proposed creekside summer house in rural southwest Pennsylvania. Wright reportedly responded, “Come on over, Edgar; we’ll be waiting for you!” The Fellows panicked, never having seen one drawing of the house to date, even though Wright had had the site survey in hand for some time. Wright, hanging up the phone, sat down and within three hours had produced rough versions of the floor plans, major elevations and a building section of the three-level, stepped-back and cantilevered house. Kaufmann arrived, Wright shared the drawings and then took Kaufmann to another part of the house for lunch while the apprentices produced the famous colored pencil-on-trace perspective from a viewpoint below the falls over which the house is perched.

Is it possible that Wright produced the building completely in his mind before he ever picked up the pencils that day? I think most creative people would agree that it quite possible, though it’s unlikely to be very common.

Over my career in design, both in training and at work, I’ve experienced both scenarios wherein a design solution would be developed almost on its own with little conscious work while another project would only respond to constant attention and effort. I’ll say there is something quite satisfying in the flash of awareness that says “I got it now; I understand it completely – all I need to do is get it on paper!”

Of course, this process of latent development can be a problem in professional practice where concrete results and steady progress are expected by partners and project Owners. Billing cycles, banks, investors and markets don’t wait for flashes of inspiration. While we designers may be comfortable with what’s in our heads, clients only know what they can see and respond to.

This may well be why some architects are most comfortable in boutique practices with a more patronizing clientele. They aren’t being irresponsible or lacking in ambition; it’s more likely that they prefer to respond to their internal schedules and seek out clients more open to this kind of process.

As a project manager who sometimes produces the design solution himself rather than guide others I often struggle with the desire to process in the background while having to produce drawings and a report for the Very Important Meeting at 8 AM Monday. I keep wanting that Fallingwater experience but find that since I don’t own my practice and am not the World’s Greatest Living Architect (as Wright once billed himself), I don’t have the luxury of dictating my schedule or output.

To be sure, the solutions are not always Fallingwater-grade nor even aesthetic in nature. Sometimes the problem is purely functional – making space needs and adjacencies align to make a cohesive floor plan is a common issue – but no less important for it. A project requires dozens of similar moves; the solutions may arrive holistically or piecemeal and one solution will drive another. One has to be open to the ebb and flow but always keep in mind the greater overall theme – all parts must work toward the whole.

The challenge to a creative professional is in balancing these apparently oppositional needs. I believe it’s possible to manage one’s time and energy in a way that allows for both – processing subconsciously and making demonstrable progress. In a human-centered practice, it’s the most responsible way to act. Project Owners can either be educated to understand the creative process - or not - as they see fit. It’s up to the project team to understand the Owners’ attitudes and adjust its process accordingly.

One can make room in his or her project schedule and day to allow inspiration to happen. It often comes at odd moments anyway – in the car or shower, or in the middle of some other completely unrelated task or event. Sometimes the inspiration is triggered by something about the unrelated task; sometimes it’s allowed to come to the surface by the chore’s undemanding nature (washing dishes and mowing the lawn have worked for me on several occasions!). Maybe the answer lies in creating the time and space in which the serendipitous might happen.

However, the tasks of creating project milestones and managing fee and time budgets around this process are complicated and stressful, itself creating a barrier to truly creative work. This may be one reason why architecture is ranked somewhere near oil field work in terms of mental stress! That stress is also hard for others to understand, which has the unfortunate effect of adding yet another layer of stress in a negative feedback loop.

There’s no ready or easy solution to this problem, but firm and project leadership can do much to create an atmosphere that supports the team members’ personal work styles. It might involve including quiet spaces in the office or better even encouraging the team to leave the office completely to fuel reflection and creativity. Project managers can work with the team and project Owners to define milestones in a way that allows for flexibility in both schedule and presentation (we tend to box ourselves in by narrowly describing deliverables – X kinds and Y numbers of Drawings delivered by Z date in the stated interest of managing expectations and fees, though I suspect the result is often great ideas left behind in a young designer’s frustrated mind).

It’s interesting and a little sad that a profession that touts its creativity seems very disinterested in really exploring this gap between creative desire and practical professional needs. It’s not very different from its slowness to embrace the newest technologies and delivery methods that might have within them the keys to bridging this very same gap.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Clear and Present Compassion

The rain was starting as I left the office.

It had been one of those days where I stayed close to my desk, so I wasn't aware of the falling temperatures and rain that had sprinkled the city all day.

I left the office around six; not really late by architect standards, though I had arrived at the office at 7 AM. It had been a busy, productive day and I was tired, looking forward to the decompression of the drive home.

As I walked to my car, I heard her through the breeze and traffic, the call forced through sobs.

"Excuse me. Sir?! Excuse me!"

Shields up, Mr. Sulu, my brain said, though a part of me was embarrassed for my brain's reaction. I stopped and looked down the alley to her approaching, carrying a cloth tote. Her clothes were clean and mismatched; her hair dark and short. She was wearing a too-large warmup jacket over her T-shirt and sweat pants.

I said hello and she poured out her story, the story I was positive was well - honed to shame the listener into giving her a few dollars: stranded here by my boyfriend who took my truck and debit card, eighteen, three months pregnant, hadn't eaten for two days,sleeping under a bridge for two nights, the shelters are only for men or battered women. It was every panhandler story ever told - almost over the top in its depth and delivery, the Neil Peart drum solo of begging.

I've been in this place can't work in a downtown without interacting with the homeless population. I will either engage them or ignore them, with the usual rush of mixed emotions both good and bad no matter what I do.

But for some reason, in this case, it rang all too true. I watched her eyes and face and gestures as her story unfolded, the tears and gulps and shivering...and the bulge in her tummy that was a little too round to be malnutrition.

At that moment, I really had no choice. I steered us toward a nearby overhang to get out of the rain.

"What's your name?" Allyson and I shook hands. "Allyson, what do you need?"

"I haven't eaten, and the hotel I've stayed at before will rent me a room for $20 a night. The lady from the church gave me clean clothes but I want to take a shower before I put them on..."

"Where's the hotel?" She mentioned a place a few miles outside of downtown. "The lady from the church gave me bus passes so I can get around;" she showed me a stack of passes. This was starting to add up.

Trying to remain cautious, I was still becoming more comfortable with the situation. The rain cleared and the warm sun peeked through the clouds as we walked to a nearby sandwich shop; she was only able to eat a third of the large sub, probably because her stomach had shrunk from not eating, I teased her. We chatted about our families and homes; I learned she had been in college in Rhode Island, wanted to be a pediatrician; her parents had passed away but she had uncles she could live with once she got back. The church she was working with was raising money to get her back there - she didn't like our city.

I encouraged her to eat as much as she could for her baby, but she neatly wrapped the remainder of her sandwich and stowed it in her bag.

"Where will you get the bus to the hotel?" Allyson mentioned a nearby park. "There's a large group of homeless people there, and the lady from the church brings us clothes and blankets and things."

I insisted we walk there together so I could meet her "neighbors." I wanted to be sure, as much as I could, that she would be safe - and ensure Captain Kirk up in the bridge that at least some part of this story was true.

On the way, she told me about two of her fellow homeless who watch our for her - an older lady and a young man whose dog really loves her. Sure enough, as we entered the park and approached the community who were starting the process of settling in for the evening (Allyson told me this was one of the parks where the homeless felt safe), a little pit bull mix shot out of the group and ran up to Allyson, jumping up against her, leaving muddy pawprints on her gray sweat pants.

Allyson introduced me to Joe, a sturdy fellow who looked in his late twenties. He had clear eyes and a good handshake, though he glanced away a lot as we spoke. I imagined what was going through his head.

We talked a little while Allyson and the dog played. Yes; Allyson has been here a while but she's okay, and he'll take care of her.

I turned back to Allyson, whose pants were now really muddy. I gave her the rest of my money - enough for her hotel room and another meal or two.

"Allyson, I'm going to leave, since you're here with Joe and your friends. I'm going to ask you for just a couple things, okay?"

"Take care of yourself and your baby. No drugs. No alcohol. Eat as well as you can."

She looked at me intently, her face firm, her eyes clear, steady, locked in.

"No sir."

"Last: when you get on your feet, maybe when you're a doctor - whenever. Do this for someone else. That's it. That's all I'm going to ask in return."

We parted on a handshake and wishes for God's blessings. As I walked the few blocks back to my car and my way home, I decided that it was time to fish or cut bait.

I'm not a Christian; I'm squarely agnostic on even the idea of a god. But I believe in the reality of Great Teachers - Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mom, Dad. They all teach the same lessons:

There is nothing greater than Love.
Compassion is how that Love is expressed.
Compassion requires that we not judge.
You reap what you sow.

When I've given money to beggars I've had people insist I've been ripped off, lied to, the money used for booze or drugs. I've come to firmly believe that's not the point. If I was deceived, I'm only out the money. The other person has lost his integrity and (see above) will have to face the karmic music.

I'm done judging. I'm tired of comparing myself to others. It wastes energy and time I could spend on more productive efforts, like working to make other people's lives a little better through design, volunteering, or just trying to be a little bit more like those Great Teachers.

I'm not there yet; there's still a lot of work to do - there always will be, but I think I've made a start with Allyson.