Where do design ideas come from?

Students discuss architecture and design in Havens House

On February 27, 2014, Berkeley Connect Architecture students were given the rare opportunity to visit Havens House, an architectural gem now owned by the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, to hear Professors Jean-Pierre Protzen and Andrew Atwood speak about design and architecture. Designed in 1940 by Harwell Hamilton Harris for the philanthropist John Weston Havens Jr., Havens House now serves as the guest house for visiting Architecture professors and stands as a model of sustainable design and twentieth-century California modernist architecture.

The climb to Havens House, located in the hills above the Berkeley campus, was an adventure in itself, as students walked up narrow stairs often hidden by the side of buildings and behind trees. When we finally arrived at Havens House, we were instructed to enter twenty at a time because of the fragility of the house and the narrow entryway. Supported by three inverted triangular trusses, the house looks as if it is floating on the hill. Inside, the house is not only beautiful and simple, but home to a lot of history – including a mural painted by Patricia Fudger during World War II, an impressive library of classic books, and a collection of vintage records.

After the students explored the house, the discussion began in earnest. When asked about design, Professor Protzen replied, “Design is a solution to a problem. The proposed solution depends on the problem.” To illustrate his point, Protzen brought up a possible problem – traffic jams. One solution may be to create more lanes, but if the reason, for example, is that people are “addicted to cars,” such a problem requires a completely different solution and a completely different design.  “What makes design difficult is there is no definite formulation,” Protzen remarked. Nor is it permanent, as Protzen pointed out, noting, for example, DDT – a pesticide once marveled for its efficiency before scientists came to understand its harmful effects on our health. “The process spirals through appreciation, action, and re-appreciation. That’s where ideas come from.”

Professor Atwood, on the other hand, believed that design ideas come from the world around us – specifically from the things that interest us, things that “grab our attention and refused to be ignored.” According to Atwood, we must be critical to find these ideas. “Identifying why we are interested is the first step,” Atwood noted. But what does it mean to be critical? “It means not only to judge something, but to unpack it and learn from it.” For Atwood, it is the history of architecture that interests him most and where he finds his inspiration. He especially loves to find an old thing and re-invent it with new technology, citing a project where he and his partner re-built a classical column with modern industrial materials.

The professors also shared how they discovered their passions. For both, it was not an easy or expected path. “There will be a time you will stare at a blank page or blank screen. And sometimes you have to invent your own problems.” Atwood advised.

These words really resonated with one student – a senior currently working on her portfolio – who said, “Architecture gives us the luxury of forging our own paths because there are so many options. But that is also what makes architecture so challenging.” The professors agreed. “What’s great about the undergraduate architecture program at UC Berkeley is that it doesn’t just provide vocational training, but a perspective,” Atwood noted. Protzen added, “Architecture provides a vantage point from where you can understand anything.”

But what makes architecture different from other design, a student asks? According to Protzen, there is no easy answer. “Design is thinking before you act. So many people design without knowing they are designing. And architecture is a specific kind of design, but there is tremendous overlap with other fields.’

The professors and students also discuss sources of inspiration – for many, it’s design blogs! – as well as design theory. Atwood noted that design today is very different than in the past. “What is interesting to me is that we are surrounded by images. There is such easy access to images, and that creates both a great amount of images and great complexity.” They also discuss the pressure to be innovative. “Is that a hindrance?,” Berkeley Connect Architecture Fellow Sharone Tomer asked professors. “I don’t see it as a hindrance. I see it as a challenge,” Protzen said. Atwood agreed. “When I work, I try to put something challenging in front of me, to find things that aren’t very comfortable in the beginning,” he said.

Finally, a student asks, “When do you stop designing?” For Atwood, it’s never. “There are some projects that are ongoing and I suppose they will only end when I die. Others, there are deadlines. But I don’t think it will ever really stop for me,” Atwood answered.

A great discussion about architecture and design in a house that exemplifies it!


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant