Architecture – The Rationalisation of Whimsy

Posted by on Jun 7, 2019 in Architecture

Architecture – The Rationalisation of Whimsy

I set myself quite a challenge with such a ridiculously pretentious title, but it got stuck in my head.  Even if you think I’m crazy, hopefully something in this will resonate.

Architects often have to give explanations for why we do things.  We write design statements, giving reasoned justification for our proposals.  But does it really work that way?

Growing up, my dad often used a quote by the science fiction author, Robert Heinlein:

“Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalising animal”.

We come up with rational explanations for our whimsical decisions.

In the film “Inception”, Cobb says to Ariadne “Well, imagine you’re designing a building, all right? You consciously create each aspect, but sometimes it feels like it’s almost creating itself, if you know what I mean.”

Or as Daniel Liebeskinde describes it, “Creating a space that we’ve never entered except in our minds and our spirits.”

But this muse is a hard taskmaster.  Like a dream it only gives the skeleton, the outline, and compels us to put flesh on the bones and bring it to life.

When designing our project at John o’Groats I initially started with accommodation schedules and efficient layouts and was getting nowhere.  It just looked like a Travelodge.

Then I casually made a sketch – what about something like this?

I then had to explain why.

And that is when images of beach huts and Nordic harbours were produced.

They may have been in there subconsciously, but the explanation came after the idea.

But it’s not just “why” that matters – then comes the months of work of working out “how”. The whimsical idea gets subjected to the constraints of reality, regulations and cost savings.

The challenge in each round of rationalisation is to remember and keep sight of the initial vision – however much it gets modified and refined.  It is all too easy for it to be killed by the process.

And then you just hope that people somehow “get it”.  Not that they read the explanations and understand it, but that they enjoy entering that world that existed only in your imagination.

In another project, we were creating a master bedroom suite in a house for a fund manager and a musician.

The house was modern, bright and airy throughout.  But the wife also wanted drama in her daily life.

And so, the whimsical idea of creating the toilet as a contrasting small dark space pierced with coloured windows a la Ronchamp.

This didn’t need an explanation – it was just a piece of fun.  But it still needed to be turned into reality – to be refined by the rigour of geometry and construction and also some of the constraints needed to be questioned – does a toilet cistern really need to be centred?

And so, the result – unfortunately the dramatic contrast was compromised the husband’s insistence on travertine instead of slate.

Drama elsewhere in the house is created with open ceilings, stepped floor levels, large windows and coloured lighting.

Sometimes design is seen purely as solutions to problems – solving the equation and coming up with an answer that meets all the requirements – but there is no time taken to wonder “what if” – could this be something more?

Sometimes instead – there is a whimsical idea (a quite fun one at that) that is fixed on and imposed on the requirements whether they fit or not.

When this happens, people just ask “Why?”

So how do you keep the whimsy alive – prevent it being killed by the daily pressures of reality?

Firstly, by feeding it – by experiencing and enjoying the works of others – built, carved, painted, sung, written.  And secondly by exercising it.  Doodling is vital – allowing the mind to wander, to dream, to conjure up spaces, structures, details – possible solutions to future problems.

This was originally given as a Pecha Kucha (link – talk with 20 seconds for each of 20 slides.  It has been slightly edited for the blog.

Neil McAllister

Associate Director