The most formative class of my freshman year spring semester in college was Psychology 101. Although I only have a vague recollection of the professor’s introduction to Freud, Cognitive Dissonance, and Nature vs. Nurture, the concepts stuck. Sitting in the back of the lecture hall as an eighteen-year-old, oftentimes dozing, it was impossible to forecast the impact the survey class would have upon my future studies and upon my career.
With apologies to many scores of studio professors, critics, and mentors, our penchant for sincere collaboration with clients grows from the syllabus of Psychology 101. Freud tells us that our impulses all stem from childhood experiences. I submit this observation is especially true of our architectural impulses, and my case is a particularly acute example. I wonder whether I would have chosen architecture as a course of study had it not been for my childhood home. Even many years later, I can still draw with eyes closed the home’s floor plans, and I carry with me every day the deep emotions I felt and still feel for the house. Rotated forty-five degrees on its suburban lot, the modest house’s passive solar design and flat roofs were strikingly unusual. East Grand Rapids, Michigan, was conservative in almost every regard, and a charcoal gray (black) flat roofed house was far from ordinary. And yet, it turned out that our flat roof had little problem carrying snow loads, and leaks were no more common than those caused by ice dams at the pitched roofs of neighbors. My mother credited the house with inspiring her love of Halloween. Her decorations, mostly flying witches, were left up year-round. I had mixed feelings. As a young teen, it was my chore to clean the yolk residue from airborne eggs hurled on devil’s night. I suspect we would have been targeted less frequently if we lived in a Georgian colonial.
If I were reclining on a therapist’s couch, I am certain the Freudian analyst would encourage me to look deeper than a favored holiday. My desire to fit in, to ‘join the club’, and to be ‘normal’ is, in large measure, a backlash from the social unease caused by having two scientists for parents, by lighting the menorah and putting up a tree, and by being small for my age (for any age). It never seemed to bother my parents that they were Jimmy Carter supporters in Jerry Ford’s hometown, or that their retirement plan was to open an independent bookstore, and certainly not that we lived in a black house with a flat roof. The house was a visual testament to their desire to think and live differently. Together, my parents and my childhood home taught me many architectural lessons, and even more significantly, nurtured in me a willingness to take risks and to think for myself.
My design work is materially and specifically informed by my childhood, and many elements from that unusual house appear and reappear in our projects. The white brick fireplace and walls of books, the passive solar considerations, and the open kitchen in our current house, where I cook in my mother’s cast iron pans, are all derivative. Similarly, our clients come to us with strong aesthetic and functional preferences; many of which can be traced back to their childhoods. We are keen to learn these drivers, and just like analysts, we try to discover them in somewhat sneaky ways. Designing a home is an intimate process, and our clients need to be comfortable sharing their private wants and needs. We do not always get to the childhood roots, but we know they lurk under the surface. When we are fortunate to work on a multi-generational home – one for both parents, grandparents, and children – the Freudian reality of childhood mixed with aging can be dramatic. Designing a home that will stand for generations provides a platform for teaching when we are no longer here.
Another installment of Psychology 101, which I hazily and vividly recall, presented the theory of cognitive dissonance. A few years ago, many years after college and graduate school and with decades of professional practice under my belt, I wrote an essay entitled “Some People Hate Walnut” about the theory and its application in design. Paraphrasing the somewhat difficult to read Dr. Festinger (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance – Stanford University Press, 1962): most people believe when choosing between two or more options that their selection is the objective best, provided the individual has made an affirmative selection after reasonable engagement – more so than after a coin flip or deference to a superficial or subjective preference. Although people second guess themselves, they are much less likely to do so after actively engaging in the decision-making process. If a child is given two pairs of shoes from which to choose, and if the child is afforded enough time to evaluate and come to an affirmative decision, it is very rare for the child to wish they had selected the other pair. The exact same process exists when adults participate in residential design decisions. The more time we spend working collaboratively with our clients, reviewing, debating, considering, re-considering, and finally making decisions, the more certain we are that the decisions will be affirmed.
I like to think our Psychology 101 professor might have hoped we would connect Freud and Festinger. Many years later I found the connection in a third concept from the class brings them neatly together. Nature vs. Nurture captivates my architectural thinking. In simplest terms, childhood is nature, and actively engaged adulthood is nurture. As I do with form vs. function, I quibble with the conjunction vs. in nature vs. nurture. Just like form and function, these elements need not be oppositional to one another, but rather to be equally weighted for designs to be successful. Designing a home is deeply personal, and we seem to spend nearly as much time with our clients practicing a form of amateur therapy than we do discussing design specifics. Simplified, the role of the residential architect is to nurture our clients’ nature. We bring together form and function, balance head and heart, and combine nature and nurture to ensure that every home we design meets and exceeds our clients’ lofty expectations, even when these expectations seem to compete against one another.
A famous sign outside an architect’s office in Stonington, CT proves that I am not the only architect who sat in the back of a survey class as a college freshman and put these thoughts together.
Michael McKinley & Associates, LLC; Stonington, CT
From the firm’s website: “McKinley, who has a dry sense of humor, wasn’t afraid to express what architects and clients know to be true…residential architecture almost always involves some degree of “marriage counseling.” Designing a couple’s dream home can be emotionally charged with each individual placing importance on a specific room, layout and finish materials all while often facing budget constraints.”