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Architects as Translators April 16, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, books, creativity, essence, pragmatism, problem solving, questions, reading, transformation.
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So much of what we do is listen to the stories of our clients and reinterpret them into physical form. If we can demonstrate to our clients that we understand their story by, in turn, telling them a story about their building and how it achieves their vision and mission, then we can create truly powerful places.

Grace Kim

Architects do many things that others – and they themselves – take for granted.

To name but a few:

Architects synthesize, orchestrate and transform.

They facilitate, collaborate and innovate.

They form-give, order-make (some would wryly add, order-take) and problem-solve.

Architects are seers, polymaths and integrators (the future belongs to the integrators.)

Architects are by necessity optimists, predisposed to act, and at one and the same time both product- and process-oriented in their thinking.

They see – and are able to zoom in and out of – the big picture and minutest detail at once.

Architects are systems thinkers, visionary pragmatists and create the elusive wow effect.

They design buildings, the spaces between buildings and the interfaces between people.

Architects do more with less; make the complex simple and look easy and the invisible apparent.

They see things that to others just aren’t there – but that they alone can see.

Architects make connections; celebrate and make apparent the meeting of materials and systems.

Architects make meaning out of bricks and sticks where only an empty lot existed before.

But perhaps the most miraculous thing architects do – is translate.

Q/A with an Architect-as-Translator

Q: What do architects translate?

A: Words into images into buildings. Some would say: Words into 3D digital models built of database spreadsheets filled with…words. Words to images and back to words again.

Q: What else do they translate?

A: Other people’s dreams, ideas and needs into a cohesive, comprehensive, meaningful whole. And sometimes for themselves. User requirements into a vision. Chaos into order. Architects listen and translate information into a meaningful medium the client understands.

Q: How do architects translate?

A: They observe. They listen. They’re receptive to other’s input.

Q: But how do they do it?

A: No one really knows how it happens – the magical synthesis, the transformation. It’s alchemy.

Q: Is translation strictly a right brain activity? Left brain? Or does it use both sides of the brain?

A: Yes. Yes. And yes. Architects think of translation as a bridge – moving from one modality to another. They bridge one medium to another; one stage of development to another.

Q: Are architects alone in this ability? Is the ability to translate unique to architects?

A: To architects…and translators. No one besides the architect that I am aware of has been able to bridge words and thoughts into images – let alone into 3-dimensional objects – that (purportedly) keep the rain out.

Q: How do architects acquire this ability?

A: Architects first learn to translate words, user needs and directions into spaces, images and form while in school. The irony is – while translation can be learned – it cannot be taught. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment when the architect learns the art of translation. Most do not even realize that they have acquired this transformative skill – going a long way to explain why they take their ability to do so for granted.

Q: Architects interpret – is this the same as translate?

A: Depends on your interpretation. Architects reinterpret.

Q: What do you call translating that involves associative thinking? As when a refrigerator is compared with a cat because: they both contain fish, they both purr and they both have tails.

A: Deluded? Some call it creative thinking. If you were paid for that thought? Design thinking.

Q: What is the future of this architect ability?

A: With gadgets and no-cost services available for translating languages, it would seem that the architect’s mercurial ability to translate written or spoken directions into both analog and digital neck-craning spaces and worlds is just an appa way. But in truth it cannot be replicated except in others who are given – or give themselves – the opportunity to learn it. With the current emphasis on digital technology, architects seldom freehand draw and have lost the ability to translate in front of others.

Q: Where do you recommend I start?

A: Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman – translator of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and many of the major works of García Márquez –  a just-released book in the same Yale U Press “Why X Matters” series as Why Architecture Matters, won’t teach you to be a better translator of words into images and form. But in that it argues for the importance of translation and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role – the architect may pick-up a thing or two about this little appreciated, misunderstood and taken-for-granted ability of theirs. Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work is noteworthy and compelling and ought to rub-off on the architect. But then again, that’s my interpretation.


For Having Made the Journey March 8, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in change, survival, the economy, transformation, transition.
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With Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser has written a book that is capable of changing ones outlook on life, and it is hard to think of a better guide and companion to have in these trying times.

I wouldn’t waste your time if this book wasn’t on my short list of most important books I’ve read. This is one of those rare books that will have you grappling with what to do with yourself once you have come to the last page. Subtitled “how difficult times can help us grow,” this is perhaps not the first book you might think of turning to when seeking answers to the questions life throws your way. But perhaps it ought to be?

Frequent words used to describe the book have been extremely well-written, clever, honest, entertaining, inspiring and transformative. Lesser, calling this last process of transformation “The Phoenix Process,” illustrates in clear and evocative prose how difficult times really can help us grow. Her image of the Phoenix rising from the ashes may resonate with some, for ashes are perhaps an apt metaphor for the times in which we live now – what has been done to our economy and environment – and will soon with some luck be building upon and growing out from.

This book of stories from Lesser’s life – and those of her well-known colleagues – told in short chapters has been on bookstore shelves since 2004 but it is only now that the bulk of people are discovering it, perhaps because they are seeing through different eyes than in the mid-decade halcyon days. These stories illustrate how times of pain and strife can awaken us to new ways of living more meaningful lives, offering a humanistic understanding of what it means to seek, grow, evolve and endure until we can ourselves each transform.

One of the themes of this book is the nature of life as change and constant transition. Other helpful books that explore this theme of thriving in times of change, that we will explore in a future post, include Your Job Survival Guide: A Manual for Thriving in Change, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within and Learning as a Way of Being, evocatively subtitled Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water. Lesser’s book is in some ways perhaps less practical – but it is more immediate and really ought to be read first.

As in now. Lesser’s mission is to help the reader see how fear and pain are normal reactions to crisis. Lesser acknowledges the unbearable and out-of-control nature of the crisis and loss experience and helps the reader grow in confidence that she will come through it all, lucid and stronger for having made the journey.

Architects everywhere, whether employed, under or un, sense that they will need to grow from this experience professionally and personally if they are to come out of it stronger. Whether every-man-for-himself in the office or lone-man-out at home, these times can no doubt be lonely ones. Lesser’s book provides the reader good company and just may give you the courage to keep on facing reality, being present with your feelings, and have your mind quieting down as if your life depended on it. Most importantly, it will allow you to understand that you are not the only one going through some drastic changes in life at this time in a way that, even if you rationally know that to be the case, you can understand emotionally, on a deeper level.

Written by someone who was willing to learn from her experiences, it is hoped that Broken Open will inspire you to write down and learn from your own – not so you won’t repeat them – but so you can perhaps give meaning to your personal and professional experiences, for yourself and for others. And, as it will have you feeling less inhibited about sharing those experiences, perhaps after putting the book down you will find yourself helping others through their own tough times through coaching and mentoring, serving as a resource or by simply shoring up support.