July 21, 2011 | bfeldman | Architects

Remembering Context

While recently researching hospital wayfinding strategies I came across a quote by the late, great Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, designer of the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art, and father of Eero Saarinen, designer of our beloved St. Louis Arch.  The quote reads “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”  Saarinen’s message is simple and concise: he is basically asking us to “zoom out”.

As designers, I think it is easy tEliel Saarineno overlook this question of context when working on a project.  Often times one gets consumed in minutia, gets caught in the details (which are important too) but forgets that every decision requires consideration of a larger context, or requires “zooming out,” so to speak.

As a graduate student of architecture I was overwhelmed with the message of zooming out, especially during my thesis semester.  My peers and I joked about the scale of our thesis proposals…professors were never satisfied with mere designs for 100,000 s.f. schools or the ever-popular thesis proposal for the “transit hub”.  No, you had to be able to answer the question of the project’s context!  How does your transit hub connect to every other transit hub, how does your school fit within the larger urban fabric?  At the time I think my classmates and I were all eager to finish our huge projects and return to the real world, where one usually works at a more manageable scale, and always in collaboration with other designers within an office setting.

But as I research hospital signage I find that I am forced to face (once again) this issue of zooming out.  You see, my professors’ and Mr. Saarinen’s messages really are quite profound:  one simply cannot solve architectural problems without considering context, without zooming out, no matter the scale of the project.  The truth of the matter is that zooming out is probably even more important today, as our physical environment evolves with globalization, than it probably was when Mr. Saarinen first uttered his famous words decades ago.

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