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Uncomfortable Architecture

Jul 31, 2017 08:32PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

After more than 20 years designing homes, working with dozens of homeowners and countless architectural proposals for commissions, I thought I understood what is desired in a home. As an architect with my own practice, I had always marketed my studio as delivering home designs personalized to a family’s unique character.

But, I may have it all wrong.

For the past couple of months, this series of articles has been exploring the nature of architecture, and I concluded that it is the layering of meaning in experience. Architecture is an interactive thing, resonating individually by one’s own involvement with it, colored by past experiences and life memories. In short, it touches on the emotions, which are always dependent on a particular time and place.

Naturally, this would lead me to believe that the experience of architecture is a very personal endeavor, and that the design of a home would be best served when it reflects one’s individuality. So, for the last two decades I have been striving to do just that. Trying to find out what makes each family unique, what are their daily habits, their aspirations, their quirks, their tastes. I believed that a home designed with every detail derived from a family’s own story, right down to the slightest nuance, would provide them with the most personalized, the most enjoyable, the most comfortable home.

However, this view may be too simplistic, not taking into account the true depths of the human condition. As my 14-year-old son put it (with no architectural experience), “If a house design is personalized too much, people may feel too exposed, afraid of being judged by their friends knowing more about them.”

He may be right. For a home to bring comfort, it must first provide a sense of protection: protection from judgmental friends, just as much as protection from the rain overhead. And a personalized home, one that conforms to a family, may prove to be uncomfortable for a family that prefers to conform.

This changed everything I thought I knew about the nature of a home. All of my education as an architect, all of the services I thought to be offering beyond the monotony of production houses built for the masses, this was all wrong. There is a reason why houses that look exactly like one’s neighbor’s house sell best on the market; why so few homeowners employ architects to design something new or original.

Individuality is no longer valued in our society. Our social nature and desire to be a part of the group is more important in today’s culture. Maybe it has always been that way. The fear of standing out from the crowd overpowers any possible praise for individual achievement. We are content to follow, rather than taking on risk by leading.

The stories we tell each other about the great visionaries of history, are told to fit in, not to be the trailblazer—someone who sets the trends, finding their own path. We are not envious of their spirit, their passion to change the world. We are more afraid of their possible failures, of being left out in the cold by not following accepted standards, protocols, the right way of doing things. The selfies we take are not forging new ground; they are taken in places we all go, the sights we have all seen, the preprinted postcards of the digital age. These are the experiences we have, the communal experience, not the individualized. We are about the sharing, not the exploration.

And maybe that is best. Why should we strive to be something different, to think differently from the group, to question the way things have always been done? Life is hard enough as it is. Why take on more difficulty?

As a people, we are naturally resistant to change. The status quo is far easier. All of these innovations and advancements in society do not bring pleasure, as much as they bring pain. Always one more thing we must learn to do differently, another burden we must adjust to make smooth again. The newest gadget, this season’s latest look, the race to keep up is more exhausting than any reward gained by doing so.

Returning from work at the end of the day, pulling the company car into the garage of the four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home is really all we want. A place to retreat, to hide away from the prying eyes scrutinizing our life and choices we have made. In the end, all that is needed of a house is one that disappears, camouflages, provides cover from a social media culture that never sleeps.

As an architect, to design a personalized home that stands out on the block is a disservice, irresponsible, negligent. If I truly understand my client, if I honestly believe to represent their best interests, then invisibility is the most important characteristic to provide comfort in a home. The architecture of an invisible house is no less intimate, no less meaningful, no less nuanced. In fact, it is quite the opposite–to craft a home that so skillfully blends into the neighborhood, having just the right accents and trimmings to appear appropriate while not calling too much attention to itself, is not a simple thing. This takes great effort to pull off, sweating the details, surveying the trends and taking care not to be dated.

Architecture hasn’t changed; it is still defined by meaningful experience, resonating in a deeply memorable way. I simply misunderstood which experience to craft into a home. I didn’t see what was most meaningful and sought after. Then again, an invisible house is not so easy to see.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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