AIA Blog Off: History at the Heart of Design

by Fallon Burgdorf and Caitlin Walsh for the American Institute of Architects #AIA2012 Blog Off

During the week of March 25 – 31, architectural bloggers and design professionals create blog posts to discuss the topic: “Design Connects”.

Family Tree PhotographEveryone has a history. It is an integral part of our existence. History reminds us of where we’ve been, and hints at where we are going. It is the blueprint of our being. The impact of history is not limited to humanity; history is also an essential component of the design of our environment. Design expresses history – the time periods, movements, emotions, and events that we have all experienced throughout time. This inherent past connects people and cultures to form tight emotional bonds with otherwise inanimate objects, born from idea. Design connects us not strictly through aesthetics, but also in its representation of our shared history, both physically and emotionally.

Underneath the aesthetic surface of design is a rich visual history that creates an inherent connection with everyone who experiences it, consciously or not. Design details and architectural elements are not just independent, sporadic, and disconnected ideas. Rather, their roots stem from past influences. Similar to one looking back through their ancestry to learn where their physical traits came from, design acts as a “family tree’’ revealing lineage and references from the past. Whether a particular style, a certain color, or use of material – past, present, and future are revealed through these physical characteristics.

Though the aesthetic may differ, we are able to experience and relate to the physicality of various designs because those past references are directly attached; the story imbedded within design appeals to us all. No matter what that initial reaction toward the physical design itself, the history behind the design intent is what draws us in on an intuitive level. Because it’s not strictly a look that grabs our attention, but the story of its inherent past that allow us to, consciously or subconsciously, formulate a bond.

The physicality of our built history is not the only way in which design connects people. Emotions, values, and movements throughout time are also embedded within design. As inherently passionate creatures, humans develop feelings and emotional ties to things we feel are important. It is this emotional propensity that further elevates design from a strictly physical sense to an intellectual level, able to signify powerful emotions, movements, and values throughout time. But not any one particular design element alone can fully convey these values; the collective design expression is where these emotions lie. For example, one may have a preference for expansive front porches that recall wonderful past memories of a childhood home. Another may have a tendency toward “green” and “eco-friendly” designs that resonate with a modern passion for Mother Earth.

But designs that embody these memories and movements are not achieved though just one design element. The baluster of a porch balcony or the LED light bulb alone, do not signify the importance of these passions. Instead, it is the design’s ability to connect us to personal memories or the greater community that elicits these feelings, values, movements, and emotions, solidifying their importance in time. It is this interpretation that grabs, recalls, and appeals not only to the eyes, but to the soul.

Physically, emotionally, or simply aesthetically, the complex layers inherent in design allow it to create bonds and elicit emotion unlike any other media. The capacity of design to embody not only the evolution of building, but the deeper and richer connotations of cultural and interpersonal history, connects us all on various levels. Design links everyone because design is history, and we all have a history.

Image credits: jsrice00 via Flickr Creative Commons