AIA DESIGN THEORY-November/December 2010
Edited by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell
From limitation to possibility, Eric Stark shares his process-based approach to architecture
Architect Eric Stark can’t help but take a methodological approach to architecture. As an assistant professor in the bachelor of arts in architecture program at the University of Maine at Augusta—the only such program in the state—he is immersed in academia. This gives him a unique perspective on the design process, one that is based on a rigorous sequence of research, analysis, intention, and design. Stark believes the complexity of architecture requires a guide—that the architect formulates a unique set of possibilities for a project, and then guides the project itself along this chosen path. Here, we ask him to expand on this idea.
Q: You talk about design in terms of two sets of questions. Can you explain what you mean?
A: At its most basic, any design problem has two sets of questions. The first I call “limitations.” These are aspects of the project that one cannot ignore without serious consequences. For the architect, these include gravity, waterproofing, property setbacks, code issues, ADA accessibility, budgets, and more. For most architects, limitations are often (but not always) welcome. They help to define the very real, hard-edge parameters of any given project and thereby begin to give the design process direction. The second set of questions I call “possibilities.” These are ideas not specifically “necessary” to satisfy basic needs, but essential to achieve a work of architecture. A good architect goes beyond limitation satisfaction and delves deeply in the realm of possibility.
Q: Possibility, by its very definition, can be limitless. What, then, ultimately drives a project design?
A: The architect must have a guiding principle or idea, specific to the project, which gives the design focus and recognizable scope. It is an architect’s Intention that is the statement that frames the almost limitless possibilities. A project’s possibilities are a unique result: the specific combination of project, client, and architect. For this reason I can have one of my architecture design studios consider a Montessori school, and I will get fifteen very different projects. Each design proposal will grapple with the given limitations of the project, just as a professional architect would. And yet if these fifteen students all tackle the same project with the same limitations, what is it that gives rise to such wildly different, potentially exciting results? It is the individual, the architect, and his or her uniquely arrived-at set of possibilities. The Intention, or framing of those possibilities, becomes the driving force of the project’s design.
Q: What does the architect then do with that intention?
A: Whatever the impetus of the Intention, it must be documented clearly. On one hand, so that the architect can come back to it when the wide variety of design questions arise, the inevitable “what to do here?” On the other hand, it helps to explain to the client the core reasons behind the myriad of decisions being made—questions as diverse as space allocation to trim details, from color choice to glazing opportunities. These questions arise throughout the design and construction processes, and the architect needs a guiding set of principles to address them coherently and consistently. It is my fervent belief that without a strong Intention the architect and the project will eventually lose their way. Architecture is such a complex discipline that it demands an essential, core idea or set of ideas that one can return to again and again and again.
Q: What are some project examples of the ideas you’re talking about?
A: The diagrams shown here are examples of the possibilities of a project currently under construction on Cushing Island in Casco Bay. The first diagram (opposite page) deals with site forces. The duality of the views from the specific site (one toward Cape Elizabeth and the other toward Portland Head Light) creates the possibility of a “split” plan that captures both views equally. The second set of diagrams (below) results from a client desire for “open but not too open” rooms, which leads to the possibility of overlapping programmatic spaces. The relationships of kitchen-dining, dining-living, living-screen porch, screen porch-open deck–all designed for openness but tempered by a sense of enclosure. It is the goal of the design to make real these possibilities. It is this focusing on specifically laid-out possibilities while simultaneously solving necessary limitations that is the architect’s work. It is what creates “good” architecture.