The Architecture of Listening




Edited by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell

Paul Attarado and Stephen Pondelis believe good design begins with an open ear

There is a notion of an architect’s client as a patron of the arts, enabling an artist to perform his or her magic, then present the design to the owner like a gift to be unwrapped with much fanfare. Polar opposite of that approach is design-by-committee, in which the architect assumes the role of scribe or negotiator. Residential architecture, according to Paul Attardo and Stephen Pondelis, usually falls somewhere in between. After 15 years working together as partners at Van Dam Architecture and Design, Attardo and Pondelis joined forces this year to form Attardo Pondelis Architecture. Below, we talk to the duo about how a successful project produces an entity that has almost suggested itself, a sum of the influences and the voices speaking at the table—what they call an architecture of listening.

Q: Do you see your clients as patrons or collaborators? How do you engage them?
A: Our clients come to us for our expertise and our art, but our best work results when we are able to engage them in the design dynamic. Our residential clients have an obvious emotional investment in the end product, and as such, we see them as collaborators. Architects have to synthesize into a harmonious whole a myriad of factors including the site, the climate, the context, and the budget. These factors are further filtered through a program of needs and wants presented to us by our clients. The architect brings experience, creativity, and specific problem-solving skills to the process and, just as importantly, a capacity for listening. Our clients often begin by offering adjectives or metaphors to describe their expectations for the design of their house: “a romantic house on the coast of Maine” or “the site is the house” or “a well-oiled sustainable machine” or “low maintenance,” “flexible,” or “light and airy.” We also want to hear about the way our clients live now and how that might change in five or ten years. We want to know where they take their meals, how they entertain, how often they have houseguests, how their kitchen should work, what their daily routine is like. They may ask for a place out of the wind or a special place to read, and talk about an aversion to or a requirement for direct sunlight, a need for privacy…all of these directives are form-givers in the same way that the number of bedrooms or the size of the dining room table impacts the square footage.

Q: What are some of the things that reveal themselves when listening to a client?
A: A few years ago we designed a house on a site that is located where a small river meets the ocean. Because the site was oceanfront, we initially assumed that the house would be all about the ocean and that exposure. As the design unfolded, we were feeling something very different, and one day, one of the owners voiced it: “For me, this house is really more about the river than the ocean.” It was exactly what we were experiencing—that we should not have to work to make the house solely a lens for viewing the ocean when we also wanted to embrace the quiet side of the site, the beauty and peace of the small winding river. We still had the dynamic views of the ocean, but the house was much better for its deliberate gestures toward the river.

We have a house under construction now in the mountains of western Maine. The owner is well versed in the geology of his land and has climbed every peak he can see from his site. In our discussions with him we learned that his site included abandoned feldspar and beryl mines. We were intrigued to learn about the level of technology that was employed at the mines, the materials used in related buildings, how the parts went together, and how the by-products were discarded. We looked at images of mining camps and developed a mutual appreciation for this mountain-specific architecture. Our discussions informed the design of the house, not in the sense of historical reproduction of mining camp architecture, but in an attitude about the building’s components, about how the volumes could collide or mesh, how the building might touch the ground, and what the level of finishes should be. Design decisions that followed—like the fabrication of the stair and guard railings—were guided by a mutual understanding that was generated by our discussions: “Not too stealth, not too slick, it’s okay to see the connections, we want to see the connections.”

Q: And beyond listening, it’s about translating a vision, correct?
A: Architects have a responsibility not only to listen but also to honestly consider design preferences put before us. If a client is attracted to a specific architectural language or “style” we try to discern with them which features, proportions, materials, sense of openness or enclosure, feelings of light, etc., are communicated to them by that language. We explore ways to distill and bring those features to life in a building that is a product of our time and place. Sometimes that can result in the use of traditional materials in a modern sense. It can also manifest as a vernacular shape or volume that is well tested in this climate but can now breathe and perform like a modern machine. The resulting design “aesthetic” is rarely deliberate and is often a surprise to both the architect and the client. Buckminster Fuller said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty…But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Share The Inspiration