Shaping Society

Peter C. Anderson on purpose, form, and a spirit of place.

“As an architect, my value to a client goes beyond providing solutions to the basic problem of delivering this much area for that many dollars,” says Peter C. Anderson of SMRT in Portland. “While those are important fundamentals, our buildings are more than investments of time and money. They are investments in ourselves, our communities, and the embodiment of how people see their place in the world.” MH+D asks Anderson to tell us more.

 Q. How is the concept of purpose relevant to your work?
A. All projects have an underlying purpose, a reason for being, that is more than its mere programmatic function. Understanding that purpose is an essential step in the process of architecture. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Purpose isn’t always self-evident. Purpose usually is not a baseline proposition. Most buildings are built to serve communities. These communities are made up of individuals who often have different perspectives on what the shared purpose is. This can be as true for a family building a new home as it is for a building committee that is charged with planning a public building. For example, during my work on a recent courthouse project, the term access to justice was heard frequently from the chief justice and multiple committee members when discussing key project objectives. This may be a simple phrase; however, it holds varying levels of meaning and interpretation. For me as the architect, this meant sitting down and gaining an understanding of what the deeper meaning was and how it related to the purpose of the project.

Q. What about form?
A. The saying that form follows function is a half-truth. While I believe function plays a significant role in shaping form, it is the shaping of space, material selections, and construction details that creates a bridge between purpose and place. This is where the art of architecture begins. At our best, architects give form to purpose—that is to say, we shape space to create places that reinforce our client’s purpose. During those courthouse committee meetings, along with the expression access to justice, the word transparency came up more than a few times. To me as the form giver, that opens up a literal interpretation—substituting glass for stone and bringing in light to make the judicial process visible. The public can literally see into the building. Traditional iconography has the court as a stone temple to justice. In my mind, a fundamental principle of the U.S. justice system is that the administration of justice takes place in public view. Stone temples do not connote transparency or access. The introduction of daylight and exterior views provides an added value. Courthouses can be stressful places; many occupants are not there under ideal circumstances. Natural light and openness serve as stress reducers, another way that purpose and form are speaking to each other.

Q. How is a building a reflection of the society it serves, and vice versa?
A. A building is a tangible thing. It exists in the physical world, and that means it is something we perceive through our senses. The experience of a place can be evocative. This sense of place is often what we remember about the buildings and environments where we live, work, and visit. The lighting, proportions, materials, smell, and acoustics all communicate a sense of place. Evidence-based design is based on the premise that our physical environment can influence our minds and bodies. This approach has proven effective in the design of health care environments with empirical evidence demonstrating that buildings can be therapeutic. If our built environment can help us heal, surely it is capable of supporting us in other ways as well. The ultimate aim of form giving is the creation of places that speak to the purpose, places that are imbued with a spirit capable of evoking another dimension of feeling beyond our simple sense of touch. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Acropolis of Athens in Greece, where I could walk among those ancient stones and admire the perfect proportions. This piece of architecture was so important to the people who created it, that they put the best of everything they had into this one structure. Whether it was the edifice or the sculpture that adorned it, it was a manifestation of the best craftsmen, architects, and laborers had to offer. It remains one of the most memorable places I have visited. The experience also had me asking, “Who are the gods now? And how does architecture serve them?” There’s a lot of talk now about infrastructure investment. Our scaleof need suggests a magnitude comparable to the Great Depression with the Works Progress Administration. Look at what our priorities were then: the Hoover Dam is functional, but it is also a work of art. How did beauty enter into the equation where dam construction is concerned? What will our generation’s investments say about us 100 years from now? In the end, our public buildings speak to who we are as a people and where we place our values.