Showing Their Stories

Chris Delano | AIA Design Theory | Maine Home+Design

Architect Chris Delano believes thoughtful buildings choreograph and inspire people to more deeply appreciate and understand their land

Maine is known for its varied and rugged landscape. The natural scenery is stunning and wild. “Driving from Portland to Moosehead Lake on a recent trip, my wife and I took special notice of the many worn farmhouses and well-used barns that punctuate the landscape,” says Chris Delano of Delano Architecture. “The landscape would hardly be complete without those structures. They give life and an account of history to this wild landscape.” Chris asserts that these buildings describe a very specific story of the people who live there. “By studying this history we learn about the patterns of people and their tight connection to the land. As an architect, I am fascinated by these patterns. I am inspired by the way people reflect on their past to create space that facilitates a richer story for their future.” MH+D asked Delano to tell us more.

Q. Why is it important that our buildings tell a story?

A. All people are unique, with their past defining their character and their preferences. Ultimately, it is that history that brings an architect and client to the same table with a parcel of land and design goals for the property. As a new client narrates an outline of their needs, it always includes stories of their past. These stories continually include a place and an activity. As I listen more intently, they describe features of their property and elements in the home that allowed them to experience those features. There is a clear and immediate relationship between spaces and people. The buildings we occupy guide our movement, orchestrate our attention, and steer our focus. That is exciting to understand. All stories happen somewhere. It isn’t that buildings need to tell a story, but rather a statement of fact that they do.

Q. How do buildings show their story?

A. Buildings weather as they age: cedar grays out, the edges of stone soften, and traffic paths begin to wear into our patios and porches. Similar to how creases form in our hands, buildings show this same concentrated wear as a visual account of their use by people and the marks of how they resist weather. This change in appearance is noble and, like a worn pair of jeans, helps a building fit more comfortably in the landscape.
While some amounts of wear show sturdiness and soft evidence of how weather moves over the building, too much wear indicates weakness and shows a failure in the design to protect these vulnerable areas. Identifying these troubled areas during the design process and developing details, selecting materials, and including rain or sun protection for an elevation help minimize the deleterious effects of our climate and provide a sculptural narrative of the building’s interactions with people and the landscape.

Q. How does your interest in stories apply to new buildings?

A. Some people design houses as a cluster of rooms (i.e., bedroom, kitchen, living room, etc.). I don’t see it that way. I back up as far as possible and look at the property itself and how people will move onto it and across it, and what features of the property are exceptional. From this distant vantage point, I track the movement of the sun across the property; I study the topography, the vegetation, its local context, and identify view highlights. I begin diagramming with hand-drawn sketches and use a modeling technique called bas-relief, where I diagram three-dimensionally the movement patterns on the property, both the physical movement and sensory movement (i.e., light and dark spaces, view corridors, positions of protection and prospect, etc.). Through these diagrams I look at pathways, transitions, and places using additive or subtractive relief to organize the site. These design tools allow me to explore how moving between these places can enhance the experience of living on the property. That is my objective. I believe thoughtful buildings choreograph and inspire people to more deeply appreciate and understand their land. In the end, the living spaces function together with the landscape. They work in concert, as a part of a larger story including the people who live there.