Dialogue in Design

Architect Ryan E. Kanteres on how architecture is both an art and a service —but not in the ways you might think

Our lives are largely lived in a built environment. “Nearly everything we interact with is designed, yet there is surprisingly little public dialogue about design,” says Ryan E. Kanteres of Scott Simons Architects. “Dialogue and engagement with clients and community are central to the process. I try to approach every project with openness, a willingness to listen, and without preconceptions.” Kanteres asserts that every building exists in a larger historical, cultural, and climatic context, yet has its own unique challenges and opportunities. “Successful projects meet the client’s needs while addressing these contexts in a way that makes connections, creates value and appropriate character, and hopefully achieves a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. These goals, and good design in general, are more grounded in the everyday than people tend to think.” MH+D asks Kanteres to tell us more.

Q. What makes something an example of good design?

A. Design is not an abstract enterprise. It has to be grounded in everyday life; it is the way we shape our built environment and shared experience. Even the most exceptional of buildings is experienced in relation to an everyday context. My approach toward the practice of architecture requires a collaborative team with a creative disposition, but the service we provide is more than just the application of skills, knowledge, and creativity. Rather, it requires direct engagement with client and community needs. I find significant motivation in how this resonates with my personal values.

Q. Do you view this practice as more of an art or a service?

A. Both. It has to be both. They are of course not mutually exclusive, but both aspects are often misunderstood. There is a prevalent misconception that art in architecture is an act of heroic origination, while the service is a pragmatic understanding of how to put buildings together. The art is not tied to a single act of inspiration or to the balance of a specific composition and material selection. These are aspects of it, but the art lies in the service—in the ability to fluidly develop a spatial framework that organizes project requirements and contextual responses into something that is experienced as a meaningful whole. While much of the work I do is on libraries and other civic projects centered on community engagement and public spaces, consider a recent small commercial project: a client approached our studio about relocating their headquarters to the Portland area, hoping to modernize and develop a flexible, open environment filled with amenities such as a collaboration cafe and large wellness center. Working on a wooded site, efforts were made to limit the impact of site development and connect the office area to its surroundings with a variable rhythm of floor-to-ceiling windows. The form of the building was organized around a central atrium with northern clerestory windows. Bending the floor plan around this significant feature helped to shape, sequence, and provide a more intimate scale to the workstation while allowing for flexibility and connectivity. The building’s form responds to the solar orientation, while the second floor provides covered spaces, integral sun shading, and a meaningful connection to generous outdoor terraces. Through these articulations, the building was shaped by the interior culture but also engages with the site and connects the public and natural realms.

Q. What are some of the ways the profession resonates with your values?

A. Primarily by just being able to work in the public realm and engage community and environmental concerns. These issues are central to my design approach and also to my passion for promoting public discourse. People are often more comfortable talking about the terms of mortgage refinancing than discussing the design of their home or office, or even how a particularly great public space affected them. As speaker chair of the Architalx lecture series, I regularly work with colleagues to shape a program intended to foster and encourage dialogue about design—something that is important to me. We live the majority of our lives in a built environment but unfortunately have difficulty discussing it. Everyone has a valid perspective, and I particularly value engaging people in discussions of design and our shared interest in the public realm.