Design Rock & Roll: Why I Play Guitar in My Office

Guitar Playing Architect

What did a guitar teacher who looks and plays guitar like a rock star teach me about architecture?

The first song I ever learned on guitar was “This Old Man.” The problem was, at 14 years old, I didn’t like the song. It was not my kind of music, so I gave up on guitar. Six months later, somebody said, “Go see Alan Gowa.” Alan looked like a rock & roll star– he even had long hair. But I still expected the same thing, that it would take six months to get through just the basics.

Instead, Alan asked, “What do you like?”
“Jimi Hendrix,” I said.
Alan said, “Okay, let’s start with Hendrix.”
My jaw dropped to the ground. Alan said, “‘Hey Joe’ has about every single chord in it, let’s learn that song and then move on as soon you get all the bar chords.”

Starting out with one of the most legendary guitar songs in retrospect seems daunting, but it was a brilliant approach by Alan. Tying together my passion for the genre of music was the key to instantly motivating me to put in the hard work to learn to play the guitar. I was so motivated that I practiced and practiced that song until my fingers bled. Before long the callous formed and I had pulled together the song. I sounded like Joan Baez playing Jimi Hendrix and that was not good enough for me, to sound like a folk singer trying to be a rock & roller… but Alan said, “No, you’re doing GREAT.” He then handed his beautiful electric guitar to me. He twisted the knobs on the amp a little, and then had me play the song.

“It sounds unbelievable!” I said guenuinely surprised. I had never sounded better. Not even close.
Alan was impressed, but wanted to show me ways to improve, so he played the same song on the same guitar and it was WAY better. “How is that possible?” I thought. If you play the notes in the right order and at the right time, how could be anything other than perfect?

Alan played with feeling; he might linger on one note, blur others, play this one or that one louder. This was playing with emotion, and although he tried to teach it to me, some things can’t be taught.

Likewise is true with architecture. I have learned that good design doesn’t come from a book. It’s great to look at pictures and have an idea of the features you like, but when I’m with a client, I want to know what THEY want. The first question I ask my clients is the same question Alan asked me, “what do you like? What makes you happy? Let’s try to achieve that.” Extroverted or introverted, entertaining often or not; all of this affects the design.
Sometimes, clients ask, “Peter, what would you choose?”

I’ll give my opinion, but I’m not going to live there. Hiring me isn’t about me. It’s about the client.
Bringing emotion and passion to architectural design is about understanding how the client wants to feel in their home. A design can be technically perfect, with all the right proportions, with good flow and and structure, but still not feel good if it hasn’t been tailored to the client.

It is easy to miss out on the right feeling in a number of ways. That’s why my firm insists on using technology aided design tools like virtual reality walk, 3D renderings, and Photo realistic renders. Combined with our unique approach to detailing a clients needs through our clarity session and accompanying design questionnaire. We could try and anticipate everything, but without the advantage of these tools, something would be missed.
I don’t want to design for “four out of five dentists.” I want to design for you. The key is asking the right questions.

A home is beautiful because the feeling is right. The result is something you can see and feel . The parallel in cooking is, the spices are just right. Achieving that special feeling supersedes everything else.
Someone once told me that Amy and Bob’s house was the one of the nicest houses they had EVER seen. I love it and am proud of it, but it’s because we collaboratively paid very close attention to the feeling, in addition to the materials and the flow.

When I used to listen to Alan, it made me think, “There’s a lot of people that have played Jimi Hendrix’s songs over the years, some very well (Stevie Ray Vaughn) and some not so well. It’s amazing the difference, but some haven’t got that feeling right.”

I last saw Alan when I was 17 or 18. He had taught me a lot. He got me playing in a rock & roll band within six months. There’s a guitar hanging in my office today because those music lessons inform the process I use to this day. Plus, it’s still a lot of fun to take five minutes out of a busy day to play “Purple Haze.” Put it all together and it’s “design rock & roll.”