An Exercise Routine for Architects

Running, swimming, and cycling work for most people, but I’ve found as an Architect, I need both a brain and a body workout. True, an architect is not a weightlifter or a gymnast. There are no medals given out in the Olympics for best design, nor is this what I aspire to. I know that a healthy body and an active mind do make me a better architect.

Architecture involves heavy use of both the left brain and the right brain; which is why you have to make a purposeful effort to exercise both sides of your brain. The left brain is the part that’s easy to exercise. It handles analytical thought, reasoning, and logic. We all engage in everyday activities that keep the left brain in shape like balancing the checkbook or deciding what kind of granola bar, or even what kind of car to buy. The left brain handles science and math. For an architect, the left brain determines what clients’ needs are and also knows and interprets the building code requirements. The left brain makes sure the measurements all add up to ensure that health and safety standards are met. It covers interactions with the engineer and keeps the project moving forward on time and budget.

The right brain, however, could too easily get lost in the paperwork and the budget… the right brain puts the art in architecture. The right brain governs imagination, intuition, and creativity. When you listen to music or view art, it’s the right brain that’s engaged. Holistic thought and imagination reside with the right brain. So much of architecture is putting the “3D puzzle” of the house together, where all the shapes have to fit within the shell. Architects have to not only be able to visualize the spatial relationships, but understand how three dimensionally everything works together. The right brain’s creativity drivers true innovation in architectural design.

So how can a busy architect exercise this important “muscle?” Here are my favorites:

Play a musical instrument. Music has structure, depth, harmony, rhythm and beauty–as does architecture. There’s a guitar in my office. Often when I get stuck in a design, I will simply pick up my guitar and play. I will play music that tries to describe the space I am designing. Or sometimes I will try to learn or write a new song. These breaks never last long because as soon as my brain relaxes and begins to flow with the music, more design ideas come to me. It sounds incredible, but it isn’t. Quite the opposite, it is rather predictable. And I’m not the only one. If you ask other architects, they’ll tell you about teaching piano on the side, choir practice, singing in the shower. I have a client who also has a guitar in his office. He goes so far as to say he would not hire an architect who doesn’t play music because he knows how valuable it is to engage this part of your brain. I see his point.

Do yoga. This is a new one for me. In general, I’m pretty bendy and can do things others can’t. Yet, my hips are what they are, so in some ways, and despite all the practice, I’m still likely considered a beginner. In yoga we move our bodies in time with our breath. Often, during my exercise when I breathe in and out, I meditate. With every inhale I think “create” and with every exhale I think “space.” I like the quadruple meaning–create space in my body (which is often necessary depending on the pose), but also create space in my heart, my mind, and even in my work.

World renowned violinist, Yehudi Menuhin famously gave a watch to his yoga instructor with the inscription “To my best violin teacher, BKS Iyengar.” For me, yoga helps to clear my mind of clutter—literally and figuratively. It opens up the corners of my mind. In a house, the corners are the most difficult areas to light and to see. The clarity yoga brings to me leads directly to better designs. When my mind relaxes (whatever that is exactly), there is a dramatic increase in the amount and quality of my design ideas. It’s important to be always learning new things. To find new ways to light up those corners of the brain.

I travel. How they solve a problem in New Zealand is not necessarily how they solve it in France or Nepal. Simply knowing that there are multiple great solutions to every single problem opens up my mind to finding more and better solutions for my clients.

I draw by hand. I have a habit of sketching. I have to either sketch it right away or lose it forever. That’s why there’s a notebook by my desk and at my bedside. For a long time, I didn’t know how to reconcile my need for sketching, which is what I believe moves a design away from a mechanical feel, with technology-aided design from the computer. For those who know me, my practice leans heavy into technology (3d by 2e). The great power technology has to help clients visualize their projects is a key element to the success of my practice. I believe firmly that this visualization gives clients the highest level of satisfaction and engagement in their project.

It is possible to look at a building and know, ‘that building was never sketched.’ Young architects are often good with computers, but there’s a physical connection between architects and their hand drawings. Computers encourage horizontals, verticals, and squares. They’re limiting.  Both the computer without sketching, and sketching without the computer will produce, albeit in different ways, bad buildings. Only together can they achieve something sublime.

At the same time, drawing with the computer is also quite liberating. My foundation plans are perfect every time now. That’s because I draw them to scale in the computer and the computer dimensions the plan. Before the computer, there was a lot of adding of feet and inches over long stretches. I would divide the wall up in as many ways as I could and only be satisfied when all of these different combinations all added up to the same overall dimension.

Go to museums. I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, to an exhibit on an architect, Morphosis. I expected to see photographs, models, floor plans, and elevation and section drawings of their iconic buildings. However, a good one-third of the exhibit was framed computer prints with sketching right over it. Layers and layers of trace paper. You could see the design ideas bubbling to the top through the all of the layers of trace. It had never occurred to me that you could marry the two.  Sometimes the way we do things needs a kick in the pants. Since that exhibit all those years ago, my desk has been and will continue to be littered with computer prints, all with layers and layers of trace. Each time, with just a little luck, a beautiful and practical design will bubble up to that topmost layer of trace paper.

Architects need both the right brain and the left brain to work in harmony.  One without the other is fatally flawed.  The “exercises” we use either limit or enlarge how we express ourselves.

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