spirit of optimism

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As an architect, my job is to organize matter from chaos. It’s this same spirit of optimism (my three favorite words and theme of this post) that propels a project forward through the dark beginnings and toward something real… an actual space to enjoy. But it took me about fifteen years to realize that this spirit of optimism is a necessary characteristic of any happy client, successful project, or sane architect.

Early on (say in 2001) I felt that it was my responsibility to protect our clients from anxiety or frustration over delays, stretched budgets, bureaucracy, awkward design stages, you name it. I would often keep this information to myself and try to fix it, without telling about (or billing for) what I had done. Or worse, I’d bury the anxiety inside myself and wake myself up at night trying to problem solve the situation (note: impossible, especially when bureaucratic snafus are your problem. Just wait until morning).

I learned that I tend to mirror the behavior and attitude of those around me, too. If a client was despondent and burdened by negative thoughts, I felt the same way. Attitudes are contagious. But I became entranced by several clients who actually had more hope in the process than I did, despite their not knowing how it all worked or being able to control the details. I found these individuals awe-inspiring. They pushed through those awkward project stages toward something beautiful… simply because they believed it was there. Sometimes it was a sense of humor that propelled them through, sometimes it was a strong creative ability that allowed them to seemingly ignore the petty details.

Finally, maybe last year, I identified this magical trait in words, thanks to another enlightened client (owner of this house and much-deserved recipient of a Preservation Austin award). Over chicken parm and red wine at their house, we were reminiscing about the house in its former sad state: splintery, mustard brown, and in need of major TLC. ‘What made you decide to buy the house?’ one of us asked. He told us that he knew a little about the original architect, Arthur Dallas Stenger, and had a general appreciation for mid-century houses.

But he sensed that there was something special about this house. When they walked in to the space for the first time, he felt this spirit of optimism… the undulating roof shape, lifted above the surrounding volumes, the room totally exposed to the street with a curtain of glass following the curves. He said it felt like ‘whoever conceived of this place believed that everything would be OK. Despite the fact that neighbors could see you in your living room. Despite the lack of proper drainage. Despite that scary thin piece of glass appearing to hold up the roof. Who cares about physics and logic, when the building looks like it might take off and fly?’

Places embody this spirit of optimism, usually by taking risks or abandoning taste in a joyful way. We recently visited the Moore Andersson Compound, formerly the architects’ home, office and library built in the mid-1980’s. If you’ve not been, you should go next time you’re in Austin. It’s a bungalow that’s been carved from the inside out to form perches, lofts, nooks, platforms, overlooks, funhouse stairs and mirrors; light filters through plywood palm tree cutouts, talismanic shrines and translucent ceilings. The house is rich with curiosity, ornamentation, knowledge, and emotion.

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Visiting that project again recharged my own spirit of optimism. I’m a problem solver, which means that I should expect some problems to come my way. But I try to remind myself that it’s simply not resolved yet – that calm persistence is really the only option when we’re trying to create places no one has ever experienced before. And it usually works.

Cindy Black