On Building

Becoming Unstuck
(Part 4 in a Series)

This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Donald MacDonald, architect of the new San Francisco Bay Bridge span, strikes me as abundantly creative. I was therefore shocked when he told me that, more often than not, he feels stuck. To become unstuck, he uses a bevy of techniques. “These can liberate you,” he says. “They give you more space and freedom.”

1. Seeking answers in unlikely places
When stumped by architectural problems, MacDonald searches for answers in forms unrelated to architecture. On seeing a broach, he’ll think, “Jesus, that could be a bloody building.” Similarly, “I’ll look at a woman’s hairstyle, and it could be a thatched-roof house.” The form might not realistically transfer to architecture, but it gives him a new take on a problem. Gazing at paintings helps, too.

To see how nature has solved design problems, he studies photographs. By analyzing cobwebs, he figures out how to prop up a tent efficiently. Seashell shapes yield ideas for catenary bridge structures. To improve a rough transition in a bridge, he’ll look closely at a crab and the graceful joint between its central section and claw.

2. Changing scale
In studying the powerful persuasiveness of the ad world, MacDonald realized that advertisers change scales dramatically. Billboards present 50-foot-tall faces and bumblebees twice as large as men. “Changing scales makes you think totally differently. It makes you invent,” he says.

But changing scales also creates problems. When an architect likes a sketch and blows it up, the drawing no longer looks the same: “You can’t get the shadings right. You have a little line, and when you blow it up, it’s fat.” MacDonald usually wonders, “Jesus! What am I going to do with all this space?”

Viewing this exercise as a great opportunity for problem solving, he notes that architects face this very challenge when sketching buildings or bridges. According to MacDonald, going from 2-D to 3-D modeling is also stimulating, forcing architects to consider more details than they did while drawing.

3. Using colored blocks
Architects can benefit from using colored foam blocks for preliminary designs, says MacDonald. The colors indicate function; bathrooms might be red, bedrooms blue and common areas yellow. Assembling the blocks into a semblance of a building helps architects focus on big-picture concerns and avoid distracting details.

This technique has helped MacDonald’s employees design more efficiently. He recalls that when he used to give them a building program, “It would take them forever to get it all in their heads.” He told them to represent the program with blocks so as to “get the program down instantly. The colors come together like a Mondrian painting. You look at it, and it starts to suggest what the design can be.”

Then, he says, “You can take photographs of that and sketch on top and fantasize, saying, ‘That’s what it should look like.’ You’ve got this model that you can work around. You can punch windows in it, put on different roof systems. When you hit the right one, intuitively it feels right. You’ve given yourself all this information quickly.”

4. Limiting parameters
MacDonald believes that limitations give rise to creativity. Sketching in black and white makes you work with just shapes and shadows, honing in on what’s important. “With colors, it gets much more complicated, because you have to balance all the colors.”

When you work with a limited number of tools, “It forces you into another way of looking at things. You learn how to invent, how to solve a problem without all the tools.” He cites Picasso, who intentionally imposed gross limitations on himself with his blue and pink periods, thereby making himself more resourceful.

Limiting a choice of materials similarly helps architects. They can lift the constraints later, of course. By then, a vision may have emerged.

5. Painting to reconnect with a free feeling
“I use painting as a real relief from architecture,” says MacDonald. “When you paint, you’re free of everything, except what the medium can do.” On vacations, he paints as a means of self-exploration. Pointing to one crazy-looking, four-panel abstract, he recalls, “I just let it fly, you know?” After painting, he brings the freeness back to architecture: “For me, it opens up the range of possibilities. And they’re not always rational.”

Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.