Huffpost HuffPost Home
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Michael B. Lehrer Headshot

Design As A Moral Enterprise

Posted: Updated:

When lay people look at a circumstance--problems, things not coordinated, mistakes made, tensions and oppositions abounding--they generally assume that either someone screwed up, that there was incompetence, or even worse, malfeasance. That is human nature. When architects look at the same situation, the default position is, if tensions and oppositions abound, we must be alive...and naturally, there is an optimistic, even beautiful outcome achievable here...always. Elevating the everyday is the work.

Shit abounds. Chaos and disorder are usually only a disruption away. The gift of the artist, the architect, the good person, is to find value and to mine for beauty, where others don't or can't. It is the key to a good life, a moral life.

Why is Design a Moral Enterprise?

Design--beyond visual or functional satisfaction, beyond a sense of well-being, beyond cache--asks the simple question: What is the LEAST resource needed to achieve an EXCELLENT outcome? Contradistinctive from "cheap", it posits this challenge for an ethical, mindful life. It is about value: the value of value. The value of values.
For the architect, it suggests that there are no throwaway spaces. Find value/beauty where others don't or can't. In parking lots and chain link fence. Mine each situation for its inherent/usually-latent beauty. This trajectory, ultimately, is from shit to gold. It is potent, it is moral, it is magical.

Vitruvius, the great ancient Roman (and first) architectural theorist declares economy--the best for the least --a cardinal virtue of architecture. He elaborates this through the idea of appropriateness, using what is necessary /possible to achieve excellence.

In our practice at Lehrer Architects, it is this trajectory to excellence from shit that actually changes the culture, as well as the lives of those who experience and know the work and its ideas.

It is this knee-jerk optimism, this fundamentalist belief that shit can be turned into gold that gives architecture its spiritual heft. It is a form of Gratitude: the bottomless reservoir of hope that beauty can be found everywhere. Warren Buffet, Nassim Nicolas Taleb, and Howard Marks are investment geniuses who know this. They are value junkies. They see and create wealth where no one else does. They see value where others don't or can't.

Perhaps it is a suspension of disbelief, perhaps even an appropriate momentary delusion, but, for the architect every site begins with the notion that it is the most desirable place in the world...if only allowed to be fully realized. It is the latent grace of every space and place; a belief that good, meaning and joy can be drawn out of everything. It is why--even with our full gamut of confidence's and insecurities--all we really set out to do is achieve optimistic and beautiful outcomes. This belief is generally grounded in elevating the everyday--accommodating the quotidian so exquisitely, achieving a state of hyper-functionality that, in its clarity, touches the spirit--by shaping places and making places that simply make one happy to be alive, in that place, in that space, in that moment.

Ultimately, reality may trump that happy outcome, but it isn't because it is not possible. That profoundly sanguine, joyous outlook is part of the architect's job description... transforming chaos into form, making whole the disparate. Contradictory imperatives must become a coherent, purposeful whole that might even nurture and elevate the human spirit, and certainly the enterprise at hand. Elevating the everyday, finding the creative or sacred spark in the quotidian is the work.

burbank media center
Leveraging a familiar Los Angeles landscape and Burbank's central entertainment role and creating a sense of place

lehrer architects studio before
An old warehouse had good bones, which Lehrer Architects morphed into a light‐filled space for joyous work

after
Lehrer Architects found an existing warehouse and converted it into a hallowed place of making and creativity

cabanas
Lehrer Architects took durable, budget‐conscious materials and created monuments to recreation

pool
Lehrer Architects willed a sense of wondrous place into existence on a previously barren, sun‐scorched plane

street before
Lehrer Architects found this bleak parking lot in downtown LA and transformed it into an urban oasis

street after
Lehrer Architects used a bold pallet of softscape and hardscape to create an urban park from a desolate parking lot

classrooms
Lehrer Architects took a dreary classroom building and, using minimal materials, transformed it into a joyous environment for learning

sanctuary
Using only paint, Lehrer Architects created an enveloping entrance for this spiritual home