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Emotional Architecture - Uncovering The "Secret Narrative" Behind Building Design

Asmoothlyv2_6In the book Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, authors William C. Taylor (a co-founder and founding editor of Fast Company Magazine) and Polly LaBarre (former senior editor of Fast Company Magazine) discuss the work of New York based influential architect and designer David Rockwell.

Founded in 1984, the Rockwell Group has completed over 200 projects including work on some of the world's trendiest hotels, restaurants and entertainment spaces. Rockwell's reputation for designing spaces that attract and engage an audience keeps his work in high demand. What separates Rockwell from his competitors is his ability to connect emotionally with people by examining the "secret narrative" behind a building. Rather than looking purely at the external elements of design, his design philosophy involves story lines and an examination of people's interactions with a building.

To Rockwell, "The first and most important piece of every job is to tell a unique and relevent story about the space, the product, or the experience. Story is the fundamental platform for organizing ideas. That's how you connect emotionally with people."

Before his team even sits down to design a building, they spend time with potential visitors, prospective clients and other key stakeholders. They map out the "backstory" behind the building to discover a set of themes that link the space to the lives of its users. The "secret narrative" that they discover serves as the basis behind every design decision.

Banner_logo_3Rockwell's approach to "secret narrative" is evident in the design behind the Children's Hospital at Montefiore. The client turned to Rockwell in the hopes of delivering a memorable experience, and he delivered. Prior to beginning the design work, Rockwell and his team immersed themselves in the experience of hospitalization to get a perspective from children, parents, nurses and physicians. Through research, they discovered a core theme of kids as "explorers on a journey to health." They began to substitute curiousity for fear, and used moments of fear to provide children with information - as well as instill them with a sense of wonder and delight. The story had to be strong enough to convince people to join in, and the team succeeded at every level.

On the third floor, you can see Carl Sagan's idea (reportedly a long time friend of the client) that "we are star stuff" etched in murals of snowflakes and stars. Patient rooms don't have numbers, only constellations or animals according to the floor's theme. Child height exhibits encourage kids to create their own drawings and sculptures in well-stocked lounges strategically placed on each floor.

Rockwell and his team found out that 70% of the kids experienced the hospital from their beds, and they designed fun ceiling tiles with hopeful messages. Even the sound of the privacy curtain around their bed was tweaked to be more appealing.

Part of Rockwell's success lies in his ability to design and create spaces that people care about. By incorporating story into all aspects of design, people sense that they're in a special space and somehow know that "they're in a place that has an underlying intelligence."

Why do you think that the concepts used successfully by Rockwell haven't been used by many others? Is the "secret narrative" approach something that can be applied to other areas - consumer goods, food, advertising, etc.? What do you think of the idea of designing things or spaces with underlying intelligence?



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