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Dec05

10 Questions With A Creative: Arjun Bhat

The ecological restoration of Horseshoe Cove, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

At Ideative Creative, we think about creativity a lot. We talk about it. We wonder where it comes from. We thank the gods that be when it shows up and on rare occasion, when we’re tapped out on some bleak, inspiration-less 2 a.m. morning and we’re on a deadline, we curse it. Creativity is tricky.

We decided that we wanted to start a conversation. And we wanted people we admire in the arts, people who create, people who listen to the muses, to weigh in with their thoughts. Each month, we hope to bring you some of their ideas on the creative process, how they work and what makes them tick, in the form of “10 Questions With A Creative.”

Meet Arjun Bhat of Cannon Design.

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Who I Am, What I Do: I’m an Architect working for Cannon Design in St. Louis.  Prior to that I lived and worked in San Francisco for Interstice Architects.  I received my Bachelors in Architecture at the University of Kansas, and my Master of Science in Architecture and Urbanism from MIT.  I wanted to be an architect since I was about 7 years old once I found out being a lumberjack didn’t guarantee that I would grow to be 10 feet tall nor would guarantee ownership of a blue oxen.  I like being an architect because it means I get to solve fun problems, draw pretty pictures, build things, and wear black.  Also, there was a survey in the UK a few years ago that deemed Architecture as the “sexiest profession” for men, and that’s always a plus.

What is creativity?

There are a lot of different ways to describe creativity, but strictly speaking, blind creativity in itself doesn’t necessarily do me any favors.  As an architect, my job is to solve design problems, hence, creativity has to help me in that regard.  So when I think of useful creativity, the first term that comes to mind is “Lateral Thinking.”  Now this might merely be a less cliché way of saying “thinking outside the box” but to me, its meaning goes a little deeper than that.  Being able to tie past knowledge in fields outside of architecture, to dig into my experiences of spaces or places that were significant to me, to question the very basis of the design brief I’ve been tasked with solving – these are all examples.  It also implies a deftness with which I aspire to approach design.  For example – a good comedian precisely ties together seemingly random ideas together into a narrative, turning what could easily be unfunny nonsense into something that powerfully resonates with the audience. Problem solving that combines swiftness of thought with the depth of one’s knowledge and experience – that to me is real creativity.

What and/or who inspires you, and why?

I draw a lot of inspiration from graphic design – I’m a big fan of the Swiss Modern style that grew in accordance with the Modern movement in the 1950s, and the reinterpretation of that style with a lot of modern day graphic designers.  Arnaud Mercier’s graphic designs were a big influence on me while I was in school.   Graphic design is a hobby of mine, and I appreciate the instant gratification that comes with poster making and logotyping in comparison to the year’s that it takes to realize an architectural design.

Architects have been guilty of a lot of failed attempts at social engineering in the past, and I think it stems from a well-intentioned fascination with social systems, infrastructure, science, and art.  I’d be lying if I said if I wasn’t largely inspired by many of the same things, but hopefully, I’ll have learned from my predecessors and will table any attempts to engineer society.

Name a favorite project. What did you love about it? What would you like people to feel when they experience it?

My favorite project unfortunately has not been built (yet).  It was a design for the ecological restoration of Horseshoe Cove, a former-wetland-turned-military-base just north of San Francisco. (Eds. note: Featured design, see above.) The site lies in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, and was once a salt-water marsh land (commonly found around the Bay Area).  Around 1900, the area was drained, walled off, and turned into a military base.  The project was an investigation of not just how to restore the site to its natural ecological state, but explored how small ecological infill sites had the potential to address a larger Bay-wide issue of ecological degradation.  In a more meta-conceptual sense, it was a way to understand the basic issues that surrounded a non-architectural problem, in order to find a way for design to exist within the solution, rather than create the solution, which to me was really exciting.  Most people who look at the project boards first meet it with a bit of healthy skepticism (how many times has an architect proposed that they could save the world and utterly failed?) but then when they look more closely and see that what’s being built is more or less an afterthought and that the real ‘design thinking’ was applied to understanding critical ecological relationships, they begin to feel more and more excitement towards the idea.  Seeing others share that earnest excitement towards an idea that humbly started with getting interested in underwater grasses is actually very satisfying.

What is your creative process? What methods do you use to get into and stay in the zone?

I write a lot.  More than other architects do, I’ve noticed.  I need to write out the ideas as they come to my head because that’s just the way my mind works:  I see the words, and the words trigger images.  If I just drew the images, I might forget the words and why I drew them in the first place.  I’ll come back to my initial writings weeks and months into a project, just so that I keep myself grounded to my intentions.  It’s entirely possible that my intentions might have changed during the course of a design, but even so, it’s important to me to remember the origins to judge my deviations against, and to convince myself that what I’m doing is or isn’t a good idea.  I tend to listen to what suspiciously sounds a lot like “bachelor pad music,” which consists mostly of Thievery Corporation, Tycho, and Pretty Lights.  I go for long walks.  I take long showers.  I talk to myself and creep out people on the bus.  I talk and write and sketch until the idea crystalizes into a simple design diagram.  Once I have that diagram – I’m off to the races.

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Lindley Annex Architectural Studios – designed for the University of Kansas, as a raised footbridge to link multiple art and engineering buildings to a major campus thoroughfare. Connecting the architecture program to engineering and fine arts was in keeping with the original tenents of an architect’s education.

What was the biggest opposing force that you encountered on your creative journey? How did you move past it?

I don’t know about ‘opposing forces,’ (that seems too protagonist-antagonist to me) but I’d be surprised if any artist or designer didn’t regard themselves as the largest obstacle in their career.  Gaining credibility with critics, earning the praise of your professional community, and catching the eye of the ‘public’ all start with convincing yourself that you’re actually capable of these things.  And I don’t’ mean this in a Stuart Smiley feel good kind of way, I mean going through the rigors of really testing yourself and being your own worst critic.  I feel that there’s a healthy balance one needs to achieve between the internal forces of confidence, and humility, rejection and approval.  Ira Glass had a really good quote that, to paraphrase, states that as a young talented writer (or artist or designer) the one thing you have is good taste.  But you produce utter crap.  The only solution is to keep producing over and over, until what you produce matches what you judge it against.  I probably butchered the analogy, but I remember it being a poignant one.  Maybe I’ll change my mind in 20 or 30 years, but for now, that’s my answer.

Do the critiques of others affect your work? Do you ever critique your own work?

No design can exist in a vacuum.  Criticism has to be a part of the process, or it isn’t design, it’s just self-gratification.  I invite criticism from others, but not at just any point whenever they feel like it – it has to be folded into my schedule or it can cause too much disruption.  As a designer, I reserve the right to produce utter and complete crap as long as I recognize it for the shit that it is.  This usually has to happen before I get to producing the good stuff anyway.  Criticisms of ideas I already acknowledge as crap are just wasted words which throw me into a spiral of anger and loathing.  Their time will come, but only after I’ve gone through my internal monologue.

If you had the chance to live during the height of any movement relevant to your field, which one would you choose and why?

The futurist movement of the 1960’s without a doubt.  That was the last period in Architecture where true radicals existed, and you can bet they threw some mean parties.

What is the best advice you have ever been given? What would you tell someone else hoping to enter your field?

Some of the best advice came from some of my worst teachers.  One such professor told me “when in doubt, above all else, just make sure it looks cool.”  This has saved my ass in both my academic and professional career more than once, and gave me the breathing room and time to waylay deadlines in order to work on ideas that needed more polishing.  So I guess I’d tell someone else that’s just starting architecture “when in doubt, above all else, just make sure it looks cool.”  If they’re smart enough they won’t need to be told to be rigorous, or curious, or prodded into producing work with substance.  However, it’s easy to forget that architecture can as much salesmanship as it is philosophy – so “making it look cool” can go a very, very, very long way.

If you could influence public policy on the arts, what would you change and why?

I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to answer this question, because after reading it I’m thinking “If I had that much sway over public policy, there are serious issues surrounding housing and education that need tackling first.”  It’s hard to convince people who are struggling to get by that they need art in their lives, and it’s incredibly embittering (at least to me) to see people who are so well off that they finally can start dabbling in watercolors because they hired Lucinda to raise their 3 kids for them.  I guess what needs to change is the conception that “Art” is the domain of either tortured souls who live in old warehouses with big canvases or of their ultra-wealthy benefactors.  Design is a practical skill, and good designers are valuable professionals. What a lot of people don’t realize is EVERYTHING MAN-MADE HAS BEEN CAREFULLY DESIGNED.  In a way, people interact with designers everyday if you consider one’s work to be an extension of one’s self.  If Design (with a capital D) was introduced into the curriculum at schools as an extension of existing core subjects (science and history are the first two areas that come to mind) maybe the idea of art and design as the province of dilettantes, the landed gentry, and angst-ridden souls would finally come to a much needed end.

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The St. Louis College of Pharmacy. Arjun provided the imagery for this project and wanted to make it clear that he was but a part of a larger, and obviously wildly talented, design team. Cannon Design does incredible work.

 

What kind of art are you consuming right now? What are you reading/eating/listening to/buying?

Reading a lot of sci-fi and historical fiction.  Neal Stephenson, Orson Scott Card, Jane Jensen.  I’ve been eating noodles.  I’ve been listening to the Jezebels for a straight 3 months now with no signs of stopping.  I’m a big fan of the graphic work of Scott Hansen, who also records incredible music as Tycho (if you like Boards of Canada, you’ll like Tycho).  I just bought a car because I find VW CC’s to be very well designed for their price range.  This is good, because all the other cars that were in my price range made all my design hairs stand on end.

 

 

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