Borrowed Vision

Nestled into the landscape in the Sonoran Desert above Phoenix sits Taliesin West, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio. Wright and his students (the Taliesin Fellowship) lived and worked there during the winters from 1937 until Wright’s death in 1959.

I went to Taliesin last week to see the architecture again but also to see an installation of art glass by Dale Chihuly. The curator of the exhibit worked with Chihuly to install pieces that echoed the creative intent of Wright in the design and building of Taliesin West. The combination was stunning and thought provoking.

Some things Wright said about design made me think about how we build community. Wright was intensely interested in unity of purpose. He believed that in buildings, as in communities, each individual space or person must be an intentional part of something bigger. He took the concept of Bauhaus a step further. He said, “Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

Wright had four elements that were significant, core values if you will, of design: space, site, materials, and democracy. To Wright, why we design was as important as how we design or what we design. Both the core values and design concepts have corollaries to organizations and communities.

Space = Experience

To Wright, space was an experience. In architecture, the designer has a responsibility to guide the person occupying the space into the possibilities the space provides. Wright played with scale, furniture, light, color, and just about everything else in his effort to create spaces that were intentional and purposed.

In organizations, we should be equally intentional about the way we lead and the experiences that our leadership creates. Community doesn’t happen by accident. We need to envision the culture we want to create and then construct our “space” to guide the people who participate in our community into the experiences that build our culture.

Site = Context

So often we see buildings that conquer or command the site they are built on. Wright believed that a building should not sit on a hill, but rather blend in with it and be part of it. Wright saw beauty and significance in nature and while it was necessary to alter a site to build on it, he never wanted to overrun it.

Context is critical in leadership. By necessity, we have goals to achieve and things to accomplish. Those needs should never subjugate or overwhelm us. If we are leading with integrity and care, our goals should blend into the landscape of our community. We can change that landscape, even radically, but not by destroying it. Our change should include the diversity and creativity of our people, and what we create should work with them, not against them.

Materials = Concepts

Wright’s creative use of materials was never gratuitous or contrived, rather he used materials that made sense for the site and for the intended use of the spaces. For the architect, materials are opportunities to express ideas and concepts. Wright often repeated a design element many times over within a space to cement the concept for the viewer.

Likewise, ideas, concepts, and our vision are the materials we use to build communities. If our vision is contrived or self-serving, it will look and feel garish, and people will not be attracted to it. If our vision is honest and vulnerable, people will find themselves in it. We benefit from rhythm and repetition. Like Wright’s repeating design elements, our communication and action must be consistent and find a rhythm if we want to impact our people.

Democracy = Individuals

The concept of democracy in architecture for Wright was about empowering the people who were using a space or being part of a community. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a hierarchy for decision making and responsibility (I can assure you that Wright was “in charge” at Taliesin) but that design strives to ensure the individual is never sacrificed for a mechanistic collective.

Likewise, we need to ensure that the individuals in our communities are respected and cared for. Personal care is hard to scale, but it can and must be done. This starts with each person volitionally limiting their behavior so everyone can feel safe and leads to the organization carrying that respect for each person into policies that guide the larger community.

Wright had a thing about “borrowed vision.” This was when he brought something from the outside distance into a space. In many ways, our vision is “borrowed” in that we look out in the distance and use what we see to inspire and empower our people. When we strive to create experiences, respect the context we are working in, are consistent with our concepts, and safeguard the individual, we will no longer be borrowing a vision. It will be ours, and it will be the Kimray Way.