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The Fear of the Finished Product

Has it ever happened to you where you walk into a space, or turn a corner and see a building, and the design just knocks your socks off?  It takes your breath away it is that beautiful.  Just being in the presence of such a creation inspires awe and the experience takes over all of your senses, leaving you slack-jawed and potentially drooling.

It’s happened to all of us.

Well, maybe not the drooling bit.

But at one time or another, we have all been overwhelmed by experiencing something great.  It isn’t limited to architecture.  At some point in all of our lives we have seen a painting, read a book, watched a movie, listened to a speech; it is inevitable that we have all born witness to someone else’s creation and have been amazed.

It’s a great feeling.  But like all great feelings, it is unfortunately fleeting.  And it is not long before the vacuum in your mind created by being astonished is filled with thoughts.  And if you’re anything like the majority of creatives out there, soon after the initial thought of “how did they do this?” subsides, it is quickly replaced by our old friend self-doubt

“I could never do this.”

“This is so beyond me.”

“This is why she’s designing museums and I’m still doing fast food renovation details.”

Isn’t that the worst?  It sucks! You go from feeling so spectacular: basking in the sunny warmth of genius to shivering in the cold and windy space occupied by your own fledgling ego.

For me, my most profound experience of this was walking into the Pantheon for the first time.  After crossing through the portico and entering the rotunda the air was immediately caught in my throat.  I stared up into a space that while incredibly familiar to me, I was now finally seeing in real life.  Now, I was experiencing the room first hand, and it was life-changing.  I will never forget seeing how the light appeared to become a solid material having been extruded by the oculus, only to transform into liquid once it hit the coffers in the ceiling.  Even the dust dancing in the air seemed to be intentional.  I looked at that 2,000 year old space, created by an ancient people, and I thought…

I could never do this.

A beam of light entering the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome, Italy (27 BC)

And that was that.  I saw something great, assumed it was beyond my abilities, and that was the end of it.

I had a similar experience when I saw Michelangelo’s “Pietà” at the Vatican. (Rome was a tough trip for me.)  I walked into the nave of St. Peter’s, turned right, and started to drool from a slack jaw.  It was a masterpiece.  It made me want to cry.  I couldn’t even take a picture of it because I knew that I could never capture the life of the statue in an inert digital photo.  And I thought…

I could never do this.

The rest of the day was spent walking all over Rome looking at various ruins, buildings, sculptures, etc.  If you ever want to make sure you get exercise on your vacation, travel with an architect.

It wasn’t until much later that evening, as I was sitting at an outdoor cafe with my girlfriend (now my wife, because let’s face it, anyone willing to be dragged all over creation on a vacation to look at obscurities is worth keeping around) staring at the fish head on my pizza that it occurred to me.  After listening to the chorus in my head singing “You could never do that” for the entire day, this little severed fish head looked up at me from his sea of mozzarella and pizza sauce and said:

“Why not?”

Well, this was mind-blowing! Not only was a fish head espousing tidbits of wisdom from my plate, but the idea of “why not” was profound!  What was it about the Pantheon or the Pieta that was so intimidating as to cripple my creativity before it even started?  What is it about a completed work of art that makes us so afraid?

We are all working with the same sets of tools: artists have paints and charcoals, stone carvers have blocks of marble, architects have solids and voids, poets have words.  So knowing that we all have the same opportunity to create something phenomenal, why are we terrified into complacency when we see the same?

The answer I came up with was simple: It’s the fear of the finished product.

We all know how to work our craft.  Writers know how to wield words.  Stone carvers know how to reveal sculpture from a block.  Architects know how to manipulate space and materials.  We are all using the same tools, the same elements, but we are absolutely cowed when someone else organizes them in such a way that is new or exciting.  But what we forget when we see these masterpieces is that there was a TREMENDOUS amount of work that went into them before they reached this final state.

Michelangelo’s “Pietà”, 1499

Sure there will always be Mozart who was rumored to write concertos without an edit.  And the ubiquitous stories of Frank Lloyd Wright designing a house two hours before his client meetings.  But even in those cases, we are only seeing the end result.  There is no documentation telling us how long Mozart dwelled on the music before he put it to paper.  There is nothing to say that Frank didn’t have reams of sketches in his private studio that led to his two-hour flurry of activity.  But we see the product and think “I can’t do that.”

Well, that’s just the fear of the finished product.

We CAN do that.  We DO do that.  Every day while we slave over sketchbooks, reams of trace, or computer models we are in the process of creation.  Every moment we spend meditating on minutia, we are making steps towards that masterpiece.  This is why it is so important to be thoughtful and deliberate.  This is why I wind up with a trashcan full of trace paper every time I design a home: because the process is the most important part.  And it is the only part that no one will ever see.  They will only see the end result.

But we persist day in and day out, honing our skills, pushing ourselves to new levels of creativity.  We do this without a second thought because as creative people, we simply have to.  And if we keep on doing this, one day, if we are thoughtful in our artistic endeavors, someone may look at our work and say:

I could never do this.