Opposite Ideas Attract

Opposites attract. That's not just true of love, it turns out, but also good ideas.

John Cary was trained as an architect. In school, he and his friends obsessed over their latest projects in the studio, late into the night. They talked about materials and concepts but never worried much about the people that would potentially live or work in the structures they were laboring over.

Turns out, architects generally try to avoid speaking to their clients but frequently speak for their clients. This is reinforced in the way that architecture is described in the press, in the way that award programs and design competitions are juried. Clients are all but invisible. Their stories are nowhere to be found. Before John met me, he thought storytelling was for kids.

John actually had an architect once tell him that he had over 100 clients and he could talk more informatively about the impact of design than all 100 of those combined. John respected him, but he had a hunch that there was something shortsighted about that point of view.

I'm trained as a journalist. Before I met John, I thought architecture was for wealthy people who had a lot of excess time and money on their hands. Truth be told, I didn't really understand what design was. I knew that architects designed skyscrapers and museums, but I assumed that their work had almost nothing to do with my personal life or the lives of the people I cared about. I'd heard of the two Franks -- architects Gehry and Lloyd Wright -- but that was about it.

I had a hunch that there was something depressing about some of the spaces inhabited by the feminist nonprofits with which I had consulted, the health clinic that I went to, and the women's centers I'd spoken at. They generally didn't make me feel inspired -- and I, admittedly, only experienced them for hours at a time. There was a harried, overworked, underdog mentality among so many of the nonprofit lifers that I knew, as if they could never do enough and never get the respect they deserved. Likewise, the university women's centers often felt like bunkers where women had come to hide out from the world that, at best, discriminated against them and, at worst, overlooked them all together. I recognized that the psychology of deprivation so common among the women I worked with mirrored their underwhelming environs, but I dismissed investigating it any further. Who had time to worry about d├ęcor when women's basic rights were constantly under attack?

You can probably sense where this is headed.

Plato might have given birth to the Western notion of a soul mate when he wrote that we are each cleaved from our other half and spend a lifetime searching for him or her. When we find our soul mate, we experience true love. Steven Johnson, author of the forthcoming book, Where Good Ideas Come From, has a similar explanation of a different sort of genesis: "Good ideas come from the collision of smaller hunches so that they form something bigger than themselves. You see a lot in the history of innovation where someone has half of an idea."

In other words, it often takes the accumulation of a series of hunches, plus the encounter with another type of thinker to create a truly transformative idea. When John and I met, we didn't just fall in love. We fused two hunches together and got a whole new understanding of our work in improving the world.

As I got to know John, I realized that our built environments are not just bourgeoisie concerns. I saw his eyes light up when he talked about public school libraries revitalized through the Robin Hood Foundation's "L!brary Initiative" across New York's five boroughs, and Planned Parenthood health centers in the Bay Area designed by architect Anne Fougeron, who started as a crisis-line volunteer. As I heard him talk about the "dignifying power of design," I had an epiphany.

One of my literary heroes, Virginia Woolf, talks about the importance of a woman to have a "room of one's own." I'd always believed in her premise but never considered that it wasn't just the existence of that room but also the quality of it that made inspiration possible. Suddenly, I realized how deeply I was affected, how deeply all human beings are affected, by the spaces we inhabit. All of these profound, if unconscious, messages are spoken to us through color, shape, space, air, light, or lack thereof. Basement offices weren't a badge of honor; they were an affirmation of our worst fears -- that the work we were doing wasn't respected or valued by the larger institutions and communities of which we found ourselves a part. That message must have extended to the women we worked with. That none of us deserved beauty or the ease of mind that comes from working in a functional space.

John, for his part, started to think more deeply about the stories he wasn't telling through his work. As the executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Public Architecture for nearly seven years, John was often in conversation with architects and designers, urging them to devote more energy to projects that benefited the public good. But he realized, upon witnessing me do my work, that the public element was still missing.

Even well-intentioned designers are trained to believe that their work is only as good as other designers judged it to be, not that the success of design is judged by the experience of the people who use, live, and work in it. John recently sat on a jury for a design award program in which only one out of the hundreds of submissions included the client in their own voice. (The client's picture and testimony about her experience of the space were both included.) The jury, despite seeing that project as slightly less compelling design-wise, chose it as a finalist and, lo and behold, this project also won the people's choice award when it was posted online.

John didn't just pay lip service to the role of the client; he made fundamental changes in the way he works. His recent book, The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients, is the first architecture book in history that gives equal voice to the client and the architect, literally running their narratives side by side.

The moral of the story is this: It's often not until we go out of our comfort zones and have new conversations with new kinds of people that we find our other half. This is true in love and in work. We live in a world that is so often divided in many ways, and that includes segregated work experiences. We attend conferences with people who had the same training as we did, who often struggle with the same questions and occupational hazards that we do.

There is a place for this kind of solidarity, but equally necessary, perhaps even more necessary, are opportunities for exchanging ideas. We need cross-career conversations, so we can push our own fields further, have our hunches affirmed, reject the status quo. That kind of inspiration doesn't just make our own lives better, but it has the potential to help us serve others more effectively and make the world more just and beautiful.