Making the Place Your Own

Think about the place where you live. Is it a house? An apartment? A room in a dormitory? Wherever it is, the odds are high that you live inside a structure designed by someone for that purpose. By “that purpose,” I mean being inhabited by people — generic people, not just you as an individual. (While some individuals can afford to have their living places designed just for them, from the ground up, this is not the norm. Most of us live in buildings that were designed for somebody else or nobody at all; for “people,” in general.)

These structures include distinct spaces. Some, like the toilets and kitchen, are prescriptive: they’re designed to accommodate specific uses. We may do other things in these spaces, but they were designed with a primary use in mind; they satisfy broad needs you shared with other people in your culture. Other spaces in the house are more generic. For example, a garage can serve as storage for a car, a space for writing, or the birthplace of the world’s most valuable company.

When you move into a house or apartment, you begin a gradual process of making this generic environment your own. At first, the place is still unfamiliar. You may wonder, “Where was it that I put the cutlery?” You open several drawers… “Ah yes, there it is!” Little by little, you find places to store your stuff, bring in furniture and arrange it in ways that suit you, hang art on the walls, etc. You customize the environment, adapting its structures to your needs. Eventually, you don’t need to look for the cutlery — you just know where it is. The place becomes familiar, expectable, usable, perhaps even a little boring.

The building provides a framework within which you can create an environment that meets your day-to-day needs. Its essential configuration was designed by somebody else in a discreet act of architecture. At some point, you take over as the designer of the environment. Your needs will evolve as you inhabit the place, so your architectural interventions are ongoing, emerging, responsive. Over time, your living environment becomes an extension of your self. For most uses, you don’t have to think about where things are; routine operations such as shaving, putting on your socks, writing a note, etc. happen almost automatically. (Unless, that is, if you live with other people, as many of us do. In that case, other actors are also configuring the environment for their needs, which sometimes conflict with your own.)

Now consider a computing environment, such as your smartphone or laptop. Somebody designed these systems much as somebody designed your house; neither was created with your specific needs in mind, only the needs of most potential users. There was a time when your computing environments, too, were new to you. As with the house, your initial experience with these environments was probably somewhat clunky. Over time you made them your own: You installed new apps, rearranged existing ones, created folders and labels, made choices about what you’ll do where. (Do your grocery lists live in the reminders app, the notes app, or somewhere else?) Eventually, the environment​ became an effective extension of your cognitive abilities.

Whether we’re talking houses or computer operating systems, architecture deals with the design of the structures that comprise and define the environments people inhabit. Most often this means the initial state of these environments, as designed for people, not individuals. I’m increasingly interested in what happens after this initial “heroic” design act, when individuals take over and make the environment their own. How much agency do you have in transforming your environments? How do assign areas for different uses? How do you know where things will be most effective, and where they’ll be in the way? How do you know what new things to introduce to serve unmet needs? How do you deal with changes wrought by other actors in the environment? How do you know when an environment is serving you well?