Debbi Waters Joins WRNS Studio to Elevate our National Higher Education and Cultural Practice
We sat down with Debbi to get her take on design.
How did you get into architecture?
At Cornell, I studied Human Environmental Relations, which combined psychology with design, using research methodologies to understand how we engage with our environments. I loved that I could blend creativity with empirical research, and I found it fascinating (and still do) that everything we do is an aspect of design—how we put food on our plates or schedule our day. The experiences we design should be intuitive, adapting to human behavior, and not the other way around.
I’ve always been interested in the connection between civil liberties and architecture. Fundamentally, design is about accommodating human needs and civil liberties recognizes those needs in a constitutional form and protects people. This connection has a lot to do with why I practice architecture that serves the public. By being as inclusive as possible, we can make everybody feel comfortable, whether physically or socially; concern for others ensures equal access to quality of life.
How do you connect what you do with broader social issues?
I plan and program buildings, many within public settings, that bring diverse people with different needs together. Whether master planning student life centers at universities or developing building programs for public libraries, I work with clients to create spaces that foster interaction and afford opportunities to meet new people with different perspectives. I find these social spaces to be especially important now, given our cultural tendency to self-segregate.
What's your approach?
At its core, architecture is about listening—really listening, in order to get at the root of aspiration and to understand what kinds of environments support an organization’s culture and goals. Individual spaces can meet specific user needs, but it’s the procession, the way we move through an environment, that shapes our experience of a place and encourages exploration and participation. I work with people to understand their functional requirements and to envision these experiences in relation to programmatic use.
Listening well requires good questions, of course. People often want to talk about what’s not working in their current environment, and it’s important to hear that. I’m also always curious about my client’s vision of future success—what does that mean and what does it look like? It is difficult at times put oneself in that future. One “trick,” is to imagine what is possible in a space using only uncommon architectural elements. For instance, when envisioning a future library, what experiences might result if it had a farm, a stage, or an observation deck? This kind of question cultivates imagination to help get at the heart of how people want to live or work, and when combined with a programmatic data, contributes to the planning and design of environments that enhance individual and institutional effectiveness.
Describe a project about which you're particularly proud.
I have been fortunate to participate on so many projects that have a profound community and cultural impact. The scale of these vary widely. In West Virginia, I led master planning and programming for a new center for contemporary arts in historic Shepherdstown. Shepherd University joined with the Contemporary American Theater Festival to create a new center for collaboration and experimentation among faculty, students, artists, actors, directors, and designers. In planning the project, much consideration was given to how spaces could be shared, creativity exposed, and interaction enhanced to nurture emerging contemporary artists and conceptual thinkers. The Center for Contemporary Arts both symbolizes and supports an extraordinary alliance between a liberal arts institution, a newly created School of Contemporary Art and Theater, and a professional theater.
How do you define good architecture?
For me, good architecture is responsive to human needs and in balance with our global well-being. It makes people feel good to be in a space, and to want to engage in some way—whether that’s through connecting with others or just being present. It also makes people want to participate in the dialogue about architecture. I believe as a society we don’t really advocate for good architecture. We don’t concern ourselves with it the way we might art, film, literature, or fashion, though we spend all of our time in or around buildings and they impact how we live. When I studied architectural criticism, I had a desire to make the language we use to talk about architecture more accessible and frame the conversation in social, economic, cultural, historical, and environmental contexts. That’s part of our job.
What are you excited about in architecture right now?
The realization that process is important—that engaging community in a meaningful way is essential to design. There’s been a universal pivot in our field toward more empathetic design, to truly understanding how people interact and experience place.
What are your inspirations outside of architecture?
One of my favorite books is the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. Compassion, wisdom, empathy, forgiveness, and recognizing the humanity and commonalities that we all share—these things are like any art form in that they require active practice.
What made you want to join WRNS?