• GM Shay

Rules and Boundaries

Creativity is constrained by boundaries, not rules.


Rules actually make a good designer be more creative. Without any rules, standards or conventions, the observer or user has no way to judge the merits of the artistic offering. With good rules ( gravity, physical properties of light, existence of public owned property, Clean Water Act, eg ), creative expression becomes possible without fear and confusion.


Boundaries are also important to making art, whether in painting ( the edge of the canvas ), architecture ( the property lines of the site ) or city planning ( annual operations and capital improvements budgets ). By constraining the the designer or artist to an understood area, it becomes possible to push the imagination, but stay in that one area so that the observer or user can understand the work in a shared context. For example, a garden that has boundaries can be understood to have edges, rows, sub-plots, contrasting and complimentary elements. An unbounded garden quickly becomes a field or forest, and no longer a garden at all.


Architects need both rules and boundaries, but rules are abstractions, so their application to areas within specific boundaries become proofs. These proofs that the rules work to foster order inside the boundaries make it possible to see beauty in that order. Planting the most delicate flowers next to invasive vines will lead to chaos, but planting those same vines next to a trellis will be wonderful! Likewise, having a set of rules about how to order an architectural composition within a landmark historic district allows room for creativity without redefining its boundaries.


Designers that ignore rules do so at their own peril. There are hundreds of ways to make a door, but ignoring the Americans with Disabilities Act ‘s prescriptive rules will make many of them unbuildable for public facilities, or else a violation of civil rights to many people. So designing a really imaginative doorway becomes more of a challenge, and a successful solution more satisfying to the user and the designer. The rules don’t preclude creativity, they actually make it more possible.


Our work in Savannah respects its boundaries, and seeks to find new ways for expression by embracing her rules. I once heard world famous architect Moshe Safdie say in a public meeting that “anyone could design a building using the rules” of our Historic District Zoning Ordinance. But he himself hadn’t even tried! Over the past 30 years, our firm’s designs have explored ways to add to Savannah’s boundaries without breaking her rules, and making her more like everywhere else in the process. We are working together with the City of Savannah now on a new Cultural Arts Center, bounded by ML King Boulevard, Oglethorpe Avenue, Montgomery Street and Hull Street. As a monumental building and a civic institution, it will be governed by many rules, but we are confident that this center will also be a place of wonder. Keep watching us as we make it!

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Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects

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Savannah, GA 31041

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