Together, Apart: The Architecture of an Ensemble

Music room in a Colonial Revival residence renovation. Designed by Tim Barber Ltd. and Kristen Panitch Interiors. Photo: Tim Street Porter.

I learned to play the trumpet when I was nine – and a new, exciting world opened to me. I learned the language of music, from theory and history to the nuances of expression. I liked the solo work. But what brought me the greatest joy was the miracle of making music in a group. I often played in marching band and orchestra. Playing in ensemble required being in tune, keeping the same beat and understanding the dynamics and our place in them among other instruments. It is beyond my imagining how to make music with others, apart, and yet, it is happening (see a link below).

Like many throughout the world, we’re sequestered in California this spring to slow the spread of COVID-19. This could last for a month – or six months. Or longer.

Our team has been working from home for two weeks, trusting each other to stay apart and stay connected. We’re using new hardware and new software and learning new skills. We collaborate with our clients on video – learning what works and what doesn’t. It’s quite a change – for all of us; especially in an office and profession that relies on site visits, paper drawings and human connection.

All our drawings are now digital, rendered to be descriptive online. We’re paying more attention to clear communicating and to learning how descriptive words can really be. We’re learning to make architecture together, apart.

One silver lining: we’re using less electricity, driving less, using less paper, less water and sending less mail. The earth might make a miracle out of this.

I believe it is working. Clients are understanding our drawings and making decisions. City agencies are accepting digital submissions and giving approval. Contractors are signing agreements to build our homes. These are miracles made from belief, determination and resilience.

In this time of uncertainty, staff meetings bring team members together in tiny video boxes on GoToMeeting. We Facetime and Zoom our clients. I watch the banter on our team chat. I stop in the office and see all the monitors alight and drawings develop – in front of empty chairs – our team designing via a remote network.

I’m inspired by this new power of an ensemble. Though we are physically separated, our digital tools have allowed us to stay socially, intellectually, creatively and professionally connected. Despite our challenges, we’re excited to continue making architecture – by being together, in a different way.

We’re inspired the countless musicians also creating virtual ensembles. For one example, see the Toronto Symphony play together, apart: