Revisiting “Architecture of the Earth and the Living”

José María Sáez + Daniel Moreno Flores/ Algarrobos House, Equador

José María Sáez + Daniel Moreno Flores/ Algarrobos House, Equador

I want to pick up some loose ends from my last post, “An Architecture of the Earth and the Living”. There I delved briefly into the meaning of that phrase, hoping to draw your attention, maybe even plant a seed. (I’m aware that the actual audience at this time is probably small, but that’s ok – a seed in the wind may eventually take root somewhere.)

red flag alert

Here’s where I want to go this time around:  in that last post are the whispers of an issue that’s been tugging at my mind, namely that of unintended implications and interpretations. A small red flag has gone up. Hmm.

Since it’s impossible to accurately capture all of architecture with words, I want to take a closer look at some implications of that last post and see if they might be unnecessarily screening out a wider audience? Is it possible that my only audience is the choir? Am I otherwise being tuned out?

We tend to be receptive only to that which we want to hear, and tune out much of what we don’t. We’re open to affirmation but draw boundaries around our turf to keep unwanted messages at bay.

Instead of possibly introducing others to new ways of seeing and thinking about architecture, have I, in fact, only been validating previously held views. Am I only lending support to minds locked into the safe and familiar, that screen out unwanted  messages?

Hopefully not, but if that is the case, then the following thoughts will be relevant. If not, then my aim is off and I apologize for the waste of your time.

to grow = to live more fully

Since my personal belief is that growth, including growth in ones ability to know the world, is a basic requirement for being fully alive, and since architecture, particularly the kind I’m proposing, is an extension of life, I want to use this post to advance movement in that direction.

In the last post I explained what I meant by “an architecture of the earth and the living” and concluded with the following:

Whether it’s built for a location far from civilization or in a crowded urban environment, “architecture of the earth and the living” originates from a source inherent in its own nature as a built structure and in the life that creates it.

It possesses a vital natural energy emanating from essences residing in the materials with which it’s constructed and the circumstances from which it’s derived, including its purpose – its reason for being.

It’s a place where life awakens, where a deeper resonance with life is felt; a place where being alive is more interesting, more itself.


While this captures my meaning to my satisfaction, it is also more intentionally poetic rather than literal – it’s not, nor was it intended to be, a precise textbook definition.

José María Sáez + Daniel Moreno Flores/ Algarrobos House, Equador

José María Sáez + Daniel Moreno Flores/ Algarrobos House, Equador

I chose this way of describing it because I think the architecture I’m referring to is more effectively captured poetically – it extends beyond the practical into the realm of the experiential. Some would even say that it’s lofty, that it has a spiritual dimension.

And thus my concern that terms such as, “lofty, spiritual, poetry, art, experience, etc.”, may be trigger words wrapped tightly around a closed box somewhere in the recesses of the mind of those holding them. In other words, I’m concerned that they fail to encourage further thought and perhaps  even block it.

This same concern applies equally to those who prefer their reality to be neatly packaged, more precise, ordered, and sharply defined, and who, far too abruptly, dismiss my description as not being literal enough, as being too fuzzy.

Asleep in the minds of some are these charged symbols acting as guardians of unexamined views and prejudices. As guards they’re primed for defense of that guarded turf just in case those unwanted messages get too close. 

What I’m saying is that each of us has our own personal way of seeing or wanting to see the world. And it’s from that place we then respond.

Our signature viewpoint falls somewhere along a wide band of consciousness. It’s our territory, our personal domain. And we guard it well.

That spectrum stretches from a dreamy, nonverbal, semi-conscious and emotional perspective, at one extreme, to the other where the need for assertive, impartial, non-emotional verbal precision dominates.

As I say, we tend to be territorial about our mental turf. The farther apart ones personal mode of perception is from someone else’s the greater the possibility of provoking hostility or indifference. Where the gulf is wide, communicating across it can be difficult.

either or?

For the sake of mental economy we tend to see certain things in simple terms of oppositions: reason vs feeling; critical vs emotional thinking; the material vs the spiritual; practical vs aesthetic, etc.. These become the labels applied to those closed files.

Architecture, the merging of art and the practical, is born in the turbulence of these oppositions. It straddles the wide divide between them, prevailing in its journey through an obstacle course of differences.

Tensions abound in the design of architecture invested heavily with aesthetic considerations. Turfs are carefully guarded by those involved in its creation with a passion proportionate to where along that spectrum of conscious modus operandi they feel most at home.

For example, on the one hand, buildings that are suitable for safe human habitation, structures capable of withstanding the wild forces of nature require, as you would correctly assume, thought processes that are highly rational.

On the other hand, to build something that’s emotionally gratifying requires many subtle aesthetic considerations based on what feels right, i.e., how a built environment will affect us experientially, how it will expand the emotional quality our lives.

The terrain between the two can be rugged, convergence at some mid-point easily discouraged.

This takes me to the main point of this post.

coexist, join forces

Whether your modus operandi lies at one end of the spectrum or the other, whether your perception of the world is through an emotional filter or through a lens stripped clean of emotional distractions or anywhere in between for that matter, just know that when tempted to assert your mode of seeing the world as superior, that architecture, in fact most things that get built, are a result of  all these different modes of consciousness coexisting and ultimately working together.

As a manifestation of the merging of art with the practical, feeling and rationality, architecture is a testament to our ability as humans to break free from the tyranny of false limits and other potential cages of the mind. To exist, architecture requires implementation of all our faculties. It requires us to consider wider vistas and to stretch the envelope of our perceived limits.

not just one way or the other

A quick look at what’s involved:

At one extreme is the design say of a manufacturing plant. Here, everything must successfully serve the goal of efficient production. But even in the rarified mental atmosphere of highly analytical thought needed to resolve the myriad problems of production, emotional signals are being sent. Choices will always be affected to some extent by a sense of appropriateness guided in part by feeling.

Porche factory

Porche factory

No matter how cut and dry the process, our choices will always be to some extent under the influence of our emotions. Try as we might at times to drive a wedge between thought and feeling, our lives depend on us failing in that effort.

Influencing every decision made of a practical nature is a sense of what’s right and what’s not. I’m referring here to a “gut feeling”. It may be an extremely faint signal from deep within, but it is nevertheless influential. Surrounding all that rigorous critical thinking is a “sense of things”, of what feels right.

Let’s take a look at the other side of the architectural spectrum, designing say a private residence. As a built environment it is strongly guided by what it will look and feel like to its inhabitants. Will it be experienced on all levels as their unique place of refuge in the world, i.e., as their home?

Nevertheless, it also requires that the designer, if it is ever to be built, think through and make decisions having to do with an endless array of practical issues. A significant part of the process of designing a place that affects us emotionally, experientially, is, unavoidably, its companion, linear thinking.

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

Of course, resolving practical matters can be shifted to others, but regardless, someone in the designing and construction of a house must use their rational faculties.

And even when the practical holds a weak grip on decision-making, even when one is making decisions based on how things will look and feel, a left-brain sorting-out process is still at work. Even then, one must weigh one possibility against the other.


Regardless of the position you hold on art versus the practical in design – or for that matter on many other decisions in life, those decisions will always be influenced by the full spectrum of mind-body activity, the full range of thought and feeling, and perhaps, in addition, by the power of ones vision.

By vision, I’m referring to that inner thought or image of something that, when sufficiently formed promises a strong emotional reward if realized once it is brought intact into the world. That reward may be based on nothing more than seeing your personal idea manifested. Or, at the opposite extreme, maybe you’re certain that its implementation could change the world.


Paolo Soleri, Macro Cosanti Residence, 1964

Paolo Soleri, Macro Cosanti Residence, 1964

Vision is interesting in that, although in essence it is really no more than what a person sees or thinks of as a possibility to some degree, weak to powerful, it is also a force to contend with when designing or planning. It possesses the power to corral ones emotional energy in an effort to achieve fruition. And yet, as a powerful force in achieving difficult goals, “vision” like certain concepts, can also unintentionally limit our range of perception.

What I’m saying here is that whether one prides oneself as impartial and rigorous when approaching problem-solving or planning or choosing where to put ones money, or on the other hand, if one feels in touch with the divine when creating a work of art, all these dimensions of mind are at playEach has an impact on the outcome.

loosen up, getting more 

Feeling that your personal mode of facing the world is superior risks shutting out a broader range of of possibilities. In other words, guarding too carefully ones cherished way of viewing the world increases the risk of blinding oneself and consequently blocking the path to getting more from life.

And so, to circle back to the main point I’m making regarding “an architecture of the earth and the living”:  that kind of architecture, while perhaps appealing emotionally, or if not and possibly the opposite and thereby capable of triggering alarms, is in fact a quite complex adventure demanding serious respect for seeing and knowing all that it takes to successfully bring it into the world. As with all architecture, it straddles a wide gulf of different modes of mental activity.

Its existence depends on a willingness to loosen ones grip and allow for the vast differences we all have in our ways of viewing the world. Not, by any means, to sell out or give in to something one finds repugnant, but to open the doors of perception to potential life-serving rewards lying beyond the boundaries of our cherished limits.


architect unknown

architect unknown

Li Xiaodong Atelier, The Water House, Lijiang, China/2009

Li Xiaodong Atelier, The Water House, Lijiang, China/2009

Miller Architects,  Mountain Lodge

Miller Architects, Mountain Lodge

Ruinelli Associati Architetti, Redevelopment of a barn, Soglio, 2009

Ruinelli Associati Architetti, Redevelopment of a barn, Soglio, 2009

Karolina and Wayne Switzer, African Mud Hut

Karolina and Wayne Switzer, African Mud Hut

BAK Arquitectos, Levels house, Mar Azul, Argentina, 2011

BAK Arquitectos, Levels house, Mar Azul, Argentina, 2011

Aiguille du Midi viewing area (part of the Mont Blanc range), Chamonix, France

Aiguille du Midi viewing area (part of the Mont Blanc range), Chamonix, France


Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

James Lahey

James Lahey

Catherine Sévérac

Catherine Sévérac

Rob't Motherwell

Rob’t Motherwell

11 thoughts on “Revisiting “Architecture of the Earth and the Living”

  1. Warren: While I am neither colleague nor client, I absolutely enjoy reading your personal philosophy of design and creativity. (I’m your reader who has no preconceived notions nor any turf to defend.)

  2. I just had a minute to read a bit of this, and it’s fascinating. Coming back for more… I think you are very articulate about things hard to pin down with words….(see, I can’t even make a proper sentence)…
    Thanks for visiting. 🙂

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