Why Certain Architecture Moves Me

Recently I found myself wondering why certain architecture seems, for me at least, to defy the typical slide into boredom that results from over-familiarity.  Why do certain buildings, over time, continue to have a grip on me? Why do they move me, elevate my experience of being alive?

Historically and in the present, many buildings possess that power, built environments that I consider, if not exactly beautiful, at least capable of capturing my attention.  But their main attraction is different from that of a certain group of work, one that over time continues to take hold, one that, regardless of its flaws, typically elevates my experience of life and its possibilities.

As you may have guessed from some of my past posts, there’s the work of one architect, in particular – Frank Lloyd Wright’s, that no matter how jaded I might get, regardless of how old or passe his work might become over time, how over-exposed, over-hyped, built up, or knocked down it gets, no matter how critical I might be about certain aspects of his work, I still continue to be drawn to and moved by much of it.  Of course, there are many other architects whose work possess similar power – for the most part, each share common essential characteristics. But Wright’s work, in particular, stands out and provides me with a readily available point of departure for my reflection.

What, then, is it about this particular work that gives it such power?  I thought I would see if I could identify some of it in a few words – an admittedly personal and non-rigorous look. Since my purpose here is driven more by my need to grasp underlying principles than to please the reader, I apologize if you’ve given me the benefit of the doubt up to now without any reward.  On the other hand, if it does ring a bell, I’m happy. Better yet, maybe you’ll want to look for yourself at what moves you architecturally (or in any other area), and ask why.

In any case, this is what I came up with as my brief answer to why certain architecture has this power:

  •  It romantically embraces life – especially human life, from which it is conceived, and the earth, from which it takes shape. It conveys that embrace with feeling that runs deep. Human life and the earth are at its core.
  •  It uses materials in a way true to and expressive of their authentic natures; that resonate with us on a deep, primal level.
  •  It eliminates the non-essential in conveying its central idea and in support of its central purpose which is to shelter life.
  •  It accomplishes this with the implicit – if not explicit – acknowledgement by some, at least, of those primarily responsible for bringing it to life that we the inhabitants are thinking, feeling, spiritual, experiential beings deserving of such environments – that the potential for joy is part of our heritage as humans.








John Lautner

John Lautner



Will Bruder

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

John Lautner

John Lautner















Will Bruder

Will Bruder





Kendrick Kellogg

Kendrick Kellogg





Will Bruder

Will Bruder



Home Base…Part 8 – Coda

Century plants – Agave americana , native of Mexico, thrive here in southern California. They can be dangerous close up in a hands-off kind of way, but  apologize with a one time only final blast of exuberance at the end.

century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants
century plants
century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants

century plants

Pursuit of Happiness

By the time we reach a certain age, I think most of us know, or at least sense, that the pursuit of happiness – our basic birthright, is just that, a pursuit.

To the extent we take on life we come to realize that the pursuit follows a path sometimes long and twisting, sometimes steep beyond exhaustion, the results never guaranteed.  (Our right to pursue doesn’t extend to getting what we’re after.)  In spite of that, we still continue in its pursuit as long as we are conscious.

We find that scattered along this lifelong journey are places to pause, breathe in the mountain air, take in the view, let our imagination roam, recharge, and, ultimately, be inspired to search further.  These pauses are in themselves actual moments of happiness, the object of our pursuit.

The places are familiar and varied.  For instance: connecting with soul mates; personal achievements; grasping certain liberating ideas that open us to greater possibilities; breakthrough discoveries; acquiring or witnessing something that lifts us to higher planes of awareness – art, for instance, of any kind or scale – architecture included.  Maybe it’s the act of creation itself.  Maybe happiness lies in the journey – in its pursuit.  The possibilities are endless and as variable as life itself.

Wherever we find it, the payoff for this determined pursuit, besides pride we take in the effort, and perhaps the pleasure derived from it, is reaching those places along the way where, no matter how fleeting it might be, we experience moments of joy, the very essence of our being alive.  How we get there and the quality of what we find depend to a large extent on the choices made by each of us – a topic for another post.

Dong Honh-Oai

Dong Honh-Oai

Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon

tom roberts - going home

tom roberts – going home


unknown source

Collonges-la-Rouge, France

Collonges-la-Rouge, France

Jacques Gillet

Jacques Gillet

FLW - Doheney Ranch

FLW – Doheney Ranch

Arthur Erickson

Arthur Erickson

COMOCO arquitectos, Castelo Novo's Castle

COMOCO arquitectos, Castelo Novo’s Castle

PES Architects - Wuxi Grand Theater

PES Architects – Wuxi Grand Theater


FLW Imperial Hotel

FLW Imperial Hotel


There’s only one way to really know architecture (or anything else, for that matter):  by being there physically, in person, i.e., to experience it first hand, eyes and mind wide open.

Ines Cortesao, Clara house

Ines Cortesao, Clara house

And yet as a reality, architecture remains, for most, beyond reach and regarded, if at all, as irrelevant in the context of daily life, a life guided largely by far more pressing matters. The closest experience, more often than not, is as seen through photography, video, cinematography, exhibits, writing, or  a car window.

What then might be the point of photographing, filming, or writing about it, all of which are second hand representations, views through another’s eyes or, in the case of writing, with language which fails even more to fully capture it?  When seen or read about at a distance far removed from the day-to-day lives of most people, do any of these alternate attempts at communicating architecture really matter?

Besides its possible entertainment value, there is in fact one important benefit offered by someone else’s look at architecture, regardless of the fact that it’s no substitute for experiencing the real thing.

It’s this: certain images, whether in the form of photos, videos, film, drawings, models, or  words, have the ability to penetrate the barrier of prejudices that limit ones private view of what’s possible in life. They penetrate the imagination, igniting inspiration.

The concepts we form over the years about what life holds for us shape our expectations and consequently limit our search for something better.

A photograph or a certain phrase may, like an ember, burn through those barriers, igniting the tinderbox of hope and excitement that even the most stoic of us possess in some quantity.

Lit, the imagination then expands, opening doors to possibilities previously lying dormant. Life moves ahead, becomes more exciting, more alive.

Architecture, one possible expression of being more alive, when presented first as an image, may then begin its journey toward reality and be experienced as it actually is.


Miller Architects, Fishing Cabin

Miller Architects, Fishing Cabin

Bernard Maybeck, Mathewson house

Bernard Maybeck, Mathewson house

Greene and Greene, Thorsen House

Greene and Greene, Thorsen House

Alfred Caldwell,  Lily Pool

Alfred Caldwell, Lily Pool

Alberto Kalach, Casa Romany

Alberto Kalach, Casa Romany

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Mountain House

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Mountain House

UID Architects Associates, Pit House

UID Architects Associates, Pit House

John Wardle Architects, Shearers Quarters; Image-Trevor Mein

John Wardle Architects, Shearers Quarters; Image-Trevor Mein

Image-Trevor Mein

Image-Trevor Mein

Paul Cezanne - Road in Provence

Paul Cezanne – Road in Provence

Aspen Cathedral, Vail, Co

Aspens, Vail, Co

“Architecture of the Earth and the Living”

Anyone browsing my posts or Pinterest site will have noticed in various iterations the words I’m now using for a new caption, along with certain images that I thought might offer clues to the meaning of those words. I chose those particular words as an attempt to verbally convey something about the kind of architecture that resonates with me, that rings my bell.

But, architecture, in all its multi-dimensional reality, is experienced on non-verbal levels while moving through and around it. And so, because I’m alone here, silently pecking away at my keyboard reaching out into the digital void, I can only wonder how I’m being interpreted, or if my words are even registering with anyone out there. On the other hand, I know by comments I’ve received that some of you do, in fact, seem to grasp what I’m saying, at least to some extent.

Be that as it may and since my new caption, “…architecture of the earth and the living”, is so central to my writing about the built environment, I want to make the extra effort at being understood. At risk of leaving you annoyed by overworking the subject, I offer the following comments.

At the heart of architecture is experience. By experience I mean how we respond on all levels to our surroundings. Whether it’s a mountain cabin, an urban loft, or any other type in between, all that affects our senses in and around that sheltered space, is the stuff that needs to be addressed and then drawn upon in order for it to become architecture.

But what do I mean by “…Architecture of the Earth and the Living”?

For starters I mean:

  • It feels at home in its setting.
  • It draws on and is subsequently energized by, not just its purpose but also the nature of the things that make it – the materials and techniques of its construction as well as characteristics of the site where it’s built.
  • It captures essences, or to put it another way: the enclosure and the space enclosed – two parts of one whole – derive from and connect to the essential characteristics of where it’s built, as well as why and how.
  • It speaks and sometimes even sings to us from a place within, a source deeper than its surface.
  • Its essential character resides in the materials of its construction, which then energize the space in and around it.
  • It’s an honest expression of all that it is. Congruence is its main aesthetic virtue. It expresses it’s authenticity, it’s reality. It’s the genuine article.
  • It has warmth, but in balance with coolness.
  • It has softness, but in balance with hardness.
  • It’s neither strictly masculine nor feminine; it may be both.
  • It acknowledges the earth as its source and draws from that – the earth is in its DNA.
  • It aims at enhancing awareness of, through its connection to, the earth – its poetry and its subtle as well as dramatic gifts.
  • It’s a conduit of energy between exterior and interior worlds, between what and where it is and our inner world of experience.
  • When located in a more primal setting some may call it rustic. But rustic does not begin to define it.
  • It may be built with concrete, steel, sheet metal, wood, brick, stone, rammed earth, plaster, glass, or any other appropriate material. But it’s reality is the transformation of those materials into poetry.

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.


Warren Lawson Architect, Soucek residence

standardarchitecture: namchabawa visitor center

Carlo Scarpa

Sverre Fehn, Nordic pavilion

Ron Thom, Trent University

BVN Architecture, Mending Wall

House Among Trees by Martin Fernandez de Lema and Nicolas Moreno Deutsch

Herbst Architects, Kaipara Pavilion

Reconstruction of the Szatmáry Palace by MARP

Reconstruction of the Szatmáry Palace by MARP

miller hull partnership safari drive condominiums

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Lily Lake Residence

FLW, Johnson residence

Louis Kahn, Fisher house

AATA arquitectos: cabañas morerava

Paul Schweikher, Upton Residence, Scottsdale, Az.

Glenn Murcutt, Magney House

Renzo Ferrari Birthplace Museum

Rick Stevens

miragem by Miriam HMello

What Then is the Point of Hiring an Architect?

“What an architect is, seems to be up for debate these days…. Most buildings in this country are not designed by architects, and it is becoming easier and easier for laypeople to buy computer  programs or to hire-in expertise that allows them to design buildings. More and more of what goes into buildings is also becoming specialized and bolstered by technology, so that what defines a building is as much systems, codes, interior decoration. lighting and acoustical design, and cost estimating, as it is whatever we might still call architecture.” from “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?” by Aaron Betsky for Architect Magazine, Oct. 22, 2012

For millennia, buildings, especially dwellings, have been erected without the involvement of what today is referred to as an architect. They were built by those with enough skills to enclose a space that for the most part would remain upright, at least for a while. Failure, after appeasing the gods, was followed by trying once again, perhaps learning something from the experience. Occasionally something was learned about structural integrity.

As populations grew and civilizations advanced, structural failure and destruction by fire became a growing cause for concern. But advancing civilizations also meant an advance in building technologies along with the efforts by underwriters, governments, and local civic groups to harness the growing risk of greater casualties.

As part of that effort, master builders began grouping together in professional societies. They were following the precedent of artisan guilds in an earlier era. Now their stated purpose was advancement of “the common good” – to ensure building safety and protect an unwitting public from charlatans.

As their numbers grew, so too did their political clout, an effort that eventually paid off with the passage of licensing laws.

Designed to raise the bar of technical competence, licensing also carried with it the added short-term bonus to the licensee of limited competition. Assuring professional competency, a worthy goal in itself, also carried with it, as do all regulations, the hidden price of limited choices and consequently an increase in cost. With added cost comes, inevitably, a search for alternatives.

The pressure exerted on government to promote public safety had other consequences besides licensing, notably the creation of building codes and zoning laws. In order to build, a licensed architect was needed to not only design and prepare construction drawings, but also to navigate the ever growing complexity of code enforcement agencies for approval. To build required a building permit.

Complying with an increasingly complex thicket of code requirements eventually required the services of a trained professional. For most building types, construction drawings submitted to a building department were then required to be stamped with the professional seal of a licensed architect or engineer.

Over the years, satisfying code restrictions has become an increasingly central part of an architect’s skill set. And, as one might expect, one consequence is that the buildings they design have been shaped to an ever greater extent by those codes.

Also as a consequence, the architect’s public image began to shift from that of artist-builder to one as a building technician and permit facilitator; (and, if any money was left in the budget, someone who could then also give the building some “pizzazz”.)

Giving boost to the image-shift that architects, as well as architecture, has undergone is the emergence and rapid development of digital technology, notably in the areas of design and 3D drawings.

A genuine boon to the delivery of projects, this technology has also resulted in an increasing number of imaginary architects. Apps are now available to anyone with a digital device that enable them to produce computer models of built environments and vicariously experience themselves as designers, no further experience needed.

More and more, as this technology grows, some will come to think that they can do what “architects” do; they can now design buildings and their interiors. Of course they will acknowledge that they don’t possess the technical expertise to convert their digital fantasies into real buildings. But then, that’s what contractors and architects are for.

And since contractors, more and more, are acquiring many of the skills once the exclusive domain of architects, why not, then, just bypass the architect for everything except for stamping the drawings.

By the way, this is not just me indulging in the dark side. Yes, it’s a foreshortened view but one that contains a kernel of truth. That architects have become a limited participant in shaping our built environment is easily checked out by a quick look at real estate ads or driving around town.

What then is the point of hiring an architect?  Construction costs are high enough without plugging in fees for architectural services, especially when the value of those services are in doubt.

Whatever we call architecture… is more than what licensed architects do. It is something that transforms buildings into frames for our daily lives, frameworks for relationships, catalysts for new ways of living, anchors in a world of change, and many other things that I think are difficult to define and, more importantly, even less likely to show up in the process by which architects in this country and the U.K. are licensed…” ibid.

The art in architecture is a fragile thing. Over the years its status has been slowly displaced by the ever-growing complications of getting something built. This has led to increased costs, leaving less and less room for anything but satisfying the practical necessity of shelter. When the the art in architecture devolves into surface application, architecture loses its soul. Missing there is the seamless merging of all the parts that make architecture something more than just a practical solution.  Missing is another opportunity to discover the joys unique to architecture at its best, architecture that reaches the best in us.

Just how much more than what licensing alone accomplishes is evident when standing in the presence of architecture designed by someone possessing certain talents and abilities beyond the technical that awaken in us something that’s too often asleep. The heightened experience of being alive that architecture has the potential to offer requires something deeper than what technical proficiency and skills at acquiring building permits alone can achieve.

And, by the way, it also requires someone, a client, who really wants it; someone who is willing to acknowledge and accept that, for certain things, there’s just no shortcut to getting them.

Below are samples of  how some have given shape to what they saw when looking deeper.

Le Grotte della Civita, Matera, 2009

Utzon in Mallorca

Small House In Czech Republic Recycled From Ruins of Barn

House 6 in San Mateo County,California by Fu-Tung Cheng. 2009

James Eads How House, Silverlake, Los Angeles. Rudolph Schindler. 1925

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

John Lautner, Stevens House, Malibu

John Lautner, Segel house, Malibu

Shirish Beri and Associates, Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset – Vincent van Gogh

Diego Rivera, House over Bridge, 1909

Home Base…part 5

At the risk of repeating myself and boring you, I’m once again inspired by what’s out my window…

It’s Fall. I love Fall. The first rain just passed through. Our wildfire season has been briefly delayed, but more importantly, my architectural spirit has once again been lifted. As always I was captivated by it’s spell. But, I must confess that doing this series of shots was also inspired not just by the weather, but in part by a post, “diffuse” on the blog, “donnell & day architectural journal”.

the day before

approaching rain

…getting closer

…and closer

the veil of rain

…easing up

sunlight, rain

veil lifting

break through

view from the carport

rain’s sundown gift

next morning

Tuning Out, Tuning In

There’s a lot going on.

Simple, revealing little, concealing much, I thought I would use this seemingly vapid comment as a kind of trail marker hinting at something more pithy ahead, an observation that I think is worthy of your attention.

First, let me explain what I mean by a lot going on. As we are well aware of from time to time, at any given moment there can be an overload of sensory traffic buzzing around and through us. This in itself is not news. But the thing I want to draw your attention to is how easily it sidetracks us.  That buzz, that sensory overload, easily obscures awareness of what matters to us most.

From the moment when the mind flickers awake in the morning to when it eventually fades out at night, it’s subject to an encyclopedic range of input, often just plain noise, much of it actual sound, often just the hum of brain chatter.

So much so that, when something really important and worthy of close attention sneaks into our field of awareness, it often slips by unnoticed, if not altogether ignored. Or it gets glossed over, downplayed, maybe even dismissed as a distraction. Usually we’re just too busy to bother with it.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable, but nonetheless, this state of affairs has its consequences.

Which brings me to my purpose in writing this. By underscoring what might seem to be an unavoidable and unchangeable part of life today, I’m also underscoring what I think is one of the outcomes: it’s effect on architecture, my second love in life. It’s a reason, I think, why architecture occupies a much too obscure niche in the set of personal priorities of so many people; why so many of our buildings fail to raise our sights, lift us emotionally, add to our inventory of inspired legacies, and in general, succeed only in leaving us indifferent.

But, venting on this issue is not my purpose. What  interests me here is making an effort, as minor as it may be, to do something about it by bringing attention to it; to give it a nudge, light a fire under it. Is this situation really changeable? I don’t know, but why not try?

There’s an abundance of legitimate reasons related to personal circumstance for excluding architecture as part of ones reality, for simply not caring about it. I know that for many, if not most of us, it’s beyond reach and may always be. Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the impact that our immediate surroundings exerts on our quality of life.

This simple but often repeated fact has by now become a cliche. But not to be so easily dismissed is the nugget of truth lying at its core: we are all, fundamentally, experiential, spiritual, and thinking beings, by which I mean that our health requires nurturing in all those areas. Unless we’re comatose, we respond unavoidably on many levels and in potentially profound ways to the messages from beyond our skin received by our senses, all the time.

Yes, of course, few people are in a position financially or otherwise to acquire architecture for themselves. That significant accomplishment is left to a very small segment of the population. And yet, it’s those few who have the greatest power to impact the quality of the built environments of the world, most notably their own.

And so, the question is begged: why do those possessing the ability to improve on the state of the natural world, one of our greatest sources of pleasure and enrichment, often let that opportunity slip away? Why do most of our buildings induce yawns of boredom at best and, at worst, apathetic resignation to what seems impossible to change? Why do so few of those with the ability to get good architecture end up with with less?

I wonder. Is it an opportunity that goes unrecognized? Is it sensory overload that obscures what’s most important?

Everyone sees a building’s potential differently. My views on the untapped possibilities of architecture and its failure, in general, to realize them may not be shared by many. Are there explanations then, other than the ones I’ve suggested above, for why our built environments turn out the way they do?  There are, you can be sure. But while it’s tempting to look for them here, it’s not really where I want to go right now.

Instead, I prefer to aim in a different direction, not at changing a set of circumstances that’s mostly beyond my reach. As many architects have done before, myself included, it’s more appealing to suggest an option, a different way of seeing and thinking about the structures we build and where they come from.

For now with respect to readers who have more to do than slog through a long post, I’ll narrow down that focus to just one possibility. There may be many more, perhaps,but one in particular is dear to me

All buildings are connected to their surroundings, to nature above all – nature out there, as well as our internal nature as humans. It’s a continuous dialogue and relationship that can be quite intimate. 

By nature, in this case the earth, I mean the place that all of us, consciously or not, are an extension of, where we can turn to reconnect on a deeper level with what’s most important.

As such, nature is here, now, real. It has the power to bring us into the present, to settle us down. Unlike the overload of sensory stimulation that is often part of that strata of existence common to most life as it currently is experienced, especially in urban areas, nature has the power to ground us, to return us to ourselves.

Nature as a primary point of reference in the built environment has been addressed in various ways by many  architects, high on my list of which are Wright, of course, Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa, Peter Bohlin, James Cutler, John Lautner, Will Bruder, Kengo Kuma and not so well known, Jack Hilmer, to name but a few. I know I’m leaving out dozens more who’ve had much to offer in connecting us to the natural world through their architecture as well as their written words. But this is a good start. Their work represents a wide range of different possibilities, but share a common message.

Following are a few notable examples of how nature, in the sense I refer to above, can influence our built world.

FLW, Reisley House

FLW, Palmer House

FLW, Melvyn Maxwell Smith House

FLW, Rose Pauson Residence, Ship Rock, after fire

FLW, Aisaku Hayashi House, Tokyo – 1917

Frank Lloyd Wright, Millard House wall detail

FLW, Owen Young House, Chandler – 1928

FLW, Doheney Ranch Development – 1923

FLW, Darwin Martin House


How many understand that Nature is the essential character of whatever is. It’s something you’ll find by looking not at, but in, always in. It’s always inside the thing, and it makes the outside.”

Building becomes architecture only when the mind of man consciously takes it and tries with all his resources to make it beautiful, to put concordance, sympathy with nature, and all that into it.”

“study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, India Institute of Management

Louis Kahn, India Institute of Management

Louis Kahn, Yale Center for British Art

Louis Kahn, Fisher House

Louis Kahn:

“And when you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And there is where Design comes in. And if you think of Brick, for instance, and you say to Brick, “What do you want Brick?” and Brick says to you,

“I like an Arch.”  And if you say to Brick “Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lentil over you. What do you think of that, brick?”

Brick says: “… I like an Arch”

Carlo Scarpa

Carlo Scarpa. Brion-Vega Cemetery

Carlo Scarpa, Brion-Vega Cemetery

Carlo Scarpa:

If the architecture is any good, a person who looks and listens will feel its good effects without noticing. The environment educates in a critical fashion. As for the critic, he discovers the truth of things…”

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Port Townsend Residence

Peter Bohlin/ Bohlin Cywinski Jackson:

“We believe in an architecture that springs from the nature of circumstance.

…the nature of place, whether natural or man-made – the tilt and warp of the land, the sun and wind, rain and snow, its attitude, its spirit, the marks of man on a place, a dense urban world or a landscape that reveals its geological past and vestiges of man’s hand.

…the nature of man – our senses, how we move, how we touch, our intellect and our emotions, our dreams, our memories, our past, our institutions,

…the nature of making, of materials – stone, wood, concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, plastic, fabric – each has its particular qualities.

…All materials have a kind of will – we are fascinated by the connection between the nature of materials, the places they quite naturally make and our use of these particular places. from “Arcadian Architecture, 12 Houses”, by Oscar Riera Ojeda

Cutler Anderson Architects, Bodega Residence

Cutler Anderson Architects, Bodega Residence

James Cutler, Medina Residence Guest House

James Cutler, Medina Residence Guest House

James Cutler/ Cutler Anderson

John Lautner, Mauer Residence

John Lautner’s Wolff House

Rawlins Residence, John Lautner with Warren Lawson

John Lautner, Segel Residence with Warren Lawson as project architect

John Lautner:

As far as structure is concerned I think we should continually experiment and discover every new material and method and use it.”

Will Bruder, Pond House

Will Bruder, Pond House

Will Bruder, Byrne-Residence

Will Bruder

Will Bruder:

“…celebrate the materials and how they go together”

“…You’re getting paid to open the possibilities of what architecture is about” And the goal of architecture, he says, “is to build a better world to live in, to build armatures for memory. And memory is what people value more than any physical thing.”  from Residential Architect, October 18, 2011 post

Kengo Kuma, Yusuhara Wooden Bridge

Kengo Kuma, Momofuku Ando Center

Kengo Kuma:

Sushi is a good metaphor for my architecture. The importance in sushi is to choose the best material from the place, in season. ‘If the journey of the ingredients is too long, the taste of the sushi is compromised. That is a problem that can’t be solved by modern technology, and that programme of using local material in season is the secret of good taste, and the secret of my style.” 

Jack Hilmer, Kentfield House

Jack Hilmer, Kentfield House

A Choice That Delivers

Like the first crocus piercing a long winter’s snow… architecture at its best embodies hope.


Ancient Roman Stadium, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; from ALZBlog

Machu Picchu

FLW, Rose Pausen house ruins

casa colina, PACHACAMAC, PeruLawrence Halprin, Ira Keller Fountain Park, Portland, Oregon

Casa Zaror, Jaime Bendersky Architectos

Domus Impluvium, Bernardo Rodrigues

Linking past with future, through experience in a continuous present, architecture bridges time as a marker of life’s wider possibilities. As such, in addition to fulfilling its purpose as shelter where life is enhanced, it also signifies hope for a better life.

But, as we all know, it’s certainly not true that anything built as shelter will rise to this level. Little ever does. And yet, all architecture has in its DNA that potential.

What then determines whether any particular work of architecture will embody hope or dash it on the rocks…or, as is mostly the case, flounder somewhere in the middle?

The capacity for architecture to impact our lives in that way is contingent on the choice made, early in its genesis, of which particular path to follow.

That choice is one that’s fundamentally important. At the other end of that path are all the buildings ever built and yet to be built.

That path exists for all architectural projects. In effect, it’s the criteria, held consciously or not, that guides the direction of the design. The choice of which path to follow sets in motion an important trajectory, one that becomes manifest over an expanse of time on a scale that dots the earth and touches us all.

The path is not a simple one. It actually begins at a fork, a choice right at the beginning of which fundamental direction to take. It’s a decision that will reflect the designer’s core beliefs about where and how architecture begins.

That decision, which is one that ought to be made consciously, derives from one’s answer to this question: what’s my basic criteria for making design decisions? What standard guides my design choices?

What are some choices of criteria and their consequences?

One of them is choosing whether to begin with what is, in order to get to what might be. In other words, do I allow the design to grow in an organic sense from factors that are relevant to that specific project?

Option two, the one often followed, is whether to begin with what was, either as an image or as something physically real, already built, and then, in effect, superimpose that over what is as a template of what might beIn this case, those making the design decisions are drawn towards what’s already been done – projects built for someone else with different needs and requirements and most likely under different site conditions.

Option three: some combination of one and two, which like the color gray, can be broken down into either of its constituent parts. The design might, for instance, contain original ideas combined with a pastiche of things previously tried.

Does it make a difference which path is chosen?

Architecture is a response to the needs and wants of real people, living real lives, wanting to be happy, right now, in a complex world, on a site with very specific conditions that must be respected and where possible, met.

Hope, to be realized must have a reachable end point.

For a built environment to succeed in any meaningful way, especially with regard to the well-being of its inhabitants, it must begin with an exploration of that which is specifically relevant – the conditions giving rise to what it might be, i.e., its context.

We all stand a far better chance of reaping the rewards from our built environments when they’re derived from rigorous respect for all the real world facts from which they germinate, from which they grow, and in which they will eventually speak – or sing – to us for a long time.

We respond strongly to authenticity, honesty, composition of enclosed spaces, integrity, intelligence, skilled workmanship. We want to feel inspired, have hope.

Short of willfully tuning it out, we’re not indifferent to the contrast between authenticity and replication, thoughtfulness and stupidity, integrity and chaos, pride in workmanship and carelessness, delightfulness and offensiveness, inspiration and hopelessness, etc..

But wait, you say, doesn’t second hand, borrowed architecture built to lower standards than I’m advocating here have its admirers? After all that’s mostly what exists out there.

Yes, of course.  But, the ability of such built work to satisfy can only be measured by criteria that’s limited, even if for valid reasons, but that exclude wider possibilities.

Satisfaction in such cases will ultimately be the consequence of, and therefore necessarily limited by, the endless decisions made over the course of the project guided by that limiting criteria.

Yes, we all adapt to some degree to that which is beyond our power to change. My point, however, is that more is possible.

Still, many live in and enjoy these environments. And why not? It’s their life after all, their choice, their money. We all see what we see and respond accordingly. That’s our prerogative. Most importantly, freedom of choice comes first. And besides, as with all forms of art, applying rigid rules to the process of creative exploration succeeds only in stifling creativity.

Nevertheless, it remains unavoidable that, as always, each of us alone is responsible for the choices we make and their consequences. My choices are mine; yours, yours; the architects, theirs. Each of us must take that responsibility.

When those choices made by others differ from mine as they will, assuming I have no influence in making them, I will live with that, even if those choices lead to built environments that frustrate me, that fail to connect with me or the earth in a way that feels more rewarding. After all, those places are not created for me. Except when I’m designing, it’s not my decision to make whether or not they meet my standards. We’re responsible only for our own choices, not those made by others.

It’s also true that many, perhaps most, couldn’t care less about this issue, or if they do, might regard it as a concoction manufactured as a way to vent frustration.

Well, there’s no shortage of reasons for architects to feel frustrated.

As you should know if you don’t already, architects don’t have the final word. And if they value their sanity, they would never expect to. Yes, frustration abounds. Few see what they see, much less approve it.

But if they’re good at what they do, architects know where the path of those early choices lead and will make an effort to implement the ones that meet their standards. They know cause and effect. They want to feel proud of their work. They want their project’s potential to be fulfilled. In this sense it’s their baby that’s coming to life.

In the end, however, whatever direction is followed early on in design, the fact is, we’re all affected to some degree by the consequences – by our built surroundings. Someone is choosing. Everyone is affected.

My purpose here, regardless of how it may seem at this point, is not to direct or rant, but to identify those certain fundamental choices buried in the early stages of design that unavoidably impact our built world, our lives; in other words, to try boosting awareness of the issue and, therefore, the results.

It’s a rare person who doesn’t want the best that’s possible and then some. Getting for yourself an environment that you love to be in, that makes you feel more alive, carries with it the responsibility of making choices on how to get there.

As long as there’s architecture, there’s reason to hope. The rest is up to each of us. The good thing is that we typically have more choices than we realize.

Kerry Clare + Lindsay Clare – Clare Design


Apprentice Shelter, Taliesin West

Schindler House, Kings Road, LA

Mockbee Rural Studio – Mason Bend Community Center

John Lautner, Arango House; photo: Jan-Richard Kikkert

Taking Off…part 1 of 2

As I’ve suggested in previous posts, architecture exists as a subject of enduring interest to many people.

But it’s mostly as a wistful flight of fantasy sadly beyond the reach of most, rarely connected to ones personal life in the sense of its potential as an enhancement. Instead it remains a kind of light, spectator form of entertainment, forever distant from ones immediate reality.

Insofar as architecture plays such a central part in my life as an architect, which means for me, being dependent on having clients, not to mention being uniquely affected by what gets built out there, I’ve recently found myself fidgeting with this issue, driven by a nagging desire to improve on it, or, at minimum, to better understand it.

[By fidgeting I mean, in addition to trying to unravel just what sustains this status quo, I’m also restlessly searching (or am I just groping along down some dimly lit passage?) for shafts of light that might better illuminate the potential joys of architecture to a larger audience as a real possibility. That, and maybe to encourage, or even turn someone on enough to take the leap, to build a place – their refuge in the world – that captures the best within them, which for me is a lot of what architecture is about.]

So, what more can I add that I haven’t already said in previous posts?

There’s always the option of hopelessly subscribing to the point of view that says we’re all destined to be ensnared in a helpless world of haves and have nots. Well, as I’ve said in a previous post (see “Dystopia: an Option?“), since I reject a dystopian view of human potential – a state of being where everything is at the mercy of destiny, where no one is fundamentally free to choose, I prefer to cast my net a bit farther. But where?


O.k., if I’m going to make any progress here, I need to start with an assumption: Some of us, the relative few that by what ever means it takes, though usually by hard work and/or smart financial management, at least in the freer parts of the world, have the necessary resources to launch a quest for architecture.

What about these potential beneficiaries of the rewards of architecture, the ones who see where they want to go, but may need some guidance as well as encouragement in getting started?  As with any achievement, there’s a continuum from person to person in their readiness to take the necessary first step.

Consequently, the quest for ones own architecture occasionally aborts at takeoff, even though financial resources may be available. From my vantage point it appears that not many people who are otherwise ready, are willing to take those first steps toward acquiring their own architecture.

Given that there’s an endless stream of architectural images out there in print, film, and digital form, along with the sheer quantity of actual built work that can be experienced, certainly enough to feed inspiration, I’m fairly certain that the gap between personal response to all that stimulating input on the one hand, and actually initiating a process of acquiring ones own architecture on the other, is for some, too big to attempt the leap.

What I’m trying to say is that I think part of the process of initiating a course of action has to do with being, not just sufficiently motivated, but of equal importance, sufficiently confident of ones prospects for success, of being capable of reaching your destination, especially if it’s a long, complex  journey undertaken for the first time.

Couple that with what appears to be a kind of ennui: the low status architecture holds for many people in their hierarchy of must-have things in life and thus its absence, makes it easier to shrug off that absence. Since life doesn’t depend on it and since it’s easier to leave things as they are, the usual path is to file it away as something that can be done without. There’s just no sense of urgency driving the effort required to obtain it. The dull void left behind in the wake of never trying is easier to accept.

Nevertheless, there is more that can be done:

  • On the one hand, there’s creating a strong desire for ones own personal architecture, desire powerful enough to sustain the considerable effort needed to follow through with getting it.
  • On the other, there’s having a plan for acquiring it.

In my last post I touched on one essential part of such a plan: the subject of investing in architecture. Quite a bit more could be discussed regarding architecture as a financial undertaking, but far more suitably by those with more expertise than myself on the subject.

So, let’s assume for the purpose of making progress that the financing is, in fact, under control. What else, then, is needed? In part two of this post, I’ll offer some tips that may contribute to a successful journey.

Related earlier posts:

Investing in Architecture   Fees…Taking the Plunge (or not)   Considerations   Wanting More   Designing Your Ideal Home…Part 1   Part 2   Raise the Bar   Shelter: A Choice   Risk Taking   Missing…But Not Lost   Space

Wanting More…part 2

On some deeper level doesn’t everyone want more?

More money. More love. More time. More power. More self-esteem. A better place to live. The list is endless.

Wants drive life. They give us purpose. Wanting more is wanting to feel more alive.

Jan Vermeer

And yet, how often do things falling under the heading of “more” get parked in a fantasy wish-list region of the mind where they become a permanent stand-in for the real thing?

How often does fantasy replace reality as the preferred place to channel ones energy?

The decision to try transporting  a fantasy into the messy world of facts, of cause and effect, responsibility, judgment, etc., is a tough one; for some, seemingly impossible. It may be even more so if a secret allegiance is unconsciously pledged to the primacy of fantasy, to a world where certain wants and desires are kept alive solely by the simple but effective strategy of keeping them beyond reach.

Such a pledge would, unfortunately and as a consequence, keep one attached to the safety of a status quo, a place where initiative is unwelcome, where aiming high and long term is discouraged. Worse, it suggests a willingness to remain passive with regard to getting more out of life, a willingness to face life with a shrug.

Wanting, for instance, ones own personal architecture – or, for that matter, anything else of high value that may greatly enhance ones life – is nothing, if not a long reach for many. Aiming high and beyond, while perhaps easy in the beginning, often becomes progressively more difficult to follow through with.

The question is whether it remains enough to let ones wants remain fantasies, to embalm them so to speak, to isolate their seductive song, to make them some kind of holy shrine never to be actualized. Is avoiding frustration and discouragement really the best answer?

There are compelling reasons for holding onto a fantasy. Even when the conditions seem right for actualizing it, hitting such a target is anything but assured.

At first comes peering upward at the sky. At some point eyes need to be trained more horizontally down the road, followed by initiating and then following a plan of action; stumbling, getting back up; all the time keeping that glow from extinguishing. Unlike the untarnished fantasy itself, actualizing it gets messy.

Sometimes sights are set early on in life, long before all the conditions are ripe and the necessary steps taken to achieve the fantasy’s realization. An early start might mean a long journey trying to capture the dream. It most likely will involve many distractions along the way.

Yes, a powerful vision, the driving force of fantasy, is needed if one is to find and then to stay on target; but a vision not as something that disappears during the messiness of ones waking hours, but as a north star, as a guide.

And it doesn’t matter the angle or trajectory of ones aim, whatever the nature of ones fantasies may be, each one presents us with a fundamental option of being conscious of certain basic decisions that must be made: What is it that I really want? What can I do to achieve it? Am I willing I do that?

And, ultimately: Will I then do what’s necessary to make it a reality? Am I willing to take responsibility for my well-being? Or… am I willing to give up?

That trail begins at  the roots of wanting something, where each of us in our own personal way, answers the questions: am I worth it and am I capable of getting it?

Whether my vision is architecture, or simply getting out of bed in the morning, it starts with me taking responsibility for making the next move. My initiative, above all, is necessary.

If we’re alive and in command of our mental faculties, we all need to not just know what it is we want, but to do what it takes to get it; to take a first step, and then another. And maybe, then, after careful consideration the decision is made to change direction. A path rarely follows a straight line.

No matter the path I follow, though, what direction I take, it all starts with a choice I must make and then taking responsibility for that choice.

The alternative is a slow passage into a future of reflecting on what might’ve been and on ones slide into to the night.

Wanting More…part 1

Inês Cortesão, Casa Cortesao

As an architect, I’m driven primarily by certain carefully considered ideals that guide me in tapping a particular project’s potential and giving shape to its hidden nature. For me each project holds a unique promise that’s derived from the wide array of circumstances giving rise to it.

But, there is one factor, more than others, perhaps, that has the potential to advance or diminish that promise and, as a consequence, to leave me either encouraged or discouraged.

The client who hires me, pays my fees, and whose requirements I’m being paid to respect, is the one who also accepts or rejects whatever I may envision for them. Rejection is, of course, the most discouraging moment of a project and the hardest to integrate. The consequences can be far reaching.

Because projects, potential or real, present me at some point with this potential obstacle to realizing my ideals as an architect, I must continually examine what it is I really want. I always need to take a look at, not just what I want from that particular project, but in the bigger picture, from being an architect.

As an architect I’m paid to help the client achieve their needs and wants. On a personal as well as professional level my ideals and my ability to envision ideal architectural solutions is what drives me.

Taking the long view, when I’m feeling discouraged, it seems easier sometimes to lower my sights in the real world, to keep out of harm’s way my fantasy of what architecture might be.

This, then, is the backdrop to my next post, Wanting More…part 2.

Fees…Taking the Plunge (or not)

Recently I met with a prospective client to discuss her plans for a new home. Having researched my practice online she said she liked what she saw. The meeting went well. I submitted a proposal and followed up with a phone call during which fees were discussed, primarily in regard to her concern about making a deposit before seeing what I could do. We talked about it. So far, I haven’t heard back from her, causing me to speculate why. I realized that, although many factors influence a client when choosing their architect, one in particular was begging my attention.

Golden Gate Bridge construction

Following are my reflections regarding an area of architecture easily lost in the shadow of  all that’s inspiring about this field. Here, I want to draw attention to the more mundane matter of fees, with a special emphasis on the first payment that launches a design process. 

As a counterbalance to the more cerebral and practical nature of the subject matter, I’ve added images. These aren’t for clarification, but rather to keep your attention connected to the underlying spirit of architecture. Although my primary purpose here is my own education, I’d like to think that others may also benefit from this exercise.


Certain events in life happen only on rare occasions.

Instead, life typically ebbs and flows while going through the usual daily dips, bumps, and pauses, following the familiar rhythms danced to by all life. But, not always.

Every life at one time or another encounters a moment frozen in time when, like an exclamation point, something big defines the day: meeting that unique person for the first time who captures your soul, who causes you to miss a beat; getting married; bringing a new life into the world; etc., etc.
For some – in the context of this post, those who are about to embark on a journey of bringing to life their dreams of a custom designed home – that big moment is now.

Bernard Maybeck, Wallen Maybeck House

Long in the planning stage, the moment finally arrives for those wanting to fulfill their dreams of a new home, to hire the services of an architect. A lot of research is done and meetings arranged with those showing promise of being a good fit. At the meetings goals and priorities are discussed. Questions about fees are brought up. Following the meeting a proposal is prepared by the architect and submitted.

Here is when time stops.

In the proposal under fees, the owner finds a requirement for the initial payment to be made prior to commencement of architectural services. At this point they may feel an unexpected and overwhelming desire to put on the brakes, to back off.

In that one requirement the future is thrust into their face much like reaching the top of a steep roller coaster ride a moment before the bottom drops out. Only, unlike the roller coaster where getting on feels safe enough since the scary part comes later, here the plunge arrives early.

Millennium Force, Sandusky, Ohio                                                            photo by Joe Schwartz

Everyone knows that getting a new custom designed home can be a long arduous journey into the unknown, and maybe even an expensive one. I don’t think many realize what awaits them at the start. Merely to get aboard this long ride may, for some, require courage and a sense of dedicated purpose.

O.k., you may be wondering, roller coasters are fun, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is for those who are just not prepared for what they’re getting into. Right at the start, they’re challenged by the plunge awaiting them. Their sense of purpose shaken, they feel off-balance. As with most big leaps, making this one feels dangerous. Frustrated and perhaps angry, they find themselves unwilling to make it.

Some of that sense of danger might be merely a release of intense excitement over the prospects of making such a big move that’s filled with so much that’s not yet known. It’s a direction for which life may not have provided them much of a map.

But, there’s a bigger reason for feeling agitated.

Getting a home that’s uniquely designed for you – to who you are, your needs, wants, requirements, circumstances – is a very complex process. Besides a need for serious self-examination, it requires the help of someone skilled in that particular field of alchemy, someone who can bring your dreams to life, i.e., an architect.

Luis Lnghi, Pachacamac House, Peru

And, of course, architects must set their fees high enough to cover those services. At minimum, they’re set to a level necessary to sustain their practice, but typically and for various reasons, are not as high, relative to the work performed, as in other professions. They’re high enough, nonetheless, to inflict certain prospective clients with a strong case of sticker shock.

Apparently there’s a big gap in public knowledge of  just what it is that architects do. Presented with a fee proposal a prospective client may feel caught off-guard, bewildered. Seeing the requirement for an up front payment, they may balk.

It goes something like this.

The architect asks for an initial fee, payable as a condition for starting their work on the project.

In response the client experiences a jolt, both emotionally and to their sense of what’s reasonable. They’re thinking: “I might accept paying for professional services even if I don’t really understand exactly what it is I’m paying for, but here I’m being asked for money up front without any certain knowledge of what I’m going to get in return. After all, I don’t really know if he (she) is qualified to do what I’m being asked to pay for. What I really want is to see a design first. I want to know the design will be what I’m looking for before committing any money.

Explanations are offered, but the increasingly cautious and frustrated potential beneficiary of the architect’s talents now begins to withdraw. The doors begin to close. Attempts at shedding light fail to penetrate. At this point, frustration mounting, the project finally succumbs. Nipped in the bud, it dies prematurely.

So, why then the turmoil? Why do architects make a requirement that risks killing a project before it ever gets off the ground?

Good question in need of a good answer.

Part of the answer, as touched on above, lies in the sheer complexity of bringing a building into the world, one designed specifically for someone, their life, over a long stretch of time, and occupying a precious piece of the earth.

Studio Mumbai, Utsav House

The process of creating a new home, or any other type of architecture, requires considerably more than the wave of a magic wand. To enter into a project successfully, in a way that avoids creating a future trail of messy mistakes, the kind that become increasingly difficult to fix later on, the architect must begin with care.

Before design ideas can be explored, information pertaining to all aspects of the owner’s life, the property where it will be built, budgetary considerations, and building code requirements must be collected, analyzed and ingested. Only then can the design process have a reasonable chance at succeeding. Obviously enough, this early stage takes time. Sometimes when the information is available, it begins even before an agreement is reached so that the proposed fees are more realistic.

Architects, being those who by the nature of their work must continually straddle the line between rigorous thought and feeling, engineering and art, practicality and idealism, must also take care of the business end of running a practice.

John Lautner, Segel Residence, Malibu

John Lautner, Wolff House

John Lautner, Shaffer House

While it’s fairly common that architect’s often soft-pedal this part of their practice in order to get work and, even more, to somehow make a project succeed aesthetically, they still must acknowledge the stark reality that to keep their doors open, they need to be paid.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of architecture as a profession that, given the potential value offered, sustaining a practice is so difficult. Maybe it’s because of the reputation architects have for giving away so much of their time, that prospective clients expect it.

Maybe in their eagerness to please clients while pursuing ideals, architects allow themselves to avoid, as much as possible, the messy areas of business finance. Shifting focus back and forth from thinking as a designer to running a business is nothing if not tricky. Ignoring important business matters when fully absorbed in the design process is a choice commonly made by architects. And they pay the price.

The important point here is that architects, if they are to take themselves seriously, must be serious about getting paid. And getting paid up front, before the work of creating a built environment begins, is important to establishing the client’s seriousness of intent as well as respect for the significance of the work to be done. It’s like earnest money. And it lets the client know that the architect is to be taken seriously. The client can only benefit from that.

Luis Barragan, Barragan House

Legorreta + Legorreta, CASA LOS TECORRALES

So, the conundrum boils down to this:

The architect needs commitment and establishment of serious intent on the client’s part by means of a payment made prior to launching the design process, an intense, time consuming phase of the project.  

The client, on the other hand, afraid of paying for something they can’t yet see and may ultimately not want, needs that fear to be dispelled before writing a check. What’s the answer?

Part of the answer is that those paying for this serious effort at creating a satisfying built environment, one that does what architecture can do, i.e., the client,  recognize that such an effort requires unique skills and talent. It’s the very reason architects are hired.

Shatotto Architects, Khaka, Bangladesh

Getting your own custom-designed built environment means finding someone possessing the unique skills and talent necessary to achieving that. Holding back on paying them in the beginning sends out a clear message: it implies doubt on your part about what architects in general, yours in particular, do, and what their value is to you. In short, you’re doubting the benefit you may derive from the one you’re considering hiring to provide those benefits.

Refusing to pay up front can only undermine the success of a project. Besides establishing a certain demoralizing mistrust, it too easily gets translated into an attitude resulting in corners getting cut. This cannot pave the way to a successful project.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

Nevertheless, there’s still the unresolved problem perceived by the client of risking up front payment for something that takes time to produce, only to find that, when it’s finally presented, they may not like it. They need to feel comfortable with making this kind of leap.

One thing that needs pointing out about designing something, whether a piece of furniture or a home, is that, if it is to have any real value, it needs to begin with what is known and then purposely proceed into the uncharted territory of the unknown. Design grows from what is towards what might be. In this crucial sense it’s exploratory, a series of experiments leading toward a final approved, workable design.

Glenn Murcutt, Magney House


Surber Barber Choate & Hertlein Architects, Private Residence

anna noguera / alemanys cinco

In other words, trying to demonstrate with certainty what a project will look like in the beginning is to set up unreal expectations leading to results that disappoint. Yes, early fantasies might coincidently correspond to the final product, but it’s more likely to drag the project somewhere it shouldn’t be.

It can’t be overemphasized that to achieve the best possible project requires alignment between owner and architect regarding purpose and means. Fees need to be agreed on.

What the architect, as a good faith gesture on his/her part, may propose as a way to end the impasse over initial payment, is to reduce rather than eliminate its requirement. But, even with this, some kind of earnest money needs to change hands in order to establish the project’s legitimacy and get it successfully launched.

In any case, by this time the architect may have already invested considerable time researching and gathering information vital to the project and the accuracy of the proposed fees.

Cautionary note: haggling over price, necessary, perhaps, in bazaars, becomes a big red flag to architects and probably most other professionals. Whereas being conscientious regarding budgets is, or should be, at the top of the architect’s list of priorities in the design of a project, being haggled about fees is unnecessary dead weight and contributes nothing to its success.

The ideal approach to entering into an agreement with an architect, done before finding yourself at the precipice, is to learn all you can about him or her and their work. If you, for the most part, like what you see, you then have the best assurance available of what it is you’re paying for. Your chances of being pleased with the final results are greatly improved. You can then enjoy the ride.

Tadao Ando, Tom Ford Ranch

Ken Kellogg, House in Joshua Tree

Anekit Bhagwat,The Drum House

Estudio Cinco, T3ARC

Laura Warburton

michele angelini

The Habitable Ruin

This house recently grabbed my attention. I’m sure it’s not going to grab many (or will it?). But, as something that I think does a magnificent job of expanding architecture’s possibilities in a way that’s meaningful to me, I want to share it. The printed text of the article is small; you may need to zoom, but do take a look at this “habitable ruin”.

The Habitable Ruin


What’s so important about space? Why does it hold such a prominent role in architecture?

Space, the terrestrial kind we’re most familiar with – the kind that enters frequently into conversations about architecture – surrounds us with its presence, and, as a consequence, exerts a life-long influence over us.

Before Space was Designed – Santa Monica Mountains

after: Los Angeles

Naturally enough, it occupies an important place in the mental landscape of an architect. Introduced early on as a core concept in our architectural vocabulary, its status as a prime mover in our thought processes when designing may fluctuate over the years, but it continues, nevertheless, to always be a major factor in our designs. What that means is that architects, through their design of space, exert a life-long influence over all of us.

If you’ve ever heard an architect speak, ‘space ’, like code, dots their conversations. Did you understand what you were listening to? You may nod your head in a knowing way, but given the enormity of their influence in our lives, it would be reasonable, perhaps, to take a closer look.

Two influential historical sources on the concept of space:

Lao-Tse’s 6th century philosophical insight:

“Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel. Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space within it is the essence of the pot. Walls with windows and doors form the house, but the empty space within it is the essence of the home.” 

Wright’s  famous update:

“a building’s reality is the space within.”

Herbert Johnson residence, ‘Wingspread’

John Lautner’s Segel residence

If you’re not an architect and the above aphorisms frustrate your requirement that definitions be more rigorously precise, indulge me for awhile as I attempt to shed some light.

Let’s begin with a look at how the Dictionary defines space:

  • a continuous area or expanse that is free, available, unoccupied.
  • dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things exist and move.

For most of us, the dictionary definition would be hard to quarrel with and probably comes closer to how we typically use the term space. So, why then, are Lao-Tse’s and  Wright’s formulation so meaningful to architects? Why would a poetic view of space take precedence over a more objectively rational definition? After all, insofar as architecture primarily encompasses building technology, precision of definitions, you would assume, is necessary. And, of course, you’d be right – when the appropriate time for it arrives later in the design process.

Part of the reason for thinking poetically, or metaphorically, is its relative fluidity. The opposite approach – demanding precision too early in the design process – is a sure way to hobble ones creative efforts. Anyone who is creative knows this. It’s important to stay creatively loose as long as possible. Precision comes later when ideas need to be tested.

Also, there’s something else to Lao-Tse’s and Wright’s insights beyond poetry.

Thinking of a building as the ‘space within’ sets the stage for focusing on the experience of ‘being’ within a building, of how one experiences oneself within those interior spaces.

The architect, Steven Holl, put it this way:

“Experience is the ultimate test of design. Moving through…space, incomplete perception in how a building can draw you through, the quality of the materials, the smell, the sound, the quality of the light – these things are all interacting in an enmeshed experience. That experience needs to be felt with the body moving through space. The body becomes the measure of space-perception.”

Steven Holl, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art

There’s another explanation for focusing on the space within: Before Wright came on the scene, architecture was commonly regarded more as an object. It’s primary frame of reference was the street elevation. What could be seen and therefore more easily grasped and manipulated, i.e., what was solid: the floors, walls and roofs, dominated building design. Except for finishes and furnishings, interior spaces became secondary to overall appearance.

Yes, there were exceptions: Gothic cathedrals, where capturing an experience of heaven above, joy if possible, or the weight of ones relative smallness in contrast, by means of a very tall interior space, lit from above by mysterious light, drove the design of the built structure.

Beauvais Cathedral

And palaces have been built over the centuries where the rooms that accommodated the public, enormous rooms with high ceilings and with long approaches, were designed to impress and intimidate.

Winter Palace

And, then, just as Wright’s career was taking off, George Wyman in Los Angeles designed the famous Bradbury Building, one of the great works of 19th century architecture. In case you’re not familiar with it, the Bradbury’s defining characteristic is its 5-story, glazed brick-walled interior atrium space lit from above by an enormous skylight. Purportedly influenced by a book of science fiction, “Looking Backward”, Wyman wanted to create “a vast hall of light”. His vision of the space drove the design of the building.

Bradbury Building

With Wright the perception, that the spaces within shaped a building, transposed into what evolved as his unique architecture. The experience of living in those spaces, moving through them, being in them was primary. That which contained and filled the spaces followed. Encapsulating this way of regarding space poetically, as he did, served to underscore its value, its contribution to the art of living well.

His way of thinking about the nature of buildings, reincarnated from ancient Taoism, became an effective means to getting his kind of architecture built. The main hall of the Johnson Wax Headquarters, or the Guggenheim museum are superlative examples. On a residential scale his Usonian homes capture – are shaped by – Wright’s vision of domestic life, the experience of living fluidly and intimately connected to the earth.

Johnson Wax Headquarters

Guggenheim Museum

Schwartz house

And, finally, there’s yet another way to think about the relationship between buildings and the spaces within: architectural space, being the void within the containing building envelope, i.e., the floors, walls and ceiling, acquires it’s physical characteristics from the characteristics and positioning of those components and from whatever occupies it, such as light, furnishings, and other people. In other words, space is not an entity independent of what defines (contains) it.

Space is not something that can exist by itself. Its envelope and everything that occupies it are actually an inseparable part of the whole called a building. 

As the components containing the space are selected, placed and treated, so the spatial characteristics unfold – and, therefore, how we the occupants ultimately experience it.

See also: “Through the Eyes of an Unusual Artist“;  “Louis Kahn“; “Bruce Goff’s Garvey House

Reaching out…connecting

arizona desert

Having traveled far, a visitor arrived at a place untouched by human hands. Encountering that place on earth for the first time, an imaginary dialog began, the essence of which follows. Continue reading

architecture through the eyes of an unusual artist…

For those of you who haven’t yet seen this I urge you to take 13 minutes, drop everything else, and allow yourself to relax. Let yourself take in the whole video. I think you may find it worth the ride.

Louis Kahn

Not a household name to non-architects, Louis Kahn dug deep into the very core of architecture, discovering the deeper reality of what architecture is and could be. His famous question asked of a brick or other material, “what does it want to be?” resonates to this day. Not everyones cup of tea, strange to many, but for me his sometimes haunting work is an inspiration in the way it captures the primal and timeless material essence of a building. It took me a while in the beginning to let him in, but it was worth the wait. See if you can step back, not dismiss him too quickly, and let yourself discover a new experience of what is possible in our built environment.
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Louis Sullivan

He may be of another period, his work sometimes florid, but his penetration to the heart of architecture and his profound grasp of its driving spirit drove a wedge into the prevailing mindset at the time of what was architecture.
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