why architecture?

Architecture, in its simplest terms, is the result of an environment designed to gratify, enrich, and otherwise enhance life while sheltering it.

From its primal origins as refuge from the forces of nature, shelter evolves into architecture when thought is applied and benefits beyond simple shelter are explored.

Architecture begins when those thought processes include who we are as sentient human beings – alive, here, and on this planet. It derives from and expresses who we are and where we are.

Architecture, if it is to be called that, will above all enhance awareness: it will encourage consciousness, and by doing so, enrich us emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.

Architecture, if it is to be successful, depends on a complex array of factors, not least of which is the architect’s talent and ability to merge his/her values with those of the owner and then to shape those results in a manner that succeeds in its purpose of enriching life.

All buildings at their inception, like people, are fertile with the potential to become whatever that’s in their nature to be. How closely an environment approaches that potential will be the result of many complex decisions, many factors, not the least of which is the seriousness of the pursuit by all involved.

It can be a daunting task, a goal requiring great determination, not to mention enthusiasm, and therefore a goal easily compromised, dropped or avoided. The very thought of building one’s own environment with the goal of it becoming architecture, even in the best of times, can be intimidating. Considering it in a period of economic uncertainty suggests a high level of self confidence.

Is architecture, then, worth it?
Why take it on, especially now, if just having a roof over ones head will do? Is it an excessive and unnecessary indulgence?

These are important questions needing serious attention when deciding whether or not to build. The decision to live with architecture requires an honest look at ones priorities.

At this point financial self honesty is critical. That means in this context to not attempt what can’t be paid for – to not bury oneself in debt, i.e., to be fully conscious when deciding where and how to allocate ones resources.

While we’re all, to some extent, influenced by the state of the economy, some are less affected. Fortunately for the rest of us, not everyone keeps their life on hold waiting for the world to improve. Now, maybe more than ever, is a time for those who can, to assert their right to have their life, to give their life shape in a form that celebrates it, e.g., architecture.

And, since architecture exists along a continuum of possibilities, it’s worth pointing out that architecture is possible with all projects, regardless of size or scope. It’s DNA exists in even the smallest of remodels. A building project modest in scope can receive the same deliberate attention by the designer in fleshing out it’s potential and bringing it to life as one on a larger scale.

Is architecture an unrealistic indulgence?
It is if it exceeds ones ability to acquire it, or deliberately aims for excess. Otherwise the pleasure it offers makes it an important part of life – it adds to one’s pleasure in being alive.

The short answer to whether architecture is worth it is yes – to any of us who are in a position to make such a move and want it; and to anyone else capable of being uplifted by the experience of good architecture. We all benefit indirectly from those with the means and courage to take on projects that expand and nurture life.

Life to be lived needs light. As humans we need moments of inspiration. When economic uncertainty sets in and becomes prolonged, more and more gets put on hold. Stalled, we then run the risk of giving up our dreams. More than ever we then need evidence of greater possibilities. Architecture is that evidence, that light.

This post is derived from one of my earliest, its message worth the update.

 

Bridging The Gap – redux

I was just reading a post that I wrote two years ago and, being particularly pleased with it, decided to get it out there again. I think it contains an important message that extends beyond the field of architecture. I’ve made a few editorial revisions that should improve its clarity, make it more universal, and for the sake of keeping the emphasis on the written word, I’ve omitted the images that were attached to the original. I know the majority of those who visit my site look at the images and pass over the written content – I understand. Time is precious; there’s just too much out there to take in – attempting to can consume a day. But for the few of you who are up to it and have the time, I hope you find it worth your effort…..

Bridging The Gap

Before jumping in and making myself intelligible, I first need to offer you a quick look at something about me as an architect.

Like you, certain things catch my eye.

Visit my Pinterest site, and you will get a hint of what interests me architecturally. This collection is broad, not easily pigeon-holed, and yet, scanning all these images, you may notice certain common characteristics throughout. This growing collection of diverse architectural possibilities reveals something I probably share with most architects – a drive to discover new ways of experiencing the world we build.

As an architect I’m drawn to built environments as a kind of poetry. But, not just that: I’m looking for a connection, for work that resonates with my core sense of things as they might be, for built environments that attract and awaken me. It’s a search for “yes” moments.

So here’s the rub and my reason for writing this: I’m aware that what penetrates my core as an architect is, in all probability, off the radar of most. Not necessarily because of the absence of shared values, but more likely from the absence of a shared language. And, by “most other people”, I’m of course including those who hire architects.

By inclination, choice, and training I naturally view the world, including the world of built things, i.e., architecture, through my personal lens, my own inner filters. We all do, of course. But, how then, given this barrier, do two people ever join hands; how are agreements ever reached; how does complex art such as architecture involving decisions by more than one person ever see the light of day?

Big questions. I narrowed my search for answers to one particular area: the problem of bridging the gap between what I hold dear, in this case as an architect, and the priorities and deeply held values of others – potential and/or actual clients in particular. The problem is highlighted for me because, like most architects, I see possibilities sometimes beyond the range of vision of clients – i.e., I lean toward being an idealist. On the other hand, I also have a deep respect for reality and, therefore, a desire to surmount obstacles and make things work. With architecture, as in most endeavors, convergence is important.

In tackling this problem I’ve identified a particular and influential, if deceivingly obvious, factor affecting the way decisions are made: our personal priorities – what we hold as important, regardless of whether they are in focus – guide us. They in turn are influenced, at least in part – if not entirely formed, by our ability and willingness to explore unfamiliar options, especially in the presence of that which has more magnetic appeal: the familiar, which is far safer and easier to accept. Ultimately, to get to my main point, that ability and willingness is at the mercy of our attitude toward the more risky unfamiliar. The familiar almost always has a more forceful presence.

In the visual, experiential world of architecture, that attitude has the potential to expand our perception and therefore our experience of the world we create for ourselves. And yet it is my personal observation that for many of us, more often than not, it leads unwittingly to a restriction of it. The unfamiliar too often triggers a strong bias against it and consequently blocks the doors opening up to new possibilities. Discovery of something better far too often gets sabotaged.

If a language is used that is foreign or misunderstood, it can sound like noise, maybe get tuned out. Worse yet, it may cause anger and rejection. Instead of sending a possibly valuable message, it fails to register.

For better or worse, what we create and what we ultimately end up with – our built surroundings, for instance, and its affect on us – is affected by our attitude toward the unfamiliar and that which is foreign to our eyes and ears.

Our ambitions toward improving the quality of the places we build is limited by that attitude. Toss into that pot the futility one might feel regarding the prospects of improving what has already been built by others. The results: more of the same; a status quo with its prevalence and its inertia continuing unabated. That sense of futility then becomes yet another filter limiting curiosity about options, about what might be. Feeling futile encourages us to tune out more and more. Uninspired buildings get accepted as “just the way things are”; its alternative remains buried alive.

In that scenario apathy rules and the loop remains closed. With that as a backdrop, the architect – the white knight – ever idealistic with regard to the built environment, ever driven to improve on the status quo, steps in. Regardless of our individual talents, if we haven’t yet tossed in the towel, we know we could do better. Some even possess the vision to radically lift our experience of what’s possible in life.

And yet, sadly, so much of that dies on the vine. Proposals are made and rejected. Using a language that’s foreign to the client, they get replaced by something more familiar, recognizable, safer. The reasons offered for the rejection are often sound enough, e.g., too hard to build and therefore too expensive. But what remains unstated in far too many cases is that the proposal was not really understood. And far too often, personal animosity toward the unfamiliar triggers that rejection.

It’s no wonder that those who have an unusual vision, who might expand and elevate our experience of the built environment, of life itself, are often often dismissed as eccentric, over-the-top, irrelevant, out of touch, unrealistic, dangerous, from another planet, etc.. In other words, they seem foreign.

As a consequence, visionaries, including those that are perceived as too eccentric or out of touch, and many others who refuse to compromise away the thing they have most to offer, have a tougher time surviving. Many go unrecognized. While some may actually acquire a small following in their lifetime, their message rarely extends very far beyond that circle, falling largely on deaf ears within the public at large, ears accustomed to tuning out the unfamiliar.

These trailblazers, using a language few understand, carve new trails that will more than likely go untravelled, unexplored by most of us. Too often they resign themselves to the fringes, caught in a trap of helplessness over the prospects of ever being able to bridge the gap.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Hopelessness is not part of our gene pool as humans. If we have something we think is important to say, then we need to learn how to be heard and understood. Of course this can be, and often is, a daunting, uphill task.

Regardless, unless helplessness is ones preferred state, we need to acknowledge how we’re perceived when we speak, when we design, when we’re prying open new doors, when we carve new trails. Pushing the envelope in the real world is far more likely to succeed when the party paying for it is on your side, which means they get what you are trying to do. But that, in turn, rests on a will to be understood, a refusal to let helplessness rule.

Having said that, those offering a new way of seeing need allies with sufficient vision and ambition to join in the effort to surmount the limitations of language. In the realm of architecture, built environments that enrich our lives are possible only with clients who want it, who share the vision, who are open to the unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the alternative – more of the same – remains unappealing.

A final comment is needed here to address a certain possible misunderstanding. Obviously, that which is unfamiliar does in fact, far too often, turn out to be atrociously awful when experienced in its final form. Furthermore, as living entities possessing the ability to know the world and therefore to take care of ourselves, we’re ultimately responsible for trying to discern the real difference between good and bad and to reject the latter when recognized.

My emphasis, however, is on our attitude toward the unfamiliar and on whether we make the effort to further understand it before rejecting it. It’s a choice that’s open to all. Choosing something far better for ourselves sometimes requires that we risk stepping outside the comfort zone of the familiar.

See also my companion piece, Cross-fertilization.

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.
FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

John Lautner

John Lautner

FLW

FLW

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

John Lautner

John Lautner

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

Kendrick Kellogg

Kendrick Kellogg

FLW

FLW

FLW

FLW

Will Bruder

Will Bruder

FLW

FLW

Dream Homes and Wish Lists

__________________________________________________________________________

Pause a moment…

If you’re at home, look around; take it all in. Notice your response.  Are you o.k. with what you see; with what it makes you feel?  Is it what you really want?  (You could do this exercise with any area of your life.)

Howard_Beach

Is this enough?

mcmansion

…or this?

Chances are that for most of you the quick answer, if not an emphatic yes, would be some variation of “maybe”, “sure”, or “I guess so”.  And that may be the extent of it.  You move on to more pressing matters; you forget about it, although not completely.

You may find yourself drifting off, day dreaming; or maybe in your boredom you flip through magazines, online collections of photos, videos, slide shows, etc..  For most of us, desire for something better eventually overcomes our tolerance for the disagreeable.  At some point our attention gets drawn to pleasure.

We all settle into and adapt to our surroundings regardless of how little we may actually be satisfied with the experience of being there – but rarely do we fully accept our dissatisfaction.  In the course of adapting to that which dissatisfies, we risk becoming the victim of ennui.  As boredom descends, escape beckons.  And so we drift, perhaps daydream, drawn by the pleasure provided by wish lists and fantasies of dream objects, of things we would love to have or do, “if only”.

As we all know, such relief is all too fleeting.  And yet there are many for whom it is sufficient.  For them little seems to ever advance beyond those dreams and fantasies.  Action, the kind needed to change the status quo, when the odds feel overwhelming, yields to a sense of futility.  Dreaming becomes the end: “if only” fades into “someday” and from there, far too often, slips into never.

On the other hand, there are those with vision, not to mention, sufficient resources, confidence, desire, and commitment to take dreaming a step beyond, in some cases many steps.

John Lautner, Bob Hope Residence

John Lautner, Bob Hope Residence

“What if” becomes “what can be done?”.  Wish lists become their launch pads.  In one area in particular, the realm of home improvement, those lists and images are indispensable. But, they need to be brought into sharper focus.  Instead of scattering ones efforts all over the map the search gets narrowed down to something more specific.  For instance, my own Pinterest site offers one area of architectural possibilities.  There are many others.

If the decision is made to hire an architect, these images play a significant role.  In my role as that architect I find these personal collections to be portals through which a glimpse can be caught of the client’s personal view of life’s possibilities.  For the client they’re the main points of reference in choosing what kind of home they want, what they want it to look and be like.  As such, those favorite images are like the brush strokes of their self portraits.

Because of this, I find them important as a point of departure in the search for what fits the client best.  Rather than being regarded as possibly arbitrary objects of escape and dead ends, instead they become vitally important tools of discovery and enhancement.  Tools, but not ends in themselves.

Valuable to me as interior glimpses of client preferences and dreams, I also respectfully recognize in my capacity as their architect, that these examples are actually of things done previously by someone else, somewhere else.  Except that now, as future possibilities, they may become over-zealously guarded by the client as treasured possessions. The risk here is that these wish lists may then morph into “I must have this” demands.

If you have ever hired or thought of hiring an architect to design something, you may find yourself protesting the implication of that last sentence.  Why, you think, since it’s your money on the line, shouldn’t you have the right to expect to get what you want, by demanding it, if necessary.  You certainly don’t want to be pressured into accepting something that seems wrong.  You would be right, of course.  And yet, and yet, you might also be limiting yourself, perhaps unnecessarily.

Images such as dream homes, no matter how lovely and compelling they might seem in the moment, how perfectly right they seem, are not, strictly speaking and by their nature, images of your present life and circumstances. They existed, instead, in another context most likely different from the one to which you hope they will eventually apply.

And yes, it is completely understandable that you, the client, wants to feel assured of getting what you want.  Tackling something on the scale of designing a new home or just a part of one can seem like a frightening gamble, the outcome fully known only after completion.

Everyone tolerates that risk differently.  Choosing from something familiar is usually experienced as a far more comfortable, low-risk option than attempting something new.  It’s far easier and certainly a more normal response to ask for that with which you are most comfortable.

But, another risk is to wind up being short-changed. Trying to replicate or to otherwise transfer those wish list images onto something new – in this case a home or part of one yet to be built, and for you whose requirements and circumstances are, as with everyone, unique – interferes with the discovery of a more vital fit.

Trying to paste the past onto your future, trying to shoehorn a solution drawn from different circumstances, fails to fully respect who, in a very fundamental way, you really are.  Your life is and always will be more than those images.

It would be in the best interest of anyone using images as guides to building design, to first try capturing the experience associated with those images instead of its literal content.  It’s in this sense that dream homes and wish lists have their greatest value.

For those of you serious about taking the next step, converting your dreams of an ideal home into reality should above all take you to a place that’s truly yours, not someone else’s.

Some take-aways:

  1. Regardless of your reputation with yourself in such matters, always keep hope alive.  Narcotic or not, day dreaming can be valuable.
  2. If you’re committed and ready to take the next step, take it.
  3. Know what you want, but allow for the  as-yet-unknown. Remember that the images we respond to are directions, not destinations.
  4. If you happen to be risk-tolerant, allow for the unexpected.  Allow for it anyway – it’s less stressful.
  5. Join creative forces with your architect on a journey of discovery. Mutual respect takes you the farthest.
  6. Be respectful of your right to say no when necessary.
  7. Reward yourself by aiming for the best possible.
  8. Your life is uniquely one of a kind and deserves to be respected that way.  The form of respect may, at first, feel uncomfortable.

See also, my post: “A Path Least Traveled – Part 2…The Path – p.1

 

Glen Murcutt, Fredericks House

Glen Murcutt, Marika-Alderton House

Glen Murcutt, Marika-Alderton House

Carney, Logan, Burke - Cabin in Wyoming

Carney, Logan, Burke – Cabin in Wyoming

Glen Murcutt, Simpson-Lee House

Glen Murcutt, Simpson-Lee House

Osburn Clarke - cabin, B.C.

Osburn Clarke – cabin, B.C.

Paul Lukez Architecture, Jennie’s Place

Paul Lukez Architecture, Jennie’s Place

Fergus Scott Architecture,Southern House

Fergus Scott Architecture,
Southern House

sbch architects,  bray's island

sbch architects, bray’s island

FLW, Fallingwater

FLW, Fallingwater

MB Architecture, Arc House
MB Architecture, Arc House
John Lautner

John Lautner

FLW, Martin House

FLW, Martin House

FLW, Lake Tahoe Cabin

FLW, Lake Tahoe Cabin

0708e0c60207f4e6d979e1976b4e2ff2

Carol Nelson

Carol Nelson

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“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.

WL

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

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

Wright:

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

Taking Off…part 2 of 2

In my previous posts I explored a gap that I perceive exists between wanting ones own architecture and getting it. I left with the question of what else needs to be done. Here I will offer some steps related to closing that gap.

For starters, consider the following two important points:

  • 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.

Create a desire powerful enough to sustain the considerable effort needed to accomplish what’s being sought. 

Where does that strong desire come from? What gives rise to it?

No easy answers there. The seeds of desire are either there or not. If they are, they will need feeding and proper care if something is ever to germinate. But, whatever it is, a want must first be identified if it is ever to ultimately be passionately desired.

Wanting something badly is uniquely personal in the way it’s dealt with. But generally speaking certain methods of bringing wants to life succeed more than others:

  • focus intently on what it is you want; research it
  • think it through and through from every angle
  • visualize it – make it real in your mind; talk about it
  • experience it through something similar and closely related
  • and, yes, laying in bed, fantasize what it might look and feel like.

In short, by immersing yourself in the imagined version of your ideal environment – your personal architecture, while adhering to a plan of action, you will facilitate its eventual entry into this world. Remember, it will be your vision coupled with your passion that ultimately propels your project into existence. Treat yourself as someone who is worth it.

As you move closer to your destination, the more you will come to experiencing the pleasure of seeing the project grow, first through the design stage, followed by its actual construction, and ultimately arriving at the destination of so many dreams and so much effort.

As witness to its arrival, excitement growing, you’ll find yourself perhaps feeling more alive. Yes, there will be plenty of counterbalancing moments of frustration and desire to call it quits. But chances are, the growing excitement over seeing your dream come to life will be sufficient to move you beyond.

Have a plan that will get you where you want to go.

With the help of others, if need be, develop a well thought out plan, but one that doesn’t straightjacket your efforts by being too rigid. Keep your eye on your original purpose for taking on this project.

Since it will be a long journey requiring many complex decisions made along the way by you and your team – your architect, his consultants, and your contractor, planning for every single contingency is not possible and most likely would be counter-productive.

It can be difficult, but its important to make an effort to adopt a relaxed attitude. Otherwise the risk grows that the inevitable tensions that come with a building project begin to feed off each other with damaging results – in much the same way that small vibrations in a bridge can sympathetically mount, bringing about the bridge’s eventual collapse. Remember that the project is ultimately for your benefit, not your bad health.

When developing your plan’s feasibility be sure also to keep it flexible enough to allow for the creative effort by all involved. Prevent, whenever possible, cost concerns, as important as those are, from squeezing out the best possible results for your money.

Find an architect that you think/feel you can work with over the duration of the project, someone you sense will be respectful of your needs, wants, and requirements. If you are serious about achieving the best possible outcome for your project, you will need to work closely with him or her.

Creative efforts often traverse tricky territory in a client-architect relationship. Try and allow for that. You will want to have a creative rapport with the one pulling a rabbit out of the hat. That means an architect with whom you’re comfortable talking to about about the things most important to you. You want to be heard and they need to know what you want.

The architect also needs to be someone unafraid to offer you suggestions that may seem foreign, knowing that you may take offense at being challenged. While your gut reaction may be to doubt this particular piece of advice, try nevertheless to allow for it. Of course you don’t need to obediently agree with their suggestions, but you’ll ultimately be the beneficiary by allowing them to be made.

There will be times when you see or are shown something that wasn’t originally planned. Architects who are worth their fees need to discover the boundaries of the project’s aesthetic envelope. In spite of the best intentions otherwise, this may result in occasional tension. Allow yourself permission when things get bumpy to back off if needed. Do what you need to occasionally recharge. Again, successful projects require willing cooperation between all involved in its delivery.

It’s important that a serious effort is made by all involved in the creation and delivery of your project to work together as a team. Since coordination among the various players is essential to the success of the project, financially, practically, and aesthetically, it’s vitally important that coordination responsibilities lie with one person.

Ideally, you will need to adopt a mindset of encouragement for taking creative leaps. While commitment to staying within budget must be made by all involved (this will be difficult at times, especially for you when the cold hard facts of costs don’t support getting something you just know you must have), it can also be at times counterproductive.

Contrary to what your inner fiscal guardian may be screaming in your ear, you will benefit most in the long run by allowing plenty of wiggle room for creativity. Don’t be subservient to it, but do respect its potential rewards.

In your dedicated efforts at being fiscally responsible, allow yourself room to see the bigger picture, as hard as that may be for you to accept. Allow yourself time to weigh the merits of budget-challenging proposals before nipping them prematurely in the bud. The flower that was never allowed to bloom might have been yours. 

Coordinating all the many channels of input is not a position of carte blanche power, but rather one requiring the ability to see the project as an integrated whole. The architect is the only one with the training and experience to fill that role.

Nevertheless, being in a position dependent on the quality of the input from the other players places the burden of responsibility on the architect, as a decision maker, to keep things moving in the right direction. The architect is the one most likely to fully grasp the project’s full scope and potential and keep it on track.

Contrary to popular imagery of their aloofness, contrariness, and disregard for the owner’s budget, the architect is, in fact, the one most qualified to fill that position. Architects know how to visualize a completed project better than most and have the ability to provide a road map for actualizing that vision in the form of construction documents.

Having said that, the architect is also driven to keep his or her creative efforts respectful of your budget. This shifts some of the burden back on you the owner to know as best you can how much you can and want to pay for realizing your dream.

The specific steps needing to be taken to to realize your project, the various stages along the way needing to be navigated, are the subject of another post, but can be found in many places such as in AIA guides.

For my purposes here, I’m ready to conclude, but with this final offering: Getting started may be your hardest move, but when you’ve done it, when you’re finally ready, then set sail – you’re the captain, after all, of your ship; you set its course.

Yes, it’s not all smooth sailing, it’s occasionally scary, but you’re not alone; your carefully chosen team is there to help you with the navigation. The rewards for leaving port can be enormous; the voyage exciting. Remember: the destination – your own architecture – is amazing.

Related 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

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?

Hmmm…

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

Investing in Architecture

Architecture, the art of shelter, is burdened by an image of being beyond the reach of most people, financially as well as aesthetically.

As a kind of counterbalance to this bad but mostly accurate wrap, architecture also provides us with the subject matter of many books, pilgrimages, weekend tours, film, travel clips, not to mention Pinterest boards. Good architecture, mostly done by others, entertains, inspires, and generally raises our awareness of what’s possible in life with regard to our surroundings.

ARX Portugal

Nevertheless, its cost restricts most of us to the role of spectator. Most, but fortunately not all of us.

When certain favorable events in a person’s life converge, the prospects of living in a home environment uniquely designed for them, for who they are, start to come alive.

For some that prospect remains a distant star, an unattainable dream. And yet, a few will take pursuit. For even fewer, their dream will be inhabited  by images of home as a work of art, a quest even more challenging. Those who take up the challenge must do it with a determination to capture the dream and make it real.

Just as with other art forms the pursuit of building as art has to do with being able to experience home – or any other shelter – as an aesthetic experience, one that over time enlivens the senses and reaches deep within the psyche. As such, it becomes a lens for bringing life into focus, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

On the face of it, it would seem having a home environment that is also an art form might be a big attraction to many, one worth pursuing.

From what I’ve observed, however, I don’t think it is. As I’ve commented on in previous posts, many factors intervene to block, detract, or otherwise prevent people from wanting and getting more in the realm of their built environment. As prominent as buildings are in our lives, few of us will acquire one that will provide the experience uniquely offered by art.

One plausible explanation for this may be that the thought of living in an environment that’s also art is just too much for most people. It implies too many expectations and demands for it ever to be comfortably lived in. And, of course, if the shoe doesn’t fit there’s no reason to try wearing it. But there are, nevertheless, those for whom it does fit.

For those comfortable with the idea of living in an environment that aesthetically enriches, the main obstacle usually comes down to cost.

Building, whether a small room, a high rise, or the endless variety in between, carries a price tag, the contemplation of which can intimidate. I want to offer some thoughts I’ve had regarding this issue with an emphasis on architecture as an investment.

To reiterate, costs are the largest impediment, imagined or real, to achieving more from our built environments. Fear of losing money, on the one hand, getting buried in debt on the other, quickly evaporate fantasies one may entertain of pursuing a building that’s custom designed to ones unique lifestyle and that might also be a work of art.

Every building regardless of scale or scope begins with a consideration of what it will cost. And on average that is more than most of us have at our disposal to reasonably finance. From the very beginning the dream of building is pitted against this reality.

While there’s no way I can think of within reason to dodge this important issue, it is possible to give it some perspective and therefore a possible compass when trying for a soft landing of that dream. For my purposes here I want, as I said, to look at building as an investment.

First, a very brief primer in economics. For those of you with a background in that field, or who respond to it with extreme boredom, my apologies: this may be an exercise in testing your patience. Humor me if you can.

Everything has a certain value, both intrinsic and perceived, including the cost of producing it. That, plus taking into account its availability versus how much in demand it might be.

Yes, trying to set the price on something is far more complicated than that. But breaking it down in a way that satisfies current economic theory would be inappropriate here and would only confuse matters. My preference, instead, is to keep things as simple as possible.

Building, like a simple loaf of bread or a meal at a 5-star restaurant, is comprised of its materials and a series of steps or operations required to make it. These are the basis for determining its cost. That and its status in the calculus of supply and demand.

Some things are valued much more highly than others and in different ways relative to its social context. In the western world, at least, a diamond, of course, usually commands a far higher price than a teardrop of glass; a Ferrari more than a Ford; a home designed with special emphasis on realizing its potential to aesthetically enrich, more than a home mass-produced for accommodating  strictly practical needs. Another factor related to scarcity that may also drive up demand for something and make it seductively irresistible, is its publicly perceived status as a luxury item.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: buildings like everything else, to an extent that will vary from person to person, represent a choice regarding a calculated exchange of value – an investment.

In short, I have just so much money at my disposal. As a medium of exchange – of trade, my money is a lubricant so to speak; it facilitates an exchange of value – the value to me of what it has taken to acquire that money, in exchange for something owned or provided by someone else. When I buy something I want to know that it is equal to or greater in value than the money (or other medium) with which I’m making the purchase. I want to be assured that I’m making a good investment with my limited resources. Again, oversimplified, perhaps, but appropriate to my point.

Bear with me while I recap and build a little more context from which to view this issue.

Building, in simple terms, is a commodity that provides us with shelter. It’s valued by everyone and to an extent that varies as much as do our personal circumstances.

It’s everywhere around us and in most cases intimately affects us while we’re in it. Our perception and moods are continually under its influence. In short, it’s a big deal. But often it’s taken for granted. And seldom is it changed. Yet it’s always there.

For the most part, as I suggested before, the possibilities of altering our built surroundings, of building anything, much less actually living in ones dream-environment, get derailed by the spectrum of what it might cost.

So, as a consequence, few will ever make the next move. But, there are some that do. For them cost, rather than being a deterrent, becomes another of life’s essential calculations. In considering its feasibility they will carefully weigh a project’s pros and cons on its merits as an investment; they make a serious effort to understand its real value to them.

Building, as an investment can then, very broadly speaking, be approached in two ways (there are, no doubt, other ways as well).

  1. Building, as a long range investment that pays back in terms of the positive value derived from it. In other words,  as an investment, the building is regarded as an asset whose return extends over time. The payback can be in terms of simply owning it, as well as in ones experience of living there, of enjoying the day to day pleasures that only this kind of environment can offer. Or, as another possibility, the payback can be in the way of future cash flow. Whereas its cost will be impacted by most of the same factors affecting the viability of building pursued strictly as a business (see below), it will pay back the investment largely through its unique aesthetic as well as utilitarian rewards that extend over time.
  2. Building, as a one time commodity to be quickly sold at a profit. Here, all the factors affecting cost – demographics, land cost, cost of borrowing, cost of regulatory and other code agency approvals, fees, construction labor and material costs, design complexity, project delivery time, ones ability to survive a protracted selling period, etc., come strongly into play. More than any other single factor, the prospects for a profit will be at the mercy of the project delivery time. All building projects are affected to some extent by these factors, but none to the extent as when pursuing building as a business. Succeeding with this option is difficult and is more commonly taken up by either someone with deep pockets and fortitude to spare, or by developers who have mastered the art of building as a business.

On a residential scale, because of the severe limitations of pursuing building as a business opportunity, few venture into this area. And far fewer, still, produce built environments for quick profit that come close to providing the experiential benefits of work that’s custom-designed by talented architects, although there are exceptions – David Hovey’s Optima in Arizona comes to mind.

But as can be expected, producing built environments – housing in particular – as a profit making enterprise, makes it affordable to a much larger number of people. By doing so, it also becomes the first step up the ladder toward eventually investing in ones bigger dreams.

So then, what can be taken away from of the above?

Building, and particularly those built environments that go the farthest in providing us with the greatest return, experientially as well as practically, require of us a serious effort to identify our priorities. We need to treat our dreams with respect, while also taking responsibility for being honest with ourselves regarding the extent of our reach. Is it within grasp?

Prior to chasing the dream we need to decide whether the investment is for a return that’s more immediate, or one that will be paid back in the long run. If it’s long term, and it will be for most of you who venture into this arena, are you financially capable of managing it? And, of course, how much is the prospect of owning and living in this special place worth to you?

If you choose the custom-design route, it’s essential that you have a clear idea of your risk-tolerance, i.e., how much you are willing to take on. An important piece of advice here is to limit the scope of your building wish-list accordingly.

Keep in mind that a living environment custom-designed for you, i.e., shelter that nurtures experientially, as well as protects, follows a different path in its delivery than does a mass market production home. And in most cases this will be reflected in what it costs.

If where you invest your resources is important, if you are looking at buildings as a viable place for that investment, if you are financially able, and if you are looking for the best possible return in terms of your day-to-day experience over an extended period of time, then by far your best option is to pursue an environment that’s custom designed to your unique requirements.

Architecture is the art of building that brings with it all its potential to add significant value to your personal life. But, from the beginning, its success as a viable project depends to a large extent on accurately calculating what is wanted from it versus its potential benefits. It needs to be seen as an investment.

FLW

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.

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.

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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

casa-bioclimatica-ruiz-larrea-1

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

Space?

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

Missing…but not lost

Being an architect, I occasionally sift through my mental library of built environments wondering what might have been. Then I speculate about why it wasn’t. In previous posts I’ve taken a look at the role that the power of familiarity and personal preferences play in the dynamics of making our built world.

Today I want to shift attention to another subtle, but important influence on the design process – although in this case I’m focusing more on residential design. Here, as I search for what might have been, I’m seeing something that I think is a blank spot in the mindset in the way many projects are approached.

That blank spot sets the stage and ultimately impacts the built landscape, meaning it also impacts our lives through the way we experience our surroundings. The effect is sometimes subtle – below the radar, and at other times unavoidably harsh.

Here I want to shift my focus on the nature of that blank spot – on what’s missing, but that’s in our power to recover. As I’ve commented on before, this has something to do with a willingness to see in ways that may conflict with familiar and perhaps cherished patterns.

Residential design, including home improvements – i.e., most residential projects, often begin with little more in mind than solving practical needsBuildings need to work: they need to keep out unwanted weather, provide comfort and security, i.e., function in ways appropriate to their purpose. In itself that’s not a controversial observation. Solving problems of a practical nature is, after all, an important and basic part of the architect’s skill set.

But, as my own mental tour suggests and any tour you might take of real estate guides and residential neighborhoods will demonstrate in abundance, something seems to be missing. I’m not just talking about the quality of design per se. That would be true, but too easy of a target to take aim at. Other people’s tastes/ aesthetic values will always be open season for critiques. One person’s castle may be another’s shack. That is not the perspective that interests me here.

The thing I want to look at instead is what, far too often, seems to be left out of the process entering into a building project.

At the very start of a residential design process certain issues dominate and take priority, e.g., size, cost, style. Although there may be a desire for something new, e.g., appliances, plumbing fixtures, lighting, wall finishes, floor coverings, furniture, etc., or that it will turn out nice, provide comfort, and be worth the cost, the risk of wanting much more than that is often seen as too great.

Missing from the client’s agenda far too often (and sometimes, unfortunately, from the architect’s) is a compelling desire to explore. What’s missing is a vital curiosity and willingness to look at how this effort at upgrading or replacing ones home might lay the groundwork for new, life-affirming experiences. Instead, the drive to explore lies dormant in the background.

The thought of exploring a project’s possibilities as architecture fails to gain traction. It remains buried by conventional wisdom that says architecture is irrelevant, elitist, extravagant and frivolous, not to mention, indulgent. From that frame of mind a course is laid out with budgets developed accordingly, omitting what is feared to be a one way trip to burying oneself in debt.

The consequence of hyper-emphasizing practicality, of letting caution dictate, is that it too often sidelines further exploration of  alternative life-serving possibilities and ultimately extends into the built landscape of our lives.  A vital option has then been unnecessarily excluded. 

If this is true, can anything be done? I think so. The doors are not locked shut – choosing to see is always an option.

What ‘might be’ always nags ‘what is’. Within even the most mundane project sleeps the seed of greater possibilities awaiting the curious glance of acknowledgement by an owner who, at first, may only faintly, if hesitatingly, sense its presence. The architect, in order to do his or her best, to explore beyond the familiar and acceptable, needs that acknowledgement.

A willingness to explore unlocks the mind.

What are we talking about here?

Everyone wants on some level to feel more alive. It’s our primal spark. It’s there until we die. Exploration, discovery of what lies beyond, of new experiences, new possibilities, is a natural expression of that spark. The impulse to explore moves life ahead.

Architecture is a manifestation of that spark, that impulse,that exploration. 

Someone wanting to experience life on a deeper level – where who they are emotionally, intellectually and spiritually can be brought closer into the foreground, may choose to have their inner life mirrored in the form of architecture. Their functional, practical needs for shelter are then transformed – expanded – into a kind of three-dimensional, spatial equivalent of music composed just for them.

That music’s uniqueness, its theme and perhaps its melody, germinates within the myriad influences underlying the project: how the client wants to live in this new place; their personal aesthetic preferences; their financial priorities; the various conditions of the building site.

For me, speaking both personally and as an architect, the role nature plays in the formation of this music is particularly significant. Site-specific characteristics, prevailing weather patterns, the ebb and flow from hot to cold and light to dark, the daily rhythms of light and shadow, how that light enters into and impacts our lives, the nature of the materials of construction, all these things become integral to that music.

Architecture, successfully executed, is a respectful response to all these factors. Its success derives from its ability, to some degree, to bring us back in touch with the deeper levels of who we really are, and to that particular place on earth where we choose to build our shelters.

But all this ultimately circles back to those responsible for launching a building project, whether it’s a home improvement or any other type of shelter. Architecture begins with a client working in concert with an architect, both willing to entertain a glance beyond the strictly practical – not at its expense, but simply to look beyond and then allow for a process of discovery. 

Rather than initiating a slide into fiscal purgatory, which would require turning a blind eye to ones financial realities – never a good option, allowing for exploration beyond the familiar should not be done carte blanche. But then, it should not be nipped in the bud prematurely by putting the cost-benefit analysis cart before the horse.

If the quality of your built surroundings is important to you and you’re considering a building project, whether it’s a home or any other type of shelter, pushing – stretching – the envelope of your project’s inherent possibilities is an important option you’ll need to decide upon if you want the best possible outcome.

You, the owner, the one paying for it, have the final word – it’s your money. But the architect’s skills at stretching the envelope are an important part of what you’re paying for.

Of course it may be difficult trying to move beyond the expected and the familiar. That the journey from initial idea to completion can be a struggle and/or test of patience is not so unusual, as any glance at the history of forward motion in human history will reveal.

Nonetheless, as common as frustration may be in the creation of architecture, it is still unfortunate when it’s avoidance leads to a dumbing-down of our built environment. There’s no law of nature demanding that particular outcome.

I think it’s important to the quality of each of our lives to acknowledge the presence of that primal spark of life – that it’s always there to take advantage of, to motivate us and to build from. Budgets are important when planning a building project, as is talent. But even more so in this context is the willingness to explore a project’s inherent possibilities. It’s an important decision that can make life more interesting and fulfilling.

See also: a path least traveled p.1&2, Designing Your Ideal Home…Part 1&2, Shelter: A Choice, L.A. now nation’s densest urban area, considerations, built shelter, Bridging the Gap, why Architecture?

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture is the making of place and the making of memory…ultimately it is the buildings we live with every day that do the most to shape our architectural memories…if we are lucky, the buildings we live with surround us with a combination of stimulus and ease, of vibrancy and serenity, and their greatest gifts are conferred quietly, without our even knowing.” p154, 233

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture is always a response to limits – physical constraints, financial ones, or the demands of function” (…and to the subtle and psychic need to see embodied, our deeper sense of who we are as unique living entities.)  p.xv

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture represents the real, and that is ever more precious in an age of the virtual. Every piece of architecture is an opportunity for real experience.” p.234