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

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Carol Nelson

Carol Nelson

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Revisiting “Architecture of the Earth and the Living”

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

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

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

red flag alert

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

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

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

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

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

to grow = to live more fully

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

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

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

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

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

boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

either or?

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

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

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

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

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

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

This takes me to the main point of this post.

coexist, join forces

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

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

not just one way or the other

A quick look at what’s involved:

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

Porche factory

Porche factory

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

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

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

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

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

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

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

vision

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

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

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Paolo Soleri, Macro Cosanti Residence, 1964

Paolo Soleri, Macro Cosanti Residence, 1964

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

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

loosen up, getting more 

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

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

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

WL

architect unknown

architect unknown

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

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

Miller Architects,  Mountain Lodge

Miller Architects, Mountain Lodge

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

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

Karolina and Wayne Switzer, African Mud Hut

Karolina and Wayne Switzer, African Mud Hut

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

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

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

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

33

Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

James Lahey

James Lahey

Catherine Sévérac

Catherine Sévérac

Rob't Motherwell

Rob’t Motherwell

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

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