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

“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

Home Base…part 4

evening light

evening light with clouds

hillside with summer shadows

outcrop on lower part of hill

Spanish Broom, California Pepper tree, Hollyhocks

Hollyhock

Spanish Broom, spartium junceum

California pepper tree

cactus flower’s very brief gift

elm tree in the Fall

pomegranates

Baron – CEO, Advisor and Chief Groundskeeper

“…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 also a relationship that can be quite intimateNature, in the sense I mean here, is the earth, 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.”                        from “Tuning In, Tuning Out

photography by Warren Lawson Architect

Home base…part 3

Always there. Always changing. Always a source.

spring – soon the grass will be gone…the wildfire season just around the corner

Aloe flowers

the Pacific Ocean saying hello

sky music

never fails to arouse

most days, just plain nurturing

 

The Habitable Ruin

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

The Habitable Ruin

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?

Taliesin West – 1946

A somewhat jumpy and grainy video of a film taken back then. I think that in this unsophisticated  form, Taliesin’s connection to the desert shows up in a way that is filtered out in more current videos. Wright got it pretty much right, connecting to the desert as he’s done with Taliesin.

see also my earlier post: Reaching out…connecting

Reaching out…connecting

arizona desert

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