somewhere in L.A.

Architecture – mine in this case, has been in need of attention. Let me explain.

In the course of ones life priorities sometimes fade, sometimes a certain kind of laziness sets in; skills may slip.  As an effort to stay ahead of that curve and as an exercise to ward off architectural flabbiness, I decided to try something I would normally shy away from: design a spec house. It would be on a small hillside lot in a medium to low income area of L.A.. It would, of course, have to be sold at a profit. Now, designing a spec house may fall far below your radar of important things in life. And because spec house design is mostly driven by a bottom line that rarely leaves room for a breath of architectural life, it mostly remains below mine as well. I normally don’t aim my sights in that direction.  Add to that, there may be only a distant chance of it ever being built. But no matter.  As I said, I did it for the exercise – and the challenge. I know and accept that there’s a limited audience for what I do and that a house designed as I’ve done here may have even smaller appeal. But because I’m reasonably happy with it, I’m posting it nevertheless. Enjoy if you can. If not, c’est la vie.

street view

street view

view from below

view from below

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

Wanting More…part 1

Inês Cortesão, Casa Cortesao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Path Least Traveled – Part 1…The Woods

Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”                                                      Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken”

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill

We live in a world largely defined by our built environment. Buildings fill the landscape of our lives. They’re the woods we live in. We make them; they, in turn, make us.

Unable in most cases to live in today’s world without them, we’re crowded by their influence over us. Day in and day out, it’s virtually impossible to fully escape their effect on our lives.

And yet, for all their pervasive presence in our lives we’re largely indifferent to them, if not, at times, downright hostile. Only occasionally do we approach them with pleasure.

Structures we erect to shelter our lives, far too often and contrary to best intentions, fail to nurture us in meaningful and lasting ways. Multiply this scenario by many millions and you begin to grasp the scope of the problem and of the opportunities missed.

When I navigate the sprawl of homes and commercial buildings here in L.A., in order to cope, I find myself inadvertently tuning much of it out. Far too often, my perceptual engagement of it is discouraged. If I do tune in, more often than not I’m annoyed by what has replaced what could have been.

I think that in order to cope with a situation we feel so helpless to change, we travel this built landscape of our lives to a large extent on automatic pilot. As a consequence, our relationship with the built environment has evolved into a passive one.

Of course we can find exceptions – there are certainly buildings that we enjoy.They may even inspire us. You probably find your own home to be such an exception. It reflects more of who you are than do most buildings.

Nevertheless, my target here is our predominantly passive relationship with most of what gets built, that we feel helpless to do anything about, and that occupies so much of our field of vision – and its consequences.

What draws me into sharing my thoughts on this subject is the possibility that there’s a reasonable alternative to all this indifference and hostility to what looms so large in our lives. I’m challenging its seeming inevitability. I think change is possible.

Again, we’re all affected by our surroundings. In ways that vary from person to person, we’re all atrophied to some extent in the realm of sensory perception and ability to be actively engaged by our surroundings.

Why do we resign ourselves to this? Is there something that can be done? I think so. Here are my thoughts with some suggestions.

It occurs to me, making a simple observation, that certain deeply held beliefs and preferences inevitably play out in our lives in some form or other, sometimes with a vehemence.

Peace of mind requires keeping them at a safe distance. The charge they carry, I think, derives from the vagueness with which they are held.

One way to account for this vagueness is the fragility of those beliefs and preferences such as in art, religion/philosophy, and politics. Because they’re held so deeply, they remain mostly out of sight. They’re hard to access; articulating them, harder yet. Attempts to air them in public are often frustrating if not scary – the outcome is often heated. So they remain stored away, vague. A safe distance is kept. The consequence: a sense of helplessness to change what has become easier to pass off as inevitable.

These deep-rooted beliefs and preferences guide much of what we do in life. Buried over time, we guard them well. We fight over them.

But living in a congested world requires more non-combative options. Open, de-fused communications are needed. This is especially true in the case of making buildings.

Transforming our built environment so that it might be more profoundly engaging requires digging deep into our priorities, articulating them, and finding a receptive audience.

Here’s what I suggest as a path through this impasse and its affect on our environment: do what’s in our power as individuals to do – let’s take responsibility for our beliefs and preferences, in this case, with respect to our built landscape. Examine them; challenge them. See if we can understand why we like what we like.

By digging deep and bringing these buried beliefs into the light of consciousness, we may not revise them, but we might discover that we’re more open to other possibilities previously ignored. Our priorities begin to shift. Eyes wide open, we begin to see things for what they really are. We consciously open up to better alternatives.

By opening the doors of our minds, if we choose, we then find ourselves searching for new ways to improve our personal environment, our lives.

The places some of us will build will be influenced by this awakening. Indifference will slowly be replaced by more positive alertness to our surroundings. More and more we’ll begin to discover and experience places that we like. Life will become more interesting. More and more we’ll be inspired by the places we build.

Of course, the larger process of self-exploration and discovery at the heart of this kind of change is much bigger than the scope of this post. Here, I’m just trying to scratch the surface.

W.L.