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

Louis Kahn – another look

Although admittedly not everyone’s cup of architectural tea, and possibly irrelevant to others, Louis Kahn’s work never fails to reach me on some level.

His work, including his ideas, speak volumes, providing much for me to chew on even though my own work is necessarily different. Just as his architecture was a kind of self-portrait – as is and will be the case regardless of where one applies ones creative efforts, so too is mine. Nevertheless, there’s so much there in the way of ideas and inspiration to draw on.

Physically, in real time and place, his built work presents an alternate experience of the built environment and its relationship to time, place, and us.

I just came across a video of an exhibit of his work, “Louis Kahn – The Power of Architecture, presented recently by the Netherlands Architecture Institute. For those of you drawn to the power of architecture it’s worth a look. Bear with the opening credits,  park your preferences at the door and you may be rewarded. It includes interviews with his son Nathaniel (My Architect) and his two sisters. (For those of you haven’t yet seen it, “My Architect” offers a remarkable look at Kahn from up close and personal. It’s one of my favorite films.)

See also, my post:Louis Kahn

Enjoy.

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Louisd Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Parliament, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, Parliament, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Capital, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Capital, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, Fisher House

Louis Kahn, Korman  House

Louis Kahn, Korman House

Louis Kahn, Korman House

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn,Exeter Library

Louis Kahn,Exeter Library

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn,Yale Center For British Art

Louis Kahn,Yale Center For British Art

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn at the Kimball Museum, Ft. Worth

Louis Kahn at the Kimball Museum, Ft. Worth

Louis in action

Louis in action

Louis Kahn, model of Richards Medical Research Building

Louis Kahn, model of Richards Medical Research Building

Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn

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“Architecture of the Earth and the Living”

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

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

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

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

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

For starters I mean:

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

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

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

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

WL

Warren Lawson Architect, Soucek residence

standardarchitecture: namchabawa visitor center

Carlo Scarpa

Sverre Fehn, Nordic pavilion

Ron Thom, Trent University

BVN Architecture, Mending Wall

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

Herbst Architects, Kaipara Pavilion

Reconstruction of the Szatmáry Palace by MARP

Reconstruction of the Szatmáry Palace by MARP

miller hull partnership safari drive condominiums

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Lily Lake Residence

FLW, Johnson residence

Louis Kahn, Fisher house

AATA arquitectos: cabañas morerava

Paul Schweikher, Upton Residence, Scottsdale, Az.

Glenn Murcutt, Magney House

Renzo Ferrari Birthplace Museum

Rick Stevens

miragem by Miriam HMello

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

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