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

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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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

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Wendell Burnette, Desert Courtyard House

James Lahey

James Lahey

Catherine Sévérac

Catherine Sévérac

Rob't Motherwell

Rob’t Motherwell

“Architecture of the Earth and the Living”

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

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

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

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

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

For starters I mean:

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

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

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

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

WL

Warren Lawson Architect, Soucek residence

standardarchitecture: namchabawa visitor center

Carlo Scarpa

Sverre Fehn, Nordic pavilion

Ron Thom, Trent University

BVN Architecture, Mending Wall

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

Herbst Architects, Kaipara Pavilion

Reconstruction of the Szatmáry Palace by MARP

Reconstruction of the Szatmáry Palace by MARP

miller hull partnership safari drive condominiums

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Lily Lake Residence

FLW, Johnson residence

Louis Kahn, Fisher house

AATA arquitectos: cabañas morerava

Paul Schweikher, Upton Residence, Scottsdale, Az.

Glenn Murcutt, Magney House

Renzo Ferrari Birthplace Museum

Rick Stevens

miragem by Miriam HMello

What Then is the Point of Hiring an Architect?

“What an architect is, seems to be up for debate these days…. Most buildings in this country are not designed by architects, and it is becoming easier and easier for laypeople to buy computer  programs or to hire-in expertise that allows them to design buildings. More and more of what goes into buildings is also becoming specialized and bolstered by technology, so that what defines a building is as much systems, codes, interior decoration. lighting and acoustical design, and cost estimating, as it is whatever we might still call architecture.” from “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?” by Aaron Betsky for Architect Magazine, Oct. 22, 2012

For millennia, buildings, especially dwellings, have been erected without the involvement of what today is referred to as an architect. They were built by those with enough skills to enclose a space that for the most part would remain upright, at least for a while. Failure, after appeasing the gods, was followed by trying once again, perhaps learning something from the experience. Occasionally something was learned about structural integrity.

As populations grew and civilizations advanced, structural failure and destruction by fire became a growing cause for concern. But advancing civilizations also meant an advance in building technologies along with the efforts by underwriters, governments, and local civic groups to harness the growing risk of greater casualties.

As part of that effort, master builders began grouping together in professional societies. They were following the precedent of artisan guilds in an earlier era. Now their stated purpose was advancement of “the common good” – to ensure building safety and protect an unwitting public from charlatans.

As their numbers grew, so too did their political clout, an effort that eventually paid off with the passage of licensing laws.

Designed to raise the bar of technical competence, licensing also carried with it the added short-term bonus to the licensee of limited competition. Assuring professional competency, a worthy goal in itself, also carried with it, as do all regulations, the hidden price of limited choices and consequently an increase in cost. With added cost comes, inevitably, a search for alternatives.

The pressure exerted on government to promote public safety had other consequences besides licensing, notably the creation of building codes and zoning laws. In order to build, a licensed architect was needed to not only design and prepare construction drawings, but also to navigate the ever growing complexity of code enforcement agencies for approval. To build required a building permit.

Complying with an increasingly complex thicket of code requirements eventually required the services of a trained professional. For most building types, construction drawings submitted to a building department were then required to be stamped with the professional seal of a licensed architect or engineer.

Over the years, satisfying code restrictions has become an increasingly central part of an architect’s skill set. And, as one might expect, one consequence is that the buildings they design have been shaped to an ever greater extent by those codes.

Also as a consequence, the architect’s public image began to shift from that of artist-builder to one as a building technician and permit facilitator; (and, if any money was left in the budget, someone who could then also give the building some “pizzazz”.)

Giving boost to the image-shift that architects, as well as architecture, has undergone is the emergence and rapid development of digital technology, notably in the areas of design and 3D drawings.

A genuine boon to the delivery of projects, this technology has also resulted in an increasing number of imaginary architects. Apps are now available to anyone with a digital device that enable them to produce computer models of built environments and vicariously experience themselves as designers, no further experience needed.

More and more, as this technology grows, some will come to think that they can do what “architects” do; they can now design buildings and their interiors. Of course they will acknowledge that they don’t possess the technical expertise to convert their digital fantasies into real buildings. But then, that’s what contractors and architects are for.

And since contractors, more and more, are acquiring many of the skills once the exclusive domain of architects, why not, then, just bypass the architect for everything except for stamping the drawings.

By the way, this is not just me indulging in the dark side. Yes, it’s a foreshortened view but one that contains a kernel of truth. That architects have become a limited participant in shaping our built environment is easily checked out by a quick look at real estate ads or driving around town.

What then is the point of hiring an architect?  Construction costs are high enough without plugging in fees for architectural services, especially when the value of those services are in doubt.

Whatever we call architecture… is more than what licensed architects do. It is something that transforms buildings into frames for our daily lives, frameworks for relationships, catalysts for new ways of living, anchors in a world of change, and many other things that I think are difficult to define and, more importantly, even less likely to show up in the process by which architects in this country and the U.K. are licensed…” ibid.

The art in architecture is a fragile thing. Over the years its status has been slowly displaced by the ever-growing complications of getting something built. This has led to increased costs, leaving less and less room for anything but satisfying the practical necessity of shelter. When the the art in architecture devolves into surface application, architecture loses its soul. Missing there is the seamless merging of all the parts that make architecture something more than just a practical solution.  Missing is another opportunity to discover the joys unique to architecture at its best, architecture that reaches the best in us.

Just how much more than what licensing alone accomplishes is evident when standing in the presence of architecture designed by someone possessing certain talents and abilities beyond the technical that awaken in us something that’s too often asleep. The heightened experience of being alive that architecture has the potential to offer requires something deeper than what technical proficiency and skills at acquiring building permits alone can achieve.

And, by the way, it also requires someone, a client, who really wants it; someone who is willing to acknowledge and accept that, for certain things, there’s just no shortcut to getting them.

Below are samples of  how some have given shape to what they saw when looking deeper.

Le Grotte della Civita, Matera, 2009

Utzon in Mallorca

Small House In Czech Republic Recycled From Ruins of Barn

House 6 in San Mateo County,California by Fu-Tung Cheng. 2009

James Eads How House, Silverlake, Los Angeles. Rudolph Schindler. 1925

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

John Lautner, Stevens House, Malibu

John Lautner, Segel house, Malibu

Shirish Beri and Associates, Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species


Avenue of Poplars at Sunset – Vincent van Gogh

Diego Rivera, House over Bridge, 1909

Tuning Out, Tuning In

There’s a lot going on.

Simple, revealing little, concealing much, I thought I would use this seemingly vapid comment as a kind of trail marker hinting at something more pithy ahead, an observation that I think is worthy of your attention.

First, let me explain what I mean by a lot going on. As we are well aware of from time to time, at any given moment there can be an overload of sensory traffic buzzing around and through us. This in itself is not news. But the thing I want to draw your attention to is how easily it sidetracks us.  That buzz, that sensory overload, easily obscures awareness of what matters to us most.

From the moment when the mind flickers awake in the morning to when it eventually fades out at night, it’s subject to an encyclopedic range of input, often just plain noise, much of it actual sound, often just the hum of brain chatter.

So much so that, when something really important and worthy of close attention sneaks into our field of awareness, it often slips by unnoticed, if not altogether ignored. Or it gets glossed over, downplayed, maybe even dismissed as a distraction. Usually we’re just too busy to bother with it.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable, but nonetheless, this state of affairs has its consequences.

Which brings me to my purpose in writing this. By underscoring what might seem to be an unavoidable and unchangeable part of life today, I’m also underscoring what I think is one of the outcomes: it’s effect on architecture, my second love in life. It’s a reason, I think, why architecture occupies a much too obscure niche in the set of personal priorities of so many people; why so many of our buildings fail to raise our sights, lift us emotionally, add to our inventory of inspired legacies, and in general, succeed only in leaving us indifferent.

But, venting on this issue is not my purpose. What  interests me here is making an effort, as minor as it may be, to do something about it by bringing attention to it; to give it a nudge, light a fire under it. Is this situation really changeable? I don’t know, but why not try?

There’s an abundance of legitimate reasons related to personal circumstance for excluding architecture as part of ones reality, for simply not caring about it. I know that for many, if not most of us, it’s beyond reach and may always be. Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the impact that our immediate surroundings exerts on our quality of life.

This simple but often repeated fact has by now become a cliche. But not to be so easily dismissed is the nugget of truth lying at its core: we are all, fundamentally, experiential, spiritual, and thinking beings, by which I mean that our health requires nurturing in all those areas. Unless we’re comatose, we respond unavoidably on many levels and in potentially profound ways to the messages from beyond our skin received by our senses, all the time.

Yes, of course, few people are in a position financially or otherwise to acquire architecture for themselves. That significant accomplishment is left to a very small segment of the population. And yet, it’s those few who have the greatest power to impact the quality of the built environments of the world, most notably their own.

And so, the question is begged: why do those possessing the ability to improve on the state of the natural world, one of our greatest sources of pleasure and enrichment, often let that opportunity slip away? Why do most of our buildings induce yawns of boredom at best and, at worst, apathetic resignation to what seems impossible to change? Why do so few of those with the ability to get good architecture end up with with less?

I wonder. Is it an opportunity that goes unrecognized? Is it sensory overload that obscures what’s most important?

Everyone sees a building’s potential differently. My views on the untapped possibilities of architecture and its failure, in general, to realize them may not be shared by many. Are there explanations then, other than the ones I’ve suggested above, for why our built environments turn out the way they do?  There are, you can be sure. But while it’s tempting to look for them here, it’s not really where I want to go right now.

Instead, I prefer to aim in a different direction, not at changing a set of circumstances that’s mostly beyond my reach. As many architects have done before, myself included, it’s more appealing to suggest an option, a different way of seeing and thinking about the structures we build and where they come from.

For now with respect to readers who have more to do than slog through a long post, I’ll narrow down that focus to just one possibility. There may be many more, perhaps,but one in particular is dear to me

All buildings are connected to their surroundings, to nature above all – nature out there, as well as our internal nature as humans. It’s a continuous dialogue and relationship that can be quite intimate. 

By nature, in this case the earth, I mean the place that all of us, consciously or not, are an extension of, where we can turn to reconnect on a deeper level with what’s most important.

As such, nature is here, now, real. It has the power to bring us into the present, to settle us down. Unlike the overload of sensory stimulation that is often part of that strata of existence common to most life as it currently is experienced, especially in urban areas, nature has the power to ground us, to return us to ourselves.

Nature as a primary point of reference in the built environment has been addressed in various ways by many  architects, high on my list of which are Wright, of course, Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa, Peter Bohlin, James Cutler, John Lautner, Will Bruder, Kengo Kuma and not so well known, Jack Hilmer, to name but a few. I know I’m leaving out dozens more who’ve had much to offer in connecting us to the natural world through their architecture as well as their written words. But this is a good start. Their work represents a wide range of different possibilities, but share a common message.

Following are a few notable examples of how nature, in the sense I refer to above, can influence our built world.

FLW, Reisley House

FLW, Palmer House

FLW, Melvyn Maxwell Smith House

FLW, Rose Pauson Residence, Ship Rock, after fire

FLW, Aisaku Hayashi House, Tokyo – 1917

Frank Lloyd Wright, Millard House wall detail

FLW, Owen Young House, Chandler – 1928

FLW, Doheney Ranch Development – 1923

FLW, Darwin Martin House

Wright:

How many understand that Nature is the essential character of whatever is. It’s something you’ll find by looking not at, but in, always in. It’s always inside the thing, and it makes the outside.”

Building becomes architecture only when the mind of man consciously takes it and tries with all his resources to make it beautiful, to put concordance, sympathy with nature, and all that into it.”

“study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, India Institute of Management

Louis Kahn, India Institute of Management

Louis Kahn, Yale Center for British Art

Louis Kahn, Fisher House

Louis Kahn:

“And when you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And there is where Design comes in. And if you think of Brick, for instance, and you say to Brick, “What do you want Brick?” and Brick says to you,

“I like an Arch.”  And if you say to Brick “Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lentil over you. What do you think of that, brick?”

Brick says: “… I like an Arch”

Carlo Scarpa

Carlo Scarpa. Brion-Vega Cemetery

Carlo Scarpa, Brion-Vega Cemetery

Carlo Scarpa:

If the architecture is any good, a person who looks and listens will feel its good effects without noticing. The environment educates in a critical fashion. As for the critic, he discovers the truth of things…”

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Port Townsend Residence

Peter Bohlin/ Bohlin Cywinski Jackson:

“We believe in an architecture that springs from the nature of circumstance.

…the nature of place, whether natural or man-made – the tilt and warp of the land, the sun and wind, rain and snow, its attitude, its spirit, the marks of man on a place, a dense urban world or a landscape that reveals its geological past and vestiges of man’s hand.

…the nature of man – our senses, how we move, how we touch, our intellect and our emotions, our dreams, our memories, our past, our institutions,

…the nature of making, of materials – stone, wood, concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, plastic, fabric – each has its particular qualities.

…All materials have a kind of will – we are fascinated by the connection between the nature of materials, the places they quite naturally make and our use of these particular places. from “Arcadian Architecture, 12 Houses”, by Oscar Riera Ojeda

Cutler Anderson Architects, Bodega Residence

Cutler Anderson Architects, Bodega Residence

James Cutler, Medina Residence Guest House

James Cutler, Medina Residence Guest House

James Cutler/ Cutler Anderson

John Lautner, Mauer Residence

John Lautner’s Wolff House

Rawlins Residence, John Lautner with Warren Lawson

John Lautner, Segel Residence with Warren Lawson as project architect

John Lautner:

As far as structure is concerned I think we should continually experiment and discover every new material and method and use it.”

Will Bruder, Pond House

Will Bruder, Pond House

Will Bruder, Byrne-Residence

Will Bruder

Will Bruder:

“…celebrate the materials and how they go together”

“…You’re getting paid to open the possibilities of what architecture is about” And the goal of architecture, he says, “is to build a better world to live in, to build armatures for memory. And memory is what people value more than any physical thing.”  from Residential Architect, October 18, 2011 post

Kengo Kuma, Yusuhara Wooden Bridge

Kengo Kuma, Momofuku Ando Center

Kengo Kuma:

Sushi is a good metaphor for my architecture. The importance in sushi is to choose the best material from the place, in season. ‘If the journey of the ingredients is too long, the taste of the sushi is compromised. That is a problem that can’t be solved by modern technology, and that programme of using local material in season is the secret of good taste, and the secret of my style.” 

Jack Hilmer, Kentfield House

Jack Hilmer, Kentfield House

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.