A Choice That Delivers

Like the first crocus piercing a long winter’s snow… architecture at its best embodies hope.

 

Ancient Roman Stadium, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; from ALZBlog

Machu Picchu

FLW, Rose Pausen house ruins

casa colina, PACHACAMAC, PeruLawrence Halprin, Ira Keller Fountain Park, Portland, Oregon

Casa Zaror, Jaime Bendersky Architectos

Domus Impluvium, Bernardo Rodrigues

Linking past with future, through experience in a continuous present, architecture bridges time as a marker of life’s wider possibilities. As such, in addition to fulfilling its purpose as shelter where life is enhanced, it also signifies hope for a better life.

But, as we all know, it’s certainly not true that anything built as shelter will rise to this level. Little ever does. And yet, all architecture has in its DNA that potential.

What then determines whether any particular work of architecture will embody hope or dash it on the rocks…or, as is mostly the case, flounder somewhere in the middle?

The capacity for architecture to impact our lives in that way is contingent on the choice made, early in its genesis, of which particular path to follow.

That choice is one that’s fundamentally important. At the other end of that path are all the buildings ever built and yet to be built.

That path exists for all architectural projects. In effect, it’s the criteria, held consciously or not, that guides the direction of the design. The choice of which path to follow sets in motion an important trajectory, one that becomes manifest over an expanse of time on a scale that dots the earth and touches us all.

The path is not a simple one. It actually begins at a fork, a choice right at the beginning of which fundamental direction to take. It’s a decision that will reflect the designer’s core beliefs about where and how architecture begins.

That decision, which is one that ought to be made consciously, derives from one’s answer to this question: what’s my basic criteria for making design decisions? What standard guides my design choices?

What are some choices of criteria and their consequences?

One of them is choosing whether to begin with what is, in order to get to what might be. In other words, do I allow the design to grow in an organic sense from factors that are relevant to that specific project?

Option two, the one often followed, is whether to begin with what was, either as an image or as something physically real, already built, and then, in effect, superimpose that over what is as a template of what might beIn this case, those making the design decisions are drawn towards what’s already been done – projects built for someone else with different needs and requirements and most likely under different site conditions.

Option three: some combination of one and two, which like the color gray, can be broken down into either of its constituent parts. The design might, for instance, contain original ideas combined with a pastiche of things previously tried.

Does it make a difference which path is chosen?

Architecture is a response to the needs and wants of real people, living real lives, wanting to be happy, right now, in a complex world, on a site with very specific conditions that must be respected and where possible, met.

Hope, to be realized must have a reachable end point.

For a built environment to succeed in any meaningful way, especially with regard to the well-being of its inhabitants, it must begin with an exploration of that which is specifically relevant – the conditions giving rise to what it might be, i.e., its context.

We all stand a far better chance of reaping the rewards from our built environments when they’re derived from rigorous respect for all the real world facts from which they germinate, from which they grow, and in which they will eventually speak – or sing – to us for a long time.

We respond strongly to authenticity, honesty, composition of enclosed spaces, integrity, intelligence, skilled workmanship. We want to feel inspired, have hope.

Short of willfully tuning it out, we’re not indifferent to the contrast between authenticity and replication, thoughtfulness and stupidity, integrity and chaos, pride in workmanship and carelessness, delightfulness and offensiveness, inspiration and hopelessness, etc..

But wait, you say, doesn’t second hand, borrowed architecture built to lower standards than I’m advocating here have its admirers? After all that’s mostly what exists out there.

Yes, of course.  But, the ability of such built work to satisfy can only be measured by criteria that’s limited, even if for valid reasons, but that exclude wider possibilities.

Satisfaction in such cases will ultimately be the consequence of, and therefore necessarily limited by, the endless decisions made over the course of the project guided by that limiting criteria.

Yes, we all adapt to some degree to that which is beyond our power to change. My point, however, is that more is possible.

Still, many live in and enjoy these environments. And why not? It’s their life after all, their choice, their money. We all see what we see and respond accordingly. That’s our prerogative. Most importantly, freedom of choice comes first. And besides, as with all forms of art, applying rigid rules to the process of creative exploration succeeds only in stifling creativity.

Nevertheless, it remains unavoidable that, as always, each of us alone is responsible for the choices we make and their consequences. My choices are mine; yours, yours; the architects, theirs. Each of us must take that responsibility.

When those choices made by others differ from mine as they will, assuming I have no influence in making them, I will live with that, even if those choices lead to built environments that frustrate me, that fail to connect with me or the earth in a way that feels more rewarding. After all, those places are not created for me. Except when I’m designing, it’s not my decision to make whether or not they meet my standards. We’re responsible only for our own choices, not those made by others.

It’s also true that many, perhaps most, couldn’t care less about this issue, or if they do, might regard it as a concoction manufactured as a way to vent frustration.

Well, there’s no shortage of reasons for architects to feel frustrated.

As you should know if you don’t already, architects don’t have the final word. And if they value their sanity, they would never expect to. Yes, frustration abounds. Few see what they see, much less approve it.

But if they’re good at what they do, architects know where the path of those early choices lead and will make an effort to implement the ones that meet their standards. They know cause and effect. They want to feel proud of their work. They want their project’s potential to be fulfilled. In this sense it’s their baby that’s coming to life.

In the end, however, whatever direction is followed early on in design, the fact is, we’re all affected to some degree by the consequences – by our built surroundings. Someone is choosing. Everyone is affected.

My purpose here, regardless of how it may seem at this point, is not to direct or rant, but to identify those certain fundamental choices buried in the early stages of design that unavoidably impact our built world, our lives; in other words, to try boosting awareness of the issue and, therefore, the results.

It’s a rare person who doesn’t want the best that’s possible and then some. Getting for yourself an environment that you love to be in, that makes you feel more alive, carries with it the responsibility of making choices on how to get there.

As long as there’s architecture, there’s reason to hope. The rest is up to each of us. The good thing is that we typically have more choices than we realize.

Kerry Clare + Lindsay Clare – Clare Design

fallingwater

Apprentice Shelter, Taliesin West

Schindler House, Kings Road, LA

Mockbee Rural Studio – Mason Bend Community Center

John Lautner, Arango House; photo: Jan-Richard Kikkert

Wanting More…part 2

On some deeper level doesn’t everyone want more?

More money. More love. More time. More power. More self-esteem. A better place to live. The list is endless.

Wants drive life. They give us purpose. Wanting more is wanting to feel more alive.

Jan Vermeer

And yet, how often do things falling under the heading of “more” get parked in a fantasy wish-list region of the mind where they become a permanent stand-in for the real thing?

How often does fantasy replace reality as the preferred place to channel ones energy?

The decision to try transporting  a fantasy into the messy world of facts, of cause and effect, responsibility, judgment, etc., is a tough one; for some, seemingly impossible. It may be even more so if a secret allegiance is unconsciously pledged to the primacy of fantasy, to a world where certain wants and desires are kept alive solely by the simple but effective strategy of keeping them beyond reach.

Such a pledge would, unfortunately and as a consequence, keep one attached to the safety of a status quo, a place where initiative is unwelcome, where aiming high and long term is discouraged. Worse, it suggests a willingness to remain passive with regard to getting more out of life, a willingness to face life with a shrug.

Wanting, for instance, ones own personal architecture – or, for that matter, anything else of high value that may greatly enhance ones life – is nothing, if not a long reach for many. Aiming high and beyond, while perhaps easy in the beginning, often becomes progressively more difficult to follow through with.

The question is whether it remains enough to let ones wants remain fantasies, to embalm them so to speak, to isolate their seductive song, to make them some kind of holy shrine never to be actualized. Is avoiding frustration and discouragement really the best answer?

There are compelling reasons for holding onto a fantasy. Even when the conditions seem right for actualizing it, hitting such a target is anything but assured.

At first comes peering upward at the sky. At some point eyes need to be trained more horizontally down the road, followed by initiating and then following a plan of action; stumbling, getting back up; all the time keeping that glow from extinguishing. Unlike the untarnished fantasy itself, actualizing it gets messy.

Sometimes sights are set early on in life, long before all the conditions are ripe and the necessary steps taken to achieve the fantasy’s realization. An early start might mean a long journey trying to capture the dream. It most likely will involve many distractions along the way.

Yes, a powerful vision, the driving force of fantasy, is needed if one is to find and then to stay on target; but a vision not as something that disappears during the messiness of ones waking hours, but as a north star, as a guide.

And it doesn’t matter the angle or trajectory of ones aim, whatever the nature of ones fantasies may be, each one presents us with a fundamental option of being conscious of certain basic decisions that must be made: What is it that I really want? What can I do to achieve it? Am I willing I do that?

And, ultimately: Will I then do what’s necessary to make it a reality? Am I willing to take responsibility for my well-being? Or… am I willing to give up?

That trail begins at  the roots of wanting something, where each of us in our own personal way, answers the questions: am I worth it and am I capable of getting it?

Whether my vision is architecture, or simply getting out of bed in the morning, it starts with me taking responsibility for making the next move. My initiative, above all, is necessary.

If we’re alive and in command of our mental faculties, we all need to not just know what it is we want, but to do what it takes to get it; to take a first step, and then another. And maybe, then, after careful consideration the decision is made to change direction. A path rarely follows a straight line.

No matter the path I follow, though, what direction I take, it all starts with a choice I must make and then taking responsibility for that choice.

The alternative is a slow passage into a future of reflecting on what might’ve been and on ones slide into to the night.

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.

Designing Your Ideal Home…Stumbling At The Starting Gate – Some Tips On Getting Back On Your Feet – Part 2

continued from Part-1

So you’ve decided to hire an architect to help you design your new home and you begin to realize that you alone are the one who is ultimately responsible for knowing what you want and how you want it to look. That decision will set the course for how it will ultimately appear. It will have a long lasting impact on your life. With the mounting pressure of that decision you find yourself coming up blank.

 A good place to begin breaking through this impasse is to try understanding how you, personally, see and evaluate your surroundings, especially the built consequences of preferences held by others? How do you respond to what you see around you? What do you like, dislike? Do you wonder why such things ever got built, or does something grab hold of you and make you want to see more of it?

Like many you may start by trying to visualize how your home will look. You may try to recall memories of places you’ve liked. Childhood archetypes of an ideal house, or images of old buildings may crowd their way into the front of the picture.

Or, more likely, as many do, you begin thumbing through magazines searching for whatever draws your attention and inspires you.

But, at this point there’s a dim yet persistent feeling nagging away at you as you start to suffer from image overload, that maybe you don’t know what it is you really want.

Vaguely, you may sense a desire for something somehow different than what you’ve been seeing, something fresher. But you feel caught in a tug of war between attraction to the familiar, which leaves you less than satisfied, and something newer and more exciting, but perhaps scarier.

Missing from this process of attempting to know what it is you really want is any sense of certainty that your choices will be the right ones, ones that you can comfortably live with.

The stuff in the magazines, the childhood images, those period houses from the past, as appealing and right as they may seem, all seem to leave you wanting more.

So you try thumbing through photos of contemporary houses, perhaps uncharted territory for you. A lot of it feels beyond your grasp and, photographically at least, somehow divorced from what you sense should be a house that reflects who you are. So called modern house environments seem to clash with the more familiar images of home as you’ve come to think of it.

The impasse you find yourself at this point begins to frustrate and exhaust you.

You feel the first stab of panic at the prospect of your architect pressuring you into a “look” that’s all wrong for you; pressured because you’re not sure of what it is you really want. This panic grows the longer you feel uncertain. Remaining uncertain easily translates into added cost, the prospect of which inspire flashbacks of “Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House” and “The Money Pit”, driving you further into panic.

Fueling the stress is the mounting pressure to make a decision, one that you know is sound and that you can live with, but feels beyond your capacities to make.

Tossing in the towel now becomes increasingly attractive.

My advice at this juncture is not yet. It’s too early to let your frustrations stop you. Aborting what had the potential to be an exciting new phase in your life calls for some counter strategies.

To give this problem some perspective, remember that no one ever intelligently said that building a home for yourself was the same as visiting a spa. After all, it’s a complex process requiring many months of decision making.

Nonetheless, decisions need to be made.

No escaping it, near the launch of this process you need to know what it is that you really want for yourself architecturally. Or, what you don’t want. Either way, your peace of mind requires some measure of certainty when faced with that crucial decision.

Here are a few suggestions on becoming better acquainted with what you really want your home to be.

A good a place to start as any is to slow down – pull away for awhile; get yourself off the clock. Get back into your body; give your mind a rest.

Let your mind wander.

Begin to actively notice things in your daily surroundings and your response to them. Notice what you love, like, dislike, hate, or are indifferent to. While in a more relaxed state, make an effort to understand why.

Notice whether you like something because of it’s familiarity. We tend to respond positively to those things that we recognize and have gotten use to. On the other hand, be aware that they may also be handcuffing you to something less than what’s possible.

After a while pay another visit to the world of architecture. Do it in small doses. Since most houses are difficult, if not impossible, to experience from the street, go back and visit the architectural media, printed or online.

Visit architectural websites. For starters, as I mentioned above, take a look at my various sites. One of my favorites for this purpose is Pinterest. Visit other online sites such as Architizer, The Architect’s List, Houzz, and Google images and Triangle Modernist Houses. And then there are all the printed mags like Dwell, Architect Magazine, Architectural Digest and many more. Notice your gut reactions to what you see.

Pace yourself. Let all this slowly simmer. Give yourself time to digest it all.

Step back again and let your real likes rise to the surface. What will happen is that the doors in your mind will open up to the process of discovery which is at the heart of architecture.

Take note of your responses. Become familiar with them. You’ll find yourself arriving at a place somewhere along the spectrum of architectural possibilities that begin to feel right for you. Your confidence in your choices will begin to strengthen.

And finally, at some point, with greater peace of mind, you become aware that you’re ready to get on with the journey. The time has arrived for you to let the process be an adventure.

Enjoy the trip.

W.L.

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.