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

Embers

There’s only one way to really know architecture (or anything else, for that matter):  by being there physically, in person, i.e., to experience it first hand, eyes and mind wide open.

Ines Cortesao, Clara house

Ines Cortesao, Clara house

And yet as a reality, architecture remains, for most, beyond reach and regarded, if at all, as irrelevant in the context of daily life, a life guided largely by far more pressing matters. The closest experience, more often than not, is as seen through photography, video, cinematography, exhibits, writing, or  a car window.

What then might be the point of photographing, filming, or writing about it, all of which are second hand representations, views through another’s eyes or, in the case of writing, with language which fails even more to fully capture it?  When seen or read about at a distance far removed from the day-to-day lives of most people, do any of these alternate attempts at communicating architecture really matter?

Besides its possible entertainment value, there is in fact one important benefit offered by someone else’s look at architecture, regardless of the fact that it’s no substitute for experiencing the real thing.

It’s this: certain images, whether in the form of photos, videos, film, drawings, models, or  words, have the ability to penetrate the barrier of prejudices that limit ones private view of what’s possible in life. They penetrate the imagination, igniting inspiration.

The concepts we form over the years about what life holds for us shape our expectations and consequently limit our search for something better.

A photograph or a certain phrase may, like an ember, burn through those barriers, igniting the tinderbox of hope and excitement that even the most stoic of us possess in some quantity.

Lit, the imagination then expands, opening doors to possibilities previously lying dormant. Life moves ahead, becomes more exciting, more alive.

Architecture, one possible expression of being more alive, when presented first as an image, may then begin its journey toward reality and be experienced as it actually is.

WL

Miller Architects, Fishing Cabin

Miller Architects, Fishing Cabin

Bernard Maybeck, Mathewson house

Bernard Maybeck, Mathewson house

Greene and Greene, Thorsen House

Greene and Greene, Thorsen House

Alfred Caldwell,  Lily Pool

Alfred Caldwell, Lily Pool

Alberto Kalach, Casa Romany

Alberto Kalach, Casa Romany

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Mountain House

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Mountain House

UID Architects Associates, Pit House

UID Architects Associates, Pit House

John Wardle Architects, Shearers Quarters; Image-Trevor Mein

John Wardle Architects, Shearers Quarters; Image-Trevor Mein

Image-Trevor Mein

Image-Trevor Mein

Paul Cezanne - Road in Provence

Paul Cezanne – Road in Provence

Aspen Cathedral, Vail, Co

Aspens, Vail, Co

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

Home Base…part 5

At the risk of repeating myself and boring you, I’m once again inspired by what’s out my window…

It’s Fall. I love Fall. The first rain just passed through. Our wildfire season has been briefly delayed, but more importantly, my architectural spirit has once again been lifted. As always I was captivated by it’s spell. But, I must confess that doing this series of shots was also inspired not just by the weather, but in part by a post, “diffuse” on the blog, “donnell & day architectural journal”.

the day before

approaching rain

…getting closer

…and closer

the veil of rain

…easing up

sunlight, rain

veil lifting

break through

view from the carport

rain’s sundown gift

next morning

Home Base…part 4

evening light

evening light with clouds

hillside with summer shadows

outcrop on lower part of hill

Spanish Broom, California Pepper tree, Hollyhocks

Hollyhock

Spanish Broom, spartium junceum

California pepper tree

cactus flower’s very brief gift

elm tree in the Fall

pomegranates

Baron – CEO, Advisor and Chief Groundskeeper

“…all buildings are connected to their surroundings, to nature above all – nature out there, as well as our internal nature as humans. It’s a continuous dialogue and also a relationship that can be quite intimateNature, in the sense I mean here, is the earth, the place that all of us, consciously or not, are an extension of, where we can turn to reconnect on a deeper level with what’s most important.”                        from “Tuning In, Tuning Out

photography by Warren Lawson Architect

Home base…part 3

Always there. Always changing. Always a source.

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

Aloe flowers

the Pacific Ocean saying hello

sky music

never fails to arouse

most days, just plain nurturing