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

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

Pursuit of Happiness

By the time we reach a certain age, I think most of us know, or at least sense, that the pursuit of happiness – our basic birthright, is just that, a pursuit.

To the extent we take on life we come to realize that the pursuit follows a path sometimes long and twisting, sometimes steep beyond exhaustion, the results never guaranteed.  (Our right to pursue doesn’t extend to getting what we’re after.)  In spite of that, we still continue in its pursuit as long as we are conscious.

We find that scattered along this lifelong journey are places to pause, breathe in the mountain air, take in the view, let our imagination roam, recharge, and, ultimately, be inspired to search further.  These pauses are in themselves actual moments of happiness, the object of our pursuit.

The places are familiar and varied.  For instance: connecting with soul mates; personal achievements; grasping certain liberating ideas that open us to greater possibilities; breakthrough discoveries; acquiring or witnessing something that lifts us to higher planes of awareness – art, for instance, of any kind or scale – architecture included.  Maybe it’s the act of creation itself.  Maybe happiness lies in the journey – in its pursuit.  The possibilities are endless and as variable as life itself.

Wherever we find it, the payoff for this determined pursuit, besides pride we take in the effort, and perhaps the pleasure derived from it, is reaching those places along the way where, no matter how fleeting it might be, we experience moments of joy, the very essence of our being alive.  How we get there and the quality of what we find depend to a large extent on the choices made by each of us – a topic for another post.

Dong Honh-Oai

Dong Honh-Oai

Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon

tom roberts - going home

tom roberts – going home

660d129f18dcb0ce2cd934a32891307c

unknown source

Collonges-la-Rouge, France

Collonges-la-Rouge, France

Jacques Gillet

Jacques Gillet

FLW - Doheney Ranch

FLW – Doheney Ranch

Arthur Erickson

Arthur Erickson

COMOCO arquitectos, Castelo Novo's Castle

COMOCO arquitectos, Castelo Novo’s Castle

PES Architects - Wuxi Grand Theater

PES Architects – Wuxi Grand Theater

e8235a7be8a16f1afb3a6c6e63b62488

FLW Imperial Hotel

FLW Imperial Hotel

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

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

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Because we live with buildings, and see them all the time, our relationship to them is at once more intimate and more distant than our relationship to music or painting or literature or film, things we experience episodically but intensely. When you are watching a film, your world consists almost entirely of what you see on the screen; when you are in a building, only occasionally do other perceptions and other thoughts disappear from your mind   (in buildings, because more senses are involved, because more is going on, an intense narrow focus on the building itself for any prolonged amount of time is much less likely.)…Architecture, even good architecture, can cause complacency; because we see it every day, as a backdrop to our lives, it is easy to stop seeing it with fresh eyes, however closely we interact with it. The complacency that time induces has a purpose: it lets us tolerate things that would (otherwise) be intolerable if we continued to feel them intensely…But such tolerance comes at a high price – there is a high tariff to the comfort of familiarity, for it encourages us to stop seeing.” p.172

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“…Architecture is a conversation between the generations, carried out over time…In architecture the conversation is the most conspicuous, the most obvious, the most impossible to tune out. We may not all participate in the conversation, but we all have to listen to it.  For that reason alone, architecture matters: because it’s all around us, and what is all around us has to have an effect on us.” p.vi

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Visual balance is not so definable and measurable as musical harmony, but the sense of discord in its absence is every bit as marked…(In architecture when all the elements are in balance as part of a larger whole, the eye is carried along) just as musical composition carries the ear along… Every element is part of a larger whole, and its place in that larger whole is essential, unmistakable, and unchangeable…an architectural composition rarely succeeds if the elements that make it up are so different that they appear to be in competition with one another.” p.103-4

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture is the making of place and the making of memory…ultimately it is the buildings we live with every day that do the most to shape our architectural memories…if we are lucky, the buildings we live with surround us with a combination of stimulus and ease, of vibrancy and serenity, and their greatest gifts are conferred quietly, without our even knowing.” p154, 233

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture is always a response to limits – physical constraints, financial ones, or the demands of function” (…and to the subtle and psychic need to see embodied, our deeper sense of who we are as unique living entities.)  p.xv

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture represents the real, and that is ever more precious in an age of the virtual. Every piece of architecture is an opportunity for real experience.” p.234

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“The sense of being in architectural space – what it feels like, how it hits you in the eye and swirls around in your gut, and, if you are very lucky, sends shivers up your spine – cannot be understood except by being there” (…by experiencing it first hand.) p.xvi

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“Architecture is what happens when people build with an awareness that they are doing something that reaches at least a little bit beyond the practical.”  p.viii

quotes from “Why Architecture Matters” by Paul Goldberger

“…the way in which architecture matters beyond, of course, the obvious fact of shelter, is the same way in which any art matters: it makes life better.” p.2

Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger

Sensing a possible connection with some of my recent thoughts on the subject, I ordered a copy of Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger. My radar was working perfectly. What I found was a gem of a book, written for those not necessarily possessing a degree in architecture yet somehow drawn to the world of buildings, that sharply brings into focus our relationship to those buildings – and, of course, why those buildings matter.

Written with a passion for the things we build to give us shelter, deeply insightful, this important book gives coherent shape to previously scattered thoughts I’ve had regarding the value architecture has for us all. I highly recommend it to any of you who want to penetrate the veil of mystery surrounding the subject and reality of architecture and its vital relevance in our lives.

Because of the resonance I feel with many of Goldberger’s insights, I’ve decided to offer  a few of them, formatted in bite size quotes on my blog post – one per post. Bite size, they will hopefully encourage you to chew on them, slowly and thoughtfully.