21 May 2011


Martin House
The Martin House / photo by Doug Joyce

Beginning before I became an architect, I used to think in terms of the iconic singular building, the type of building that I wanted to design in my practice. I was reading the books about Frank Lloyd Wright and other great architects, and I saw the masterful and wonderfully realized examples of single buildings, either alone in a natural setting, or in a venue where they could stand apart. These were the great examples before me in my youth.  My desire to pursue the pure building form continued with me into architecture school, stoked by the competitive university environment. My favorite projects (I thought) were the ones imagining new buildings. Into my early days of practice, even in a built environment where the surroundings could not be denied, I desired the clean sheet of paper, the fresh new project. Part of me likes them to this day.

Most of us that design buildings are attracted to the unadulterated idea, simple and clean in it's realization, unencumbered by too much external information, or burdened by its surroundings.  It's the ultimate gig, the best of commissions.  The infill project or the building remodel we often take on are at first glance, too complicated or compromised by things outside of our control. Our satisfaction with the resulting design solution is often diminished by these things.  The results don't make a glorious statement,  nor does it glorifying our careers, unless we have restored someone else’s pure design from another era.  These compromises direct the architectural stars among us to turn away these kinds of projects-- they don't add to a fine body of work.

Architects shape their visions with a combination of ideals and practical concerns of the design problem; an attempt is made to fit the parti to align with our personal vision. It’s that purity we seek, sometimes oblivious to its surroundings.  The notion that what we are doing has an effect up and down the street can be a complication we don’t want to consider in any kind of meaningful way.

Fortunately, sometimes this works out OK.

In the life of a building, the great and pure vision begins to fade, even during construction.   The great white light that we see our creation bathed in leaves. Many times the designer looses the singular and perfect vision of what we have done as the process is realized and the building is introduced into its environment. The way we approach it is not what we thought; the massing and articulation is blocked by that dumb building next door. The power lines running in front mess up the corner view.

A new building makes a contribution to a neighborhood, for better or worse, and whether the architect intends for it to or not. For the time being, the work becomes a permanent element of the city. It doesn't matter if its creator disregards its environment; The building plays a role with the others around it; it may be neo-traditionalist, design review mediterranean, or a parametric wonder, but what we have done still participates in the street and neighborhood it exists in. Nothing that we have envisioned inside our pure visions changes this.

All buildings in an urban setting are part of a larger work of art that is collective and created over time. Each creation, by accident or design, contributes to the great public place. Even the projects that are able to stand out in a bold and singular way end up being an integral part of the larger place. I’ve always been struck with the approach to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the shimmering shapes framed by the much older building fabric of the city. The sequence of events is spectacular as one glimpses and then takes on full-view of the approach to the museum. Remarkable skill and dumb luck all conspire in this, I believe. But no one can say that the museum, with all the singularity of its design, is not in an intimate dialog with its surroundings. I would go so far as to say that the spatial sequence through the city to the museum itself is a better creation then the actual building.

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