30 October 2014


THE LIFE OF A BUILDING



I just made my first visit to a friend’s house in Palm Springs, a beautiful home-- a glassy and low-slung modern house, built in 1948 by a famous practitioner the type of architecture the area is known for. A structure at home in its desert neighborhood, delightful in the way it embraced its surroundings and accommodated its owners.

My friends took this building, acquired in the 1970s, and kept it, renovated and refined it, honoring it for its original design intentions, while overlaying years of upkeep and refinements. They made a great thing even greater. Actions, when placed together, that constituted a kind of love. They loved it, not just in thoughts and feelings, but in action. It made for a wonderful experience.


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It got me thinking about the arc of what happens to the life of buildings as the decades pass. There is something about a building itself, something about where it is built, or something else that allows the building to be loved. The recognition that a special place can be made, from within, and in how it greets the public. Not all buildings are as lucky. Another arc of circumstance could have occurred with my friend's house, a life without their stewardship and sensibilities. In alternate circumstances, this house could have been snatched by a home depot opportunist, and simply wrecked as the years go by.

The life of buildings over time is often more important then what is created in original form. A building, in its original completed form should be substantial and good, but often one cannot predict how it will work in its surroundings. Even great form needs a little help over time, no matter the completeness of the original vision. Yet it is interesting that mediocre form can also become good, and eventually great, as the opportunities are taken advantage of to make things more accommodating and the rough edges are refined. We see this all the time in great cities where thoughtful adjustments make a collection of nondescript buildings into a great street or neighborhood. Great form embeds meaning in buildings. But love, over time, embeds a deeper meaning to buildings, instilling the dimension of time.

Many of our architectural form givers apply an intellectual construct, making a set of rules to design a building. Perhaps these rules were applied on a computer, manifesting forms generated digitally. Hopefully there is some rigor of the process, with an eye towards rendering satisfying and accommodating forms. But if this is all there is to it, there is still a cold and isolated sensibility-- a building that is harder for its eventual inhabitants to love. Is there enough there that a decade or two after construction is finished, that it will still be loved, just like my friends loved their house, several decades ago.


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I've come to the realization the buildings can start out intellectually interesting, serviceably mediocre, or just plain bad, but if they are loved over time they can become great places to be in, and great contributors to a great city.






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