Sunday, August 7, 2011

Good Architecture Isn’t Timid

One measure of good architecture is that it does not hesitate to make a statement. This means that with good architecture there is always a clear understanding of the design intent. Good architecture is not timid. It is bold. Not that architecture should be bombastic or boorish (that's bad architecture), but the best examples of architecture are not timid in their esthetic expression.
1. Brasilia government buildings. Oscar Niemeyer architect.
Unfortunately, examples of good architecture are few, while examples of less-than-good surround us in abundance. Un-inspiring buildings confront us wherever we go. Bland shopping centers. Mundane office buildings. Housing designed to the minimum expectations of the “target market.” Nobody thinks much about this because bland buildings are pervasive We perceive them as the normal state of our environment. However, ubiquity is not quality. Rather than looking to buildings as a source of inspiration (which they could and should be), we are, for the most part, used to seeing them not at all. Aggressively bad buildings are not the problem. Most of us can spot the horrific right away and we deride the perpetrators of ugliness with a shrug of disdain. The real problem is the mundane buildings that fill our world with visual static: annoying enough to make us vaguely uncomfortable, but not so dangerous that we would forcibly remove them. So, given the pervasiveness of less-than-desirable architecture all around us, let’s focus on the rare good architecture in the hope it will be nurtured in the future.
2. National Center for Atmospheric Research. I.M. Pei architect.
3. Bridge and tunnel to Miho Museum, Japan. I.M. Pei architect.
Many qualities contribute to good architecture. As stated above, one of them is that good architecture is not timid. What does this mean? Take the design of a simple column, for example. The structural reason for the existence of a column is simply to support something, like a beam or a girder. But its esthetic significance can have much more meaning. A series of columns can create a rhythm that gives a building life and interest. We cannot be timid about these things. One column may be a requirement of structural necessity. But an architect can create, by repetition and manipulation, a grand colonnade that makes movement through a building a delight. Architecture can transform a mundane column into a sentinel witness to dappled light and magical vistas.
4. Residence at Shadow Creek. Michael Knorr architect.
5. Residence in Denver, CO. Michael Knorr architect.
Another thing about columns: they are usually too skinny, like little toothpicks holding far too much visual weight. An engineer’s job is to find the lightest, cheapest, and most efficient way to enclose space. That is a good and proper goal. But an architect’s job is to acknowledge the minimum requirements of structural engineering and sculpt them into a beautiful environment. Some would interpret this to mean that adding expensive finishes and excess space is the way to better architecture. This approach misses the point. We don’t need to “gild the lily” to create beauty, but neither do we need to live on the level of the lowest common denominator. Only the timid would acquiesce to an impoverished mindset that treats any embellishment of space and structure as wasteful or unnecessary. The most necessary thing in life, once we have satisfied our basic survival requirements, is the need for beauty.

We could also talk about flimsy arches that make some buildings appear as if constructed with cardboard. We could talk about stone veneers applied like wallpaper instead of the gutsy product of the earth it should be.
6. Roman arches.
7. Residence in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. Michael Knorr architect.
Please understand: this does not have anything, really, to do with columns or arches or stone. There are no rules in architecture about the number or size of columns. That is just an example. The actual resolution of esthetic issues depends on the inherent theme of a particular design. The point is that most buildings are afraid to address such issues at all. Most buildings are timid amalgams of engineering necessity and market-study illusions. They are not real architecture. The best results and the greatest architecture only come from bold decisions that galvanize our attention and establish a better environment in which to enjoy life. In these arenas, good architecture is never timid.
8. Residence in Denver, CO. Michael Knorr architect.
Photo credits:
1. Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz
2. Daderot
3. 663 highland
4. Rob Munger
5. Rob Munger
6. Seynaeve
7. Rob Munger
8. Rob Munger

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Architecture is More Than Skin Deep

Architecture is more than the outside of a building.
1. The classic dome of Gustav Vasa church in Stockholm.
It is a common misconception that architects take care of what we see from the street and interior designers take care of the rest. When this happens, it is the result of an architect’s abdication of his or her true realm: creating spaces. Interior designers collaborate on the final resolution of those spaces with colors, textures, hardware, and furnishings. However, if the architect has not provided worthwhile spaces from the beginning, then everyone else -- from interior designer to lighting consultant to landscaper -- can only place band-aids on an injury. They can only try to fix what was never right to begin with.
2. The Air Force Academy chapel interior (Colorado Springs)
is a direct expression of exterior forms. 
3. Air Force Academy chapel exterior.

Perhaps the idea that architecture is only the outside of buildings comes from its representation with exterior photographs in magazines and books. These flat simulacra are mere shadows of architecture. They are not the real thing. Yet we commonly judge buildings by pictures without considering the total experience. Architecture is more that the exterior elements. It is the interior space, It is sounds reverberating through a building. It is an environment of aromas. It is feeling the warmth of the sun radiated by stone and mortar.

4. A house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
5. An interior designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh.
We cannot detach architecture from its environment and study it as an isolated object. The sounds and scents of nature contribute to the feelings we have about our buildings. The mood of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto is different from the environment of an Italian villa. Neither can be removed from its surroundings and maintain the same meaning. Environments establish the character of architecture. Context matters.

Architecture is more than the outside of a building and great architecture is more than the sum of its parts.

6. The galleria in Milan.
7. Santa Maria del Carmine, Milan.
1. Xauxa.
2. Hustvedt.
3. BigacSC99.
4. Hunterian Museum Collections (Public Domain).
5. Public Domain
6. chensiyuan
7. Giovani Dall'Orto