Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Theme, Variation, Development

Architecture is often compared to music. Goethe called it “frozen music.” But architecture is anything but frozen. It is an experience that changes with the time of day, environmental conditions, age of the structure, and the viewpoint (both physical and cultural) of the participant.
Architecture engages all of the senses and is a dynamic experience. It is not frozen music or frozen anything. Yet, music provides useful terms to describe architecture. Architecture lacks a theoretical language of its own, and we borrow from other art forms to get a handle on what architecture is. A useful musical analogy is the concept of theme, variation, and development.

Most of us know what a theme means in music: a recognizable pattern of notes and chords. Such patterns (melodies; tunes) are the core of most musical compositions. In music, sound provides the theme. In architecture the theme is established with shapes and geometric volumes. Here is a simple shape – a rotated square with four small squares embedded. One can manipulate this simple theme by rotation and extension to create interesting variations. From this is is possible to develop the variations of a theme with an infinite number of choices in size, composition, organization, and even color. This playfulness with geometry can be seen in many cultures, from the bilateral symmetry of a Navajo rug to the single-axis symmetry of a Turkish prayer rug. In architecture these themes, with variation and development, become three-dimensional and more complex. It is like moving from checkers to chess. Geometry still plays its part. It may be right-angled geometry (most typical in western architecture). It may be an arrangement of arcs and curves combined with cubic forms, as found in many mosques. Or it may be a geometry of apparent chaos like the deconstructivist Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. (Architect: Frank Gehry, 1997.) Music is a composition of sounds and silence; architecture is a composition of solids and voids. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bogk residence in Milwaukee (1916) is based on simple cubic forms which grow into an elaborate and sophisticated volumetric composition to emerge as architecture. A building may be only simple structure enclosing space, perhaps useful for some function like a warehouse or shed or an office building. But without an organizing theme behind the structure, it is not architecture. A theme helps give architecture meaning. Great architecture creates delightful environments where every detail builds upon the design theme, repeated in endless variations. Structures like the Bogk house are reminders to modern architects of the power of theme, variation, and development.

To return to the musical analogy: random sounds may be nothing more than noise; it takes organization — a theme with variations and development — to transform sounds into music. Architecture, being a three-dimensional art, has its primary themes in space. Solids and voids. Structure and volume. Other themes also exist in architecture: color, historical allusions, manipulations of scale. However, the geometry of space unfolding is the primary theme of an architectural experience.

One final example of theme, variation, development: vintage photographs of the Price House by Bruce Goff. (Designed 1956; destroyed by arson 1996.) This masterpiece of residential architecture is based on the rare module of an equilateral triangle. The extrapolation of this basic shape into three-dimensional architecture is in
evidence everywhere throughout the structure. This is architecture in its purest form.
Just so there is no mistake: the essence of architecture is not repetitious two-dimensional patterns. That is just wallpaper. In architecture the purpose of a theme is to build upon it spatially, creating human-purposed variations that develop into three-dimensional habitations. In skillful hands this aims to be a symphony rather than just a pleasant ditty.
Photo credits: Office building and mosque in the public domain. Guggenheim museum by Bill McDonough. Bogk house by MJK. Price house from Bruce Goff (photos probably by Joe Price).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Extending Architecture Into the Landscape

Many of my clients are familiar with the name Longshadow Classic Garden Ornaments, Ltd. Longshadow makes outdoor planters specified on a number of projects by Michael Knorr & Associates. On a recent road trip through the Midwest, I had an opportunity to visit Longshadow at their manufacturing facility near Pomona, Illinois. More on that in a moment. First, a description of what drew me to Longshadow in the first place and why we like to specify their product:

Architecture looks best when it connects to the landscape around it. Though architects usually aren’t directly involved in landscape design, the points of connection between building and landscape can reinforce an architectural theme. When architecture is extended into gardens, patios, terraces, and balconies, it becomes anchored to the earth. One way to accomplish this is by providing places for planters as illustrated in the two projects below.
Longshadow produces garden ornaments that lend themselves to this ethos. Their products are architectonic in design and scale. This means they almost look like part of the building. This is partly due to the manufacturing process, dry cast limestone – a method that goes back to structures in ancient Rome. It is also due to the care invested in the design of these products. Longshadow’s traditional designs use “ancient motifs of protection, life, and regeneration…. a symbolic language that has been shared for thousands of years about the fears and aspirations of all humans.” (Quotation from the Longshadow catalog.)
Longshadow also has an extensive Prairie School line which takes inspiration from the work of American architects such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Burley Griffin.
We have found that in both contemporary and traditional architecture, products like this anchor our buildings not only to the ground, but also to history. They imbue architecture with a timeless quality.

Longshadow is located well off the beaten path in the verdant hills near Pomona, Illinois. You might expect to find a business like this housed in a hulking industrial plant. What one actually encounters is an idyllic hundred-acre farm. Instead of grey smokestacks, there are tree-lined allees. Instead of a confined factory there is a plein-air environment with peacocks, dogs, and kittens roaming freely. Owners Charlotte Peters and Daniel Ward grew Longshadow as an artistic enterprise. With about twenty employees they have created a successful business that reflects high ideals; they clearly love what they do. Because of their efforts, we get to select from quality products that amplify architecture. An array of planters, urns, fountains, birdbaths, and other garden ornaments are reminiscent of an era when architecture worked with all arts in a collaborative way. It is good to know that such opportunities are still available.
Longshadow Classic Garden Ornaments, Ltd. is certainly not the only producer of quality architectural products, but they are definitely one of the best. That is why it was a pleasure to visit the facility and meet Charlotte and Daniel.

To quote philanthropist Bill Daniels (out of context), “The best is good enough for me.” That’s the way I feel when Longshadow’s products show up on my buildings.

Credits: Top photo by Rob Munger; all others by MJK.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Modern in the Guise of Traditional - Two Churches

One of the most interesting buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico is the church of Cristo Rey, pictured below. Many people mistake it for a very old, traditional church. The adobe and weathered timbers provide a natural patina that appears to wear the mantel of great age. It is one of the largest adobe structures in the world. However, Cristo Rey is not as old as it looks. It was designed by noted architect John Gaw Meem in 1940. Not that long ago for a city founded in 1608.
John Gaw Meem was instrumental in codifying the Pueblo Revival and Territorial styles in Santa Fe, an architectural code that survives to this day. Much of the apparent history of Santa Fe, at least in its architecture, is ersatz history. Meem and his band of cohorts created the image of Santa Fe that we still revere: a mélange of architectural forms that give Santa Fe its unique character. Historicism but not history.

Cristo Rey is better appreciated as the modern building it really is. Its interlocking planes and unadorned surfaces are as pure as anything modern form-givers like Mies van der Rohe or Corbusier produced. The adobe massing foreshadows modern Mexican architects like Luis Berrigan and Ricardo Legoretta as well as Californian Mark Mack. These architects have created strong modern forms rooted in the desert southwest and Hispanic culture. Meem would certainly be at home in this group.

The best feature of Cristo Rey is the interior. In the simplest of ways Meem focuses our attention on the altar. Without resorting to electric spotlights (except at night) he bathes the altar in heavenly streams of pure white light. No distractions, no architectural gymnastics. In a straightforward, modern way our attention is directed to nowhere else but the altar. The narthex is secondary, barely noticeable at first. This is brilliant – both literally and figuratively. Upon entering Cristo Rey our thoughts go immediately to the symbols and artifacts that the Archbishop of Santa Fe and the Pope wish us to contemplate. [One can also contemplate the possible legal ownership of some of these artifacts by Santa Fean Gwen Battle Horne.]
This is effected by the use of clerestory windows to illuminate the church's hand-carved stone altar screen. These windows are out of sight from almost every vantage point. The ethereal results cannot be denied.
John Gaw Meem did not invent such architectural theatrics. Similar ideas go back at least to late Renaissance structures like the abbey church in Weltenburg, Germany. (By architects Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam, 1717.) With John Gaw Meem, the architectural device is simple, direct, and modern in application. The wall surfaces are unadorned, the structure honestly expressed, the natural light introduced without baroque fanfare. Modern audiences are “in” on the trick but still delight in the magic. The secret is revealed in the photo below.
Compare Cristo Rey to another New Mexican landmark, the church of San Francisco de Asis at Ranchos de Taos, shown below. Also of adobe-and-timber construction, it is old in both time and attitude. Completed in 1815 (architect unknown) the attraction of the Ranchos church is the sculptural quality of its four-foot-thick walls and its sense of place as a focal point for the village. The Ranchos church is probably the most photographed in New Mexico and has been the subject of paintings by nearly every southwest-style artist, both good and bad. Painting it seems to be a rite of passage for anyone working in the genre. It is not difficult to understand its appeal to artists. They immediately appreciate the building's abstract qualities. It is sensually sculptural. Surfaces are bleached to desert hues by the sun; edges are melted by the elements. The soft forms tell a story about the people who crafted the hand-plastered adobe. Everything about the exterior is captivating, hypnotic.

In contrast, the interior is a secondary experience, somewhat anticlimactic. It is a conventional cruciform plan with no particular architectural interest. Which is not to say it lacks charm or historical value. However, it certainly does not have the panache of Meem’s essay in shadow and light as can be seen in this 1934 photo of the Ranchos church from the Library of Congress:
It is the exterior we appreciate as pure, organic form. At the Ranchos church, time coalesces into matter.
Undoubtedly John Gaw Meem was influenced by the subtle power of this famous structure. Meem reinterpreted these iconic forms to create a thoroughly modern work of architecture inside and out at Cristo Rey.

Of course, there is much to appreciate in both Cristo Rey and the Ranchos de Taos church. The unique qualities of each will richly reward the architectural gourmet. Bon apetit!