Monday, December 6, 2010

John Lautner, Mid-Century Architect

John Lautner was one of this country's best architects, however, he is little known by the general public. His work is worth exploring as modern architecture of the mid-twentieth century enjoys a resurgence in popularity. 
1. Lautner's Chemosphere house, featured in many movies.
It used to be a truism that in bad economic times traditional architecture becomes popular because it is safe and comfortable. Conversely, contemporary - or modern - architecture was considered a risk during times of uncertainty. This has turned out to be a tired cliche. Times are not great, but forward-thinking architecture is far from dead and is no longer considered economically risky. Perhaps it has been around long enough that modern/contemporary design has itself become comfortable and familiar.  
2. The iconic Goldstein residence in Palm Springs.
Mid-century modern is a well-defined, but broad, category. It covers everything from the classic California ranch house to Frank Lloyd Wright usonian designs to the free-form swirls of Bruce Goff. It is the modern architecture of the 1940s through the 1960s. [Note: We will have to have a separate discussion on the difference between "modern" and "contemporary." The terms are often used interchangeably. Is there a distinction?]  John Lautner was a hero of the era, inspiring many architects who followed, including myself. There are several good books available on Lautner. The Hammer museum in Los Angeles staged an extensive retrospective of his work last year. If you haven't met John Lautner's architecture, enjoy this short clip from the documentary Infinite Space:

Photo Credits:
1. ikkoskinen.
2. Arch.james.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Architecture and Thanksgiving

1. The Parthenon.
Today is the American Thanksgiving holiday. On this day we think about those things for which we are grateful. Family. Friends. Good health. Comfort. Etc. Those are the typical thoughts we express. Maybe there is room in our thoughts for architecture: the architecture we may be fortunate enough to inhabit or public architecture we might see in our daily lives. Such thoughts may seem too materialistic for the holiday, but I don’t see it that way.  

No doubt: architecture is a luxury. Sometimes community-minded people try to force it into some other category. “We need better architecture for the poor.”  Or, “Architects need to solve the homeless problem.” Such admonitions are really about shelter, not architecture. The solutions to these problems are, more often than not, political, economic, social, and, at times, structural. They are not really architectural. Architects may choose to devote time and effort to finding solutions to these serious problems; that is a good thing. And they may craft clever designs to meet the needs of those less fortunate. But the root cause of such problems is not fixed by architecture, no matter how fervently academics and idealists may wish it so. 
2. Baths of Diocletian, Rome.
Architecture is a luxury. Yes, it can be sustenance for aesthetic hunger, but that hunger only exists when real hunger is at bay. Architecture -- how buildings look and feel and elevate your thoughts -- is only important after we are clothed and warm. When we have shelter against the elements. If we are concerned about the appearance and arrangement of our environment, then our environment must already be providing us with food and shelter.
3. Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow popularized the concept “hierarchy of needs.” In his theory of human psychology, architecture (as a creative endeavor) is not important until all baser needs have been satisfied. It falls under self-actualization, at the top of his schematic pyramid.  
4. Calatrava library, Zurich.
Architecture is only possible when something is going right. It is a sign that not everything in the world is collapsing. For those of us fortunate enough to experience architecture in some way in our lives, we should be thankful. For those of us who are architects we should also be grateful for the patrons that support our work. Few people in this world are able to afford the cost of architectural services, so architecture is a rare commodity. It is almost frivolous. Architects do not save lives like surgeons. We do not, as a result of our profession, feed the poor. Architects do not provide some essential service such as unclogging your drain like a plumber or plowing your street when it snows. Architecture only happens as an extraordinary effort to reach beyond the minimum. Architecture is a luxury. We need such luxuries. Why do surgeons save lives? Why do the poor need to be fed? Why do we need plumbers, maintenance crews, a good economy, world peace, and happiness? We need satisfaction in these areas so we can enjoy life. And when we are equipped to enjoy life, we start expanding our hierarchy of needs into the realms of art, literature, spirituality, song, and, sometimes, architecture. 
5. Lotus Temple.
I am thankful that in a world with a dire economy, climate change, and multiple wars we still have the means and time to create and experience beautiful architecture. I would like to believe that the more good architecture we are able to create is an indication we are solving some of our more important problems. If we have any good architecture at all, something is going right.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Photo Credits:
1. Thermos.
2. Anthony Majanlahti.
3. Wikicommons.
4. Wouter Homs.
5. Vandelizer

Monday, November 22, 2010

Earthship Architecture

Welcome to Earthship homes.
People forget that current concerns about building green are really the second wave of the environmental movement.  Conservation, sustainable design, alternative energy -- these are all ideas originally popularized during the 1970s: the first wave of environmental consciousness.
Gathering used tires for construction material.
During that decade people thought we were going to run out of oil (lines at the gas pumps), the earth was about to be overpopulated ("stop at two"), and Rachel Carson influenced a generation (with her book "Silent Spring.")  The environmental movement was born.
Wall in progress.
All of these nascent movements merged in another type of residential architecture that emphasized recycled materials and energy efficiency.  This was Earthship architecture.  Commonly, but not exclusively, made of recycled tires, discarded bottles, and varying degrees of passive and active solar energy systems, these homes are true children of the seventies. They were initially promoted by Mike Reynolds, architect and founder of Earthship Biotecture, a company specializing in the design/build of Earthship structures.
Earthship rising.

Passive and active solar.
Bottles and concrete make a home.
I had submerged my memories of this approach to saving energy until I recently ran across the mother Earthship community in northern New Mexico. This convergence of free-form residences is located near Taos. On vast acreage high on a cliff above the Rio Grande, amorphous structures sprout like well-spaced mushrooms. Tawny colors blend with the high desert landscape. Many of them are even covered with the land; with others it berms against them. The general recipe seems to be one part Bruce Goff, two parts Paolo Soleri, and a dash of Hobbit warren. Seventies high romanticism. Does it have any relevance today?  One has to wonder, as "ordinary" houses are now capable of approaching grid-neutral energy efficiency through technological advances. It is not difficult to hyper-insulate any new home and feed collected energy back into the grid. In this context, the Earthships seem anachronistic indulgences. But there is no sense of that inside the community Visitors Center.  These are people on a mission and they communicate their beliefs sincerely. Maybe they will survive on the high desert a lot longer than the rest of us living on a lower plane. I don't know, but good luck to them.
Reminiscent of Bruce Goff.
Home sweet amorphous home.

Photos:  M. Knorr

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Architect Jacques Benedict Design on Market

Jacques Benedict (1879-1948) was a society architect.  His clients were among the upper crust of early-twentieth-century Denver society and Benedict was a member of that group himself. As an architect he created a body of work that exhibited impeccable good taste.
1300 East Seventh Avenue, Denver, CO

The house is located right on the street,
but has large, private gardens in the rear.

One of those designs at 1300 East Seventh Avenue in Denver is currently on the market.  Originally constructed in 1923, the property has been extensively renovated by the current owners, Bob and Jane Nettleton. The interior is not an historic restoration.  Everything--from kitchen to bathrooms--is new. With a Benedict design, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Benedict's architecture was really about the exterior. Unlike some of his famous contemporaries (Neutra, Wright, Goff, for examples), Benedict seemed unconcerned with spatial sequencing, volume, or inventive spaces.  The room layouts in every Benedict home I've visited are not particularly adventuresome.  In fact, they seem deployed only to allow windows and walls to serve the exterior appearance of the design. And what great exteriors they are! Benedict's architecture was created from outside/in, rather than inside/out.  While Benedict's contemporaries were exploring new spatial relationships on the frontiers of modern design, Benedict was content to create exquisite visions for the traditional gentry. He is a pure product of his l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts education in Paris. He (along with Temple Hoyne Buell) moved in the upper echelons of Denver society and was among the last of the old-school gentleman architects.
French Renaissance Chateau?

This house on Seventh Avenue is among the best of Beneict's exteriors. Long and elegant, it is described as "French Renaissance Chateau." I don't know what that means. What Benedict really did with this house (as with all of his successful designs) is take bits and pieces of historic design elements and arrange them in completely original ways. His talent was using classic features and creating something completely original. He was able to accomplish this successfully because he had a flawless sense of proportion and scale.
Alley and service entrance.

Even though the main attraction of this property is the exterior, one unique characteristic of the plan enlivens the interior:  the house is only one room deep.   Built on a relatively shallow lot, the clever layout introduces ample light into every space.  Some rooms, like the master bedroom and living room, have light from three sides. This introduces an extraordinary quality into what would otherwise be quite ordinary spaces.  The updated colors complement the overall feeling of brightness and light. A semi-circular conservatory on the main floor and a sitting room above it also introduce an upbeat atmosphere that is rare in homes of this period.

Irterested buyers can follow the realtor's link for more information:  If you want to know more about Jules Jacques Benois Benedict click on his link.

Photos:  M. Knorr

Friday, October 29, 2010

Architecture Trivia Answer

The previous blog entry ended with a question: Is the following house a Frank Lloyd Wright design?  Or is it authored by one of Wright's many followers? 
Wright or faux Wright?
Russell Barr Williamson residence.
The house is located at 4800 North Oakland Avenue, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Whitefish Bay is a leafy Milwaukee suburb on the Lake Michigan shore. This is a standout house architecturally, but not unusual for the neighborhood in terms of quality. The north shore suburbs of Milwaukee (Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Bayside) are affluent; many of the homes here qualify as genuine mansions.

The answer to our trivia question is no, this is not a Wright design. It was built in 1921 by Russell Barr Williamson as his own house. He lived in it for thirty years. This is the same architect who designed the faux Wright design profiled in the previous blog entry.

I was fooled by this one for many years. At some point I read, or was told, that this is a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Perhaps unsupervised, but definitely Wright. Wrong!

Wright was a prolific architect, with hundreds of designs scattered throughout the country. However, there are more Wright look-alikes than one man could ever be responsible for.  Many architects rode the crest of his fame to develop alternate visions of prairie style architecture.  Not all of them produced great work, but many did. Among the more notable, besides Williamson, are Marion Mahoney, Walter Burly Griffin, and the firm of Purcell and Elmslie. All of these architects are worth looking into, either on the internet or, better, by seeking out the many examples of their work.
Detail of porte chochere.
All photographs:  M. Knorr.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wright or Wrong?

Bogk residence by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Detail Bogk residence. 
One of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright designs is the Bogk residence in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Built in 1916 it is atypical Wright.  It lacks the horizontality of his prairie style architecture from the same period. Instead it is vertical and blocky.  Very un-Wrightian: it even allows for a third level attic space.  However, this stately home is brilliantly executed with exquisite massing, well-developed detail, and complex interior volumes. It should rate as one of his most sophisticated designs, but is hardly ever mentioned in Wright biographies. The Bogk residence reflects the proportions and ornamentation he was beginning to develop for the Imperial Hotel in Japan during the same period. It also foreshadows his California projects of the twenties which are typically blocky and utilize vaguely-Mayan motifs. These include the Hollyhock House for Aline Barnsdall (1922), La Miniatura for Alice Millard (1923), and the Ennis house (1924), among others.

Also in Milwaukee, less than a mile north, is a similar home.
It displays the same proportions, though it is actually much smaller.  It has the same approach to fenestration, the same gold tiles in leaded glass, the same horizontal banding played against vertical structure.  One could easily identify this as another Wright design executed on a slightly more modest budget.  Many have assumed this to be the case, but this assumption is wrong.  This house, originally built for T. Robinson Bours, was designed by Milwaukee architect Russell Barr Williamson.  It was completed in 1921.

Bours residence by Russell Barr Williamson.
The confusion is understandable. Williamson worked for Wright in the late-1910s and actually supervised the Bogk resdience for him.  Given their proximity in time, space, and lineage it is not surprising the two structures bear a resemblance.

Besides obvious budgetary differences, not everything about the two residences is similar.  The biggest divergence is in the interiors.  The Wright design bears richer rewards in the interplay of spaces and exhibits a higher sense of drama.  In contrast, the Williamson design feels much like the typical bungalow built throughout Milwaukee and the rest of the country during these pre-depression years. It is very pleasant but certainly less adventuresome. The Williamson design differs on the exterior as well.  Wright was loathe to use barrel (or "Spanish") tiles on his roofs; Williamson uses them here to great effect.  Wright was characteristically stubborn when it came to entries as well.  They were often hidden at the end of a circuitous path.  This seemed to be deliberate;  it was a way of establishing a sense of intrigue.  In Wright's Bogk house, however, the main entrance abuts the side drive with  little grace and no drama.  It is marked only by a stubby little cantilevered canopy.  Williamson's design, by contrast, announces the entrance to the house with a pavilion-like structure set back on the right.  It complements the house and signals welcome.  In this respect, it is the more successful of the two.

Russell Barr Williamson had a distinguished career in Milwaukee.  He designed several notable buildings, some in the manner of Wright and others with his own distinctive flair.  He died in 1964.

Frank Lloyd Wright also designed many other buildings in and around Milwaukee. Here is another residence only three miles further north in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood:
Wright or faux Wright?
Is this Wright?  Williamson? Some other prairie school architect?

The answer will be provided in the next blog entry.

All photos:  M. Knorr
Research Librarian for Williamson history: Susan Knorr

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Is Architecture Like Rugby?

I went to a rugby game last night.  Navy vs. Air Force.  Always great fun without the craziness and hype attending NFL games and other professional American teams. Rugby is still a nascent sport in the United States, so the ushers thoughtfully provided a brief guide to the rules, which included this pithy summary:
On the pitch: Navy, left.  Air Force, right.
"Rugby has its unique aspects, but like many other sports, it is essentially about the creation and use of space.  The winners of a game of Rugby will be the team of players who can get themselves and the ball into space and use that space wisely, while denying the opposing team both possession of the ball and access to space in which to use it." (Italics added.)
In the scrum.
Hmmm.  Sounds a lot like???? Architecture.  I never thought of it that way before.  Of course, with architecture we are not usually "denying the opposing team... access to space."  But the rest of it rings right. Sports are often used as a metaphor for life. I suppose Rugby could be a useful metaphor for architecture.

In this game, Navy created and used more space, 19 to 10.
Creating space.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fast Forward Architecture

My sister Sue has always patiently gone along with my Quixotic tours of architecture whenever we exchange visits or meet up in some new city.  Over the years she has explored with me: Bernard Maybeck works in the San Francisco bay area, Walter Burley Griffin in Iowa, Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles, and Faye Jones in Nebraska.  In return for these peripatetic adventures she sometimes comes up with an interesting find of which I was not aware.  On a recent train trip from Wisconsin to New Mexico she spotted this gem from her Pullman window.
1. Snapped from the train.
Wow! Who authored this edgy architecture?  Yes, it looks like an architectural model with fake trees and cardboard landscape.  But it really is a fast forward design that wasn't too concerned with the usual rules.  My role as "architectural tour leader" was being eroded since this looked like something I should have known about.  I made two guess:  this bore the DNA of either Bart Prince or Antoine Predock.  Not "Goffy" enough for Prince, maybe.  But a little too fragile for Predock.   A mystery.

I contacted Greg Walke to solve it.  Greg is an architect living in New Mexico.  (The snapshots are obviously near the end point of my sister's train ride, in New Mexico, ,judging from the vegetation.)  He immediately identified it as a Bart Prince project near Lamy, New Mexico.
2. Fast forward architecture.

For those of you who do not know Prince's work:  he has donned the avante garde mantle worn by Bruce Goff.  As one of Goff's most creative proteges he completed Goff's annex to the Los Angeles Museum of Art upon Goff's passing.  The annex houses the Japanese collection of Joe Price.  Joe Price is the son of Harold C. Price who built the famous Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
3. Price Tower by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Joe Price was Goff's most significant patron and later provided several important commissions for Bart Prince.  A complicated architectural lineage;  if you want to know more about this significant branch of American architecture you can explore these links:

Bruce Goff  (Nice short video.)
Price Tower
LACMA Japanese Art Pavilion
Bart Prince

(Thanks for the tip, Sue.)


1. Sue Knorr
2. Sue Knorr
3. Emerson Biggens

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finding Peace Amidst Urban Chaos

Architecture serves many different functions by many different means. One of the functions of architecture is to provide a calm center when surrounded by noise and distractions. Examples are readily available: A home is a place for nurture and family activities. An office building protects the work environment from outside influences. A house of worship provides sanctuary for prayer and meditation. A theater totally and completely shuts out the distractions of everyday life to allow new worlds to emerge on stage.

Since most of us live in metropolitan areas, many of them with big, world-class problems, it may be useful to consider how the built environment can provide relief from urban stress.
1. Indoor/outdoor connections expand living space and
 connect with nature on an urban lot.
We can (and should) shape architecture to make life more efficient, more interesting, and more enjoyable. This also means architecture can provide a peaceful retreat amdist chaos. The consequences of world-wide urbanization are  noise, congestion, pollution, wasted time. Intense development spawns traffic jams, urban heat sinks, and personal irritations. These circumstances affect everyone living in cities. How we choose to live with this disarray directly affects our mood and wellbeing. Let’s look at different types of architecture and how we can shape them to improve our relationship to the urban environment.


It is tempting to design our homes as sealed environments that completely shut out the city and its problems. In fact, many of us do live in air-conditioned boxes with drawn drapes and no hint of nature. This is a failure of design. It means that windows are inadequately protected from direct sunlight, that shady outdoor spaces have not been provided, and that the physical structure treats the natural environment as an enemy. In reality, most places have delightful weather most of the time.   Given the proper architectural setting, we can enjoy both indoors and outdoors. The architecture of our homes should have spaces that embrace the natural environment while still sheltering us from the bad influences inherent in an urban setting.


For a variety of reasons, it is difficult to design commercial buildings without relying on mechanical air conditioning. However, one consequence of this condition is that even our “down time” (coffee breaks, lunch time, commuting, etc.) is divorced from a natural life. To compensate, office buildings ought to be woven into the urban fabric in a way that is integrated with nature wherever possible.  Most office buildings huddle
2. Roof terraces provide outdoor spaces for employees in
this office building in Denver, Colorado.
next to freeway exits, isolated by access roads and parking lots. We need to design communities where living, working, shopping, and relaxation are a unified experience.  Our commercial buildings also need places that invite us outside (terraces, balconies, courtyards) and interior rooms that utilize natural light.
3. A skylight and ample windows establish a
connection with the natural environment in
this conference room.

Retail architecture is dominated by big box stores and chain outlets. These corporate entities have formulas for facilities design that are determined in distant headquarters with little recognition of local conditions. That’s why everything tends to look the same wherever you go. This is a difficult circumstance to overcome. But small efforts can go a long way in improving our shopping experience.

Integrating residential, commercial, and retail design into user-friendly communities is a strategy for finding peace amidst urban chaos.  Retail environments should be conceived as neighborhoods rather than shopping centers.  Time and energy is saved for more productive and more enjoyable pursuits when neighborhoods integrate residential, commercial and retail functions.  This notion is a function of both urban planning and architectural design. It is not a new idea, but it is only a good idea if implemented everywhere throughout the urban fabric. There’s not much point in providing nice places to escape urban chaos if you have to drive twenty miles to get there.
4. European sidewalk cafe.
The solution lies in providing nodes of activity that interweave work, entertainment, recreation, and living.  Every new project is an opportunity to employ this strategy as a means to a brighter future.

5. Integrating residential, commercial and retail is a strategy
for finding peace amidst urban chaos. (Paris cafe.)
1. Photography Rob Munger. Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates.
2.-3. Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates.
4. Photography Shawn Lipowski.
5. Photography Arnaud25.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mr. Governor, Tear Down These Walls

There is lots of conversation recently about the dire condition of the Colorado state capitol dome.  It is crumbling away as you read this.  Something must be done -- soon. However, more than just the dome is in bad shape.   This would be a good time to question the viability of the entire building.  

The Colorado state capitol building in Denver.

The golden dome is a familiar fixture in downtown Denver. It has been around longer than our oldest legislators.  With its prominent location and its august function, we tend to think of the building as something truly significant.  Take a closer look.  The state capitol building has never been good architecture.  Not only is it structurally vulnerable, it is esthetically and functionally inept.  Thus, it fails on all three legs upon which architecture should rest: commodity, firmness, and delight (in the words of Vitruvius).
A brassy interior.
Underneath: crumbing structure.

E.E. Myers designed the building in 1886.  The Illinois-based architect devised an ungainly Victorian pastiche of meaningless Greco-Roman details.  Mr. Myers specialized in the design of government buildings, none of them remarkable.  Other architects designed state capitols in the classical style with much greater effect.  Wisconsin’s, for example, has exterior gravitas and interior grandeur that far exceeds our state’s meager effort.  Some capitols have followed a more adventuresome path, as with Nebraska’s art deco departure from conventionality.   However, Colorado’s grey granite edifice has neither style nor panache.   Its labyrinthine interior looks like an explosion in a Corinthian column factory.  The drear halls are dead, except for unexpected reflections due to an excessive use of polished brass.  Offices are inadequate, with some legislators doubling up. Secretaries and clerks labor in miserly square footage. Over the years, the various rooms have become makeshift and make-do.  Whatever is meant by state of the art, this building’s heating, air conditioning, and lighting are the opposite of. 
Upper dome structure.
What could we accomplish by starting fresh?  The possibilities are thrilling to contemplate.   Perhaps we could have a design that retains parts of the lower structure (to commemorate the past) but replaces the existing dome and roof with a glass dome that allows visitors to peer into the chambers of government.  Architect Norman Foster did exactly that with his design for the new Reichstag in Berlin.  This triumph of architecture symbolizes the transparency of democracy.   Another approach might draw inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1957 proposal for a new Arizona state capitol.  His design was a hexagonal tracery of trellises and atriums intended as an oasis in the desert.  Colorado deserves a building as symbolic of our unique environment as Wright’s would have been for Arizona’s.  
Why do we assume something is good just because it is old?  Of course, we should recycle everything of intrinsic or historic value.  Reuse some of the stone.  Save the beautiful artwork.   Reinstall the existing paneling in a creative new way.   However, let’s admit this fussy old relic is simply not up to the task of serving a state whose population has increased 900 percent since it was built.  Let’s build something new and fresh and important.  One additional benefit of creating a new capitol:  we can get all the parking underground, where it belongs.  Currently, legislators’ vehicles encircle the capitol like wagons under siege.  This situation is one of the most unsightly pedestrian approaches to any capitol in the country. 
Rooftop of the renewed Reichstag in Berlin.
Of course, this radical idea inevitably faces a wall of economic reality.  Under current conditions, this proposal does not seem feasible or possible.  No doubt, most readers were raising financial objections after the first paragraph.  However, this is an idea to develop over several years, not right this moment.  Consider how a population of only 500,000 Coloradans was able to conceive and finance a structure that has served for over a century.  We would honor their can do spirit by creating a greater state capitol for the next one hundred years.  Perhaps for the next thousand.  Why should it be difficult for this generation to conceive of a truly great building that is a fiting symbol for this state?  We can buy some time with minimal stabilization of the dome and then consider a long-term solution.  
Our state capitol has outlived its usefulness.  Now we are presented with an opportunity to do better.    


Reichstag by Bjorn Laczay.
All others by Knorr.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Architecture and Virtual Reality

1.  Department of the Navy virtual reality training.
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 Japan is very different from the surroundings of Villa d'Este in Italy.  Neither can be removed from its setting and maintain the same meaning. 

Yet there is serious talk about the idea that architecture might someday, somehow be replaced by virtual reality.  Read various architectural journals like Architecture or sci-tech magazines like Wired, and the idea crops up perennially.

For readers not wired into the terminology, this is how Wikipedia defines virtual reality:

2. Golden Pavilion (Kinkaky-ji), Kyoto, Japan.
Virtual reality (VR) is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate places in the real world as well as in imaginary worlds. Most current virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback, in medical and gaming applications.

The Colombia Encylopedia has a similar definition.  They are basicaly saying that it is possible to create the experience of riding a digitally-simulated roller coaster, for example, that is indistinguishable from riding an actual roller coaster.  The two experiences would be identical. 

3. Garden of Ryoanji.  Kyoto, Japan.
Let's be clear about this:  the environment around a work of architecture contributes to its character.    Context matters.  Time and space affect architecture and become part of it.  For these reasons, VR will never replace architecture. 

Well, I should temper that assertion:  VR will never replace architecture unless and until we reach some sort of Matix-like level of experiential unreality.  (To coin a phrase.)  We're a long way from that event.

4. Villa d'Este.  Tivoli, Italy.
There will come a time when architects will use virtual reality to make presentations of their ideas to clients. The technology is already available, but the techniques are expensive and cumbersome. Will virtual reality ever completely replace architecture? Will a virtual Notre Dame substitute for the real thing? It will only if you believe that Walt Disney’s Epcot Center is a viable substitute for a tour of Europe. The real thing contains  too many layers of subtlety, nuance and detail – not to mention spontaneity and serendipity - to faithfully be replicated.  The muscular movement of negotiating steps, the feel of ambient sunlight on a wooden porch, the temperature of filtered light through a carved screen. These ways of experiencing architecture have nothing to do with vision alone or any form of virtual reality now possible. Architecture is a total immersion experience. A computerized substitute will be a great presentation or teaching tool. However, there will be no Star Trek-like holideck for architecture in the foreseeable future.
5. Vekomaboomerang steel roller coaster.

If a building does not evoke some sort of emotional or intellectual response it probably isn’t architecture. Architecture has meaning. That is what distinguishes architecture from mere structure and simple shelter.  And it will be what distinguishes real architecture from a virtual fake. 

6.  Trekkie Borg.
So, to all you trekkies, avatars, and simulacra out there:  fasten your seatbelts; you'll be riding the real architecture roller coaster for a long time.


1. Interior Dept.
2. David Monniaux
3. S. Fujioka
4. Mmxbass
5. Will McC
6. Bruno Girin 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Architecture, Symbolism, and Signs

1. Las Vegas welcomes you to a land of illusions.
Architecture has meaning.  To say that is to say that architecture conveys information and is a means of communication. Communication can be overt or subtle. Literal or symbolic.  The first, overt communication, is the most recognizable.  In this category are ordinary conversation, print media, and graphic communications such as television and movies. The second category, symbolic communication, includes the arts: poetry, music, paintings, architecture. Subtle communications may include empathy, sympathy, mental telepathy, and body language. Obviously, these categories overlap and the boundaries between them are somewhat arbitrary.  Movies, for example, often contain a lot of symbolism.

Architecture overlaps categories as well.  A building sends overt messages by being -- sometimes very literally -- a sign.  A steeple communicates church and golden arches say hamburgers.  The 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, explored this idea.  The authors (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour) contend that, in Las Vegas, entire buildings are really nothing more than signs.  Driving up Interstate 15 at sixty miles an hour, the Excalibur Hotel, among others, acts as a billboard.  It is an improbable fantasy of King Arthur's court.  Its disproportioned towers and turrets are bright with color and impossible to ignore.  The entire structure screams, STOP!  We can entertain the kids and the parents!  Go no further! One can easily imagine a family with children immediately persuaded to spend the night.  Other Las Vegas structures beckon with exotic facades promising a night in Venice or a romantic stay in Paris.  Most of these venues took shape long after Learning from Las Vegas was published.  However, it is more true today than ever:  Las Vegas hotels are not architecture;  they are signs. The most honest assessment of this is contained in the name of one of the hotels:  Mirage.  These buildings are illusory. The over-scaled pinnacles and turrets of Excalibur have no interior resolution. There is no place inside the Excalibur where you are actually in a turret.  It is an illusion.  A mirage.  A big sign.  The Venetian hotel has indoor canals (astonishingly, flowing above the casino through a second floor shopping mall).  The Paris hotel offers a one-fifth-scale Eiffel Tower.  There is a pyramid down the street at Luxor.  None of this is architecture.  It is a collection of signs.  Or, perhaps more charitably, grand theater.
2. Excalibur promises Camelot with a riot 
of turrets, pinnacles, and battlements.

2.  Gondoliers serenade tourists in a
fake canal beneath a fake sky at the Venetian.
In architecture, more impressive messages fall into symbolic and subtle categories. If a message is too obvious it is kitsch. A hot dog stand in the shape of a hot dog is kitsch. Most of Las Vegas is kitsch, along with much of roadside America. However, if a message is too subtle -- “in jokes” that only architects might understand or obscure historical references that are lost to time -- then meaning is lost as well. The most enjoyable and most enduring meaning in architecture is in the subtle nuances of space, texture, shadows, scale, rhythm, etc. These things convey information about how we might feel and provide spaces that encourage reflection. Really good architecture offers depth to the experience.  One fine example of this is Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.  It conveys strength in its structure and a sense of melancholy in its colors and siting.  This information is conveyed in the architecture through subtle signs.

3.  The giant hot dog in Bailey, Colorado.
 It is obvious to most people that architecture has meaning in pedigreed structures that are sanctified by history and authority. It may be less obvious in more humble architecture, such as the buildings we live in. But residential architecture is also capable of highly personal and rewarding meaning. If this concept holds for the great architecture of the world, then why not also in our homes — the buildings where we spend most of our time? Consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Hearth and home could hardly be expressed in any more meaningful way. It is a celebration of home. The warm colors, rich textures, and central weight of the fireplace all beckon in a primeval way to experience the comforts of home.

Residential architecture can enhance experience with meaning in varying degrees of subtlety and nuance. Among the possibilities: architecture can create a sense of arrival at the front door. It can convey charm and grace in our living spaces, relaxation where we sleep and communion with nature as it extends outward to terraces and gardens. Kitchens and breakfast areas can be bright and cheery; dining rooms can be romantic or or grand, depending on personal preferences and the weight of the occasion. Perhaps above all, architecture of all types can provide a sense of shelter and protection beyond the practical needs of keeping out bad weather or bad people. Architecture can offer a deep-seated assurance that all is well in our environment.

Interior decorating can augment these environments, but it is a failure of architecture if surface treatments and furniture arrangements are the only means to convey meaning. Architecture is meaningful in a powerful three-dimensional sense. It is accomplished by manipulating interior volume, controlling color and light, and arranging structure to support the intents of the design.

5.  Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Art.
Architecture can be appreciated at face value (fa├žade literally means face) with a great deal of enjoyment. However, like any art, the more we understand how it works the deeper and more profound is our appreciation. When we realize that architecture has meaning it becomes obvious that it is created by following principles of design to transmit its meaning, just as the principals of grammar are used to convey meaning in language. The grammar of architecture is a search for meaning in the spaces we create and inhabit.


1. Madcoverboy.
2. Excel.
3. Urban 2004.
4. John Perry.
5. Roger 469.