Saturday, March 27, 2010


 Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) once proclaimed, “God is in the details.” Mies’s international style of architecture was clean and simple. He virtually invented the sleek glass-and-steel buildings that define mid-twentieth century modern architecture. His structures epitomized minimalism before it became a cliché. At first glance, these buildings appear stark and unadorned, but Mies’s work is distinguished from lesser imitations by his insistence on refined details and perfect implementation. To appreciate a building by Mies van der Rohe one needs to look at the details. His buildings come alive in the elegant manner in which the pieces of a window mullion are assembled, in the grace with which a stairway effortlessly unites different levels, in the perfect resolution of structural connections. The Farnsworth house (Plano, Illinois 1951) is one of the best examples of his work.
Perception of objects in the real world progresses from the general to the particular. We see the color of objects before we get a clear understanding of shape or form. Then, once the form comes into focus, we begin to notice texture, line, and structural organization. This is the level of perception where details become important.

Why do architects get so concerned about details? Why did Mies insist “God is in the details”? Because he knew that details separate the sophisticated from the amateur and the real from the fake. We live in buildings on the level of the things that we see, touch, and use; that is: the details. The purpose of a building is established by its overall shape, but details add dimension and richness.
Even the most ordinary of spaces are lifted to a higher plane by good details. For example, a simple patio changes character depending on the fine points of design. Is it made of concrete, gray and unadorned? That would be ordinary and not worth noticing. Imagine how much richer the experience would be if the concrete is textured or colored. Attention to detail changes the quality of architectural spaces, just as spices and herbs enhance the flavor of food.
Take this a step further. Imagine that patio with sun-dappled bricks, a bubbling fountain, and a vine-covered colonnade surrounding it. The experience of that patio grows into something completely different. Details imbue it with charm and it becomes a delight for the senses. Attention to detail is essential for a complete architectural experience.
Unfortunately, most buildings ignore the importance of details. In spite of this, people search for places that more completely satisfy the need for beauty. That is one reason we travel. We crave the richness lacking in everyday life. We travel in search of adventure, history, and -- not least -- architecture. We appreciate buildings with tiled courtyards and crenellated towers. We love to stumble across modest cafes with charming architecture, artisanship, and interesting materials. Such places make us feel good. This feeling -- a sense of rightness about a place and our enjoyment of being in it -- owes much to detail.
Sometimes richness of detail accrues over time: things come together gradually to imbue a place with charm and grace. But it doesn’t have to happen by chance, nor is the patina of age a prerequisite. Good architecture can intentionally integrate details that are right with each other and an appropriate part of the whole. That is what architecture is really all about: the purposeful creation of places that make us feel good. Places that give us the feeling of belonging to something beneficent. In architecture, the details bestow this feeling.

Farnsworth House exterior and stairs: Jack E. Boucher.
Barcelona Pavilion interior: vicens.
Palladio Garden, Rovigo, Italy: Marcock.
Balboa Park arcade, San Diego, California: M. Knorr.
Baroque column capital: Michail Jungierek.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Market Oriented Architecture (First Impressions)

There is a saying that you have only one chance to make a good first impression. That may be true in personal relationships, but in architecture, you have three chances to make a good first impression: the streetscape, the front door, and, finally, the first glimpse of interior space. All are equally important whether in speculative building, custom homes, commercial development, or pure architecture (whatever that is).

In the realm of residential design, marketing directors and real estate gurus refer to first impressions as “curb appeal.” This phrase has become trite through repetition. However, an architectural principle co-opted as a marketing truism is no less valid. In fact, good architecture often translates into good marketing and, sometimes, vice versa. Purists might want to see a conflict here. But if architecture is good it should appeal to people and if it appeals to people why wouldn’t this be a good marketing strategy?


All buildings exist within a streetscape. A streetscape is simply the first impression a building makes at a distance. While the design of individual buildings is important, so is their relationship to each other, to the community, and to the surrounding environment.

All community elements, such as water features, guardhouses, recreational facilities, gazebos, clubhouses, mail kiosks, and signage are opportunities to provide interesting architecture that establishes the first impression on a streetscape level.
The marketing advantages of considering every detail of the streetscape are clear: these elements have the potential to capture people’s interest and contribute to the overall impression of value.

Front Door

Your second chance to make a good first impression is at the front door of the building. The front door (this includes all major elements on the front elevation) is where a more personal first impression is introduced. Here we establish the mood, style, and quality of the architecture. Some call this curb appeal. It is where we literally have the opportunity to touch the architecture and have it touch us. The first impression made at the front door is the total effect of all visible design elements: materials, details, lighting, stylistic cues.

At this point, the architecture must fulfill the buyer’s (or client’s or renter’s – there really is no difference) vision of what that building should be. These visions are seldom articulated but underlay every decision the buyer makes.

The front door is a prelude to all that follows and must be exactly right for the target market. It must fulfill the market’s hopes, dreams, and architectural preferences. Sometimes assumptions about popular taste prejudice the designing process.  Jettison unfounded assumptions in favor of legitimate market research specific to your area. Market preferences are not interchangeable from one market to another. And old market preferences may no longer be true in the current market situation. That which may be desirable in one neighborhood can have the opposite connotation in another.

Of course, no two people respond in the same way to architecture. Yet the effects of architecture are certainly not at the mercy of whim and caprice. Does the buyer want a grand entrance? That is simply a matter of scale and we can design the building to satisfy that need. Does the buyer want a feeling of security and privacy? We might introduce courtyard walls with decorative iron gates. Does the buyer want a feeling of shelter and protection? Deep porches and broad overhangs may accomplish this goal. The design possibilities for front elevations in response to market research are endless.

Interior Vistas

The interior vista is the final opportunity to make a good first impression.

A dream house is fifty percent dream and fifty percent house. The house part consists of practical, left-brain requirements: shelter, safety, investment opportunity, and things like the right number of bedrooms. The dream part fulfills the need for emotional, right-brain desires like drama, excitement, warmth, and esthetic appeal. When a person enters a house – or any building -- you want to engage feelings, not invite analysis.
To achieve positive emotional responses, immediately reveal interior architectural effects that have known appeal. Show off major amenities. If a fireplace is offered, let people see how great your design is. If a beautiful patio is available, emphasize it. If overhead volume is part of the plan, let it impress the viewer upon opening the front door. While a sense of mystery and playfulness can be useful, such architectural strategies should never leave the buyer frustrated or unsatisfied. Like a story unfolding on a movie screen, the plot must be engaging from the start and hold viewers attention to the end.

Builders should know that solid design principles are at work here. The purpose of architecture is to make space interesting as well as functional. Great first impressions are made with a glance, but they are the result of carefully crafted design decisions. It is the first impressions of streetscape, front door, and interior vista that get people emotionally on your side and ready to do business.

Gatehouse architecture by Michael Knorr & Assoicates, illustration by Susan Johnk
Rancho Santa Fe exteriors by Michael Knorr & Associates
Las Vegas interior by Michael Knorr & Associates

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Style... a word tossed around with little understanding of the definition of various styles and little agreement on the meaning of style itself. One person may describe a building as traditional. Another person will look at the same building and describe it as Tudor. A third may call it French country. What is going on here? Are we not seeing the same thing when we look at an object?

Style is a fluid concept. A thing (a house, a mass- produced product, or any object of design) may be created in the manner of a particular epoch or person. We, as a civilization, have decided to label these various styles as Tudor, French-country, modern, craftsman, classical, Wrightian, etc. The problem is that the icons of these styles and the materials, shapes, and details used in these styles overlap.  Does a dormer belong to the Tudor style? Or to French-country? Obviously, it belongs to either or neither. A dormer is just an element of structure.
How a dormer is treated may push it into one style or another, but it belongs essentially to no style. Is stucco indigenous to any particular style? Of course not; it is a material that can be used in almost any vernacular. Nevertheless, in our minds we tend to link materials and elements of structure with the style to which we think it most belongs. Decorative elements often derive from a specific style but end up applied to other, quite different, styles. Many styles also enjoy revivals and revisionist interpretations. They are reinvented in novel form and given — sometimes — new names. Who can make sense of all this? If we have not been educated in the nuances of historical styles, it is hit or miss on getting it right. Even the experts disagree on taxonomy. Among architects who deal with the concept of style every day, there is confusion, disagreement, and misunderstandings about particular categories of style. What, exactly, does a given style mean in your mind?
We also use the word style itself with different meanings. We may talk about particular styles, as above, but we also use the word in the sense of a person or thing possessing style: as being “in style” or “stylish”.  Perhaps, in architectural design, it is time to stop worrying about what historical theme a building might possess, and start being concerned that it simply has good basic design qualities. That it has style.

But architecture is not like fashion design, where styles go in and out with the seasons. Works of architecture — from the homes in which we live to the buildings in which we work to the monuments that represent our society — have a less frivolous purpose and more enduring message. Perhaps it is more important that a house (or any building) have architecture that is internally consistent, that flows, that hangs together as a work of art. Let’s call this a non-denominational approach to design. What kind of crazy concept is this? Buildings without a style? Yes: buildings without a style that still possess style.
It would mean that issues like human scale, comfort, proportion, and balance are paramount, rather than how many or what kind of dormers or turrets or gables or Doric columns a building may have. It would mean that we consider, instead, concepts in architecture like rhythm, texture, volume, and emotional resonance. It would mean that distinctions like “traditional” and “contemporary” are largely irrelevant.
In the world of architecture, we seem to have lost our way. We have capitulated to a mind-set that looks at architecture as a recipe book of various styles. Style has shriveled to superficial treatments that, in the end, have no style at all. Like beauty in humans, architectural style ought to be seen as more than skin deep. Perhaps architects should introduce deeper values to the built environment, giving us neighborhoods and cities where architecture is a delight for the senses and a joy to inhabit. That would be great style.

Dormers: Friderick Koch, Pearson Scott Foresman, Pearson Scott Foresman
Style Examples: Rama, Waugsberg, Didier B.
Exteriors: Architecture by Knorr, photo R. Munger
Interiors: Architecture by Knorr, photo R. Munger

Friday, March 12, 2010

Giving Architectural Credit Where Due

One of my pet peeves is seeing mention of a work of architecture without acknowledging the architect. To me, that is like a book review without credit to the author. It would never happen with books, but it happens all the time with architecture. To my chagrin, it happened with one of my own architectural reviews.

On April 15, 2009 I blogged about the beautiful Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, Nebraska: A Religious Experince on I-80. I had found a reference in the visitor center to Fay Jones and credited him as the architect. Fay Jones consistently produced wonderful work during his career, including several ecclesiastical buildings in a similar vein.

Last month I received several comments from readers, including Ellen Compton, archivist for the Fay Jones Collection at the University of Arkansas. Apparently, the Holy Family Shrine is not the work of Fay Jones. In fact, the web site for architects Beringer Ciaccio Dennell Mabrey in Omaha prominently displays the chapel as an example of their work. What was going on here? Was I hallucinating that I had seen Jones mentioned in the visitor center? How could I have been that far off base? I decided to write the builiding’s overseer, Father Matthew Gutowski of the Omaha Archdiocese, with my questions. Father Gutowski was kind enough to respond immediately, clearing up the mystery and adding insight to the evolution of Holy Family Shrine. I would like to set the record straight by reprinting his letter:

Hi, Michael,

Thank you for your compliments about the Holy Family Shrine.

No, you are not hallucinating. There is a reference to Faye Jones on the story boards in the visitor center. Anne Louise Miceck, one of the persons involved in developing the Shrine, had seen his Cooper Memorial Chapel in Arkansas and desired to build something like it. And Jim Dennel, one of the partners of BCDM Architects, who is the architect for the Shrine, is an admirer of the Jones’ chapels so he was pleased to be one of the persons who was involved in the developing of the Shrine by designing it and managing its construction. And before I went to the seminary to study to be a priest, I was studying architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and also admired Jones’s chapels. So, the three of us were the original trio that the Lord brought together as the founders of the Shrine, who unbeknownst, until we met at Christ the King Parish in Omaha when I was assigned there in the early 1990s, had all individually had some type of admiration for Jones’ work and the desire to build a chapel.

Hope that answers your question. Let me know if you have any more. I looked at your website and blog: very nice!

God bless,

Father Gutowski

Archdiocese of Omaha
I reread my entry from April and stand by my opinion: the Holy Family Shrine is a great experience in light, sound, touch, and a sense of spiritual engagement. It sure looks like a Jones building, but I am pleased to acknowledge BCDM Architects and give them credit for beautiful results.

Michael Knorr

Monday, March 8, 2010


Articulation in speech means speaking clearly in order to be understood and convey meaning. In architecture, articulation means to delineate spaces so different functions are clear and architecture is meaningful.

In the first half of the twentieth century there was a revolution in architecture: modernists versus traditionalists. For the most part, the modernists won. We are accustomed to radical new forms in architecture. Much of this was driven by new construction techniques, such as steel framing and reinforced concrete. Metals and glass could be mass-produced and made cheap. New theories in the visual arts, literature, and music supported modern architectural ideas. The biggest legacy of the modern revolution is the concept of open planning. Almost every home, office, or public building uses open planning in the arrangement of space. An everyday example is the way kitchens blend into family rooms in most new homes. We do not divide the spaces with walls. Inside our homes, shops, and offices the victory of modern architecture is undisputed. Interior spaces are more open than ever. If traditional styles are used at all, they are limited to exterior shells and decoration.

Before the modern revolution, interior spaces were a series of boxed-off rooms, each function neatly wrapped in its own cocoon. That does not suit today’s lifestyles. We are more casual and demand more flexibility in the use of space. In a sense, we are all modernists whether we admit it or not.

Open plans offer greater freedom for architects. However, with freedom comes responsibility and sometimes it is shirked. Designers and architects seem at a loss, at times, making wide open spaces warm, inviting, and - perhaps most important - meaningful. Freedom in space planning has yielded plans that seem, ironically, unplanned. We all have experienced these types of spaces but usually walk through them without analyzing them. That is one thing about architecture: we rarely know why a space feels wrong. Perhaps we experience a sense of unease or discomfort. Things are not right, but we do not quite know why. Often this feeling comes from the space itself. (Sometimes we just have indigestion.)

When a space lacks articulation, it can be uncomfortable or even chaotic. When one space blends indiscriminately into another, when you don’t know where one function ends and another begins, the plan lacks articulation. Even the furniture can look out of place when there are no architectural clues to guide us in the use of space. Notice how, in the illustration below, one area sloshes into another. You don’t know where the living area stops and the dining area starts. The foyer falls gracelessly into a corner without much thought. The entire space is unarticulated.

On the other hand, articulation avoids ambiguity. It simultaneously makes spaces more interesting and more functional. Architectural elements can establish articulation without making a plan confining. Columns or piers between living and dining areas, for example, can preserve openness while subtly defining functions. Overhead ledges, level changes, a jog in the plan, columns or arcades are a few of the many features that can be used to articulate space. The illustration below shows the same areas as above with exactly the same square footage. Now the space is alive with meaning while still flowing effortlessly, one function to another. It is articulated.
Think of architectural elements – columns, piers, arches, ledges, level changes -- like punctuation marks between words. Just as commas, periods, and exclamation points help articulate the meaning of written words, architectural features can articulate the functions of spaces and make them more meaningful.

Even traditional-appearing spaces can be quite modern in spatial planning. When areas flow without doors or walls, that is a modern concept. Details may be old- world, but if the plan is open it is a modern space. How well it looks and functions is often a matter of how skillfully areas within that space are articulated.

All examples by Michael Knorr & Assoicates

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Top Ten Works of Architecture (A Personal List)

Everybody likes to make lists of their favorite things. Movies. Books. Places. Presenting a list of great architecture is an excuse to mention the principles and innovations behind these works. Other, equally qualified, choices could be made, but this is my personal list of the top ten all-time best works of architecture. If you have different candidates or you think I missed something important, let me know. Presented in ascending order…

10. Hadrian’s Villa
Architect unknown. Tivoli, Italy. c.120.
This is the oldest structure on the list. I could just as readily have chosen from other groups of ancient residences; Pompeii and Ephesus have more complete examples of Roman homes. Hadrian’s Villa is simply the best-known (and largest) residence of antiquity. I include it here as representative of all ancient Mediterranean villas. As a genre, these homes, right down to those of middle-class merchants, demonstrate that we have much to learn and remember about gracious living.

9. Monticello
Thomas Jefferson, architect. Charlottesville, Virginia. 1769-1809.
The outward shell of Monticello is classical Palladian architecture. That is merely a cloak for Jefferson’s clever spaces. But, in the end, nothing here is either classical or Palladian. This is pure American inventiveness.

8. St. Peter’s Basilica
Architects: Bramante, Michelangelo, Moderno, et al. Vatican City. 1506-1626.
At least one great work of architecture must be included to represent the sixteenth century, so why not the biggest? The Renaissance was one of the most inventive periods for architecture. St. Peter’s embodies (and may be the culmination of) the Renaissance conception of voluminous and voluptuous space.

7. Sainte-Chapelle
Pierre de Montreuil,architect. Paris, France. 1248. (Restored 1855 by Viollet-le-Duc.)
Sainte-Chapelle is not the largest of Gothic cathedrals. In fact, it is simply a small chapel built by Loux IX to shelter sacred relics. But it is a perfect example of the struggle of thirteenth-century architects to completely dissolve structure and create space out of light.

6. Wayfarers Chapel
Lloyd Wright, architect. Rancho Palos Verdes, California. 1949.
At first glance, this glass chapel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, may seem like a modern version of Sainte-Chapelle. In fact, a quite different principle is at work here. Instead of enclosing space with stained glass windows, space is extended by blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors. Here the walls are trees and the ceiling is sky.

5. TWA Terminal
Eero Saarinen, architect. Kennedy Airport, New York City. 1956-1962.
This building falls into a category of expressionist architecture some find willful and strange. But Saarinen’s work, unlike the freewheeling architecture currently in vogue, is never arbitrary or aimless. All of this lush creativity without the aid of computers!

4. Barcelona Pavilion
Mies van der Rohe, architect. Barcelona, Spain. 1929.
Built as the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, this is generally referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion. With no real function to weigh it down, it synthesizes every revolutionary idea of twentieth century architecture in one succinct opus. An open plan, honest use of materials, indoor/outdoor connections, cantilevered roof, disdain for decoration. All of these truly modern ideas are presented here in elegant simplicity.

3. Bavinger House
Bruce Goff, architect. Norman, Oklahoma. 1951.
No photographs can properly explain Bruce Goff’s inventions, particularly the Bavinger house. This is because his frequent use of non-orthogonal lines has no reference in everyday experience. When we see a picture of a “normal” building (rectangular, with parallel walls and ceilings) we can compare it to the square buildings in our daily life and construct an image of it in our minds. Not so with Goff’s architecture. Goff built houses as if no house ever existed before. His works are pure architecture and must be felt in person to be understood. (Of course, that’s true of all architecture, isn’t it?)

2. Fallingwater
Frank Lloyd Wright, architect. Bear Run, Pennsylvania. 1939.
Built as a weekend retreat in the woods, no twentieth century architecture is more romantic. An answer and a challenge to the more severe approaches of Wright’s contemporary competitors and the so-called international style, Fallingwater is both primal and modern. It not so much on the earth as of it. Defying gravity as it balances atop its waterfall, Fallingwater is beautiful, dangerous, complex. With this building Frank Lloyd Wright confidently reinvented architecture and his prairie-school self.

1. Hagia Sophia
Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, architects. Istanbul, Turkey. 537.
Hagia Sophia was, for a millennium, the largest cathedral the world had ever seen. But it is not just brute size that makes Hagia Sophia significant. (If that were the reason, the Astrodome would be great architecture. It is not.) The massive walls and buttresses of Hagia Sophia support half-domes and galleries that all but explode into a huge, soaring dome that floats magically on a continuous ring of arched openings. A hundred mosques in Istanbul mimic Hagia Sophia, but it was first.

What didn’t make the list?

Many important structures did not make this list. For example, there is not a single skyscraper here; no Empire State Building, no Chrysler Building, no Rockefeller Center. This is because most tall buildings are weak on interior volume. While the Chrysler Building, one of my favorites, is a stunning New York landmark, each individual floor is just conventional office space. The lobby, while an elegant example of art deco design, is not particularly noteworthy in the history of architecture.

Then there are structures like the pyramids, which are architectonic in scale, but enclose no architectural spaces. Call them monuments or sculpture, but don’t call them architecture.

Other built things like the Eiffel Tower or Brooklyn Bridge are wonderful examples of engineering, but are not, by my definition, architecture.

Finally, there are individual architects who should probably have at least one work on my list, but do not. Palladio, Brunileschi, Gaudi, Neutra, Corbusier, Lautner, Calatrava are all missing. Every one of them has contributed important works to the world of architecture, but, in the end, I had to narrow things down to just ten. Probably not fair, but there you are.

Let me know your favorite works of architecture (and why) via the “comments” link below.

10. Rob Munger
9. Matt Kozlowski
8. Panini
7. Didier B
6. Gyrofrog
4. Russ McGinn
3. Jones
2. Figuura
1. Rob Munger