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