Friday, September 30, 2011

Philosophy of Architecture I

All architecture is rooted in philosophy. Philosophy underlies all decisions a designer may make. Put another way: it is nearly impossible to design something without having a point of view. Otherwise, we might as well use a gang of monkeys to randomly construct our buildings.
1. Mies Van der Rohe designed the Barcelona Pavilion as an expression of
Bauhaus philosophy: rational, simple, industrial, and unadorned.
We tend to think of architecture as a collection of styles. A menu of choices. It is certainly no such thing, except in the most superficial sense. Nevertheless, the history of architecture is generally told as a story of evolving styles. Styles are a convenient way to categorize the varieties of architectural experience, but behind those styles are philosophies. In other words, behind every style is a set of ideas and a system of values that drive it. That fact is more important than the styles that manifest under various philosophies of architecture.
2. Contemporary architect Santiago Calatrava believes architecture
is a direct expression of the underlying structure.
Every major architectural style originates in a particular philosophy of architecture. Each style emerges from the cultural requirements of the society in which it develops and is influenced by the history that preceded it. Architecture does not come about without architects thinking about these sorts of things. Any style is the product of a particular system of thinking about the meaning and purpose of our built environment. 
3.Architect  Bruce Goff believed every building
should be designed as if no building ever existed before.
Perhaps simple, utilitarian buildings can exist without serious thought behind them. However, when a building aspires to be architecture we have to start thinking about the purpose and meaning of the overall space, the outward appearance, and every detail that contributes to the whole. There is no one way to design a building. The choices one makes and the direction one takes are driven by a value system, whether deeply felt or only dimly perceived. Why are certain elements there? What materials should be used? How should we merge size, form, volume, texture and structure? Which are the “right” choices? These are, at root, philosophical questions and are only addressed within a theoretical framework. An architectural philosophy need not be particularly complex. But it must be there in some form or the simplest design decisions become too complex to bear. 
4. De Architectura by Vitruvius.
Many books have been written about theories of architecture. The oldest known is De Architectura by the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (1st century B.C.E.) He is still citied today as an authority on architectural principles. Every architecture student learns his famous definition of architecture: a structure which has the qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas. That is, it must be strong, functional, and beautiful. 
5. Saint-Pierre de Rafael. A renaissance plan
reflecting the rational values of the time.
Other books are architectural manifestos written by architects to justify or explain their work. Among the more influential in the modern era are The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, S,M,L,XL by Rem Koolhaas, and Learning From Las Vegas by Robert Venturi. 
There are also many histories which describe the theoretical goals behind architecture. An excellent example is An Outline of European Architecture by Nikolaus Pevsner.
There are probably as many theories and philosophies of architecture as there are architects. The important thing to remember is that architecture is not mere buildings; it is buildings that reflect ideas. 
6. Renaissance symmetry in the Villa di Poggio Giusto Utens.
Illustration credits:
1. Ashley Pomeroy
2. Lauren Manning
3. Chad K
4. Public Domain
5. Public Domain
6. Public Domain

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Viewpoint on Architecture

     This blog veers around and through a variety of architectural topics. But the journey has not been random. This blog has a point of departure and a goal. A viewpoint. Perhaps it is time to reiterate what that viewpoint is.  Obviously, this blog is for those who love architecture and want to know more about it. It is addressed to laypersons and architects alike. 
1. Wisconsin state capitol building interior.

2. Porcelian Room, Palacio Real de Madrid.
With architects I am preaching to the choir, of course. Many of them will have different viewpoints, but I hope this blog encourages debate and provides inspiration. I am happy to discuss the fine points of architecture well past midnight with anyone who is interested. 
With non-architects I am having a conversation with the congregation of people who are thrilled by the power that (some) architecture possesses. We often do not know why or how this power exists, but when chanced upon, it is a source of deep pleasure. It is the reason many of us travel the world: to see different and interesting man-made spaces like cathedrals, museums, skyscrapers, and homes. Great architecture may be humble or grand, ancient or new, transitory or permanent. It is the essential characteristics of any and all of these that this blog explores. 
3. Dining room by Michael Knorr.

4. Kitchen by Michael Knorr
This blog asks (though only partially answers) what is the essence of architecture? Architecture -- great architecture in particular -- is more than just structure. True architecture uses space to express the highest aspirations of humankind and our search for beauty. Practical necessities sometimes obscure the fact that the essence of architecture is the space within. Spatial relationships are the core of architectural experience. To fully appreciate architecture we need to look beyond the facade of buildings and into their heart. This blog aims to do that by describing the qualities that make architecture more than mere buildings. 
5. Wayfarers Chapel by Lloyd Wright.
The opinions in this blog are straightforward and grow from a simple premise: that good architecture is possible and that it can be achieved by deliberate means. This is true whether talking about a humble home or a monumental public building. It is true (or, more accurately, can be true) for any place intended for human habitation. Good architecture is a result of planning for certain results and creating environments to support those results in the most beautiful and structurally satisfying manner. 
Truly great architecture is rare. The everyday buildings we encounter -- super markets, gas stations, convenience stores, and, sadly, even our homes -- are frustratingly ordinary. Most people come in contact with great architecture primarily through pictures. Pictures usually focus on building exteriors, which, of course, tell only part of the story. This type of experience is twice-removed from reality. First, flat pictures can never really explain three-dimensional space. Even a 3-D movie would lack the total sensory experience of actually approaching and walking through a work of architecture. Second, the fixation on facade that most pictures present reduces architecture to surface treatments. Architectural criticism by this method devolves to a battle of styles. On this basis,  we look at and analyze architecture from pretty pictures that have little to do with the full experience. Architects encourage this approach because we love to represent our work in the most flattering light. Disturbing distractions are edited in Photoshop. Representations of  people are often avoided in the these photos and buildings assume an etherial otherness that doesn’t really exist. Even this blog suffers from this shortcoming.  However, architecture is more than glamor shots. To fully appreciate architecture we need to experience it directly. We ought not just look at architecture; we need to feel it. 
6. Societe Generale Headquarters, Paris. Stained glass dome.

7. Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava.
This blog shares the limitations of photographs. No combination of text and pictures can substitute for the real experience, but it may lay the groundwork for a way of understanding architecture.
For most of us there are limited opportunities to encounter great architecture in person. In particular, we seldom have access to the most important aspect of architecture: the space within. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse (alternately: Lao Tzu or Laozi) said the reality of  a container is the space within.  At first this sounds cryptically mystical. But when you think about it, this is simply a matter of fact. Lao Tse uses the example of a tea cup. It performs its function (containing tea) in the space that is defined by structure. The purpose of a tea cup is to contain tea. The shell of the cup makes this possible, but the space inside the shell -- what some might consider nothingness -- is where the reality of its function occurs. The reality of the tea cup takes place in the void, the space within. Frank Lloyd Wright was fond of quoting Lao Tse’s aphorism, connecting it to architecture. Wright insisted that the reality of architecture is the space within -- not the shell we see in photos or glimpsed from a passing car. 
8. Auldbrass living room by Frank Lloyd Wright.
To understand architecture we must look beyond the facade to the spatial effects inside. This blog explores why some spaces seem to rise above the ordinary and mundane to be truly meaningful. It dissects architecture with straightforward concepts. At times, it explores the why of architecture (philosophy). Sometimes it discusses how certain architectural effects are accomplished. And sometimes it looks at the inevitable ambiguities and curiosities in architecture.  All of this is done within the context of the space within. The intention here is not dry academics. This is about the enjoyment of architecture. I hope the reader will share my enthusiasm for the incredible adventure of exploring all facets of the architectural experience as presented in this blog. 
9. V.C. Morris Gift Shop by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Photo Credits:
1. MJK
2. Brian Snelson
3. Office
4. Office
5. Jessicacu
6. Poulp
7. MJK
8. Charles N. Bayless
9. Jet Lowe

Thursday, September 1, 2011


1. Bauhaus-influenced chair by Marcel Breuer.
The Denver Film Society and Design Onscreen are starting their third annual architecture and design film series. Several new films stand out this year. Bauhaus: Model and Myth explores the goals and history of Germany's Bauhaus movement and the effect of politics upon it. Desert Utopia: Midcentury Architecture in Palm Springs will reveal the roots of the current upsurge of interest in modern architecture. EAMES: The Architect and the Painter will explore the life of an important midcentury innovator.
2. Eames house, Pacific Palisades, CA.
If you have not seen the 2009 film Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, do not miss this biography of modern architecture's greatest photographer.

3. Kaufman house by Richard Neutra, Palm Springs, CA.
All films are accompanied by architects or historians holding Q&A sessions as well as receptions at local restaurants. For dates, times, and detailed info follow this link to the Denver Film Society web site.

Photo Credits:
1. Borowski
2. llpo's Sojourn -
3. Barbara Alfors