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