Monday, April 18, 2011


Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States, was a man of few words. His terse responses to the press have become legendary.  It’s said that a reporter once breathlessly approached him, saying:  “Mr. President, I bet my friend here I could get you to say three words.”  

Coolidge’s reply:  “You lose.”

Silent Cal’s presidential record may have been less than stellar, but his aversion to bombast remains a lesson to us all.  And while politicians might be the first to learn from Coolidge’s reticence, designers could take a few hints too.  

That’s because architecture is a visual language, and just like a spoken one, it can get cluttered by a lot of extraneous blather.  It’s no accident that grammatical terms such as idiom, context and articulation also appear in the language of architecture.  Moreover, many of the bromides of good communication—be clear, be concise, make your point and get out—apply to design as well.  

As a great believer in both simple writing and simple design, I humbly offer a few guidelines to help slash architectural bombast:  

•  Use a strong central theme rather than a number of weak ones.  Just as the title of an essay informs all of the statements to follow, an architectural composition should have a single dominant idea that suffuses the whole.  The theme might lie in the way rooms are organized—in a courtyard, perhaps, or in a cluster—or it might have to do with using a favorite combination of materials, or even a certain style of roof.  Other elements can support or echo the central theme, but they shouldn’t compete with it, since this only dilutes your overall statement.

•  Remember that, more often than not, simplicity is a virtue.  The mind tires when it’s forced to wade through a lot of excess information, whether it’s verbal or visual.  A clear, concise, immediately comprehensible design is far better than a conglomeration of elements drawn from hither and yon.  Leave out anything that doesn’t relate to the “argument”.  If you’re feeling tempted to include, say, a whole plethora of moldings in your design, first ask yourself whether they’ll strengthen your statement, or just obfuscate it.

•  Know when to shut up.  In 1863, a then-famous orator named Edward Everett gave a florid two-hour dedication speech at a Pennsylvania cemetery.  At the same event, the nation’s president spoke for just a few minutes.  Which speech do we remember? Right—the one we call the Gettysburg Address.
And just as a speech loses effectiveness if it goes on and on, a strong design motif can become cloying if it’s endlessly repeated.  If you love round-arched windows, for example, you might use them in one prominent focal area and, if it’s appropriate, repeat them in a few other subsidiary locations--but don’t go wild and make every window in the house round-topped.

•  Finally, don’t forget to include a bit of humor.  There’s enough bad news in the world as it is, so both language and architecture can benefit from the occasional spark of wit.  Recall that even the most pious of architectural monuments, the Gothic cathedrals, were rampant with highly personalized carvings of gargoyles that no doubt gave their creators a few good laughs, and still do the same for us all these centuries later.  

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