Monday, April 25, 2011


“Please don’t touch!”  

You won’t see that admonition in great buildings too often, as you usually do in museums and galleries.  If architecture really is an art--”frozen music”, as Friedrich von Schelling put it in 1809--then it’s the most engaging and people-friendly art there is.  

Whereas great works of painting and sculpture are almost invariably off limits, even the greatest works of architecture seldom carry such restrictions. Notre Dame de Paris doesn’t have a sign saying, “Please don’t touch the flying buttresses.”  The famously alluring knife-edged corner of I. M. Pei’s addition to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. carries the smudges from a million sticky-fingered kids, yet no one grumbles about it, except maybe the janitors.  For the most part, the world’s greatest works of architecture are eminently available for tactile inspection.  This is living art in the best sense.

Well, so what?

Touch--the opportunity for tactile exploration of form and texture--is one of most important yet neglected aspects of architecture.  Though you may not be aware of it, when you enter a building for the first time, you don’t just look at it--you feel it.  Consciously or not, you judge whether it’s flimsy or substantial, elegant or seedy, real or fake, all by touch.  Do the railings wobble and the floors bounce underfoot?  Or do things really feel like they’re here to stay?

Touch also provides much of the pleasure and variety in architecture.  Among the most brilliant aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work was his studied use of contrast in material textures.  For example, his 1936 masterpiece, Fallingwater, is a virtual symphony of stone and stucco, steel and glass.  As you move through it--or any other fine work of architecture--such combinations work subliminal magic on your psyche.  You come away tingling without quite knowing why.  

Alas, today it’s the vanilla twins of stucco and drywall, along with the incomparable elegance of vinyl windows, plastic moldings, and pressboard doors, that provide the dominant textures in our homes.  Our houses aren’t just built cheap--they feel cheap, too.  Even though today’s pumped-up extravaganzas are routinely tarted up with crown moldings and glitzy hardware, these items usually flunk the touch test.  More often than not, they feel cheap, hollow, and flimsy.   

Is there an alternative?  Consider the work of an architect such as Carr Jones, who built lovely, personal homes of reinforced brick, clay tile, and wrought iron.  Though these are among the most ancient and humble building materials, they impart both rich textures and an incomparable sense of solidity.  Thanks to them, every surface in Jones’s houses delights not only the eye, but the hand as well. 

Maybe in today’s wired, net-surfing culture, in which so many of us--including me--sit around diddling plastic keys all day, our appreciation for the genuine and permanent texures of life has slipped a little.
If so, I’m sure we’ll come around again.  I just get that feeling.

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