Wednesday, July 6, 2011


In Hana, Hawaii a while back, there was a design competition in which architects were supposed to design a treehouse. Sounds like fun, right? Can’t turn that into some heavy-handed philosophical thing, right?


While many of the ideas were fascinating, the sponsor made the mistake of also asking the architects to write about their designs. With their usual aplomb, many managed to turn this endearing concept into another leaden opportunity to proselytize.  

My favorite quote came from an architect who wrote: “A treehouse is neither a tree nor a house. It establishes a symbiotic relationship between the tree and a house.  Our intervention is interwoven within the tree. Its movement allows this relationship to fluctuate, blurring the edges.” 

Bad enough that we have to tolerate the sort of palaver found in both trade and popular magazines about architecture. Now architects themselves seem convinced that, in order to appear sophisticated, they too have to express themselves in gauzy riddles.  

That’s a shame, for one of the marks of a great architect is the ability to explain an  idea with clarity and simplicity--a skill that goes back centuries.    

The brilliant Sir Christopher Wren was charged with rebuilding London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666. From the outset, Wren found his work being  tampered with by the meddlesome old men who formed the church’s board of commissioners. When construction reached the tops of the walls, he saw to his dismay that the board had once again interceded, substituting a rather fussy parapet with balusters for the plain one he’d designed. Wren coolly responded to this affront by observing: “Ladies think nothing well without an edging.” 

Frank Lloyd Wright, for all his 19th-century-style purple prose, could also express himself with both immediacy and wit. In his autobiography, he described the Queen Anne-style houses he’d found in Chicago shortly after his arrival in the 1880s:

“All had the murderous corner-tower...either rectangular across the corner, round, or octagonal, eventuating in candle-snuffer roofs, turnip domes or corkscrew spires. I walked along miles of this expensive mummery, trying to get into the thinking processes of the builders.  Failed to get hold of any thinking they had done at all.”

In the 1960s, architect Edward Durell Stone spoke along similar lines, although in this case, he was renouncing his own Modernist heritage: “Style has been overemphasized:  There are books devoted to architecture that do not show plans explaining the basic conception...architecture is not millinery. Fashions pass by, buildings remain to become grim reminders of transient enthusiasms.”

In a prescient sentence I wish I’d written, he concluded: “Much of our modern architecture lacks (the) intangible quality of permanence, formality and dignity. It bears more resemblance to the latest model automobile, depending upon shining, metallic finish--doomed to early obsolescence.”

Stone made that statement almost forty years ago. If only more of today’s architects could see that clearly and speak that plainly. Instead, even with a subject as endearingly simple as a treehouse, we get cryptic psychobabble references to “fluctuating symbiotic relationships”, “interwoven interventions”, and movements “blurring the edges.” 

Blurring indeed.

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