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.

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.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

ENERGY CONSERVATION: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

“Spare at the spigot,” admonishes an old proverb, “and let out the bunghole.”  That rather tidily sums up America’s schizophrenic attitude toward energy conservation.  We gladly rally to trim our energy use by a few percent, whether at home, at work, or in our cars, but we ultimately feel little urgency to change the overwhelming wastefulness of our built environment.  

During the past thirty years, we’ve done plenty of “sparing at the spigot”, and that can only be applauded. We’ve passed minimal building energy standards such as California’s Title 24, but then wiped out much of the savings by building the sort of needlessly bloated, energy-guzzling homes that now sprawl across acre after acre of once pastoral landscape. We’ve enacted minimum standards for gas mileage--for some vehicles, at any rate-- yet we’ve made little headway in curbing our reliance on the automobile itself.  

How did we get into this jam? A fair share of the blame for our disastrous land-use policies belongs at the feet of the very people who insisted they knew better:  the postwar city planners. They’ve left us our current legacy of hyperorganized zoning ordinances which encourage--and in fact practically mandate--urban sprawl. These in turn have produced a national reliance upon the automobile that has only increased.  After a disastrous 2009 sales year, 2010 car sales were up by almost twelve percent. So were people taking the opportunity to buy more efficient vehicles? Not quite. Leading the 2010 recovery was the gas-guzzling Ford F series pickup truck, whose sales increased by almost 25%.  

And no wonder Americans remain auto-centered. Too many planners and state transportation departments still consider freeway expansion programs the solution to our mass transportation woes, even though it’s been demonstrated time and again that bigger highways merely invite more traffic instead of reducing it. 

We consumers are to blame as well, for buying into the idea that a snowballing trend of consumption is the very embodiment of success.  Even in the teeth of a nasty recession, we remain hooked on huge houses, and we're still willing to move out to the boondocks so we can afford them.  Many people now routinely drive an hour or even two to get to work--a commute that would have been considered perfectly absurd even twenty years ago.  Pretty soon, of course, the new community is as choked with cars and asphalt as the old one.  

The real pity is that we’ve recognized the folly of these trends for decades, and we’ve done next to nothing to even protest them, let alone change them.  And thanks to the hidebound attitudes of so many civic planning departments, little of substance has changed in our land use policy since the 1950s: Our hyperorganized zoning ordinances still jealously guard the outdated postwar ideal of the single family home surrounded by largely useless strips of “setback” land, and continue to frown on more intelligent arrangements such as zero-lot-line construction, courtyard homes, and mixed commercial and residential planning. 

By all means, save all the energy you can.  But while any move toward conservation is commendable, it’s America’s fundamental building practices that really need changing, not the position of the light switch in your hallway.