Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE OUTSIDERS (PART ONE OF THREE PARTS)

Though some of my colleagues might cringe to hear it, non-architects--those who lacked either the formal schooling or the license to legally use the title “architect”--have had a huge impact on American architecture over the past century.  If they weren’t architects in the legal sense, they more than lived up to the title’s original meaning of “master builder”.

Why not start at the top?  Frank Lloyd Wright’s only formal training consisted of a year of engineering classes at the University of Wisconsin.  Thoroughly bored, he dropped out in 1888 and headed for Chicago to find a job.  He quickly found one, first apprenticing with the Chicago architect  J. Lyman Silsbee, and later and more famously with his “lieber Meister”, Louis Sullivan.  In 1893, after a falling out with Sullivan over taking outside work, Wright left the firm and opened his own office, where was able to use the title “architect” only because his practice predated the Illinois licensure requirements by four years.  
Wright nurtured a lifelong disdain for traditional architectural training, which eventually led him to found the Taliesin Fellowship, a unique school in which apprentice architects learned largely by doing.

But Wright is only the best-known example of brilliant architects with unconventional or even nonexistent educations.  In another vein entirely is Addison Mizner, the California-born, Guatemala-raised, Florida-polished raconteur who improbably rose to become the top society architect of Palm Beach during the Roaring Twenties.  Mizner despised school, and accordingly his only architectural training was a three-year apprenticeship with the San Francisco architect Willis Polk.  The happy result was a personal style that drew more from his childhood knowledge of Spanish Colonial Guatemala than from the copybooks so beloved by his contemporaries.  

Nevertheless, Mizner’s romantic antiquarian villas were considered vulgar setpieces by his academically-trained colleagues.  It probably didn’t help that he also ran a business manufacturing mock-antique furniture and building materials, which he used liberally in his own  work.  Mizner’s career was spectacular but brief; he died in 1933.  Today, his surviving Palm Beach work ranks among the finest Spanish Revival architecture in the nation.

On the opposite coast, Cliff May, the San Diego architect widely considered the father of the California Rancher, started his career building Monterey-style furniture.  When he began designing Spanish Colonial-style houses for speculative builders in the early 1930s, academic architects dismissed him as a purveyor of kitsch.  Yet over time, May’s rambling, site-sensitive designs metamorphosed into the rustic and low-slung homes that Americans came to love so well.  All told, May built his Ranchers in forty U.S. states, and their spiritual heirs went on to become the dominant style of the postwar era.  Genuine May-designed Ranchers, not to mention his earlier Spanish Revival designs, are now celebrated and studied by architectural connoisseurs.  

Despite these formidable accomplishments, May received only late and grudging acceptance from his licensed colleagues--or as he rather poignantly put it,  “It took real architects a long time to let me into the club.”   

Next time, we’ll look at a few more outsiders who changed the course of architecture, and see what they all had in common.

Monday, December 19, 2011

PROOF THAT GOOD DESIGN MATTERS

During the past few weeks, every time I’ve had to use yet another badly-designed appliance, or had to sit idling at yet another ineptly-timed traffic light, or had to decipher yet another garbled set of instructions, I’ve thought of one man: Steven Jobs. And I wish there could’ve been a hundred more like him.

There’s no doubt that, with Jobs’s passing, the world has lost one of the most important visionaries of the last hundred years. But for me, the loss has less to do with his putting a computer for the rest of us on a million desktops, nor with his uncanny knack for creating things that people didn’t even know they needed. Granted, these accomplishments are vastly important to Jobs’s legacy. But to my mind, his ultimate triumph was his singular skill at persuading a largely indifferent public that excellent design really matters. He wanted us all to be as passionate about beauty and simplicity as he himself was. And to the extent that Apple’s famously intuitive and user-friendly products are now more popular than ever, he seems finally to have succeeded.

The fact is that the average American consumer has been amazingly tolerant of third-rate product design. Consequently--and understandably--any company that knows it can make perfectly good money selling clumsy, overcomplicated, or unintuitive products has no incentive whatever to improve them. And so most don’t. 

In Jobs, however, we had the unique case of a businessman on a near-religious crusade to educate his own market, relentlessly challenging us to demand more than the run-of-the-mill crap we’re typically offered. 

It’s interesting to note that the Apple cofounder, despite being a pioneer in one of the most technically complex fields yet known to man, was not an engineer but rather a laid-back college dropout with a mystical streak. To add yet another layer of paradox to this singular mind, he was notoriously--some would say tyrannically--demanding of the people who worked for him. But if this is what it took to engender the phenomenally beautiful and beautifully functional objects Apple has created out over the years, then it was all worth it.

As you’ve probably guessed, I write on a Macintosh, and have done since I bought the very first model through an Apple engineer pal back in 1984. So yes, kids--I’ve been a true believer since long before the iPod, iPad, or iPhone even existed. And for many of those years, I tried in vain to convince doubters why there was nothing like using a Mac--in short, why good design really mattered. Thankfully, with the wild success of those assorted i-Things, Jobs was finally able to make that case for me. 

Steve Jobs had already revolutionized the fields of computing, film, music, and telephonics. I wish he’d been given the time for even more far-flung conquests, because I have no doubt that the world would have been a better place for it.

We could have used a hundred more like him, but alas, there was only one.



Monday, December 5, 2011

ENOUGH DESIGN, ALREADY

Not long ago, I handed a young architectural intern a preliminary sketch to be drafted up on the computer. It was a site plan for an agricultural research facility comprising 130 acres, about eighty acres of which were supposed to be reserved  for farmland.

A week later, as promised, I received the computer drawing. But lo and behold, the great swath of undeveloped acreage shown in the original plan had been completely filled up with a meandering web of plazas and pedestrian malls in a galaxy of arbitrary shapes--pinwheels, checkerboards, crescents, what have you. Setting aside the fact that these busy forms would only have made sense from the air, they would also have made for some rather difficult farming.

When I asked the intern why she’d added all those features unbidden, she replied:  “The plan looked so empty, I thought the client would want to see more things in it.” 

This is a problem that afflicts all creative people, so much so that we even have a Latin name for it: horror vacui, or fear of emptiness. Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of The New York Times, has called it “the driving force in contemporary American taste...(and) the major factor now shaping attitudes toward public spaces, urban spaces, and even suburban sprawl."

As Muschamp rightly perceives, the horror vacui is especially pronounced among architects.  Many, like my young drafter, think that if they don’t fills up every space with an avalanche of ideas and images, however unrelated to the program, they’ve somehow fallen short of their creative charge.

In fact, just the opposite is true.  Architecture is a process of reduction, not just compilation.  Ideally, the architect distills a complex set of requirements into the simplest form that will both satisfy the client’s needs and offer some measure of personal artistic grace.  The avalanche of ideas has its place early in the process, but as things progress, design features that aren’t essential--whether for function or effect--fall away, leaving the final polished kernel of a solution. When carried out with skill, this process doesn’t preclude fanciful ideas, but it does preclude dysfunctional and clumsy ones. 

Of course, today’s designers aren’t the only ones afflicted with horror vacui-- it’s a tendency that waxes and wanes over decades. Victorian architects, for instance, couldn’t bear to see an unadorned surface.  The dawning twentieth century brought a counterreaction to this compulsive decoration; it began with the Mission Revival and Craftsman styles and reached its zenith with International Style Modernism, whose practitioners turned architectural reduction into an art form.  

Ironically, it’s precisely this Modernist austerity that’s sent us hurtling back toward the frenetic gimcrackery so evident in contemporary design. And while architecture without complexity is dull, architecture that’s layer upon layer of complexity is simply meaningless.  

As in so many other things, the answer lies in striking a balance. Some of our era’s most idealized domestic architecture--rural French farmhouses, say, or those much-admired vernacular hillside towns in Italy or Spain--are about as spare and simple as could be while still suiting their purpose. Against such a clean sharp background, a single flowerpot or bit of filigreed ironwork fairly bursts with ornamental power.  

Alas, like my young intern, many architects still grow fidgety at the sight of a plain white wall, much less an empty plot of land. That’s too bad because, more often than we’d like to think, the best designing we can do is none at all.