Monday, February 27, 2012


Growing up, I got used to seeing the U.S. Capitol on the evening news, usually rising majestically behind Dan Rather as he reported on some national crisis or other. Over the years, its domed-and-colonnaded form has assumed almost mythical proportions.  It is, after all, the focal point of what is still the world’s most powerful nation. 

Yet when I finally visited Washington DC in my thirties, I was a little let down to find that the Capitol, too, was a merely-mortal and somewhat tired-looking building--one with crooked light switches, runs in the paint, blocked-up windows, and all the other infirmities of an aging structure occupied and continually modified by humans.  

That visit made me realize that the real emotional power of man-made structures--even monumental ones like the Capitol--lies not so much in their physical splendor as in the record of human events they represent.

Of course the Capitol is physically impressive. Yet what really transcends all that marble and mortar is the sum of what’s transpired there during the last two hundred-odd years. Crossing the echoing rotunda beneath the Capitol dome, for example, who could help but recall the grainy TV images of John F. Kennedy’s flag-draped casket at its center? It’s this human record that gives the Capitol its mythical proportions--the cavalcade of people and events, and the traces they leave behind over the passage of decades and centuries. 

Yet such emotional power isn’t confined to monumental structures like the Capitol. In the New Mexico desert west of Alamogordo, for instance, is a barren spot where you’ll find nothing more imposing than some rusted steel bars and broken concrete jutting from the ground. They are the sole vestiges of a hundred-foot-tall steel tower that was instantly boiled away to vapor by the world’s first atomic bomb.  

“The Gadget”--as the bomb was known by its designers--was exploded atop the tower on the early morning of July 16, 1945.  The cataclysmic fireball, which one observer described as “the brightest light I have ever seen, or that I think anyone has seen,” fused the surrounding desert sand into a sea of glass.
In 1965, a small stone obelisk was built at the exact center of where the tower stood, marking the world’s first Ground Zero. Yet it’s the tower’s ravaged foundations that carry the real emotional force, standing in mute testament to one of the seminal moments in all history--that frozen split-second in which the atom’s terrible power was first unleashed on humankind. 

But better to conclude with a more upbeat example: Your house. No doubt you remember the day you moved in--how slightly odd it felt hanging your clothes in an unfamiliar closet, and stowing your Bisquick in a stranger’s cupboard. Yet every event that’s transpired there since that day has served to strengthen your ties to the place. However humble its physical structure might be, its emotional importance is, in its own way, monumental.  

Whether we’re talking about the U.S. Capitol, Trinity Site, or your house, the emotional power of place springs, not just from what we see, but from everything we’ve come to know.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Have you seen those motivational speakers on public TV--the ones who can fix all life’s troubles with a few simple guidelines?  You can tell the things they say are incredibly profound, because the camera is always cutting away to the audience smiling knowingly, nodding in rapt agreement, or holding back tears. As for me, alas, I soon switch back to reruns of The Simpsons and life goes on as before.

Until now, that is. I’m now a fully-empowered architecture columnist. If those TV lecturers can turn lives around with a few simple rules, by thunder, so can I. Herewith, my six-step program for anyone designing a home or addition:   

•  Start out sloppy. Neophyte designers always want to jump in and start drafting long before their plans are fully worked out. Architects don’t just sit down, think for a minute, and then start drawing up detailed plans. The real design work gets done in rough sketches--sometimes hundreds of them.  Drafting is the final stage, and in many ways, the least important.  Computer-aided drafting (CAD) programs are a particular danger for amateurs, since they make half-baked ideas look polished long before they’re ready. If you don’t do enough hard work at the outset, CAD won’t help you--it’ll just give you a flawless-looking set of lousy plans.

•  Embrace restrictions. You face almost infinite choices during the planning process, and you literally couldn’t make them unless you had some kind of guidelines to hem you in. Therefore, don’t think of physical or monetary restrictions as an encumbrance. Consider them your greatest aid in decision making.

•  Design from the inside out. Don’t regard a floor plan as a big sheet cake to be carved up into the right sized pieces. Start planning with the principal rooms, and let things accrete outward. Don’t worry about walls lining up at this point--you can always tidy things up a bit later.

•  Establish a hierarchy. Rank the importance of each room beforehand, so you can decide which rooms deserve the best view, the most expensive finishes, and so on. Typically, major rooms such as the living room, family room, and master bedroom top the list, but it’s your call. If cooking is your big passion, for example, maybe your kitchen should get dibs on having access to the garden, a fancier ceiling, or some other special feature. 

•  Let old Sol help you out. Adhering to good solar orientation will once again make many of your planning decisions for you. Face living areas toward the sunny southern exposure, and have utilitarian areas (garage, laundry, bathrooms, etc.) face north. Make sure rooms have sunlight at the time of day that they’re used most: the breakfast room facing east for morning light, the dining room facing west for afternoon sun, and so on. Orient bedrooms according to your preference for morning or afternoon sun.  Not every site can accommodate these ideals--but the closer you get, the better.

•  Lastly, if you get stuck on a design problem, don’t just fizzle out and leave well enough alone. Instead, quit for a few days, and then come back to your plan with a fresh eye. Repeat this cycle until every problem--and I mean every problem--is solved. In architecture, as in life, creative success demands an attention to detail. 

Hey, wait a minute--are you watching reruns of the The Simpsons?

Monday, February 13, 2012


A while back, I happened to catch a popular radio host discussing some guy in Florida who’d painted his house in his old fraternity colors--purple and gold.  Predictably, the man’s neighbors were up in arms.  

Now, as offensive as a purple-and-gold house might sound to you, hearing the way the talk show host carried on about it was worse.  It was an outrage, he declared in so many words, that people could simply paint their houses any color they pleased, and by golly, there should be a way to stop them from doing it.  It was a classic argument for the Taste Police.  

The talk show host’s callers threw an even feebler light on the matter.  With barely-masked disdain for “ethnic” color preferences, they gleefully ridiculed other people who, God forbid, had painted their houses orange or pink or electric blue.
At best, this sort of thinking is provincial.  At worst it’s just plain racist.  America’s demographics are changing, and along with many other things that belong in the dustbin of history is the idea that Caucasians have some sort of monopoly on defining good taste for everyone else. 

In any case, the whole idea that there are “tasteful” architectural colors is utter nonsense, as even the most cursory survey of architectural history will attest.  The architecture of much of the Mediterranean and Asia, to mention just the obvious examples, is beloved for its vibrant use of color.  How is it, then, that when these same hues appear on homes in the world’s most multicultural nation, they suddenly become “tasteless”?  

What’s more, if strident color schemes are so offensive, why is it permissible for, say, a huge Swedish retail chain to paint their colossal stores in the most galling blue-and-yellow color scheme imaginable, while an individual who paints his house in those colors is seen as some sort of threat to the public order?  

Some towns are so mortified by the idea of vivid color schemes that they actually specify the range of colors people can use on their own homes.  Surprise, surprise--the allowable “tasteful” colors just happen to reflect the sedate color preferences of Northern Europeans. 

Would you tolerate a law that dictated what color clothes you could wear in public?  Or what color car you could park in your driveway?  If not, why would you tolerate a regulation dictating what color you could paint your own home?  After all, your taste in clothes, cars, or houses comes down to the same thing--a highly personal choice.  

The usual tiresome Taste Police response to this assertion goes something like, “Well, if I have to look at my neighbor’s purple house all day, it’s infringing on my personal right to a tasteful environment.”  

It’s an argument that doesn’t hold water, because there’s no such thing as an objective standard of taste--one person’s tasteful is another person’s awful, and that’s that.  In other words, the neighbor may well find a beige house just as offensive. 

Whether other people find our favorite colors tasteful or awful, we still have a perfect right to express them, be it through our clothes, our cars, or our homes.  If preserving that right for myself means tolerating my neighbor’s purple-and-gold house, so be it.  It sure beats having the Taste Police make my choices for me. 

Monday, February 6, 2012


If you’ve ever chuckled at how your job is portrayed in the movies, be glad you’re not an architect. On film, we’re either saints or we’re psychos.  Judge for yourself:

Leading off with some early bad press for the profession is the 1934 horror film The Black Cat, in which Boris Karloff is a loony architect who kills the wife of his nemesis Bela Lugosi, preserves her in a glass coffin, and then marries and kills Lugosi’s daughter. Oh yeah, I forgot--when he’s not busy doing all this, he also runs a satanic cult.  

On the other hand, Walter Pidgeon played the consummate gentleman architect opposite Greer Garson in 1942’s Best Picture, Mrs. Miniver. We know Pidgeon is an architect because he carries around a roll of drawings and wears a tweed jacket. Alas, his occupation is incidental to the plot, which was really director William Wyler’s bid to scare Americans out of wartime neutrality. 

In 1949’s The Fountainhead, one of the funniest serious films ever made, we don’t see Gary Cooper’s genius-architect character carrying a mere roll of drawings. Instead, he wields a huge rock drill, which co-star Patricia Neal regards with rather excessive interest.  

Then there’s the moment when Cooper unveils what’s supposed to be his sublime design for a modern house. In Ayn Rand’s book, this ethereal triumph was left to the reader’s imagination, but on film, an actual image was required. Too bad: At a showing I once attended, when this purportedly brilliant creation came on screen, the audience burst out laughing. You could hardly blame them:  The house depicted, no doubt tres cool for 1949, was an over-the-top streamlined job that resembled an old Dairy Queen caught in mid-explosion.  

As the quintessential architect movie, it’s a shame that The Fountainhead is so impossibly overwrought, and that its message is so dumb. Director King Vidor has Cooper and Neal dutifully jabbering Rand’s absurd dialog, trying to justify why Cooper should get away with blowing up his own building. And the lesson we take away from the film? If you love something--I mean, if you really, really love it--you should destroy it. 

Speaking of destruction, let’s not forget a movie architect almost as scary as Rand’s--squinting, mustachioed Charles Bronsen, in 1974’s Death Wish.  The mild-mannered Bronson goes in big for vigilante justice after his wife is killed and his daughter left catatonic by a trio of muggers. Just in case we didn’t get the point the first time, there were four sequels. 

The same vintage year brought us The Towering Inferno, in which Paul Newman plays an architect who’s just completed a 138-story skyscraper right in the middle of San Francisco--apparently under a different planning commission. Newman doesn’t get to go hogwild with a .32, but he does get to blame greasy Richard Chamberlain for cheaping out on the wiring in his building, causing a highrise catastrophe, and that counts for something.  

Amazingly, Newman and Steve McQueen battled over who got top billing in this Irwin Allen extravaganza--probably the first and last time that actors playing an architect and a fire chief will have that privelege.

The image of the architect as a batty artist type was advanced once again in 2002’s indie film World Traveler, in which Billy Crudup is an architect having a midlife crisis.  His solution?  He walks out on his family, hits the road, and ”works low-paying jobs, picks fights, and beds lonely rural women,” according to one synopsis.  

Sounds like just the guy for that kitchen remodel you’re planning.