Monday, March 28, 2016


Check out any visual medium, whether large screen or small, and chances are you’ll come across a show with fictional lawyers doing brilliant verbal sparring in court or in some shadowy back hall.  The law—at least as it’s portrayed in fiction—is pretty compelling stuff.  It must be, considering the parade of lawyer shows that have appeared since the dawn of television.
Gary Cooper (left) as the insufferable Howard Roarke
in The Fountainhead, perhaps the funniest movie
about architecture ever made. (King Vidor, 1949)

Lord knows we’ve also had enough medical melodramas during that time, from Ben Casey to E.R. And then there’s that whole slew of crime-scene investigation shows that make examining dead bodies seem action-packed.

And then we have architecture.  

Chances are you’ve probably never seen a show or a movie about architects, and there’s a good reason:  the preposterous histrionics of “The Fountainhead” aside, seeing an architect in action is about as thrilling as watching ivy grow.

Walter Pidgeon played a more likable architect
in Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942).
You can tell he's an architect by his jacket.
That, unfortunately, is one of the architectural profession’s biggest image problems.  It seems reasonable to pay your lawyer big bucks for slaying the enemy with a well-honed courtroom phrase.  And it certainly seems worthwhile to pay a hefty doctor’s fee when your gall bladder is at stake.  But it’s harder for many people to see the return on paying an architect thousands of dollars for a) talking in dreamy generalities about your project, b) sitting on his or her butt for three months waiting for inspiration to strike, and c) sending you a thumping invoice for the mysterious services rendered.  

You haven’t been spared from six months in the slammer, nor has your gall bladder been restored to making first-rate gall, or whatever it’s supposed to do.  Instead, all you’ve got to show for your hard-earned money is a few lousy sheets of paper.

I’d love to remedy this public-relations shortcoming with a comprehensive list of all the nitty-gritty things an architect does for his commission.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  The truth is that designing a building is in fact a vague and amorphous business, because the most valuable part of an architect’s service is purely intellectual.  But that doesn’t make the work any less valid—just less visible.  

Charles Bronson did some more great
for architects playing a nutty vigilante in Death Wish.
(Michael Winner, 1974)
Architecture, alone among the professions, is a schizophrenic mixture of art and science—a lot more of the former, if you ask me.  And while an Einstein might be methodical in documenting his work, no one expects a Picasso to explain how he goes about producing great art. What’s more, it would be utterly unthinkable to ask an artist, brilliant or otherwise, to justify the cost of his work.  

"Your drawings are
going to cost me WHAT?!"
Yet it’s seldom that an architect, upon presenting his bill, doesn’t get a certain look from his client that says: Exactly what the *!%&! did I get for all this money? 

It’s perfectly reasonable that people want value for their design dollar. In architecture, however, value doesn’t consist of objects or even accomplishments, but simply of ideas. That’s a pretty tough sell, and it can lead to bad feelings on both sides.  Still, buildings last a long, long time, and I’d like to think that anyone who cares enough to hire an architect can also appreciate that the road to good design is bumpy and not well charted.   One hopes that, ultimately, the client will find it worth all the effort and expense.

We’re not prime time stuff, but we try.        

Monday, March 21, 2016

A "KINGS" RANSOM: Should Taxpayers Be Subsidizing Corporate Sports?

Sacramento's historic origins lie along the lovely American River.
Like so many American cities, Sacramento, California was long ago ravaged by the construction of an elevated interstate freeway that severed the downtown from its historic riverfront roots. In some places, U.S. Interstate 5 passes within a few hundred feet of the lovely American River, shattering a once placid riverside stroll with the sound of big rigs barreling overhead.

In later years, Sacramento’s city planners did their best to mitigate the disastrous effects of this mid-century freeway incursion, valiantly attempting to reconnect the city to its riverside origins via a pedestrian mall. Alas, this route necessarily dips beneath the vast breadth of Interstate 5, plunging hapless strollers into a dark tunnel while hundreds of motor vehicles roar past in the sunshine overhead.
The construction of Interstate 5 literally severed Sacramento
from it riverside origins.

Now another civic catastrophe is being visited on Sacramento, and once again it will seem familiar to cities across the United States. Despite the looming presence of Interstate 5, Sacramento’s pedestrian mall at least gave the city a semblance of a grand processional befitting a state capital. Not so any more: The vast Golden 1 Center now sprawls across this axis like a beached whale. 

Golden 1 Center is billed as a multi-purpose indoor arena, but its main brief is to house the Sacramento Kings basketball team which, in a familiar ploy, was threatening  to move elsewhere. The project was never subject to a public vote, even though taxpayers will foot nearly half the estimated $507 million bill, and even though this quarter-billion dollar investment of public money will serve mainly to keep yet another corporate sports franchise flush with cash. 

Golden 1 Center, a mammoth arena that serves mainly
to ensconce the Sacramento Kings basketball team,
now sprawls directly across the axis of
Sacramento's pedestrian connection to the river.
To this end, the arena will be fitted with an 84-foot-wide ultra HD videoboard (“the largest screens in the NBA”), a plethora of luxury suites, and all the other accouterments expected of high-rolling corporate sports. The fawning city council even agreed to rezone several parcels to allow the Kings to erect six digital billboards beside nearby freeways. One presumes that mucking up Sacramento’s downtown with this elephantine lump of a structure was just seen as a minor downside.

However, the root issue here and in other American cities is not just one of intelligent city planning. The real question is why any city should allow itself to be blackmailed into accommodating multimillion-dollar sports franchises at taxpayer expense.  
But the real question for big-deal arenas like this one is:
Should taxpayers be footing half the bill?

Following the Sacramento city council’s 7-2 approval of the Golden 1 project in May 2014, a local attorney and vocal opponent of the arena, Patrick Soluri, was interviewed by the Sacramento Bee newspaper. He framed a complaint that could be made against corporate sports arena deals across America:

“This action does not represent the will of the taxpayers and residents of the city of Sacramento. These officials have completely abandoned their duties to represent the interests of ordinary citizens.”

Sacramento’s mayor, Kevin Johnson—who happens to be a former NBA All-Star— has dismissed taxpayer challenges such as Soluri’s, saying: “We’re not going to let any sideshows or distractions steal our moment.”

Monday, March 14, 2016


The late architect Louis Kahn, a man known for the exquisite ambiguity of his design philosophies, once began a lecture thus:

“Light. . .is .”

Rule No. 1: Living areas should face south or nearly so.
To which I might humbly amend, “Sunlight. . .is even more so .”  Sunlight is probably the single most essential ingredient of a livable, welcoming home.  Yet it’s staggering how many houses are built with precious little consideration of when and how sunlight will enter the rooms. And while home buyers are often particular about gimmicks like six-burner ranges and fridges with internet connections, they’ll blithely overlook poorly-oriented living spaces that will make their home unalterably dreary year-round.

The rules for good solar orientation are simple, easy to implement, and have been recognized for thousands of years.  If you’re house hunting, or especially if you’re planning a new home, pay scrupulous attention to solar orientation before you worry about built-in ironing boards and all that. 

•  The first rule of orientation:  The windows of living areas should generally face south.  Not necessarily due south, but close enough to get direct sunlight (or "insolation", in technical jargon). Southern orientation of living areas warms your home in the winter and brings in plenty of natural light.  Given identical floor plans, it can make the difference between a warm, inviting home and a dark and miserable one.

A Real Loser: Never, ever face outdoor living areas
to the north. They won't get used.
And by the way, the roof isn't helping any.
However, make sure that you have a means of shading, either with architectural overhangs or with window coverings, in order to control the amount of sun coming in.  Why bother facing south if you’re going to put up shades?  Simple—you can always keep sun out when you don’t want it, but you can’t bring it in if it ain’t there.

•  Minimize north-facing windows.  Since sunlight seldom reaches north walls, north-facing windows effectively contribute zero solar heat gain;  meanwhile, they radiate lots of heat outdoors, making for cold rooms.  All in all, a lousy deal.  So whenever possible, relegate north-facing spaces to utility areas like the garage, laundry, pantry, bathrooms, and so on.  

Mmm, I can smell the bacon frying.
Who could resist eating breakfast here?
Another caveat:  Never locate outdoor areas like patios and decks on the north side if they’ll be in thee house’s shadow.  You’ll end up with a space that’s chilly and unused for most of the year.  

•  Orient specialized areas according to their time of use.  For example, a breakfast room should face east or southeast so it’ll get plenty of morning sun.  A deck that you plan to use mainly in the afternoon should face southwest or west to get afternoon sun. Orient the kitchen according to the time of day when it’ll get the most use:  east for mornings, west for afternoons, south for general all-day use.  If bright sun helps wake you up in the morning, face your bedroom east, and so forth.  These rules may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many homes have rooms that get sun at all the wrong times (or worse, no direct sun at all).
No one could possibly oversleep in a sunny
bedroom like this one.

•  Remember that the sun’s altitude isn’t constant during the day.  Morning and late afternoon sun comes in at a lower angle and requires special attention to shading to avoid uncomfortable glare.

 •  Finally, while real-life conditions like views, street access, and terrain may dictate some compromises in orientation,  don’t stray too far from the basics.  You might be left in the dark.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

SURPRISE! Design That Makes For Double-Takes

Niches are a sure-fire
and very inexpensive way
to add interest to an interior.
It’s been said that the essence of beauty is a pattern containing fluctuations. In other words, the human mind likes to have a handle on an overall aesthetic pattern, but it also longs to be challenged by fluctuations or unexpected changes in that pattern. That’s where the element of surprise comes in. 

In architecture, surprise entails the use of unexpected spaces or elements. The real trick is knowing when to break the pattern—which isn’t as simple as it sounds. A design full of nothing but odd and unexpected elements won’t be seen as beautiful, but rather as simply disorienting or bizarre. Rather, a good designer gives us an unexpected fluctuation just when we think we’ve figured things out--keeping the expected pattern always at hand as a reference point, and only then deviating from it.

Here are some ways to add surprise to your own architecture:

An unexpected dormer window
adds new interest to what would have
been a standard-issue vaulted ceiling.
•  Add unexpected forms, recesses, or features. Something as simple as a niche in a hallway can provide interest to an otherwise routine space. For example, homes of the 1920s often featured a small arched recess off of the entry containing a set of doorbell chimes. These kinds of touches are inexpensive, but can go a long way toward making a space more memorable.

•  Vary floor levels. Break out of the two-dimensional mold of conventional floor plans by including raised or sunken areas. Overlooks from higher to lower levels are also an excellent way to add interest, for just as people like to explore, they also like seeing where they’ve been. Especially effective are overlooks where they’re least expected--from bedrooms or other upstairs spaces.     
A few steps can make a big difference. Imagine how
bland this room arrangement would be without them.

•  Vary ceiling height. Ceilings can also frequently benefit from breaking out of the two-dimensional doldrums. Once again, contrast is the key:  Very low ceilings can be intentionally oppressive and claustrophobic, while high ones give a great sensation of spaciousness and release. Hence, a narrow, low-ceilinged passage that unexpectedly open into a will a huge, soaring space wrings the maximum possible drama from this transition.  

•  Introduce unexpected views. Asian designers have long utilized the technique of “framing” a view from selected places within a room, rather than exposing the entire wall of the room to it as we often do in the West. They recognize that, just as we grow inured to the sound of ocean waves, we soon grow numb to even the most beautiful view if we’re constantly exposed to it. Framing a view has the effect of renewing our appreciation for it, so that it remains a recurrently delightful surprise to the senses. 
The "zen view" is a refreshing alternative
to the usual Western practice of
pounding people over the head with a good view.
The fact that it's limited renews our appreciation.

•  Use mirrors to make spaces look bigger and more dramatic. Integrate them into the architecture so they’re not just hung on the wall like a picture. Try using mirrors at the backs of niches, above high wainscots, or in places where they’ll reflect columns or other architectural features—that way, you get two features for the price of one. Just don’t place mirrors where confused people might run into them.  That’s not the kind of surprise you’re after.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Come on, admit it—
you'd like to know what's up there.
How many of us, as kids, could resist the temptation to climb the stairs in a strange house to see what was “up there”? Now that we’re grown, we suppress these kinds of urges for the sake of propriety, but they still exist in our subconscious minds, and can be drawn upon quite subtly by a clever designer.  

In architecture, spaces which draw on the human sense of curiosity are said to have mystery--they foster the creation of drama or suspense by alluding to architectural spaces or features while keeping them partially concealed.   

Mystery can subtly entice us toward a particular space. Let’s suppose there are two hollow eight-foot-square cubes about ten feet away from you.  The front of one is open, so that the interior is completely visible.  The front of the other has only a two-foot-square aperture at the center, so that the interior is largely concealed. Which cube will attract you more?  

Not much mystery here—practically the whole house
can be taken in at a glance. Ho hum.
Most people will approach the enclosed cube precisely because they can’t see what’s inside. Likewise, an architectural space that’s immediately comprehensible presents little challenge to the mind—it simply isn’t as interesting as a space that keeps us guessing. And although entertainment is not a designer’s primary charge, an intriguing space is inevitably more memorable than one that simply functions.  

Here are a few ways to evoke a sense of mystery in your own designs:

Hmm—how do I get up there?
•  Allude to the destination.  For example, the head of a staircase often disappears up the stairwell so that we can’t see its termination. Yet the presence of the staircase obviously implies a space above and arouses our curiosity. If the destination is obvious, it holds much less interest—we already know what’s “up there”.   

Small interior balconies and other openings opening into a room can also  hint at the existence of spaces beyond. This entices the viewer to reach them, all the more so if the means of access isn’t obvious.   

Architect David Adler's
Lasker House, Chicago (1925):
What's around the corner?
What's through that doorway?
•  Provide tantalizing glimpses of rooms or areas in the home, rather than making them obvious. A room that immediately reveals itself is disappointing to the mind’s sense of curiosity. By carefully considering sightlines during the planning stages, you can control the views from one room into the next, so that the spaces unfold in an intentional and effective order.  Columns and screen walls can also be used to alternately reveal and then conceal the destination without “giving away the store”. 

•  Manipulate light levels. Here, contrast is the key to creating mystery or drama. Try to play light against dark--the effect of a bright, sunlit room will be redoubled if it’s approached from a dark and mysterious one, and vice versa.  A uniformly bright or uniformly dark series of spaces will lack this counterpoint.  

At night, dimmers can help provide dramatic artificial lighting. Indirect lighting is especially effective in creating a subdued or mysterious effect. Of course, bright light should always be available when needed for cleaning and maintenance. 

Do use these techniques with a bit of restraint. Subtlety, not theatrics, is the key to creating mystery.