Monday, September 10, 2018


Ray Lifchez
When I was an architecture student at Berkeley, I had a professor named Raymond Lifchez (LIF-shay) who insisted that we choose an overarching metaphor for every building we designed. Hence, we would have to begin our project presentations by dutifully reciting: “My metaphor is. . .House As A Childhood Memory,” or something of that sort. 

We used to joke about this behind the good professor’s back, coming up with inane metaphors such as “House As A Place To Live,” or “House As A House,” or my personal favorite, “House As A Final Project”.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed this
windmill on his Wisconsin farm
in 1897; its juxtaposition of
angles and circles reveals Wright's
metaphor of "Romeo and Juliet"
As the years have passed, though, Professor Lifchez's obsession with metaphors seems less and less arcane. In fact, I’m now nearly as convinced as he was that a unifying metaphor is crucial to a successful design. Without a unifying theme, a design is really just a collection of gimmicks, a way to get into the magazines for a couple of seasons.     

Too much far-out Berkeley schooling?  You decide.

To succeed over the long haul—not just for a few faddish years—a design must have integrity. The overarching metaphor accomplishes this by providing a touchstone that can be referred to whenever there’s a design decision to be made. Frank Lloyd Wright was quite keen on metaphors, having variously compared his buildings to birds, to trees—even to Romeo and Juliet. Wright felt that a building should be an integral, organic whole, not a collection of parts, and his metaphorical choices were crucial to that integrity.    

New York's Woolworth Building was conceived as a
"Cathedral of Commerce"—and looks it.
(Architect: Cass Gilbert, 1913)
Okay—perhaps you're not Frank Lloyd Wright. What practical use can you make of design metaphors? Let’s suppose you choose “House Ae A Quiet Repose” as the metaphor for your home’s design. Now, let’s say you need to decide between a vaulted ceiling or a flat ceiling in the master bedroom. A soaring vaulted ceiling certainly isn’t quiet, nor is it reposed. So—flat ceiling it is. The guiding metaphor has helped keep you on course. 

On the other hand, if you’ve chosen “House As A Springing Leopard” as your guiding metaphor, you’re going to go for that vaulted ceiling, aren’t you?  The dynamic nature of your metaphor fairly demands it. Without this kind of touchstone—a term I prefer to metaphor—a designer is adrift in a sea of choices, without any rational framework against which to measure his decision. 

Of course, it’s absolutely crucial that your metaphor be a true reflection of your personality and your wishes.  If you’re addicted to hobnobbing, choosing “House As A Quiet Repose” would just be self-delusional. Maybe what you really want is “House As Grand Central Station,” or something like that.  

Perhaps the most famous architectural metaphor,
"A House Is A Machine for Living In", is embodied
in Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, Poissy (1931)
The point is that choosing just the right metaphor can be of enormous help in guiding your design, right down to details such as countertop materials. Would “House As A Springing Leopard” have understated counters of ivory Corian?  Probably not. Would “House As A Quiet Repose?” Much more likely. Moreover, since all your design decisions are being measured against this same yardstick, your design will necessarily be consistent.

Of course it’s possible to create a  successful design without a metaphor, just as it’s possible to be a successful person—perhaps even a president—without integrity. Eventually, however, a lack of same will come to haunt both the building and the person who’s managed to succeed without it. 

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