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Favorite Architects

by admin on January 10, 2012

My friend Meg asked me if I have a favorite architect. It made me realize that I don’t, and that made me happy somehow, like that indicated that I was open-minded and an independent thinker or something like that. But then I remembered that a few years ago I fell hard for the work of Addison Mizner, who was instrumental in developing the ultra-refined Mediterranean Revival style associated with Palm Beach in the 1920’s. So elegant yet adaptable to so many situations!

I suppose there was also my first crush, Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger who gave a guest lecture at UCLA in 1979 and created a sea-change in my then-young mind in the way I saw the design world. A few comments by him, and worlds opened up to me.

Hertzberger spoke excellent English in the way that most “with it” northern Europeans do, and his slide show included a concert hall he designed that placed the musicians in the middle and the audience surrounding them on all sides. The sloped banks of seats angling toward the center stage were visually striking, but it was the little benches he made sure to point out behind the last row of seats that resonated with me. Not for their look, but for what they did for the livability of the place.

While designing this concert hall he went around to various venues and did his best to just notice everything he could about everything. He became aware that there were some people who preferred to linger on the edge of events without committing to the act of shuffling all the way down through the crowd to an assigned seat. These benches became places for these observers to comfortably loiter and take in the show in a way that was more comfortable for them.
With that small but highly sensitive gesture my eyes were opened to the idea that there were veiled forces at work in how people used their surroundings – realities that were in plain sight but eluded the attention of most – and that a sensitive person could become aware of these and design for them. There was much more to the act of designing than producing pretty shapes or interesting finishes. I loved it.

A few years later I became aware of a book that examined and methodically catalogued these sorts of insights, and it was like I found the Holy Grail. “A Pattern Language” was written in 1977 by Berkeley architect Christopher Alexander. It remains in print, as well it should. Local though the author may be, this is a resource for the world and for the ages. Numerous little chapters address all manner of the built environment, from the layout of cities to what to consider when adding trim to a window. Simple diagrams abound, as well as small photos that perfectly illustrate the ideas. It’s a joy to use.

Let’s take an example of something as archetypal as a courtyard. You may think you know what makes a good courtyard, but pattern number 115 suggests four key ideas that may have escaped your notice. Don’t fully enclose the courtyard and be sure there’s at least a slot of a view out to a larger open space. Include two or more doors to create natural paths through the courtyard to bring life to it. Next to one of these doors there should be a roofed veranda or porch which is continuous with the indoors. This brings the inside out into the yard and helps connect the inside and the outside. People really like having an in-between realm that breaks down the barrier between the inside and the outside.

Those designers who thought all they needed to do was add a sculpture or a bench off to the side of their dead-end courtyards to make them work have another thing coming.

Or do they? Will anyone every call them out for a failure that could have been prevented by following the tenets of life-centric design? Almost certainly the answer is no. All that will happen is that the world will be a slightly worse place and we’ll all go about our business.

There are architects who are whizzes at getting their work published in magazines and books. Almost always the images are visually compelling (at a glance), and many times the true livability of the space suffers. An example I recently saw in a book showed a dramatic two story wall of windows (never mind that they face west and make the room uninhabitable for much of the afternoon and that the two story height severely limits the ability to use window treatments) and another image that showed a rectangular pool of water that spanned between the inside and the outside under a glass wall (never mind how truly useless that portion of the house becomes.) How cool these photogenic features look at first, yet how unresponsive to the actual life of the inhabitants they are. But, hey, they got that architect published, so it’s “mission accomplished.” (Sheesh, I’m getting cynical as I get older.)
So my favorite architects are the ones getting all the little touches correct, even if such touches make for quality that is not easily detected at a glance. These are the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sorts of nods to quality. Ones that don’t just clobber you over the head with their supposed wonderfulness but work their ways into your life in ways you might not ever fully comprehend.


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