Architecture + MUSEUMS: Art or Architecture?

Leonardo’s Last Supper and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel are both well know examples of works of art that have been visited by millions of viewers. But public access to great works of art is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the modern era most significant collections of art were commissioned by religious institutions or wealthy patrons, and were normally housed in religious facilities or private residences.  On rare occasions the collections may have been open to the public for limited viewing, but this was the exception rather than the rule. 

In 1817 the Dulwich Picture Gallery was opened in England. Designed by Regency architect Sir John Soane, it has the distinction of being the oldest public art gallery in England and it ushered in a new building type – the Art Museum. The building was specifically designed to display artwork. Here, visitors could traverse a series of gallery spaces containing long expanses of walls for hanging art. The location of windows and skylight were carefully considered, due to their potential negative impact on the artwork. This prototype was largely followed throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, with the building serving as a backdrop for the art.

Sir John Soane – Dulwich Picture Gallery Main Entrance
Sir John Sloane – Dulwich Picture Gallery Interior

This commonly accepted idea, that the architecture should be subservient to the art, was all but abandoned by Frank Lloyd. A different idea, that the art should be subservient to the architecture was exemplified in his last major work – the 1959 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhatten. This was a museum in which visitors entered a grand multi-level atrium space, proceeded to the top via elevator, and spiraled down by way of a continuous ramp.  The art was placed on the spiraling outside walls and viewed from the sloped floor of the ramp.  The artwork, when hung plumb, appeared askew. This was a major point of contention throughout the design process. Baroness Hilla von Rebay, the Guggenheim’s director, felt that this approach placed more importance on the architecture than the artwork it was meant to exhibit. Wright did not argue this point. He simply stated that “Architecture was the mother of all Arts”, implying that the architecture need not be subservient to mere artwork.  Ultimately Wright proved to be ideologically the more tenacious and his design was realized as designed.

FLW – Guggenheim Museum Interior

The more recent 1997 Guggenheim Museum, that in Bilboa Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, continues the debate. Here the architecture is even more radical and the artwork more subservient. So, which should be given the higher priority – art or architecture? This question continues to be debated today, although I would contend that the wrong question is being asked. Perhaps we should ask if art and architecture can co-exist? I believe that they can, and I will offer an example in which I believe the architecture actually enhances the art and vice versa.

Frank Gehry – Guggenheim Bilbao
Frank Gehry – Bilbao Interior

In 1972 the Kimball Art Museum, designed by Louis Kahn, opened its doors in Ft. Worth Texas. Kahn skillfully crafted a series of linear vaults which are designed to capture and redistribute the just the right amount of light in which to view the artwork. The minimalist design and spare material palate of concrete, travertine, and wood offer a non-disruptive background.

When expansion became necessary a few years ago, it proved to be difficult task to find an architect who could provide an equally enticing venue in which to display art without compromising Kahn’s design.

Louis Kahn – Kimball Art Museum Interior

Renzo Piano’s Building Workshop was ultimately selected for the commission. As explained in Architectural Record, “Curators like the firm’s work because it “lets the art speak.” Their addition opened to the public in 2013. Piano chose to build a separate building and connect to Kahn’s museum through an underground tunnel. Piano’s layout takes cues from Kahn, with its linear galleries and floating partitions. He also mimics the way Kahn used natural and artificial light, as well as his material choices. These building are not twins, but brothers, separated by years, but definitely sharing DNA. Kahn’s and Piano’s buildings complement and reinforce each other. Each building is architecturally significant in its own right, with a simple sophistication that also allows the artwork to shine unchallenged. As a result, artists and exhibitors love to show at the Kimball. For me, this is museum architecture at its finest.

Renzo Piano – Kimball Art Museum Addition Interior

Museums are a complex building type, requiring collaboration between the architect, engineers, consultants, end users, and most importantly, the client.  The connection of architecture to the client will be the topic we explore next. Join me next time for Hosanna! A Client!

Architecture & HANDWRITING: To the Letter

At various times in my life, observant strangers have guessed my profession after simply looking at something that I had handwritten.  I can tell you of only two professions where this trick is possible. I’ll start with the easy one: If the handwriting appears as scribble and is impossible to read, one might guess that the author is a doctor, too busy be concerned with letter formation. Then there is the architect. So, what are the characteristics that reveal that the author is an architect? What is it that makes an architect’s handwriting different than that of others? Is there truly a connection between architecture and handwriting?

For some reason, which I have been unable to pin down, architects “letter” rather than “write”. I suspect the reason for this semantic difference is simply to give more emphasis to the stroke and form of the actual letters. It is often observed that architects tend to “print” rather than write in “cursive.” This seems to have originated in a time when all architectural drawing and lettering was by hand, and printed block letters are simply easier to read than script letters. Since the architect’s drawings are used to construct buildings, it is important that they be clearly and easily read. Architects also tend write in all capital letters (which has not always considered screaming!), again for legibility. However, the characteristic that most distinguishes architectural lettering is that the letterforms are stylized. Here is a little secret (or maybe it’s not a secret at all): Architectural lettering is not “natural”.  It is something that is carefully crafted. A great explanation of this process can be found in Doug Patt’s classic video “How to Write Like an Architect”.

The stylized lettering of architects stands in contrast to our that of our colleagues, the engineers.  While engineers strive for consistency and uniformity in both drawings and lettering, architects strive for creativity and individuality within looser constraints. By considering the slant of the strokes, the verticality of the stems, the shape of like characters, the proportions, and the spacing between characters, one can craft an individual lettering “style”. In the days when architects drew and lettered exclusively by hand, one could identify which architects worked on which drawings simply by the way they lettered. Architects developed their own drawing style. Richard Neutra developed a lettering style so well designed and distinctive that it has been picked up by a contemporary font foundry – House Industries. Other architects in this category include Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Macintosh. Ironically, this conversion to typefaces makes the lettering created by those architects both consistent and uniform.

The design consideration that architects put into their lettering carries into other areas as well. Another way that architects reveal their handwriting dexterity is revealed in their signatures. A lot of architects have really cool signatures. Whether the characters are recognizable or not, these signatures are usually carefully crafted designs. Renzo Piano and Ralph Raison are two of my favorites.

Renzo Piano

Ralph Rapson

Drawings, lettering and signatures are therefore closely connected to the architect’s individual style. The ultimate manifestation of that style takes the form of a building, and no building type is more coveted by the architect than the museum. That’s the next architecture connection we’ll explore. Join me for Art or Architecture.

architecture + SKETCHING: Drawing on Imagination

Napkin sketch of the Phase Tower by Thom Mayne

Design inspiration can strike out of the blue. We have all heard stories of musicians waking in the night with the perfect melody, a writer suddenly breaking through her block while in the middle of a conversation, or an architect grasping the concept for a new building while waiting at the cafe for his order. In all cases the creative individual frantically retrieves a pen and paper – maybe a notepad, or a receipt, or the back of a napkin. They doodle a few chords, scribble a few words, or sketch the genesis of a building. These are methods of capturing the fleeting inspiration. Such scenarios serve as a reminder that, despite advances in technology and documentation, the most fundamental of tools of pen and paper still play a vital role in the creative process.

Since I began architecture school in 1981, there has been a paradigm shift in the tools architects use to represent their works, due primarily to the computer. While digital output from sophisticated programs now account for most of the architect’s deliverables, they have not completely replaced hand drawn sketches and drawings, nor will they. There is room in the toolbox for both. Computer generated drawings offer high-tech precision and accuracy. Hand drawn sketches offer a quick and intuitive form of communication that simply cannot be replicated.

A work of architecture begins in the head of the architect. There, the big idea is formed and (to some extent) developed; however, unless the idea can be transformed to something tangible, it cannot be communicated. And if it the idea cannot be communicated, it can never be constructed and will never become a work of architecture. It will simply remain as an unresolved idea. The process in which architects convey this “big idea” is (to slightly paraphrase Christopher Knight) “to allow it to flow from the brain, through the hand, to the pencil, and onto paper”. The resulting sketch is called a parti. As we’ve noted, this process of design can happen virtually anywhere, at any time. An architect may sketch out the parti on a napkin while discussing the project over lunch. He may awaken in the night and scratch out the parti on the back of the first piece of paper he finds. If all else fails, a scheduled client meeting usually provides the necessary incentive for inspiration! So, the seed of architecture may be planted in the brain, but it sprouts as ink on paper.

Parti by Renzo Piano

Beyond the parti, other types of drawings are used by architects to communicate ideas. Hand drawings give the impression that the project is still evolving, which is usually the reality. A crisp CAD plan or computer generated model gives the impression that the project is complete, which is usually not the reality. In meetings with consultants or clients, the ability to pull out tracing paper and sketch over previous iterations of the design allow the architect to develop and advance the project on the fly. A picture is worth far more than a thousand words.

Most believe that drawing and sketching is a God-given talent. While there is some truth to that, it is also a skill which can be learned and mastered. With a little instruction and a lot of practice, anyone can become proficient in drawing.

Let’s carry the tool metaphor out a little further. You may have heard the old saying that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. With the tools of sketching and drawing in your toolbox you will soon find all kinds of places to use them. I have drawn not only buildings and houses but everything from our firm logo to the bed I sleep in at night. You’ll find a lot of nails too!

Many of us who once spent our days drawing and lettering on our boards sometimes find ourselves reminiscing about the “good ole days” of hand drawing and lettering almost everything. We’ll delve into that subject in the next post – To the Letter. Apparently there are enough of us out there that a museum has been constructed to cater to this nostalgia. The Museum for Architectural Drawing opened in Berlin in 2013. It promotes and displays collections of architectural drawings, primarily from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The building itself contains both subtle and conspicuous references to architectural drawings. The form created by the five levels of the building reminds one of stacks of drawings (subtle), while enlarged portions of historic drawings are transposed to the exterior skin. It may be because I am an architect, but I find the concept of a museum in which the “art” within is really architecture, truly intriguing. Sounds like a good idea for a future blog post – Art or Architecture?!

architecture + NATURE: In the Beginning

As we’ll discover in this blog, there are a myriad of topics to which architecture connects. There is one connection, however, that is more significant than all the others – the connection of architecture and nature. This connection goes back….. way back….. back to the beginning.

Garden of Eden by Peter Paul Rubens

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins the Genesis story of creation. Next, God separated the land from the water, then created plant and animal life. Man and woman were then created and given dominion over the earth. They were placed in the Garden of Eden and commanded to tend it.

This connection of man to nature is foundational to the Christian faith.  It is, however, not unique to Christianity.  The connection, in one form or another, is found in all major world religions, and even in Evolution. This connection is innate. It is in our DNA.

As a means of survival, humankind has always sought protection from the elements.  Early hunter-gatherers constructed transient dwellings, grass huts really, partially dug into the earth.  For thousands of years humankind has constructed forms of shelter from whatever nature provided them.  Eskimos constructed igloos from ice, the Souix erected tepees composed of saplings and animal skins, and the Pueblo Indians carved their shelter into the sides of the canyons. In our area of Alabama the Mississippian Indians constructed large communities built around large earthen mounds. This connection with nature continued even as humankind moved into sedentary agricultural societies.  The connection may have changed form but it remained none the less.

Rendering of the Moundville Al

With advances in technology and transportation, humankind has sometimes veered away from nature as the primary motivator of form and function in architecture. Some of the resulting works had little in common with the nature. The architect LeCorbusier designed the Villa Savoye, which was competed in 1931. He famously describe it as a “machine for living in”.

Villa Savoye by LeCorbusier

Faye Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas is an example of architecture re-embrasiong nature. As one follows the path from the parking lot, the chapel slowly reveals itself, growing from the forest floor, stretching for the sky, and branching out, like the surrounding trees. It has much in common with the nature of which it is a part.  The stone floors, transparent walls, and thin wooden frame are derived from the land and artfully arranged so as to mimic the nature from which they were extracted. Experiencing nature from within its confines takes mankind full circle, in appreciation of the creator of the chapel, but even more, in awe of Nature.

Thorncrown Chapel by Faye Jones

As an Architect, the process of design begins with a sketch. We’ll look at that connection in the next blog post – Drawing on the Imagination.

architecture + CORONAVIRUS: Nesting & Perching

These are very unusual times. As I edit this post, the vast majority of Americans are tucked away in their homes, trying desperately to avoid the coronavirus. As an architect, I am curious as to the impact that their dwelling places are having. Are we more aware of our surroundings? What kind of emotions are their spaces evoking? Are some spaces in high use while others remain abandoned? What are the reasons for this?

200405  Coronavirus US map.png
April 4, 2020 Impact of Coronavirus – credit: The Guardian

I think it can be safely said that different spaces elicit different emotions. The architect and academic Grant Hildebrand conducted extensive research on this topic.  He identified a handful of qualities that are evident in successful works of architecture. In my view the two most significant qualities he identified are prospect and refuge. Our desire for these qualities is embedded in our DNA and dates back to mankind’s beginnings. Hildebrand uses the noun tense of these words.  Prospect refers to an extended or expansive view.  As a counterpoint, Refuge refers to a small, intimate space.  Frank Lloyd Wright was aware of these qualities as well.  He referred to refuge as nesting and to prospect as perching.

A successful work of architecture will inevitably contain both of the qualities. The ideal ratio of one to the other is elusive. It varies depending on pragmatic parameters, such as the location of the building site, and individual characteristics, such as one’s gender and personality traits.  Generally women tend to favor more  nesting (refuge) while men tend to prefer more perching (prospect). Spaces within the work of architecture normally contain a balance of both qualities. Let’s explore how these qualities are used in the hands of a Master.

1939 Rosenbuam Plan
Rosenbaum Residence Floor Plan – credit 

Florence Alabama boasts the only Frank Lloyd designed house in the southeastern United States that is open to the public – the Rosenbaum House.  It is the second in his series of Usonian Houses (for the common man) and was completed in 1939.  I take my students on a pilgrimage to this house every year and have “experienced” it dozens of times.  It still impresses me!  The qualities of nesting and perching are used throughout, in a variety of ways and in various combinations.

Stanley Rosenbaum’s Study exemplifies the quality of nesting. The Study is right off of the Living Room.  It is is tucked (not buried) into the ground, giving it a feeling of separation.  The low ceiling and small size make the space feel cozy.  The wood walls and the small fireplace (out of view) add warmth to the mix.  The upholstered chair tucked into the corner surrounded by books provide creature comfort.  The desk provides a space for study and reflection.

Rosenbaum House
Stanley’s Study

Wright provided both interior and exterior spaces which allow for perching.  The rear of the house (which Wright called the front) unfolds to the exterior and directs the occupant’s view to the meadow and, before adjacent development, the Tennessee River beyond.  Full glass doors provide views from both the public and private areas.  Screen doors allow for breezes.  A small perch  is placed off the Master Bedroom where the Rosenbaums could stand outside, drink their morning coffee, and enjoy the view.

Rosenbaum House
Master Bedroom perch

The late architect Paul Rudolph once called the Rosenbaum’s Living Room “one of the most sublime spaces in American architecture.”  With a raised ceiling over clerestories, full glass doors, and concrete floors that extend to the exterior, this room is definitely a perching space.  Note that the Study, a nesting area, is only loosely separated from the Living Room.  No door here.  The floor pattern, light fixtures, and bookshelves link these two very different spaces.  An understanding of the link between psychology and architecture allows the skillful designer to create, differentiate, and link spaces, thereby creating successful works of architecture.

Roaenbaum Living Room
Living Room.   credit: Florence Dept of Arts & Museums

Next time we’ll take a look at the connection of man to nature, and the subsequent connection of nature to architecture.  It all begins……In the Beginning.

architecture + EVERYTHING: Eventually Everything Connects

This, a dusted-off and updated version of my first ever blog post, was inspired by a quote from Charles Eames. Charles was a stand out mid-century designer who, in close collaboration with his wife Ray, changed the face of American culture.  He was credited with stating that “eventually everything connects“. This is something that the Eames’ firmly believed and practiced. He was trained as an architect and industrial designer, she as an artist and designer, and both as furniture makers and film producers.
“Eventually everything connects…”  Even as an architect, it has taken me many years to become enlightened to this truth. Through this blog we will further explore architecture and its connection… virtually everything.

Eames cards, each with six slots, can be connected in endless configurations.

Most people subscribe to a common definition of architecture, such as the result one gets when googling “definition of architecture”.

ar·chi·tec·ture/ˈärkiˌtekCHər/ – noun: The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.

I would suggest that most of what pervades our physical environment is derived from the “practice of designing and constructing buildings”. We’ve become quite comfortable with concept. Architecture is the shell, what’s inside is interior design, and what’s outside is landscape architecture. By logical extension, the architect’s role is to deal with the shell, the interior designer’s role is to deal with whatever is inside and the landscape architect’s role is to deal with whatever is outside. With this distinction between the roles, the outcome is usually less than desirable, as exeplified by the buildings lining our thoroughfares.

Practice of designing & constructing buildings

Conversely, a regrettably small portion of what permeates our physical environment results from the “art of designing and constructing buildings”. This is where we usually find truly inspiring works of architecture. In recent years I began to notice that these inspiring works of architecture were often considered successful works of interior design and of landscape architecture as well. In the creation of these works, the architects were either unaware of the distinctions between these design disciplines or simply chose to ignore them. These works are not about distinctions, they are about connections. Consider the example of Richard Neutra’s Kaufman Desert House, perhaps best exemplified by Julius Shulman’s iconic black and white photograph.

Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House.
Art of designing & constructing buildings

The stepping of horizontal ground planes mimic the surrounding ground planes. The roof planes hover above the landscape on sheets of glass, or are supported by native stone which growing out of the site. The strong horizontal composition is accentuated by the verticality of natural plants and man-made architectural elements such as columns, doors and sunscreens. The floors seem to extend beyond the confines of the walls and transform to lush sod.
The observer can appreciate the subtle transitions from the interior to the exterior. Where one ends and the other begins is difficult to discern. Natural materials from the exterior are pulled inside and man-made materials from the interior extend outside. The furniture (much of it by Eames) is simple, planar, and warm. Views to the surrounding environment are deliberately considered and framed.
What can we take away from this example? I am convinced that this work is so satisfying because the architect takes advantage of a myriad of architectural connections, not limiting his role to the design of the shell. In doing so, he creates a work that is satisfying on a variety of levels.
This series of blog posts will explore the connection between architecture and the environment, the garden, the neighborhood, interior design, furniture design, product design, fashion, art, sociology, psychology, and more.
My next post will look at the connection between architecture and habitats. Join me for Nesting and Perching.