Showing posts with label architecture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label architecture. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Architecture Enables Lifestyle

Most people probably think that architecture is partly civil engineering and partly artistic design and beauty. How important is the subject of beauty to architecture? For the moment let's interpret 'beauty' the way that most would: a combination of shapes, colors, and textures that are somehow pleasing to the eye.

Shapes?  A rectangle is a rectangle, an arch is an arch. There are only so many building materials and most of them are flat, so you can build with only so many shapes. Even when you see a structure as radical as a geodesic dome, you have to eventually say, "So, I now know what an equilateral triangle is."

Colors? How many colors can a building have?  White, earth tones, metallic grey, rust. Anything else would look ridiculous or age in an unseemly way.

Texture? Rough or smooth.

Of course, reductionism like this is unfair. Couldn't we also say, "How many notes are in the musical scale? So when you've heard a few minutes of any music, you've heard it all?"

Or if you were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris in spring, and the young buckaroos were doing some serious girl-watching, would you volunteer, "Well after all, they all have the same parts. The end result is just diapers and bills-to-pay?"

OK, so I admit that beauty does exist in architecture, but unless you plan on hiring an architect and spending millions of dollars on some edifice, how important can it really be to most of us?

So then, let's dismiss (visual) beauty from our consideration of architecture, and find something else to value.

I gave a hint in the title of the last post, What is Architecture? Recall Tolstoy's book, "What is Art."  He rejects the conventional idea that art is all about beauty, and decides in favor of defining art as a work that infectiously transfers emotions from the artist to the viewer/reader/listener.

Let's do somewhat the same thing regarding architecture. Last post, a commenter started maneuvering towards the idea of architecure possessing moral beauty and expressing cultural values. This is the right direction, I think, but it would take a book to discuss it all. Let's specialize the value of architecture to the question of,  "How does it let me live?" (I am not discussing how one should live.)

In the rat race, one's life is pretty much consumed by the standard things. Even in retirement, I'm not sure that the architecture of a stick-and-brick house would affect your lifestyle all that much.

The best examples of how architecture can affect your lifestyle are:

1. Sailboats, especially during the Age of Discovery, when Europe basically took over the world.
2. Tepees of indigenous tribes in North America.
3. The wagons of the Roma, aka gypsies.
4. Wagons of the North American (European) pioneers.
5. Igloos of the esquimaux. 

Alas, these are all in the past. In the modern world, the architecture of RVs is probably the limiting case of  architecture-leading-to-lifestyle. And yet it so easy to design or buy an RV without really focusing on how it will let you live!

Despite all my years of experience in this racket, when I think about the design of a rig, my mind doesn't switch to "How will it let me live?" as rapidly as it should. Instead, it wallows in secondary issues such as motorhome versus trailer, size, weight, brand, color, style, floor plan.

I will skip the ritualistic flailing at, and spoon-feeding of, "practical"  details. Anyone who is near retirement age and has owned a house can work all that out for themselves. But they may benefit from being reminded to always put "How will I live" at the front of their mind.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What is Architecture?

Perhaps a recent commenter was correct in thinking I wouldn't learn much about being an architect just from re-reading Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."  But at least the book has me thinking in terms of architecture, a different perspective for me. But let's resist rushing off to build philosophical skyscrapers...

1. My host in Patagonia took me on a walk to the ruins of a stucco hunting-cabin. It was used as recently as 15 years ago, but now Mother Nature is rapidly reclaiming it. The main room was about 50% bigger than my converted cargo trailer.

Spartan? Not compared to the Outdoors where the hunters spent much of their day. 

Beautiful? Not really. The appliances and materials are not significantly different than modern ones. There are no exotic shapes, structures, or colors.

So then why did I feel a small lump in my throat when inspecting this little cabin and the neglected cemetery outside it?

2. Down the street from me there is a house that I fawn over every day. Somewhat old, but not to the point of being "historical", cute, or exotic; a simple gable roof-line of corrugated metal; nice porches on two sides, held up by wooden poles.

Although the house is beautiful in a classic ranch sort of way, no architect would be the least impressed with it. 'Beauty' doesn't seem like the right issue. This house exudes integrity, somehow.

It seemed strange to be so bowled over by something as stately and sedate as 'admiration.'

3. Down the street from my rental lot in Yuma there was a house that made me flutter my eyelashes every time I walked by. It was just a block-shaped stucco house, but they had huge overhangs on the east and north side. They also had a redundancy of arches that might seem pointless to some people.

Imagine finishing a bicycle ride with the boys on a warm morning in Yuma. You are trying to make the season last longer before you flee north, where it is cold and rainy until July 5.  You sit in that luxurious shade and catch any breeze the comes through the arches. How glorious!

On my daily dog walk in the desert, there was one crucial angle where I could actually see through three layers of arches. Everyday this inflamed my imagination. Recall Edmund Burke's "...The Sublime and Beautiful...":
"Judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the scenes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason.

Hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds...

 A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea."
Three layers of arches can inspire so much? Well, we use only three dots of ellipsis in mathematical notation, when describing an infinite series. I guess that those three layers suggested infinity to me as I walked off into the desert. The remarkable thing is how emotional and exciting it was.

4. Rarely does a normal house make a positive impression on me. The rare exception occurred once when visiting a Canadian couple in Loreto, Baja California.  A house with at least five different degrees of indoorsiness! Other than that, the house was normal and uninteresting.

Perhaps it is time to come up for air. Think about examples like this or other rare structures that actually inspired you over the years. Next time, let's put it all together and try to explain things.