Writ Large: Making Décor for Life by Johnson Favaro

We decorate. We decorate for birthday parties, holiday parties, weddings and anniversaries.  We wear costumes, colorful ties, shirts and socks, printed dresses, brocade, jewelry, hats.  We outfit our homes with objects, furniture, drapes, fabrics and wall paper.  Fashion designers, interior designers and graphic artists engage in decoration as if it were a natural part of what they do.  Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Miuccia Prada have turned ornamentation into conceptual art. Well regarded contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Linda Owens willingly engage in elaborate sometimes highly charged ornamental compositions--this despite that not long ago to call a work of art ‘decorative” was the worst kind of insult. For more than five thousand years prior to 1945 ornament was integrated into the architecture of almost every building—at least every one that mattered. Why no more, why not now?  Or if now, how?

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Mixed Up! Excellent Architecture in an Open Society by Johnson Favaro

An odd thing happened in the 20th century: houses became some of the most famous buildings in the world. Versailles was somebody’s house, but it was mainly a powerful nation’s seat of government. Palaces in Italy were homes to princes and merchants, but they were mostly where the people’s business was conducted. In 19th century America libraries modeled on those same palaces such as the Boston Public Library and the New York Public Library were some of the most spectacular buildings any American would ever experience—not to mention train stations, court houses, city halls and universities.

It was taken for granted then in America that public buildings should be the best buildings. We still produce special buildings like music halls and museums, but mostly they’re privately funded, singular and special. Most of us would agree most of the public buildings we encounter these days are uninspiring at best and mostly depressing. How is it that the best buildings are people’s homes and the worst ones are the ones we pay taxes for?  

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Master Bathrooms and Ballistic Missiles: What are we doing? by Johnson Favaro

The middle school (or “junior high school”) I attended in northern California was a poured-in-place concrete 1920’s era Spanish mission style number with loggias and courtyards. It was grand and for us middle class suburban kids even a little bit exotic. We all felt special going there.  The monumental Fredrick Law Olmsted designed campus where I went to college made me feel valued, like I was somewhere important. And the modest yet somehow grand Georgian architecture where I went to graduate school made me feel as if I were part of something bigger—the arc of history and the culture of this nation. 

Vallejo Junior High School was torn down in the 1970s and replaced with a series of single story concrete block bungalows.  The 1960s era library where most of us studied on that Olmsted designed campus was called UGLY (“UnderGraduate LibrarY”). Notoriously disliked by about everyone who ever encountered it, the university recently tore it down. All our library projects over the last decade replaced mid-century bunkers (mostly with no windows) that had proliferated across Southern California in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  What happened?

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Pencil and Paper: What We Do by Johnson Favaro

        We as architects in the 21st century embrace ever accelerating changes in computing, materials and construction technology.  We work within hundreds if not thousands of institutional and governmental rules, guidelines, regulations, codes and laws.  We deal with insurance companies and lawyers.  We collaborate with engineers and technical consultants—sometimes as many as twenty on a single job.  We work with builders, building trades, manufacturers and materials suppliers. We facilitate dialogues and decisions within complex hierarchies of elected officials, administrators and communities.  We manage workshops, make presentations, write books and articles, participate in conferences, win awards and sit on juries.

There is a lot to know, a lot to do, and it all adds up to a whole lot of work that could easily be mistaken for what it means to be an architect.  And yet none of it alone or in summation is what makes anyone an architect. What does? What do we do? 

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