Talking Up: Colloquy on Design Within the Body Politic by Johnson Favaro

Why does it look that way?  Where does this stuff come from? What are you thinking? These are questions which when producing civic architecture in a community driven design process we hear and to which we are obliged to respond with authenticity and respect.  When tax-payer dollars are invested in buildings meant to serve everyone in the community they deserve to know how and why a building has come to look the way it does and what it has to do with them.  

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Ok Sure But Who Designed Greenwich Village? by Johnson Favaro

Among the observations we remember from Jane Jacobs” famous book THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES are “the ballet of the sidewalk” and “eyes on the street”.  Another comes near the end of the book (never quoted probably because few people have actually read the book): “a city is not a work of art”.  She was referring to three ideas which had gained prominence in the early modern era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which she had spent the previous 400 pages berating:  The  Garden City (English, Ebenezer Howard), The Radiant City (French, Charles Jeanneret) and The City Beautiful (American, Daniel Burnham)

These were movements led by architects who had concluded (on their own) that maybe we needed to rethink cities in the context of all that had gone wrong in the wake of the industrial revolution.  All three assumed that traditional cities didn’t work and couldn’t work in humanely accommodating burgeoning populations and modern industry and therefore needed radical reconfiguration. Jacobs saw these speculations as top down, anti-city, artistic abstractions devoid of considerations for real people and real life.  She called it the Radiant-Garden-City-Beautiful problem.

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Just Like I Pictured It by Johnson Favaro

The proliferation of pictures has accelerated over the last century or two, and our relationship with them changed first with widely circulated newspapers and magazines, then movies and television, and now the world wide web and social media.  In the world of Instagram images may eclipse the spoken or written word as the primary means by which we convey information and communicate.  Most of us experience new architecture (and old) through surrogacy, that is by way of pictures (photography) and indeed it may be the quality of the pictures themselves that hold sway over our opinion about the architecture we see. 

Conversely, the practice of architecture may be the only one I can think of in which we make things through surrogacy.  We do not make the real thing but instead have only at our disposal drawings, models and more recently pictures that stand in for the real thing. The ease with which we are now able to generate detailed photo realistic renderings is supposed to help us and those we design for to picture what we’re getting. The photograph doesn’t lie the saying goes.

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Still: Serenity in the City by Johnson Favaro

Talk of mindfulness is ascendant in American popular culture.  Inner tranquility, peace of mind, effortless effort is the mantra of our time with celebrities ready to help. Transcendental meditation has made a comeback since it was first introduced in America in the 1960s now practiced with fanfare by famous people. Meditation as a practice is as old as consciousness itself and fundamental to the practice of every religion and spiritual discipline on earth.  It’s more popular forms today seem more accessible to us by virtue of their decoupling from the stifling strictures and traditional baggage of organized religion. The quieting of the mind requires effort though, it is the opposite of what comes naturally to us. It’s easier to stay busy, always thinking and feeling, always doing.

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Driven to Distraction: Drawing Dimensions in the Digital Age by Johnson Favaro

One day in the second grade at Saint Basil’s Elementary School Mrs. Desmond taught us how to draw a clock. She drew a circle on the black board then she wrote a 12 at the top a 6 at the bottom a 3 in the middle of the right side and a 9 in the middle of the left side, then she filled in the 1,2,4,5,7,8,10 and 11. Our teacher was demonstrating how easy it was to draw the clock when first you divided in half, then divided the two halves into half and then each quarter into thirds.

The clock is a geometric representation (and simplification) of the hours of a day and it enjoys tremendous symmetry—bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral. Mrs. Desmond’s technique works so elegantly because the clock’s numbers can be arranged in geometric proportion (3:6 as 6:12) – by first beginning with these relationships you are more likely to succeed in drawing the clock then if you were to simply start at 12 and move on to 1,2,3 etc.

Architects refer to “reading” a floor plan or a site plan. It’s a map (how most people read it),  a section that reveals a buildings innards (like a slice through a grapefruit) a diagram of dimensional relationships, a pattern, sometimes with its own internal logic, a picture (a snap shot that conveys the big picture of how a building works) and even a symbol  (sometimes the shape of the plan means something, perhaps the most well-known being the cruciform shape of a catholic church). 

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Super Hero Village Idiot: A Soliloquy on the Architect's Station by Johnson Favaro

Students of architecture learn an anecdote about Frank Lloyd Wright.  He had designed a house for a wealthy client who later called him to say “Mr. Wright the roof is leaking on the piano in my living room,” to which Wright responded “Move the piano”  (Sometimes the story involves a dining room table). Even by the standards of modern architecture’s so-called “Heroic Age” (first half  of the 20th century), Frank Lloyd Wright most flamboyantly relished the role of the visionary, the creative genius.

Why that attitude? Michelangelo was known as il divino (the divine) and yet we find no indication of such behavior in the record (irascible, stubborn, apparently yes). Wright’s behavior (other than Wright just being himself) had something to do with his and other modern architects’ relationship with the academies of fine arts at the time who were slow to adapt and even resistant to the brave new world of the future that was supposedly soon arriving. It took courageous visionaries, the story goes, to take on the academies. 

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Beholding Buildings, the Pleasures of Looking by Johnson Favaro

Paintings made in the west over the last 1,000 years make a pretty good case for the wide range of expression painting as an art offers: symbolic, decorative, narrative, emotional, abstract, conceptual. Perhaps second only to (the more recently invented) cinema, painting is a most versatile kind of art. 

Photography, theater and literature are in ascending order mostly narrative genres (although the form or structure of the narrative matters), sculpture, dance and music mostly formal genres (although they can tell a story if the author provides some clues). A well-crafted painting can perhaps more than any other art balance stories and appearances -- sometimes pretty (or terrifying, sad, glorious, wondrous or sublime) to look at while also meaning something to the audience for whom it is intended.

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Punk'd: Mischief on the American College Campus by Johnson Favaro

The tradition of the American college campus is one of the few that we can call our own. Its purpose from the beginning was to create a place apart from the daily life of farm, factory and city.  The beginning was Harvard College which in 1636 was established with a few simple, rectangular brick buildings arranged around a rectangular lawn planted with trees. This lawn is now famously known as “Harvard Yard”.  It resides just a few steps away from Harvard Square the busy center of Cambridge, MA separated only by a brick wall and iron gates and it’s a world away. It’s pastoral.

While Harvard was a field punctuated by buildings, Stanford (Fredrick Law Olmsted, 19th century) was a building punctuated by courtyards.  At Harvard a building is a box that sits around open space at Stanford it’s clay (or more precisely, sandstone) with which to shape (or carve out) open space.  The two hundred and fifty years that separate them played a part in their differences but so did the climate:  compact rectangular boxes (“salt boxes”) kept rooms warm inside; whereas buildings that spread out, opened out, even configured half-in/half-out (loggias) were well suited to California.

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Near Death or Born Again? The American Library Artistically Considered by Johnson Favaro

About twenty years ago it was easy to imagine that public libraries in America might die out. The old (and by now somewhat tiresome) truism was that the world wide web where we could buy books at Amazon and find information at Google would kill them off. Even before the advent of the internet public libraries had experienced a half century of decline. This probably had something to do with the ubiquity of the inexpensive paperback which enabled a lot of people (though not all) to get their books at bookstores instead of libraries.  As big box and chain bookstores flourished, the library’s role in the daily lives of most Americans became less necessary, the stature with which libraries were once held diminished. 

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Presence and Prescience by Johnson Favaro

I could never get past the kitsch of the acting and the sets of the original Star Trek series that Gene Rodenberry created and put on TV in the 1960s enough to appreciate the thought behind it. Still, the show was as everyone now knows progressive, ahead of its time. It had a diverse cast and some of the technologies it imagined such as the voice activated computer and the “communicator” have fifty years later become indispensable in our daily lives.  (Although not yet the “transporter”, a technology that may remain a figment of our imagination.)  The show’s stories were penetrating: Why do we eat? What is love? What makes us human? I believe that Rodenberry set the show in a far-off future in far-off places to create a safe place for the popular culture to ask those questions, to behold who we are and what our future might be:  How will we evolve? Will we progress?

For a hundred years or more technology seems always to have been the answer:  better technology will enable us to evolve.   It’s been our almost unconditional certainly unquestioning faith that machines will make our lives and ourselves better.  We now know though that technology unchecked (and the science behind it) has caused problems with which we now have to contend:  global warming (underway), extreme poverty (modern medicine both the problem and the solution) even robots who think for themselves (maybe around the corner).  And while new science and technologies (photovoltaics, machine learning and nanotechnology) may hold the answers to the problems that old science and technology have created how do we know that they will not in turn create problems we cannot now foresee?  

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Cat and Mouse: The Building Game by Johnson Favaro

The Romans were master builders and expert at using material extracted from the earth (harvested wood, quarried stone, cooked and cured soils such as tile, brick and concrete) in shapes (arches, vaults, domes, walls and ceilings) to accomplish structures which are to this day impressive. These builders didn’t have at their disposal the mathematics we have had since the 18th century –- trigonometry, calculus, quantitative and logarithmic equations.  All that mastery was achieved over years of trial and error. Mistakes were made, lives injured, many lost. Even after centuries of practice the building enterprise was mostly a slow and dangerous one. 

In the 1,500 or so intervening years between the demise of the Roman empire and the arrival of the 18th century the building of buildings (cathedrals, for example, many of which took generations to complete if they were completed at all) was still a craft, still based on trial and error, mostly intuitive, perpetually unsafe. The strength of character of those who committed their lives, sometimes gave their lives, to build something greater than themselves, sometimes without ever seeing their work completed, is astounding to contemplate. We still tour the world to see and admire what they built. Larger than life matters of the heart, mind and soul, matters of life and death, motivated them to do what they did. It was accountability in the extreme.

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Boys with Toys: Disruptive Technology and the Wisdom of the Four-Story Building by Johnson Favaro

About 150 years ago technologies emerged that dramatically changed the way we live.  Electricity, steel and the internal combustion engine made possible the very tall building (or skyscraper) and the automobile. This in turn made possible extremes in how we live: super dense places with lots of tall buildings such as New York and super spread out places like the suburbs and edge cities of California.

Like any disruptive technology we were almost obligated to try them out, see them through, see what works, just as we are equally obligated to confront what doesn’t. (Portable digital technology is after only a decade of ubiquity and seemingly endless possibility now gripped by self-doubt).  Has the time not now arrived for us to evaluate what has and has not worked about the way we engage in making very tall and spread out places?

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In the Moment: Conquering Art History by Johnson Favaro

Most people would agree that most people learn to be racists.  We learn that there are races. As we grow into adults we learn to categorize, put people in boxes then pre-judge them based on the boxes.  Then we get better at it as adults.  When we bundle people into categories it’s harder for us to get past the generalizations (required to create the category in the first place) to see and appreciate the unique characteristics of the individual. I don’t know that we can ever pretend we do not categorize everything around us but we’d be more empathetic as persons and better as a society if we could get past that enough to appreciate what’s special about every person we encounter.

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No Place Like Home: Getting Real in the Age of Globalism by Johnson Favaro

We would like our work to be well regarded by our peers.  Their opinions matter to us and they influence how we think.  Other architects’ work influences our work and we would hope ours theirs.  This is different from thinking our work is meant for our peers.  The buildings we design are meant for those who will occupy and experience them.  Do we care that these people like what we do? Do we care that what we do engages them, that they feel a connection to it or through it to each other? Do we care that a building feels true to where it is in the world—the time and the place? We do.  Are these aspirations—the respect of our peers and the satisfaction of those who live with our buildings-- mutually exclusive? They are not.

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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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