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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