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. Read More
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. Read More
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? Read More
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. Read More
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? Read More
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. Read More
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. Read More
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? Read More
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? Read More
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? Read More
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? Read More