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

 
DEFERENT Imagery driving the design of this building suggest a precisely crafted object both situated in and disappearing into the landscape.

DEFERENT Imagery driving the design of this building suggest a precisely crafted object both situated in and disappearing into the landscape.

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.  

FORMIDABLE Pre-war buildings along Mission Inn Avenue in the historic core of Riverside, CA are mostly rough-hewn stone and board-formed concrete. They reflect the rugged fortitude of the pioneers who founded it.

FORMIDABLE Pre-war buildings along Mission Inn Avenue in the historic core of Riverside, CA are mostly rough-hewn stone and board-formed concrete. They reflect the rugged fortitude of the pioneers who founded it.

EXUBERANT First made prosperous by the citrus industry and the arrival of the railroads the people of Riverside created architecture that, it turns out, has come to reflect the diversity of cultures that now populate the city. The Mission Inn especially and the annual months- long Festival of Lights are wildly indulgent in the diversity of imagery from which they draw.

EXUBERANT First made prosperous by the citrus industry and the arrival of the railroads the people of Riverside created architecture that, it turns out, has come to reflect the diversity of cultures that now populate the city. The Mission Inn especially and the annual months- long Festival of Lights are wildly indulgent in the diversity of imagery from which they draw.

A confluence of forces conspires to inform how a building comes to look the way it does.  These are internal and external forces which we seek to hold in balance: principally the site in which the building or buildings are to reside and the purpose or purposes (utilitarian, cultural or otherwise) for which they are to be built. For sure these forces alone offer a complex and subtle interplay of considerations which when put into play can lead to any number of results.  No two architects will come up with the same design.

ASSERTIVE The idea of the new library on Mission Inn Avenue just down the street from the Mission Inn is simple: a big white marble block resting on two massive concrete pedestals.

ASSERTIVE The idea of the new library on Mission Inn Avenue just down the street from the Mission Inn is simple: a big white marble block resting on two massive concrete pedestals.

 And this is partly because whether we choose to acknowledge it or not a building’s site and its purpose cannot entirely determine what a building will look like. It is never enough (although always necessary) to have an idea. We must also have an image (or images) in mind.  Is it therefore ever enough to respond to those questions with the site made me do it, or it’s the building’s purpose that makes it look that way?

PRIMARY Ancient and vernacular cultures worldwide employ decorative schemes consisting of bold patterns and colors. Examples are found all along Mission Inn Avenue (Above, the City Archive at the Riverside Main Library).

PRIMARY Ancient and vernacular cultures worldwide employ decorative schemes consisting of bold patterns and colors. Examples are found all along Mission Inn Avenue (Above, the City Archive at the Riverside Main Library).

MOD In the west from the era of the Renaissance forward bold patterns and colors went on hiatus until the modern revolution of Europe and America. Eastern and indigenous cultures never really abandoned them. (Above, Riverside Main Library’s children’s library).

MOD In the west from the era of the Renaissance forward bold patterns and colors went on hiatus until the modern revolution of Europe and America. Eastern and indigenous cultures never really abandoned them. (Above, Riverside Main Library’s children’s library).

A work of art should not and cannot ever be explained away. It must in the end stand on its own. And yet architecture perhaps more than any other is fundamentally a social art. Painters, writers and musicians do their thing then put it out there where it is received or not. We too put our work out there where it must stand on its own, but we unlike the painter or the writer or musician are obliged to collaborate with all sorts of people (who pay us and pay for the work) from all sorts of walks of life with all sorts of interests and points of view as we are making it. This, it turns out, is part of the art. It is less an obligation to be endured and more how we get better at what we do.

LIT Street fairs, festivals and carnivals worldwide for as long as Riverside has been a city have indulged in night- time displays of colorful electric lights in whimsical configurations. (Above, the Riverside Main Library children’s library with lighting inspired by the city’s Festival of Lights).

LIT Street fairs, festivals and carnivals worldwide for as long as Riverside has been a city have indulged in night- time displays of colorful electric lights in whimsical configurations. (Above, the Riverside Main Library children’s library with lighting inspired by the city’s Festival of Lights).

It is in the articulation of what we’re thinking and then listening to how it is received that design within the body politic advances.  This is a matter of talking up not down to whom we serve, and it is a two-way street. The success of the outcome depends on the quality of the colloquy which in turn depends entirely on the quality of our articulation: what are we thinking and why? And the quality of the articulation depends less on words than on imagery. What we share either resonates or it doesn’t.  In an iterative process from which we learn as much as we share our job is not so much to determine the outcome as to curate it.

CONFUSING When formulating a design for the Manhattan Beach Library they said make it “fit in” to which we responded fit in with what? The architecture of this city is all over the map offering no clues for how an important civic building should look. (Below rhetorical speculations on the many styles to choose from were we to merely replicate what’s found in the city).

CONFUSING When formulating a design for the Manhattan Beach Library they said make it “fit in” to which we responded fit in with what? The architecture of this city is all over the map offering no clues for how an important civic building should look. (Below rhetorical speculations on the many styles to choose from were we to merely replicate what’s found in the city).

This is neither a surrendering of authorship nor an entirely democratic process.  We don’t vote on design. But neither do we impose our will on it. Inevitably we enjoy our own interests, we nurture an inner life that carries with us from project to project and we don’t share everything about it. Like the accomplished actor who nuances her performance with an inner dialogue that may have little or nothing to do with the words she says the outcome is rendered rich by the intersection of the personal and the social.

TRANSLUSCENT Instead it was the coastal environment, the ever changing quality of light throughout the day and the year that inspired one of the few movements in modern art indigenous to southern California (the Light and Space movement with artists like James Turrell, Robert Irwin and Larry Bell), that also inspired the look of this building.

TRANSLUSCENT Instead it was the coastal environment, the ever changing quality of light throughout the day and the year that inspired one of the few movements in modern art indigenous to southern California (the Light and Space movement with artists like James Turrell, Robert Irwin and Larry Bell), that also inspired the look of this building.

MACHINED The precision in craft and highly technical nature of the construction of the building happened to resonate with the engineering culture of the city whose history includes participation in the aerospace and computing industries going back to the 1950s.

MACHINED The precision in craft and highly technical nature of the construction of the building happened to resonate with the engineering culture of the city whose history includes participation in the aerospace and computing industries going back to the 1950s.

MAN-MADE  While affluent the city of Manhattan Beach is neither San Marino nor Beverly Hills. It’s a beach town, informal and low key.

MAN-MADE While affluent the city of Manhattan Beach is neither San Marino nor Beverly Hills. It’s a beach town, informal and low key.

We like the actor want to connect.  We want to disappear into the role even as the work is recognizable as ours. Not only do we owe it to the people and places for whom we work but the work is better for it.  In the wildly diverse, dynamic and democratic places we live populated by the equally diverse peoples of a wide variety of cultural and socio-economic circumstances and backgrounds this is our challenge: to create high quality public buildings in partnership with people and tailored to place, less signature more singular, true and at home.

HAND CRAFTED Imagery driving the design of the West Hollywood Library’s reading room ceiling included the coffered ceilings of the great American metropolitan libraries and the artisanship of early California craftsmen such as the Greene brothers in turn-of-the-last-century Pasadena.

HAND CRAFTED Imagery driving the design of the West Hollywood Library’s reading room ceiling included the coffered ceilings of the great American metropolitan libraries and the artisanship of early California craftsmen such as the Greene brothers in turn-of-the-last-century Pasadena.