Beholding Buildings, the Pleasures of Looking / by Johnson Favaro

 
MASSIVE AND LIQUID, THIN AND TAUT (LATTC South Campus project left, SWCC Allied Health Sciences building right)

MASSIVE AND LIQUID, THIN AND TAUT (LATTC South Campus project left, SWCC Allied Health Sciences building right)

ROUGH, SMOOTH, UPRIGHT AND TILTED (Westwood residence)

ROUGH, SMOOTH, UPRIGHT AND TILTED (Westwood residence)

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. 

SYMBOLIC, NARRATIVE, ILLUSORY AND GESTURAL (The range of expression in western painting from Byzantium, upper left to Pollock lower right)

SYMBOLIC, NARRATIVE, ILLUSORY AND GESTURAL (The range of expression in western painting from Byzantium, upper left to Pollock lower right)

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.

INTEGRATED AND DISINTEGRATED   Pre 20th century painting and sculpture combined stories and appearances: how something looked and what it meant were both important and integrated. 20th century took all that apart, sometimes focusing on only pure meaning (Barbara Krueger above right), sometimes on only pure form (Henry Moore below right).

INTEGRATED AND DISINTEGRATED Pre 20th century painting and sculpture combined stories and appearances: how something looked and what it meant were both important and integrated. 20th century took all that apart, sometimes focusing on only pure meaning (Barbara Krueger above right), sometimes on only pure form (Henry Moore below right).

ALMOST ALL NARRATIVE AND ALMOST ALL FORM Left to right, top to bottom: the telling of our stories to the shaping of our bodies.

ALMOST ALL NARRATIVE AND ALMOST ALL FORM Left to right, top to bottom: the telling of our stories to the shaping of our bodies.

A painting tells a story while it decorates a room, a play tells a story while it entertains us in community with others and a dance tells a story while immersing us in the vicarious pleasures of our bodies’ own movement.  A play relies on words to convey meaning and feeling, painting on color and shape, dance on sequences of shapes, music on sequences of sounds, cinema on all of-the-above.  In all art forms there is pleasure derived from both understanding and feeling.  It is often mostly the feelings that stay with us.

AWESOME AND DELICATE Nature provides for the widest range of aesthetic experiences we can ever know.

AWESOME AND DELICATE Nature provides for the widest range of aesthetic experiences we can ever know.

We experience kinds of beauty too.  In nature we find it in gnarly trees that are hundreds of years old and in a flower not yet a day old. The one kind of beauty is earned over years of struggle against the elements, the other kind received seemingly without any work at all (countless previous generations having already done the work). We feel beauty as a kind of awe when surrounded by Yosemite Valley’s seemingly permanent granite ramparts and as a kind of serenity beneath the utterly impermanent swelling and dissipation of clouds in the Sierra Nevada’s skies.

SERENE AND SUBLIME The expression of precision -- not too much, not too little, just enough--at two country villas (16th century above left, 20th century below left) contrasts with the almost scary somewhat brutal expression of lots of mass and lots of weight at two metropolitan buildings (18th century Paris above right, 20th century New York below right).

SERENE AND SUBLIME The expression of precision -- not too much, not too little, just enough--at two country villas (16th century above left, 20th century below left) contrasts with the almost scary somewhat brutal expression of lots of mass and lots of weight at two metropolitan buildings (18th century Paris above right, 20th century New York below right).

VOLUMINOUS AND TEXTURAL Strong, simple volumes of Romanesque architecture contrast with the richly decorated surfaces of Rococo architecture.

VOLUMINOUS AND TEXTURAL Strong, simple volumes of Romanesque architecture contrast with the richly decorated surfaces of Rococo architecture.

In the presence of 19th century buildings in America we sometimes experience the somewhat awesome weight and mass of buildings rendered in seemingly solid stone (Furness, Richardson), with many 20th century buildings we feel the light touch and weightlessness of exquisitely detailed concrete, steel and glass (Nuetra, Frey) and later in the 20th century into the 21st century the sensation of fluidity and movement in buildings (Saarinen, Gehry). 

INTEGRATION OF PAINTING, SCULPTURE AND ARCHITECTURE (Westwood residence, left; Santa Monica gallery, right).

INTEGRATION OF PAINTING, SCULPTURE AND ARCHITECTURE (Westwood residence, left; Santa Monica gallery, right).

As architects we are constantly thinking about forms of expression and kinds of beauty. Our tools are material and light (mostly the sun’s light and its many forms of expression). And while on the spectrum of artistic expression buildings lie probably at the outer reaches of abstraction we still do often want them to mean something--to at least set the stage, create the backstory if not tell the story.

NOT TOO SERIOUS AND FAIRLY SERIOUS The ceiling on the left provides a little levity while on your way to class (LATTC South Campus), the tableau on the right sets the stage for the seriousness of purpose associated with municipal meetings (West Hollywood Library).

NOT TOO SERIOUS AND FAIRLY SERIOUS The ceiling on the left provides a little levity while on your way to class (LATTC South Campus), the tableau on the right sets the stage for the seriousness of purpose associated with municipal meetings (West Hollywood Library).

How we mean depends on the context (time and place) for whom we mean it, certain shared expectations, knowledge and tastes held in common by those meant to experience any given building (hence the challenges we face in the open society that is our America). There is a kind of intelligence held in place by how a building looks—however abstract the art form is buildings still do communicate.

Or not.

TREE HOUSE AND CAVE (Santa Monica gallery left; Pasadena Museum of California Art, right)

TREE HOUSE AND CAVE (Santa Monica gallery left; Pasadena Museum of California Art, right)

Like an ensemble of moving torsos, arms and legs on a stage or the harmonies and dissonances of the sounds of an orchestra or the array of textures, shapes and colors of paint on a canvas, the materials, volumes and profiles of a building are sometimes just for the looking. We can and should be able to appreciate a building just for the way its surfaces are given shape by the light of the sun or rendered transparent, translucent and reflective by the time of day and the moisture in the air.  We can and should win pleasure in apprehending how a building’s parts work together, how they create effects of repose, movement, tension or balance. A building doesn’t always have to mean something or justify itself, but it can and should always be something worth looking at.

ANGULAR AND CURVACEOUS (Manhattan Beach residence, left; West Hollywood Library, right)

ANGULAR AND CURVACEOUS (Manhattan Beach residence, left; West Hollywood Library, right)