Wednesday, August 7

The Language of Architecture

It's been a while since I've posted here; for no other reason than getting work done doesn't leave much time for other pursuits.  Sometimes it's good to just leave the projects behind and take a breather.  A few weeks ago, we went to see the show on Le Corbusier at MoMA.

It was the first time I'd critically thought about his work since leaving college.  Sue and I both had professors who had either been taught by Le Corbusier, or were heavily influenced by his work.  He was the shining light in the early days of our architectural education.  The show was exceptionally enlightening on many levels.  It was the first time I'd ever seen his early work.  His first professor was very much into the Arts & Crafts movement popular in the early part of the 20th C.  Le Corbusier (then known as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) designed a few houses in that style that are very reminiscent of Joseph Maria Olbrich's work of the time:
Olbrich - Christiansen House

It goes without saying that Le Corbusier was a major force in developing the language of modern architecture.  Even just saying "modern" conjures up visions in my mind of white walls, columns and expanses of glass as evoked in his motto of "Space, Light, Trees".  After seeing the show, what I couldn't understand is how someone who adored Paris as much as he did, totally ignored how humans lived in an urban setting.  His solution to raise buildings up off the ground, denying interaction with the street level, made no sense in a cityscape.  And in fact, this was the downfall of his urban planning and design.  Maybe he realized this as well on some level because, after trying to get his urban vision built around the world (thankfully without too much success), he returned to an architectural language much more rooted in vernacular architectural forms.

Although I love Corb's freestanding houses and later sculptural works, the show made me sad.  I think it's because when I was a young architecture student, we were taught in such absolute terms.  Modern architecture was good, and everything else was considered passé.  I would've loved to have seen Le Corbusier's early work when I was a student, and to see the evolution in his architectural style.  I also would have loved knowing that he used color on the walls, and that his work was not all pure white.

Villa Savoye, 1931
It was good to see all the wonderful details he created.  The first thing you see when you come into the exhibition is a recreation of his cabana in the south of France.  There were so many ingenious details for such a tiny space.  I particularly liked the mirrored panels that opened inward at the windows that reflected light into the space.

Le Cabanon - note mirrored shutter, 1949
The lovely little modern house he built for his parents, Villa Le Lac, was very impressive for his first foray using the language of modern architecture.  How fantastic this must have felt when it was first built in 1924 with the wide and fairly unobstructed open view to Lake Geneva.

Villa Le Lac, 1924
Interesting to me that the exhibition really didn't show much of one of his later projects, Maisons Jaoul, where he returned to using concrete and bricks in a more vernacular style.

Maisons Jaoul, 1955
I guess when I was taught, it was just easier to teach Le Corbusier's architecture that was considered "pure" versus his later work that is much more personal and idiosyncratic.  How does one explain the shape of Ronchamp Cathedral?

Ronchamp, 1954
There is no "right" or "wrong" when designing a building.  How one designs is based on a lifetime of experiences.  Seeing the Le Corbusier exhibition put a lot in perspective for me.  It's taken my whole career to learn that architecture is an art of many languages.  The more languages you know, the richer your work can become.

Monday, June 27

Do you need an architect?

I realized after my last blog entry about how to hire an architect that I'd skipped the crucial question.  Do you really need an architect to accomplish your construction project?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no - here's some information to help you decide:

In many, if not most localities in this country, you do not need an architect for a residential construction project.  The result, in my opinion, is that you find the same developer style house everywhere in this country, regardless of site and location.  As a business model for contractors, it worked very well until the mortgage meltdown of the past few years.  I can't deny that most contractors building a home or addition without an architect usually do an adequate job in the planning and can most often provide a generic design aesthetic that satisfies people who are not picky about the design of their home environment.  Their real shortfall is in building something site specific to take advantage of the surrounding environment, both in how the site is used, and how the house responds to the site and/or providing something with a unique aesthetic.  Their bottom line also influences the finishes used for the final product.  So you end up with a cookie cutter house, just like the one next door.  Why is anyone surprised that the value of most houses on the market has dropped so much?  Too much of the same thing is too much.

Here are some situations where you want to hire an architect:
1.  If you're fortunate enough to own a piece of property for that dream house you've been thinking about, hire an architect to turn it into reality.
2.  Building an addition or renovation that requires an imaginative vision, a rich design aesthetic and/or structural changes.
3.  Reconfiguring a space; a design professional can make a huge difference as to how efficiently and creatively your space is used.

You probably don't need an architect if:
1.  If you already know exactly what it is you want and you like being in charge and working directly with the contractor, you don't need a design professional.
2.  Take a critical look at your property.  It may not be worth the investment of your time and a professional's time if what you're thinking about doesn't make sense financially, especially if you're not planning staying at this property for any length of time.

Original Boathouse (left) and completed redesign of Boathouse (right).
Take this Boathouse as an example where I think hiring an architect made a world of difference for the clients.  It was very close to the water, so it wasn't possible to get a building permit to build something new.  The existing structure was not in great condition, so most of it was going to have to be rebuilt.  The clients wanted to be able to house guests (which required adding at least a bathroom) and their boating equipment.  Compounding the challenge, the site flooded periodically during storms.  Working within the town's guidelines, we were able to rebuild within the existing footprint, placing the boat storage below the living quarters.  Above we created a guest house with a bedroom, bath, kitchenette and living room - plus ample decks from which to enjoy the view.  I especially liked the gangplanks we designed to get to the ground level from the porches.

Once you have defined your goal, and you've decided to hire an architect (per my last blog entry),  you're ready to embark on collaborating to fulfill your vision.

Saturday, May 7

How to Select and Successfully Work with an Architect (part 1 of 4)

There are 3 elements for a successful architectural project:  the Client, the Architect and the Contractor.  All three need to be on the same page, working toward the goal defined by the Client.  As the Client, you need to have an idea of what it is you want to build, renovate or restore and you need to have a budget in mind for all of the work.  This will include the cost of construction and all professional fees.  You also need to decide how involved you want to be in the project.

Once you have an idea of what it is you want to build and your budget, the first step is to find your architect.  You go about this much like you'd find other professionals you've hired.  You do research and get recommendations from people, especially if they've had a successful construction project.  Architects tend to specialize within their field.  Most architectural firms have photos of their completed work online, so it's easy for you to get an idea of the range of designs their firms produce.  You wouldn't go to a large architectural firm that does primarily commercial design for your residential project.  Nor would you go to a firm that produces only modern architecture if you want a more traditional design, and vice versa.   Many of our clients have initially found us via online searches because they found photos of a particular project we have done that appealed to them.

When you've found a few firms you may be interested in working with, make appointments with each of them to review the firms' portfolios and discuss your project with them in person.  Usually there is no charge for this initial meeting.  It's primarily to see if, on further inspection, you find their work appeals and engages you and your imagination.  And equally important, this meeting is to see how well you communicate with each other.  You must feel very comfortable with your architect, or you will not get the best job out of this relationship.  It's also important for you to know who you will be working with if you hire their firm.  Larger firms will put an associate in charge your job and they will be handling the day-to-day communication, so it's important for you to meet this person as well.  If you hire a smaller firm, you will usually be dealing directly with the principal.

During this meeting you should discuss your project and gauge the architect's interest in working on it with you.  Don't expect specific suggestions, but they will probably discuss their general approach to your project.  Even though architects are design professionals, remember that what you want built is the most important issue here.  If you feel intimidated or that you aren't being heard, this architect isn't the right one for you. On the other hand, if the architect seems without opinion about your project, it's time to move on too.

When you find an architect that is engaged with you and your project, be sure to discuss availability and fees.  There are a few models for payment for architectural services.  They can charge by the hour, an overall flat fee, or a fee based on the cost of construction.  There is no rule of thumb.  If you decide to hire this architect, the fee structure will be part of their agreement with you, and the terms need to be mutually agreeable.

So, how do you decide which architect to hire?  It's pretty obvious that you have to like them and their design work.  How much do you want them to design, and how much input do you want to have?  Some clients prefer to have a lot of input, some would rather the architect handle all the details.  Remember, the architect will be serving as your proxy during construction.  You need to be able to trust them and their judgement.  Always check their references and, if possible, go look at a finished project or two to get an idea of what you might expect for your own completed job.

After all your due diligence, if you don't have a strong feeling about any of the candidates, keep looking.    I can't stress enough how important it will be for you to have a strong sense of having a good working relationship.  Your architect will become almost a part of your family during the project.  As part of the process of designing the best home for you, they will need to know the most intimate details of your life.  When you have found an architect whose design sensibilities are simpatico with yours, and they're someone with whom you'd enjoy a working relationship, hire them.

Then you're off to the next phase of your project and Part 2 of this article.

Monday, January 11

World's Greatest Designers???

I noticed the cover of last month's AD when I was putting it into the recycle pile:

I rarely look inside this magazine; it's good for decorating resources - but even that's been suspect in the past few years since they've "gone Hollywood." I couldn't resist looking at their selection of the best designers of all time even though I knew it would cause my blood to boil. Now, mind you, this AD article wasn't just about the best American designers of the 20th C - this was the WORLD'S GREATEST DESIGNERS OF ALL TIME.

So much for thinking AD would do anything outside their own myopic world. Of course the 20 names they assembled were of the ranks of 20th C decorators they'd fawned over in the past. So why wasn't the article entitled "AD's Favorite Decorators of the 20th C"? I can see Henri Samuel (whose French period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum are a must), and maybe Donald Deskey (whose influence was much more important in terms of industrial design). But the rest of their 20 just won't make it into history books (even though books have been published on a few on the list). They just haven't contributed enough to the canon of built design, interior or otherwise.

I started thinking about who I would include in a list of the greatest designers of all time. In order to be included in my list, the person (or their company) would have had to actually design the physical space as well as the decoration (furnishings, rugs, or fabrics). The resulting work is so strong that it's withstood the test of time, and their names have become synonymous with the style they produced. I could only come up with 8 names off the top of my head:

1. Robert & John Adam - created the first classical revival style:

2. Charles Rennie Mackintosh - one of the prime creators of the Arts & Crafts style:

3. Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style:

4. Greene & Greene - created their own style within the Arts & Crafts movement:

5. Josef Hoffmann - along with Olbrich, Klimt & Moser, he founded the Vienna Secession:

6. Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann - the most influential designer of Art Deco:

7. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - one of the founding designers of the International Style:

8. Eliel Saarinen & Cranbrook - a designer caught between the modernists and the more traditional design based in the Arts & Crafts movement, at Cranbrook he was able to incorporate both influences:

I couldn't think of any contemporary designers to fill out my list. Are there any additions you'd make?

Thursday, December 31

Design IS Within Your Reach

I saw an article today in the NYT about the demise of the Design Within Reach (DTW) stores. I can't say I'm surprised. The company started by peddling relatively inexpensive non-licensed knock-off versions of iconic 20th century furniture designs; been there, done that - does anyone remember Palazzetti (who I was surprised to still find in existence on the Web)? Realizing they needed more products to sell, DTW started designing and fabricating some of their own pieces in the 20th C modern style - I give them a few points for that. But, then, they started doing knock-offs of their own designs to sell them cheaper. We all know what happens when your product is produced so cheaply that it has a shelf life of one week when in use. To add insult to injury, a hedge fund has taken over DWR, and they put "famous" designers on the board - as if they can just wave their collective hands and make it trendy again by association.

Two thoughts come to mind as I think about this. One is the old addage that an original anything is better than than a mass produced copy of something. The other is that there are hundreds if not thousands of designers out there who could produce the next Barcelona chair if given a chance. Our society is so driven by the "brand" vs. quality - even if the brand (which may have once represented quality) is now schlock.

I found this sculptor, Tom Emerson, who makes pieces of furniture from junk. I was really drawn to the pieces I saw because they had a great shape and made interesting use of the materials:

I recently saw an exhibition of Nendo at the Museum of Arts and Design. This Japanese design firm's work knows no bounds, as it should be. The sight of their plastic chair with the perfect faux bois finish shows how powerful a simple statement can be. I think their reinterpretation of a bookshelf allows the user to be equally creative. I urge you to go to their website to review more of their work:

Two of my favorite furniture designers are Carlo Bugatti and Harvey Ellis. Bugatti's work is over-the-top; his design sense was truly a singular voice; I'd describe it as a mash-up of the Aesthetic Style and a Moorish dream. The materials he used were as unconventional as his designs. 20 years ago you could pick up his pieces for a song, but not anymore.

I think Harvey Ellis' work represents the best of the Craftsman style furniture (other than the Greene Bros.).

This is what good design should be - original, visually interesting, functional, good construction, and without an expiration date. The next time you think about adding a piece of furniture into your life, look around and find an original piece of design. You'll never be disappointed; it will enrich your life and live on for other generations to enjoy.

Sunday, October 25

The Bell Continues to Toll

Recessions hit some professions more than others. Architecture is a profession that gets hit harder than most, and rarely recovers when times get better. If an architect can't find work due to lack of construction, they often leave the field, never to return. Unlike most professions, an architect straight out of school has very limited skills; it takes years of working in a firm to even begin to understand all the facets involved in creating a successful building. If young graduates can't find work in our profession, they never start the road to becoming an architect. I've seen past recessions decimate the ranks of my fellow practitioners; I fear the toll the current recession will have on our current and future ranks. As of 2 years ago, less than 50% of the people I graduated with were practicing architects.

What got me thinking about all this is the fact that the Prairie Avenue Bookstore in Chicago has closed its doors. I know much of their financial problems came from having to compete with online bookstores; they managed to hang on longer than most brick and mortar bookshops. It was a very special place, like most bookshops catering to architecture and design. I would make time for a long visit whenever I went to Chicago. They had fantastic collections of books not only on American architecture, but also vintage copies of books long out of circulation. It was an invaluable source for building a reference library so critical to an architecture practice. I can't imagine becoming the architect I've become without the wonderful hours spent browsing in a bookstore like Prairie Avenue. There are a few good architecture bookstores left, like Hennessey + Ingalls in Santa Monica, or Urban Center Books in NYC, but for how long? And how will the new generation of architects come to educate themselves without these great resources?

Life goes on, and people will adapt. There will be fewer architects around who will have the skills needed to produce a well designed building, especially architects with a good sense of historical precedent. I know this doesn't affect many peoples' lives, but we have lost something that has enriched our built landscape.

Thursday, September 17

Learn your styles!

I came across a real estate brochure last week that gave me a great laugh. The realtors described the following 2 homes as being "Center Hall Colonial", and for the life of me, I don't see why.

Is it because the one on the top is made out of brick? I'm totally stumped by the one on the bottom - how can you have a Center Hall Colonial with an asymetrical entrance? I guess the columns make it "colonial." Basically these are 2 examples of a contractor building a house without a design professional. More than 90% of residences built in our country are not built with the aid of an architect, and folks, this is the ugly result.

Now most of you who are design conscious would never mistake Chanel for Armani, or BMW for Mercedes. Why is it so different for architectural styles? Good design vs. bad design in residential construction is not a topic you'll find covered in any shelter magazine or major newspaper. I just read a nearly half page review why Microsoft's Zune is never going to make it in the marketplace despite a good design in the NYT last week. I've never seen such a critique on current residential construction.

Here's an original Center Hall Colonial in Williamsburg. It's Bassett Hall originally built in the mid 1700's. It eventually became the home to John D. and Abby Rockefeller, and is now a part of Historic Williamsburg.

It's design is based in English Georgian architecture obviously because the people in Williamsburg were from England. They couldn't afford brick to replicate the Georgian houses, but they were able to use the basic center hall plan and symmetrical elevation. This house has a lovely proportion and presence in the landscape.

Below a very common 20th century Center Hall Colonial. I like the fact that it remains true to the basic plan and symmetry.

Next time you're driving around looking at houses, start seeing the Center Hall Colonial vs. the pretenders.