Monday, May 28, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about place lately, not site, but place making.  I've recently  returned from a trip to Las Vegas and southern Utah.  (This was my first trip to Las Vegas and I disliked it more than I expected.  I had hoped it would be so kitschy that I could find some humor in it, but it takes itself too seriously to be funny.  It's just bad architecture.)  Almost every town we went through could have been "anywhere U.S.A.".  Why is this? 

I suspect it's because the U.S. does not have a strong vernacular (folk) tradition of architecture.  A friend strongly disagreed with me when I stated this, citing the Victorians of San Francisco and brownstones of New York as examples of American vernacular.  But while I do think these are examples of local building traditions, I don't think they can be held up as examples of vernacular architecture.  Vernacular architecture springs from site; from local climate, building materials and modes of living that have developed over centuries.  In Switzerland, they build houses with steeply slanted roofs due to the heavy snowfall and use local materials such as abundant wood and stone to create a very distinctive look.  In Iceland, where wood was a rare commodity prior to trade and the winters are long and fierce, they used to build partially submerged sod houses.

Icelandic Sod House Partially Submerged in Ground

Greece House Built of Local Stone and White-washed to Minimize Heat Gain

The Victorians of San Francisco are not built in response to the site (other than the use of wood).  The style is a foreign import.  Granted, San Franciscans have made the style their own, but to me, it is not vernacular architecture.  I think if we were to look for a vernacular American tradition we'd have to look to native Americans who did not build extensive permanent settlements, other than the pueblos of the south west.

So throughout America (and I include Canada too), we build sprawling, suburban communities that are divorced from place.  San Jose looks the same as St. George, Utah.  They are both filled with boxy, windowless strip malls and houses that are a mish-mash of architectural styles.  The average American, I believe in an attempt to find a sense of permanence and tradition where none exists, gravitates to new housing that imitates older European architectural styles.  How do we create a sense of place that isn't a rehash of old tired styles?  Advocates of Critical Regionalism would encourage us to use local vernacular architecture as a starting point, but if no vernacular architecture exists, how does one begin? Is it simply by responding sensitively to the site, the climate and context?  Or should we simply forge ahead and develop a uniquely American style divorced from historicism?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Architecture and Happiness

I frequently meet people who tell me that they hate modern architecture.  Typically they start to rant about the "modern" office building where they work, one of those soulless buildings that suck all the joy out of life.  I try to point out to them that this may be "modern" architecture, but it's not good modern architecture.  I am always struck by how strong the negative reaction is.  Unfortunately, I recently had cause to visit one of these lifeless buildings.

It was time for my yearly physical at my doctor's new office, a 1960's building probably built by a developer.  I think this qualifies as the ugliest building I have ever been in.  Not only were the ceilings low (I'd be surprised if they were much over 7') but there was very little natural light and the few fluorescent fixtures did nothing to brighten up the space.  Everything was painted beige and the ceiling looked like it was spray-on fireproofing, also painted beige.  I made some deprecatory comment about the space to the receptionist and suddenly all three receptionists started complaining to me about how much they hated the space.  One told me that she had to regularly go to a perimeter office to see the sky and another said, "At least you get to leave after half an hour, we're stuck here all day!"  From my doctor and her assistant I heard similar complaints.  Everyone was miserable in this building.  When I was done I tried to leave but instead got lost in the warren of hallways (good thing there was no quake at that very moment).

Charming Doctor's Office (I'm kidding)

Who designs these horrific buildings?  Did the architect take pride in creating spaces that made so many people unhappy?  There is clearly no doubt that architecture has an effect on our quality of life (psychologists have done studies that bear this out, though they test quantifiable things such as amount of natural light or color, not necessarily the entire gestalt of a building).  I can't help thinking that the old buildings that people prefer are more palatable because architects had no choice but to provide tall ceilings for large windows since there was no electricity to generate light.  The general public doesn't seem to notice when spaces are good, they just accept it and go about their business.  But when a space is bad, they notice and we modern architects get blamed.  Is it any wonder that the masses think that a good space has to be neo-colonial or neo-Victorian when the "modern" buildings they spend their work days in make them so unhappy?

Our built environment is with us all day, every day, subconsciously  effecting us.  Our built environment  can give us pleasure.  I will always remember with great fondness the Art Center hillside campus building, where I spent three years.  It is a Miesian box designed by  Craig Ellwood in 1974.  The building is a long and low black steel building, spanning a ravine. The tectonics of the building have been exposed to reveal the precisely crafted steel beams and columns.  My favorite space was the cafeteria.  It is a jewel-like space encased in glass walls on two sides with dappled light filtering in through the trees outside.  I spent a great part of my day in this building and it taught us budding designers a lot about what good design means. The building was an inspiration to us, it spoke of craftsmanship, quality and joy.  Is it any wonder that Art Center graduates are known for designing products or graphics with similar qualities?

Locally, one of my favorite buildings is Herzog and de Meuron's de Young Museum.  As is all too familiar to those of us who practice in San Francisco, there was the usual outcry against the "modern" building when it was first proposed.  The tower in particular, which projects out of the trees in Golden Gate park, was pronounced an extra special abomination by the public.   However, now that it is built, it has become a city icon.  While I don't think all the spaces in the building are great, there are enough wonderful spaces that demonstrate to the public how exciting modern architecture can be.  The hated tower is now  a required stop on any visitor's tour of the city.  At the top, the walls are all glass presenting a vertiginous drop to the beautifully detailed roof below.  I particularly like the wedge shaped courtyard that compresses the visitor as you descend to the lower galleries.  And while vertigo and compression may not exactly be positive adjectives, this building challenges us to design architecture that isn't simply banal or worse yet, depressing.  It inspires us to create truly exceptional and emotive spaces.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Lighter or a Match?

My husband recently gave me the new iPhone 4s for my birthday.  I liked my old iPhone, but compared to this new one the old phone doesn't have anywhere near the same tactile quality.  The choice of the materials plus the software interactivity creates a sensual, seamless tactile experience; a major feat when you consider that much of the impression of tactility is entirely non-physical and computer generated.  While admiring my new phone I was reminded of a youthful  episode that highlighted how much I value my physical relationship with the world.

During my "experimental" youth, I had an industrial design friend over at my flat prior to going out for the evening.  During the course of the evening my friend J__ took out a "cigarette" and lighter and proceeded to try to light his cigarette.  The lighter was one of those cheap clear plastic ones with a serrated wheel that rotates to create ignition.  J__ was awkwardly spinning that stupid little wheel and getting no result.  Appalled that a designer would deign to use such a poorly designed device, I made him stop what he was doing and light the cigarette with a wood match instead.  On the first try the match gave a satisfying whoosh and lit.  We proceeded to have fun.

It's such a small thing to light a match.  There's the scratchy feeling of the match against the box and then a small physical pop before it bursts into flame with that whooshing sound. After you blow it out, there is a faint sulfuric scent in the air.  The process is almost completely effortless and yet it engages every sense: sight, sound, touch, smell.  And what did the lighter give us?  A totally unsatisfying experience as J__ scraped his thumb again and again on that metal wheel.  (Now let's be clear, a paper match is as bad as a lighter; it goes totally limp as you try to light it.)

I am concerned that with our society's increasing reliance on technology that there will continue to be a corresponding disconnect with the physical world.  Certainly most products and spaces don't engage on a physical level and simply add to our sense of physical isolation.  However, technology is clearly not the culprit in this equation, as Apple has proven with this phone.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Architecture vs. Industrial Design

What is the difference between architecture and industrial design? I am frequently asked this by both architects and industrial designers. Architects tend to think the professions are very similar, whereas industrial designers view architecture as quite different. The answer is not an easy one to address. Outwardly there are many similarities. Both professions require that the practitioners know how to visualize, draw, render, build models, draft and think critically. However the differences are profound, yet I struggle to describe them, as they are the intangibles embedded in the design process.

Scale is the obvious first difference (this is self evident, I don't need to go into this). The other is iteration. Industrial designers work on small projects that move very quickly (months to market) whereas architects' projects usually take years to execute. As a consequence, industrial designers have more opportunities to practice and hone their design skills. An industrial designer who has been working for ten years has worked on hundreds of projects and is very skilled at quickly executing beautiful design. Meanwhile, the complexity of architectural projects require a lifetime of practice to develop the competency to create well designed buildings (which is why I'm an old industrial designer, but a young architect).

But I think the biggest difference is one of outlook; each profession approaches the design process and evaluates the success of the final 'product' differently. Industrial design is very much about form making. Designers are very focused on creating a beautiful object above other aspects of the project. (Yes, functionality is important, but increasing this task has been allotted to interaction designers.) And of course one of the main factors driving aesthetics is the target market. Personally, I find it very difficult to create form for form's sake. Other than the consumer market's taste (do they like simple/complex products, what colors do they prefer, etc.), there is very little to be used as a starting point to drive design. This job becomes increasingly difficult when the designer is working at a consultancy with a variety of different clients as opposed to a designer at a corporate firm where there is an established set of design goals (think Apple).

What is refreshing (and also occasionally very frustrating) for me about architecture is that each building design be based on an intellectual proposition (parti). A good parti allows the building to almost design itself (well, maybe not quite). It also makes it easier to develop the narrative of the building (another HUGE difference) and evaluate my design decisions.

There are more differences. Products typically do not respond to place, but are aesthetically neutral artifacts that are designed to fit into any contemporary culture. Conversely, most architectural projects have a 'site'. This has so much potential to positively influence the design. I don't look on it as a constraint, but an opportunity. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Alvaro Siza's baths in Porto. This project sensitively inserts walls between stones to create swimming pools. Moving from one pool to the next you are constantly aware of the site on a very physical level. Siza also mediated the transition from the road to the beach beautifully, creating a very linear entrance which then breaks down as you move to the beach and pools.

Siza pools in Porto respond to site

For me, the most exciting difference is the process of shaping space and the experience of being in the space. To a certain extent, this is also about form making, however the creation of space draws on a richer palette of tools such as light, sound, air, materiality and site. A product is viewed from the outside, as an object in space; intellectually the form and function can be quickly understood. Unless the product has complex interactivity, there isn't much new to be discovered over time. Space can be viewed from without but is also something we inhabit. It can be more nuanced and complex than any product. Space is subject to temporal changes of light, sound, temperature, the interaction of objects and people. Over time, the quality of a well designed space changes inviting the occupants to engage the space and discover something new.