March 24, 2010

A bit about why Architecture (with a capital A) is awesome.

Information Writing
Design Seminar II

Have you ever stood outside of a very tall building, looked up at it, and wondered how, in all of its complexity and largeness, that it came to be? Have you ever been to a museum clad in curved glass with funny looking angled panels on the roof only to go inside and find that the light most perfectly blankets each piece of artwork in the most precise way? If you are inside now, look around you. Did you know that the space that you're in was once a preconceived idea in the creative mind of an architect? Maybe you have thought about this before but haven't had any answers. I am here to tell you that these daily interactions you have with the built space around you are a product of hundreds-maybe even thousands-of years of architects striving to create the perfect space.

In the early days of civilization, architecture was simply a way to protect the human from the disorder of the natural world. In other words, to keep the rain and the bears out. It slowly evolved into a field where art and science merge to a fuzzy place somewhere in the middle. It is scientific because it is, in its very nature, technical. It involves heavy materials being hoisted into the air and placed on top of structural elements that humans must safely inhabit. And at some point-probably as Greek architecture evolved-it became an artform. Not only was it important to the greeks that heavy stone be placed on top of large columns to maintain a safe space away from nature, it was important that the perfect proportions represent the cosmos (or heavens). Many Greek temples were sacred spaces built to honor the gods. And then when Christianity came to be, these values filtered into the Gothic and Renaissance churches. Architecture wasn't only to keep the bears out-it was an artistic cultural collaboration to embody God.

Architecture today has become even more complex in its definition than back in the day. Many of the early values of architects are still important-including proportion, truth of material, relationship to nature, the meaning of vast open space, etc. But now, we have the addition of environmental awareness, digital prefabrication, structural technologies that push the boundaries of what can be built, and a million other things. As a student of architecture and then a professional in the field, I have learned a lot about both the science and the art of architecture. And I have learned that the architectural pioneers from history, and even from today, are the ones that understand the science of architecture, and simultaneously, strive to pursue the art of architecture in every project they encounter. It's not about engineering a box or an oversized sculpture for people to hang out in; rather, it's about forming a space that connects the inhabitants with something larger.

So, what constitutes good architecture today? Well, that's a very involved question and I could continue the detailed history from ancient greek architecture all the way to now to fully explain it. But I don't want to bore you, so I will be brief. Good architecture can be done in an infinite number of ways. It is not solely the conceptual process of design nor is it the final building that represents good architecture. It is some marriage of these two things where intentions, boundaries, and values are set up in an artistic, freethinking design process that considers three-dimensional form, space, light, journey, curiosity, etc. and then combines these with the technical methods for building. Both sides of this marriage must be fully developed for good architecture to occur. A good architect will never let a mechanical duct fall below the ceiling line (unless it is intended) nor will he use a random mess of materials on the facade of a building. A good architect will even spend time on the design of a bathroom-an area that is often an afterthought. A good architect will recognize his limitations and work creatively within them. A good architect will respect the environment, the materials, the context for which the building will be placed, the client's motivations and desires, and most importantly, the inhabitants who will experience the building on a daily basis. A good architect will learn-over years of practice-to take a multitude of factors into consideration and, hopefully, will contribute to making architecture-and therefore our physical world-better.

From the early days to now, architectural shifts are largely a result of pioneers pushing the limits of the current state. Some of them include Leonardo da Vinci (yes, he was an architect), Filippo Brunelleschi, Michelangelo (yes, also an architect), Andrea Palladio, and Le Corbusier. Each challenged how architects designed with respect to space, materials, form, nature, etc. Today, it seems we have a growing number of pioneers. I wish I could tell you about them all in great detail, however, I will touch on just a few prominent ones that you may have heard about-Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, and Frank Ghery.

In the mid to late 1800s, most buildings were decorated boxes completely separate from the organic nature on top of which they were placed-and then Frank Lloyd Wright came along. He was a catalyst to change the way architects think about space. He linked architectural space to the horizontal organic space of the natural world. So, to put it simply, he lowered ceiling heights to intensify the horizontality of nature-it literally flows into and through his buildings. He also found a way-through the Usonian Prairie Home-to bring good architecture to people who-in most cases-could not afford it. Simplicity of structure and material and a step away from unnecessary expensive decoration helped make this possible. Some of his most famous dwellings include Fallingwater, The Robie House, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Louis Kahn, an architect from the mid-1900s, challenged the way architects thought about building form and truth of material. He valued honesty in how he used materials and this honesty became the decoration of the building. For example, his concrete forms at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA have small holes and unsmoothed edges showing the story of how the structural concrete was formed in the construction of the building. At the Salk Institute, a small stream of water travels from the center of the courtyard westward to a waterfall overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Though I hate to dumb down Louis Kahn, the master of space, material, light, and form, this stream is much like an infinity edge swimming pool. It is perceived as a continuation of the ocean. At the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, TX, Kahn engineered light and curved concrete in such a way that the concrete sparkles like silverish gold. He taught architects that using material merely for its aesthetic was completely dishonest to the inherent nature of the material. Rather than painting a material to make it beautiful, allow nature to inform the beauty of the material. Let concrete be compressed, let steel be in tension, let bricks stack, and leave space between materials for expansion and contraction. "'You say to a brick: 'What do you want, brick?' and brick says to you: 'I like an arch.'"1 In his simple way of understanding materials, light, and building form, Kahn is looked to as a master.

In architecture today, there is an imminent change in the process of building. You may have heard of Frank Ghery before. He is currently pushing the limit of how and what we can build. If you've ever been to Los Angeles, CA and seen the Walt Disney Concert Hall or if you've been to Seattle, WA and seen the Experience Music Project, you should know what I'm talking about. Frank Ghery's buildings are massive curving metal forms. They are what some architects call 'Blob'itecture-which is architecture that looks as though a blobby gel-like substance was blown up to a large proportion for humans to inhabit. I won't discuss the controversy over whether or not this 'blob'itecture is spatially well designed, but I will say that Ghery has sparked a revolution in what engineering can do for architecture. Before Ghery, curving and blobbing forms made of steel and glass were pretty much impossible. Determining many curving steel beams with no regularity or similarity is so complex its not worth the time or the money. So, how does Ghery-and other revolutionaries of today-do it? Well, as of now, the process is quite involved and has yet to be refined. But it basically requires a complete change of standard building processes. Typically, two-dimensional construction documents are brought on site and constructed from the ground up. Ghery's buildings must be digitally machined and constructed off-site-a process called digital prefabrication-and then taken on-site to be chunked together like a puzzle. As time goes on, prefab will become more and more feasible, and maybe one day, will become the norm. If this happens, Ghery, and a few of his counterparts, will be considered the impetus of the movement.

In considering the early days of ancient civilization, to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the revolutionized built world of today, how do you think architecture affects your life? Well, architects have changed the way you interact with your physical world. Wright realized that the format of the modern, middle class lifestyle and its relationship to nature did not match the boxy ornate architecture of the day. So, he changed it. How your family interacts both on the interior and exterior of your home may be different if it weren't for him. Kahn changed the way light, form, and materials interact, and he challenged simplicity and the sublime. If it weren't for Kahn, cities may be more plastered than they already are with fake decorative details, and the beauty of concrete may not be as appreciated. If it weren't for Ghery, engineering may never have been challenged so drastically. And we may forever build from the ground up rather than with new digital prefabrication technologies. To put it simply, architecture literally shapes what your world looks like and how you feel in it. It directly (or indirectly) affects almost everything you do. So, next time that you're standing in front of a really tall building, think about the thousands of years of architects and buildings that preceded it and ultimately made that building what it is.

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