architecture 101

The practice of architecture holds a certain fascination for many. It is a broad endeavor that can involve a synthesis of history, philosophy, shelter, social understanding, geometry, structure, artistic aspiration, craft, and practical use, with a promise to outlive it’s creators. As a functional art it appeals to the balance between the logical and intuitive aspect of our brains. We all share the desire to determine our own environment as well as possess some ability to design or imagine it. As a primarily residential Architect, I help people articulate those aspirations and create a vision of how they might inhabit a place.

Architecture is a manifestation of order and structure that arise from cultural and/or personal ideas about living and about place. The cultural aspect is most evident in vernacular architecture that evolves over centuries and is particular to a region. The aspect of order can be experienced in a constructed project, and understood through the reading of plans and renderings. How to describe this order? Goethe said it well, ‘Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.’ Each begins with a feeling, is transcribed through sound, light, matter and structure, that again creates a feeling that an audience or dweller experiences. In the same way that a musical score can be read and the sounds imagined, so too can architectural plans be read and the spaces imagined. A musical score is a blueprint for a performance, and a blueprint is a score for the experience of architecture. Music and architecture each have various genres and styles, but order and structure— proportion, scale, interval, harmony, counterpoint, texture, repetition, symmetry, melody or narrative, dynamics, cultural context and a conceptual framework are common to both.

When following historic types, home design appears to be a simple matter of copying model plans. The tradition of pattern books once informed much of the house carpentry in this country, and today the majority of houses built are still based on stock plans. Even here a worldview applies, which might be on the order of a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom Cape. Whatever the limits of a project, the same architectural considerations apply: fitness to site and program, context, climate, proportion, light and shade, materiality, spatial flow, functional layout, thoughtful details, clarity of structure and best construction practices. The art of custom home design lies in responding to the uniqueness of a particular site and customer. On a less tangible level, with each site there is the potential of discovering a genus loci, or spirit of place with which to dialogue through the creation of a home.

Scalability is another aspect of architecture. One moment I might consider the overall massing and site plan of a home, and the next I’m focused on a construction detail. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that macrocosmic order and microcosmic detail should emerge from a singular vision, in the same way a tree grows from a seed. He called it Organic Architecture, a concept he learned while working for Louis Sullivan. Mies van der Rohe believed the same, manifesting highly rational plans with elegant steel connection details. I believe there’s truth to that view, but there is something to be said for an eclectic approach to design as well. Buildings conceived with too dominant a vision extending to the smallest of details can feel stifling for a home. You might feel this way in homes by Wright because of his obsessive detailing extending even to the furniture and artwork.

There are three main influences on home design: the dweller (customer & budget), the site, and the designer. Change one and the results can be quite different. I am of a practical nature and like projects to move along the design path without too many detours. We generally start with several concepts to explore order and character. We then narrow down the choices and further develop a scheme or two. Sometimes we need to put things on hold while a customer mulls things over or while we search for new inspiration. Step by step we gain momentum toward a particular configuration and materiality. The design process can also be a rich experience in itself. Through the design phase we build the project conceptually. Sometimes minds and circumstance change, and the adage measure twice, cut once applies. During construction the project is built again, now with materials, space and budget at full scale.

The architectural process is often broken down into five phases: Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documentation, Bidding & Contract, and Construction. I will explore some of these phases in future blogs, but a crucial aspect I’ll mention here is that each builds upon the previous— another manifestation of order and structure in architecture. It’s a process that unfolds in time according to the explorations and decisions made at each phase. An orderly progression of the work with minimal back-tracking is ideal, though design and life can get messy at times. Major design changes that come late in the process require more work to implement and coordinate. The bottom line in residential architecture is the satisfaction of the customer, and part of my job is to manage expectations. We can probably transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but it might take a sack full of gold to do it. Working with existing conditions and available resources comes with the creative challenge of practice.