about Life as an Architect

LIVING Architecture

I have made several pilgrimages to the de Young Museum in San Francisco by Herzog and de Meuron–always to stare at the building, wander around and take pictures. Last Saturday I was in SF to see a performance art piece by Sarah Wilson, Derrick Jones and Nehara Kalev that just happened to be at the de Young. It was wonderful to experience the building as part of everyday life and to be focusing on it, not as a THING, but as a place for experiencing art.

I have always been impressed with the way the building responds to its very eclectic art collection. Rather than trying to cram everything into a consistent or “one size fits all” set of galleries, the wide range of architectural environments celebrates the museum’s collections.

Early American paintings, furniture and silver look wonderfully rich and gracious in the well-proportioned, top-lit rooms that house them. Radically different artifacts from New Guinea look equally powerful in dimly lit, flowing spaces with dark casework and dramatic spot lighting. Contemporary art is in bright white abstract spaces where the pieces seem likewise resonant. The architecture seems to make the experience of the art richer and more intense and rewarding.

The same was true of the performance piece I went to see. But, in this case, the architecture had actually played an important part in generating the art.  Nahara Kalev told me at dinner afterward that many wonderful spots in the building had provoked ideas about performance–the abundant flights of stairs, the courtyard slivers filled with soft ferns, the forecourt/sallyport that draws you into the building, the entry court filled with a site-specific Andy Goldsworthy piece and the grand lobby space dominated by a Gerhart Richter (all three of which were prominent provocateurs). Even the extremely steep rake of the auditorium offered an unusual engagement with an aerial dance part of the piece that would have been impossible to imagine apart from the eccentrically tall quality of the space.

This is what great architecture does. It truly engages with place and purpose. I am working hard to resist the “thingness” that dominates architectural discussion these days.  It is inspiring to see real LIVING architecture having an impact beyond itself and beyond the subculture of architecture.  The de Young seems a quantum leap ahead, in this regard, of most of the monumental art museums that have been deemed important works of architecture over the last couple of decades.

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Thinking about Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect
Posted September 26, 2012

Postmortem on Postmodern

I am convinced that style has very little to do with the real success of buildings.  Although we as architects spend a lot of time and energy screaming about “modernism” or “regionalism” or “post-structuralism,” in the end, design genre does not make any guarantee about design quality or the ability of a building to make a difference in its culture.

This summer I had the opportunity to see two iconic works of postmodern architecture within a couple of weeks—the town of Seaside in Florida by Duany Plater-Zyberk and the Portland Building in Oregon by Michael Graves.  Both were deemed revolutionary in their era and provoked extraordinary discussion and controversy.  They are both about 30 years old now—plenty of time to really judge their success.

I made the trek to Seaside because Marlon Blackwell, who was speaking at a conference with me in nearby Destin, commented that he had rented a cottage there with his family for a week.  I am interested in where really good designers go to make their own lives richer and more enjoyable when they have choices to make.

Seaside did not disappoint!  The little streets and lanes have a wonderful, intimate scale that makes the town operate beautifully for pedestrians.  Even on a hot summer day, the mature trees made the pathways shady and cool.  The gentle cottages hid modestly behind the trees, also happy to be in the shade.  Porches and verandas abound, and people were out on them relaxing and even offering greetings when I walked by.

The Portland Building provoked the opposite reaction.  The exterior has not weathered well and its flashy “look at me” color and patterning just drew attention to how hollow and meaningless it all seemed.  The huge, extravagant statue of Portlandia at the entry contrasted sharply with the dark, parsimonious places where people have to work inside.

It seems irresponsible to write off certain genres because of the failure of some iconic projects, and it seems equally ill advised to somehow think that working in a “cool” genre is any assurance projects will have a better chance of success.


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Thinking about Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Urbanism
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Posted September 8, 2012

Conventional Wisdom

I am a great believer in conventions.  They are an incredibly efficient and effective way to gain knowledge, see new things, create and reinforce relationships, get creative batteries recharged and enjoy oneself all in a compact couple of days.  Though I attend and generally enjoy the national AIA convention, my best such experience every year is at the Texas Architects convention in the fall.  I have probably been to 20 of these over the years, and I have never been disappointed.

This convention is just the right scale to get your head around.  The exhibit hall has materials and manufacturers that actually make sense to use (instead of all those luscious German systems at national that are incredibly expensive and have huge carbon footprints by the time they get to Texas), and you run into people you know at every turn.  The Continuing Education sessions seem very carefully selected and somehow more relevant and better crafted than at national.

This year’s convention, Oct 18-20 in Austin, promises to be the best one ever.  I am blown away by how many people I respect and admire are taking the time to speak there–among them, Max Levy, Frank Welch, Emily Little, Don Gatzke, Tommy Upchurch , Gary Furman, Mel Lawrence, Kevin Alter, Burton Baldridge, Ted Flato, Heather McKinney, Peter Gluck, Arthur Andersson, Dick Clark, Juan Miro,  Chuck Armstrong,  Thomas Taylor, Matt Fajkus, Jana McCann, Jay Barnes, Scott Ziegler, Jim Sussman, Filo Castore, Jason Haskins. Michael Malone, Mark Wellen,  Bob Meckfessel, Donna Kacmar, Peter Pfeiffer, Jennifer Workman,  Betsy del Monte, Charles Thompson, Val Glitsch, Natalye Appel,, etc.

There are also two extraordinary keynote speakers who I am really looking forward to hearing–Robert Hammond who will be speaking about his work on the High Line and especially Roman Mars whose radio podcasts are incredible.  Check it out


Thinking about Life as an Architect
Posted August 21, 2012

Top Architectural Record Award for Guangzhou Opera House? Really?

Architectural Record recently gave Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House its Best Public Project: Honor Award in the Good Design Is Good Business: China competition and published it on the cover. http://archrecord.construction.com/ar_china/China_Awards/2012/Guangzhou-Opera-House/Guangzhou-Opera-House.asp

Unbelievable! I visited the building last January and was absolutely dismayed at how inept and poorly designed it is. Had anyone from the awards jury (which “included editors from Architectural Record and respected Chinese architects and experts”) actually visited the building? If so, I cannot believe they would consider it “good design.” The building’s failures are glaring and are certainly no secret. The fellow showing me around in Guangzhou did not want to take me to the opera house because he was “ashamed” of it.

The photos in Architectural Record do look dazzling—proof again that photos can be made to lie. The images are dominated by distant views and night shots that obscure the building skin. Included here are some of my own shots, presented without the benefit of Photoshop.

If you were an arrogant westerner it would be easy to say that the embarrassing crudeness of the building is not the architect’s fault, but the result of a Chinese building industry not yet up to the visionary imagination of the designer. But that notion is belied by the fact that within view of the opera house are the extraordinary Guangzhou New Library by Nikken Sekkei, the Guangdong Museum by Rocco Design and the Guangzhou Tower by Mark Hemel and Barbara Kuit—all of which are ambitious, meticulously designed and beautifully executed. The problem at the opera house is poor design.

Is it possible to create curvilinear forms with very tight radii, superimpose a series of triangular grid patterns, make the building out of a very heavy, brittle material like granite, and realistically expect any sort of success? These seem to be ill-fated conceptual directions. When things very went badly awry, fat caulk joints apparently were the universal solution to poorly resolved design.

The interiors have the same kinds of problems—chases that seem to have been added as an afterthought, indirect lighting imbedded in sumptuous glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum forms where the faceted T-5 fixtures are clearly visible because no one checked cut off angles to be sure the lamps would be concealed.

Promoting clearly flawed design as the “best” we have to offer is demeaning and makes us look ridiculous to people outside the architecture subculture. This is how we lose power in the larger society and become marginalized as a discipline. Elevating “stars” and “signature design” at the expense of deeply rooted and rigorous standards of excellence does a disservice to our field.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect
Posted August 16, 2012

The importance of “glue” in architecture

I had an amazing experience during the AIA National Convention. It wasn’t at the convention itself, where people are running helter- skelter to their CEU sessions, but at a dinner hosted by Gilbert and Suzanne Mathews Friday night at the Folger-Shakespeare Library a few blocks from the Capitol Building.

Gilbert owns Lucifer Lighting, one of the most enlightened (no pun intended) companies I know of, and was made honorary AIA at the convention. To celebrate, Suzanne invited a lot of extraordinary architects and friends to a dinner—among them, Tom Kundig, Larry Scarpa and Angela Brooks, Frank Harmon, Marlon Blackwell, John Grable and Gabriel Durand-Hollis.

The conversation was rich and stimulating, and it made me realize how we architects need each other.  We have to be connected, to talk about how design relates to the world, to inspire each other with our ideas, and to bolster each other to fight for our common cause.

Gilbert is a kind of glue that helps stick architects together.  He and Suzanne are constantly sponsoring talks, hosting this kind of dinner and just creating formats for great conversation about architecture.

It was fantastic having dinner in the Folger Shakespeare Library, one of the very best buildings by Paul Cret.  Being there also made me think about the glue that binds generations of architects.  It was probably not an accident that there’s a lineage between Paul Cret and nearly every architect in that room.  Cret had Louis Kahn as a student, and Kahn worked for him in his office.  Kahn had Charles Moore as a student at Princeton (Charles was his TA), and Charles had dozens of leading architects as his students and partners—from Don Lyndon on the West Coast to Arthur Anderssen in the middle of the country to Billie Tsien in NY.  Almost every architect in the room had been touched by that lineage.  All of us had some kind of indirect tie back to Paul Cret.

Good design comes out of solidarity and connectedness. In a hectic world, we’re sometimes missing those connections.  We forget how crucial they are.  I felt completely inspired—by everyone who was in that great Reading Room for dinner and by the many who there in spirit. These are the kinds of loose ties creative people really need.  Thanks so much to Gilbert and Suzanne for keeping us connected.

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Thinking about Life as an Architect
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Posted May 29, 2012

Social media for architects: I’m a believer, and here’s why

I am privileged to serve on the National Advisory Council at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Cranbrook is truly a place like no other—a stimulating, open environment where art, architecture, and design are taught and explored without boundaries. There’s a rich dialogue and a consciousness about design that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Reed Kroloff, the school’s director, does an incredible job of bringing us together to discuss issues and what they might mean to Cranbrook. This month, our interdisciplinary group looked at social media.

Through a series of extraordinary speakers—Randy Ortiz from Chrysler Corporation, Ben Watson of Herman Miller, Inc., and Nike’s Tesa Arragones—we learned big business is using social media in very sophisticated and effective ways. For these companies, social media is a means of letting the world communicate their messages. But rather than controlling the content, they let the culture adopt and extend their ideas. Potent stuff!

Gathering public input about architecture

We have been experimenting a bit in our own practice, using social media to harvest public values and perceptions. We did a project recently with the help of Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop where we publicized an event on Facebook and then re-capped and talked about it afterward—again all on Facebook. I was moved by both the breadth and depth of input we got, and it was a lot more fun than stuffy public input sessions in fluorescent-lit community centers with the same old city hall groupies.

I am all over Facebook. I use it as a forum for dialogue in my classes, and people are always sending me cool videos, interesting links, and articles I would never find on my own.

At Cranbrook, someone asked me why I have 1500 Facebook “friends.” Of course I don’t have intimate personal dialogue with all of these people, but I have had some significant contact with them, and I really like the ability to easily reconnect. I believe social media ties into the psychology of creativity; creative people often have more loose ties than strong ones. They need input and stimulation from a lot of different people. Social media is a way of keeping that stimulus going.

Finding new ways to engage

I am looking for more ways to use social media to generate a professional dialogue about architecture and as a tool for helping us engage a broad slice of the public more readily in what we do. If businesses like Chrysler, Nike and Herman Miller have found creative ways to use it, why shouldn’t we?

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Thinking about Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect
Posted May 15, 2012

What does the AIA Twenty-five Year Award say about our values as architects?

Reflecting on the past two winners of the AIA Twenty-five Year Award, I am moved to ask what this award says about our values as architects. This is supposed to be the quintessential award that says a building is cool and has stood the test of time as an embodiment of architectural excellence. The winner must demonstrate excellence “in function, in execution of original program, and in creativity of statement by today’s standards.”

Frank Gehry Residence

If we look at the Frank Gehry Residence, the 2012 award winner, I’d say what we really value as architects is novelty, weirdness, and idiosyncrasy. Gehry’s house is amazing when it comes to these values. But is this the core heart and soul of what we’re about? It is also a single-family home for the architect himself? Is this what is really valuable about architecture—our own self-indulgence? This is not a house that even 1 percent of the populace would relate to or understand.

John Hancock Tower

The John Hancock Tower, the 2011 winner, is a beautiful building. But this is also the building where all the glass fell out. Excavation problems undermined the foundation of neighboring Trinity Church, requiring a huge restoration. The John Hancock Building, in its totality, does not demonstrate excellence. It had some real problems! Furthermore, the resolution was sealed by the courts; as a profession we are left with major questions and bad memories.

I’m a real architecture junkie; I travel a lot to see buildings. I am constantly dismayed by disappointing failures of buildings that the media has hyped. It crushes me–hurts me to the core of my being–to find that what has been called great architecture has feet of clay.

Other buildings I visit and find amazing! They’re supporting a beautiful life, are beloved in their communities, and are making a palpable contribution to the world. I recently talked with a woman who had visited the Kimbell Art Museum with a fellow she had just begun to date. The experience of being at the Kimbell bumped their romance to another level. It illuminated a connection of their souls! This building got the Twenty-five Year Award, and it deserved it.

AIA Twenty-Five Year Award | Texas Architect

I believe submissions to this program need to articulate the contribution the building has made over 25 years. How has it enhanced the community, or become a beloved icon? How has it provoked a redevelopment in its neighborhood? How is it sustainable? We profess these as values and say that the 25-year Award must live up to “today’s standards.” Are these really standards we believe in?

There is a difference between a building that makes a huge contribution and one that’s interesting to the architectural subculture. We, as architects, need to talk about this.

Thinking about Life as an Architect
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Posted April 24, 2012

Traveling with Sloan and Kate

One of the best parts of the trip to China was the opportunity to see these things with my son, Sloan and his girlfriend, Kate.  Sloan’s background in history and law and Kate’s background in anthropology complemented my own background in architecture.  They are really smart, perceptive people who could absorb the places we visited with great depth.  They are also full of positive energy and lots of fun.

We all love to photograph what we are seeing.

And we all love to try new food.

We are not afraid of a lot of hiking.

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Thinking about Life as an Architect
Posted August 14, 2010

Obsessed with the Small

I attended the Design Awards dinner for AIA Houston recently and was quite impressed with the standards of the awards program, the quality of the jurors and the thoughtful way the program was conducted.  I am a big believer in the peer review process as a means to identify and recognize good work that becomes exemplary in setting new directions for our field.  That is why one element of the program was disturbing to me.

Here in the fourth largest city in the country, there seemed to be an inordinate emphasis on “small” projects.  Nine awards were given for new buildings recently completed.  Five of those were given to single family homes, two were for interiors and one was for a very clever carport and parking lot.  Only one award was given for a building of over 50,000 square feet.  Although there were dozens of substantial sized schools, office buildings, medical facilities, government and university buildings etc. submitted, only one was selected for an award.  Whereas one in six of the houses submitted might have won an award, more like one in sixty of the larger buildings won an award.  Having kept up with dozens of such awards programs over the years, it strikes me that the AIA Houston program is not so unusual.  Why are so few larger buildings chosen as models for the best of architectural design in programs like this?  (I should note that this is certainly not sour grapes on my part since the one large building selected, the General Services Administration Field Office, is the only one submitted in which I had any involvement.)

Maybe one could argue that the really good designers are mostly doing smaller houses and interiors and the designers working on larger buildings are just less skilled and therefore less appropriate to be recipients of awards.  That argument seems seriously flawed given the fact that some of the same designers who win awards for “boutique” projects have much less luck when they submit their larger projects.  It also seems very unlikely that all the best talent in the field has somehow gravitated to these little projects and eschewed participation in projects that might have a broader cultural role.  I think this very common pattern of awards recognition is symptomatic of an obsession with the small in our field that is very problematic.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love doing single family houses and other small projects, and have almost always had one going on at pretty much any point in my career.  They are far less complicated than larger buildings, and there is much more opportunity for control on the part of the architect.  Clients and users are less complex and hydra-headed.  Both fees and construction budgets are generally more flexible and much higher per square foot.  Their smaller size inherently makes it simpler to get your arms around the problem and understand every detail.  Frankly, they are just easier.  I think that is why so many projects in architecture schools are small.  They are manageable, and satisfying results can be achieved by a single student working alone for the limited time-frame of a semester.  Maybe we are trained in school to think this is the premier vehicle for good design–a project that can be boiled down to a simple concept, conceived in a napkin sketch or two, worked through in one head over a few months and presented in a handful of snappy drawings.

Unfortunately, the kinds of buildings our culture needs from us as architects are not that simple.  Children in our cities need schools that will stimulate them and facilitate their education, and these will not be tiny little schoolhouses anymore.  The workforce of our society needs office buildings, production facilities and other work places that will be nurturing, efficient and beautiful places to spend 8+ hours a day–often more hours than we spend in our homes.  Our cities need multi-family housing environments that create sustainable patterns of living while also making well-scaled, neighborly places for everyday life.  We need healthcare environments where both medical staff and patients feel supported and where design contributes to medical advances and individual patient healing.  All of these needs require large, complex buildings with a diverse range of users, complicated processes of design and construction and a wide array of architectural skills.

Shouldn’t we be recognizing, awarding and learning from the best of the kinds of buildings our society desperately needs us to design well?  Shouldn’t well designed large buildings–like schools, office buildings, laboratories, retail centers, airports, convention centers, university buildings, public buildings etc.–be purposefully represented in our awards programs?  In the 25+ design awards juries I have served on I have made it a point to be an advocate for the practice of architecture that serves large numbers of everyday people in their daily lives.  I am certainly proud to recognize the exquisite small project that is full of control and finesse.  But these projects should stand, in design awards programs, alongside a good complement of projects that make a substantial contribution to solving the larger architectural problems of our society.

Thinking about Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Texas Architecture
Posted April 12, 2010

, March 2010

“Rescuing the Next Generation”

Written by Larry Speck

If architecture is to stay fresh and progressive, it needs a continual infusion of new professionals. Although it’s difficult to conceive of hiring during this era of layoffs, we can’t afford to lose the talent that the next generation has to offer.