Monday, September 18, 2017

ARCHITECT FURNITURE: Ouch!

Chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the dining room
of the Frderick C. Robie house, Chicago (1909):
Sit up straight, or else.
In a rare moment of humility, Frank Lloyd Wright once conceded:  “I’d hate to admit how many black-and-blue marks I’ve gotten from sitting in my own furniture.”  Wright’s horrific chair designs, with their bolt-upright backs and sharp edges, seem more suited to a medieval torture chamber than to his brilliant and airy interiors.

Wright isn’t alone, however. Modern architects in general are notorious for their dreadful furniture designs. If you’ve ever sat in one of Marcel Breuers’s famed Wassily armchairs—designed in 1926 and still considered a paragon of Modernist style—you’ll know what I’m talking about. Stark and striking to look at, all black leather straps and chrome tubing, it’s nonetheless a trial to sit down in.

Wassily chair: Like it or not,
you're going downhill.
Unlike an ordinary chair, which allows the sitter to change positions as comfort or etiquette dictates, there’s only one way to sit in a Wassily chair: the way the architect intended. It’s impossible to sit attentively at the front edge of the seat, for example—the slippery leather is so steeply raked that one inevitably slides back down into the chair. Once there, the razor-strop-like back and seat soon begin to dig uncomfortably into the skin. A few minutes of sitting quickly make it clear that appearance, not comfort, was Breuer’s primary concern.

An even more renowned piece of architect-designed furniture is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair of 1929. To this day, it’s an expensive fixture in every snooty furniture outlet. But as lovely as it is to look at, it’s a sad excuse for a seat. The huge, gridded cushions don’t conform to one’s back or gluteus maximus; in fact, the slumping curve of the backrest opposes that of a normal spine. It’s just the seat to offer to guests whom you don’t want sticking around.

Chair created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
for the German Pavilion at the
International Exposition in Barcelona, 1929.
Comfortable—if you're built like Gumby.
The architect Philip Johnson nevertheless adored Barcelona chairs, and made them a centerpiece in the living room of his famous glass-box house of 1950. In their defense, he opined: “I think that comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.” In other words, anyone with taste would like them just fine.  

It’s ironic that the Modernists, who were always trumpeting functionalism, were the worst transgressors in the dreadful-furniture department. Modernist chairs might have been stunning works of art, but as objects intended for comfortable seating, they were often less functional than the most ormolu-encrusted chair of Louis XIV.

The standard metal folding chair: More comfortable
than any of the above—and not designed by an architect.
If you're interested, look up "Nathaniel Alexander".
What makes contemporary architects so hopeless at designing furniture? I think it’s the same thing that makes many of them bad at designing people-friendly buildings: an overriding concern with radical style at the expense of function and comfort. Too many architects are terrified to do something that might be construed as traditional or evolutionary, and so are willing to abandon what centuries of history has taught them about humankind for the sake of newness and novelty.

No amount of well-meaning theory or rationalization will change people’s natural habits, however.  If you like to sit on a chair sideways, or slumped down, or with your legs crossed, for example, you’re more likely to choose a chair that accommodates you than you are to adjust your behavior. Still, architects seem ever-hopeful that the power of their ideas can change the way people behave. And hey—sit up straight when you’re reading this.





Monday, September 11, 2017

DESIGNING ROOFS: Don't Get Carried Away

Can you count how many different roof types
are visible on this house?
(1890s-era Queen Anne Victorian
on Military Street in Port Huron, Michigan).
Victorians could get away with this,
but you may not be able to.
Every day I see more new traditional-style homes topped by tortured, often incomprehensible roofscapes. Variety is good.  Surprise is good.  Bedlam isn’t.

You can’t design an interesting roof simply by melding a bunch of disparate roof shapes together. Even if you’re after a picturesque effect, the elements have to be deliberately composed, and with a touch of restraint at that. Even the most flamboyant Victorian houses will, on close inspection, reveal basically simple roof shapes enlivened by carefully-controlled accents such as turrets and dormers.

If you’re into the Grand Teton school of roof design, it’s especially critical to think through your roof scheme very carefully—it’ll probably be the most visible part of the building. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of common roof shapes, followed by some suggestions and caveats for combining them:

Classic gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial home
featuring the English-style "dustpan" dormer.
•  A gable roof is the most familiar type, having two sloping planes with a triangular gable wall at each end. By contrast, a hip roof slopes on all four sides, yielding corner “hips” that climb toward the center. A flat roof has little or no pitch. A shed roof is sort of like a tilted flat roof—it slopes in one plane only.  A gambrel (commonly seen on barns) has two different pitches: steep on the sides, and shallow on top. A mansard has a very steep pitch on all four sides and a flat roof on top, often concealing an attic story inside.

Once upon a time, bargeboards
were a favorite location for ornament.
Not so much today.
A few technical terms may be useful here: Roof slope (properly called pitch) is described in inches of vertical rise over horizontal run—a “4-in-12” roof, for example, has rafters that rise 4 inches in every 12 inches of horizontal distance. The peak of a roof is called the ridge. The lower edge is called the eave. The sloping side edge on shed, gable and gambrel roofs is variously known as the rake, the verge, or the barge—pick your favorite. And now some game rules:

Mansard-roofed Victorian, circa the 1880s.
•  Limit yourself to just one or two roof shapes. For picturesque roofs, the two most compatible shapes are gables and hips; roof shapes.  For picturesque they were a favorite on late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes.  Flat roofs, too, will combine with almost every other type, though they won’t always produce an intelligible style.

Other roof shapes are much more difficult to combine successfully. Sheds, hips, gambrels and mansards will usually get into a stylistic brawl when any two are combined. If you pine for one of these shapes, it’s safest to use it exclusively. If you’re adding onto an existing building, the rules are even simpler—copy the pitch, massing and details of the roof that's already there.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Chicago, c. 1909:
Now that's a real roof overhang.
•  Use powerful proportions.  If you want overhangs, make them generous—at least two feet or so.   Use heavy barge rafters to prevent the sloping roof edge from looking papery. If you're planning  to have a fascia (a trim board behind the gutter), make it substantial as well.  Avoid fussy elements such as narrow sub-roofs and tiny dormers; they usually end up looking like Snoopy’s doghouse.  When in doubt, make elements bigger than they need to be.

•  Unless you’re absolutely sure of the effect you’re after, avoid combining different roof pitches. More often than not, varied pitches look disorganized or, worse, like a construction error. Stick to a uniform pitch, and rely on the size and arrangement of roof masses for effect.
















Tuesday, September 5, 2017

THE CULT OF MINIMALISM

Minimalist kitchen: Hey, where do you keep your Crock-Pot?
It’s no wonder architects have such a dreadful reputation among practical-minded people.
Some of us really ask for it. For example, I recently saw a so-called “kitchen” designed by a trendy British architect. Though I generally bend over backward to remain impartial, I’ve just got to come right out and say it: As a kitchen, the design was utterly ludicrous. It consisted of a few huge slabs of Carrara marble serving as counters in an otherwise flawlessly barren space finished with fanatical attention to detail. More telling, however, is what was absent. There wasn’t a single unscripted item—like a cooking utensil, maybe?—that was allowed to disfigure the absolute purity of the architect’s conception.

Minimalist "living" room:
Come on in and make yourself at home.
I was enormously pleased to learn that this kitchen was in the architect’s own home. I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.

The cult of minimalist architecture essentially consists of spending the maximum money possible on the least visual results. It has its roots in the International Style of the 1930s, when many architects blindly accepted Le Corbusier’s motto of  “less is more” with little independent thought and even less humor. Architects loved the pseudo-science and precision of the International Style, which for a change made them feel like intellectuals instead of artistically gifted louts.

The public, however, hated the International Style. And although it took fifty years, popular opinion finally managed to stamp it out, no thanks to us architects.

A bathroom, or a near-death experience?
(Architect: Wannemacher+Moeller GmbH.
Photography: Jose Campos)
Still, despite the International Style’s thorough trouncing in popular opinion, its ever-chic minimalist branch has refused to die. Instead, like a spoiled child, it survives on vast-budgeted commissions from the ultra-rich who, incidentally, are the only people who can afford houses no one can really live in.

While the two terms “minimalist” and “vast-budgeted” would seem to be in opposition, they aren't: As the Modernists quickly learned, the more pristine and perfect a design must be, the more it costs to build. So, given the extravagant materials and pointlessly fanatical standards of finish demanded by minimalist architects, big money is a precondition of this style.

In fact, were it not continually subsidized by the over-rich and slavishly showcased by snob magazines, minimalist architecture would quickly die of its own disconnection from reality. The reason is simple: Minimalism runs counter to the laws of entropy. Rather than being in harmony with the inevitable effects of time—wear, aging, and kids spilling Cokes—these obsessively-finished environments are predicated on time standing still. They aspire to a sort of encapsulated perfection, like a gem under a bell jar.

By the way, if you don't like minimalism in white,
here it is in gray.
We’ve already seen how well that approach worked for the Modernists: It didn’t. But at least they made a pretense of doing some social good with their every-man-equal ideals. Minimalist architecture can’t even lay claim to that.  Beneath its pretense of asceticism, it’s just an inverse version of showboating.

In the years since the last gasps of Modernism, we’ve learned (or thought we had) that real people with real lives can’t be fit into theoretical constructs, no matter how elegant or rational.

Most can’t, anyway. So, Mr. Minimalist Architect—I hope you really love your new kitchen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

WILL THE SMART HOUSE PASS THE TEST?

High tech, Victorian style: Close up view of a
leading-edge shower faucet of the era.
For the past thousand years, housing technology has advanced with all the urgency of dripping molasses. Perhaps every half-century or so, some fairly important breakthrough has come along to change the way houses are built. It happened around 1840, when heavy-timber construction methods dating back to the Middle Ages finally gave way to the lighter, 2x4-stud “balloon framing” system still in use today.

There was another big technology blip in the late 1800s, when gas lighting, telephones, central heating, indoor plumbing, and finally electricity all made their appearance in Victorian homes within the span of a few decades.

Nutone intercom "master station" of the kind fitted to
many super-high-end houses of the 1940s-1960s:
"BzzzzzzzHebbo?Bzzzzz..."
In the hundred twenty years since, there have been very few substantial changes in the way houses are built. Today, however, the incredibly swift advances in computing, combined with the second generation of internet technology—the vaunted "internet of things"—promise another revolution in housing. Systems such as communication, lighting, climate control, security and entertainment will all be linked via the web. In the resulting smart house, we’re told, the position of the drapes, the fire in the fireplace, even the temperature of your bath water will be monitored by a central brain somewhere in the cloud, waiting to be controlled by little old you at the touch of your smartphone.

While exercising all these godlike powers over your furniture and appliances might be exhilarating to Silicon Valley propellerheads, they also engender some problems.

To begin with,  I'm not at all sure I want the faceless Cloud—much less some mighty Big Brother corporation—to know how warm I like my bath water or what time I draw the drapes at night. But such privacy issues aside, it’s worth remembering that time hasn’t been kind to a lot of domestic innovations once considered state-of-the-art.

The incredible Electro Sink Center, which not only
featured push-button controls for a whole slew of
faucet functions, but also had electric (!) motors
at either end for food preparation.
No doubt you’ve strained to make out the garbled speech from those hokey and unintelligible intercoms that ultra-high-end houses boasted in the Fifties. In the early Sixties, there was the Electro Sink Center, an elaborate kitchen tap with a Jetsons-worthy control panel that dispensed cold, hot, and soapy water at the press of a button. And, it also had a built-in blender! Wow!

Is this the omniscient thermostat of the future,
or the Electro Sink Center of the future?
Only time will tell.
The Eighties brought us one of my personal high-tech favorites: A shower faucet knob containing a digital readout of the water temperature. Just so you could tell exactly what temperature "uncomfortable" is.

For their time, these features were the at the leading edge of technology. Today, they’re just charming anachronisms that draw chuckles instead of awe.

Now imagine a whole galaxy of outdated hardware built into a formerly-smart house. That could be just as embarrassing. After all, no matter how advanced the software might be, drawing drapes and closing valves necessarily requires good old-fashioned electromechanical actuators—very old-school industrial items in themselves. Their slow but inevitable failure could provide enough hijinks for a Lucy Show episode.

The key to making a house smart lies, not simply in having every doorknob and coat hanger wired up to the internet, but doing it in a way that can grow and change with today’s rapid advances in technology, whether electronic or simply physical. If you’re in the market for smart house systems, make sure both the software and the hardware can be easily updated. Like a person, no house can claim to be smart unless it keeps on learning.

Monday, August 21, 2017

MY FASHION STATEMENT

The Romp-Him. If it's such a trend,
why isn't anyone wearing it?
If you've ever seen reporting on those purportedly trend-setting New York fashion shows, you'll be familiar with the sight of models strolling the runway exhibiting outfits made of aluminum foil, Handi-Wipes, or old inner tubes. The latest such trend—or so we're told—is the RompHim, a sort of baby suit for grownup men. Fashionistas tell us—with straight faces—that this is the men's look of the future. Maybe so, but I think I'll just wait and see.

While most people find fashion shows amusing at best, fashion-industry types take them very seriously indeed. There’s a good reason: At last report, clothing fashions alone represented a $1.7 trillion industry worldwide. Add to that the changing fashions of the furniture and appliance industries, not to mention those of interior decoration, and you’re talking some real money.

And a good morning to you, too, madam.
Which inevitably brings us to architecture. Too often, when fashion gets its fluffy paws into residential design, it leaves the homeowner with the aesthetic equivalent of a RompHim. Today’s hottest home fashions can turn ice cold in a few short years—anyone with a black refrigerator can tell you that.

For the most part, residential fashion trends are simply a means of stirring the home industry’s economic pot. Unlike genuine innovations—such as new materials or methods of installation—changes engendered by fashion alone have no functional basis. They’re formulated solely to startle the consumer’s jaded eye.
   
I'm not sure he's convinced either.
During the early 2000s, for example, chic design magazines relentlessly showcased barren, urban-hipster interiors in which you might find only a chair, a cactus, and an unfathomable piece of artwork to break the chill. This look, we were assured, was the cat’s meow.

Fortunately, most people had the common sense to see that such interiors were utterly unlivable, so this manufactured “trend” never progressed beyond what it really was—a rather forced fashion statement inflated to epic proportions.

If they're just kidding,
why isn't this lady laughing?
While it’s easy to ridicule certain architecture magazines for their permanent enslavement to evanescent fads, it’s architects and interior designers who provide the subject matter. They’re only human, and are themselves susceptible to the tidal pulls of fashion.

Consequently, while you should take the suggestions of design professionals seriously, you should never cede your judgment to them completely. Maintain your own voting rights. If your architect or designer suggests colors or materials that don’t appeal to you, or that you feel may be too trendy, don’t be afraid to exercise your veto power.

Lastly, don’t worry if your own preferences aren’t fashionable at the moment. There's no shame in being un-trendy. You'll probably look a lot less silly down the road.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

TILE DESIGN: Don't Be Afraid of Color

Moorish revival staircase dating from the 1920s:
Now that's some real tile work.
Quick—what color is the tile in a tract-house bath? That’s right—a bland, off-white.  Developers choose off-white ceramic tiles for a simple reason:  They’d much rather bore prospective buyers than risk offending their tastes.

Boring tile colors haven't always been the rule, however. Ceramic tile work reached a peak expression of color and pattern during the Twenties, with the popularity of Moorish and Middle Eastern design. Inspired by the incredibly ornate mosaic work of Islamic architecture, such designs made full use of tile’s color and pattern possibilities. Entrance foyers were frequently inlaid with ornamental motifs or mottoes, and bathrooms became showcases for intricate mosaic tile decorations.

The Art Deco movement of the 1930s brought tile to a high point of another sort. Rather than the intricate tile ornament of the Twenties, Art Deco delighted in bold geometric designs featuring zigzags, stripes, and zigurrat shapes. Colors became more strident as well, with combinations such as pink-and-purple and yellow, gray, and black.

Art Deco tile work of the 1930s wasn't afraid of color either.
During the Modernist years, abstract tile designs based on modern art became popular. No doubt you remember those pastel-tiled showers sprinkled with constellations of multicolored squares.

Given this, er, colorful history, you needn’t feel obliged to use bland tile schemes just because developers do. The real fun of ceramic tile lies in its unlimited potential for adding color and pattern.

•  To explore the possibilities of designing in tile, try drawing on graph paper with colored pencils, using an appropriate number of squares to represent each tile. Better yet, if you have a computer with a drawing program, set up a grid of the correct proportions and experiment with color and pattern that way.

Classic 1x1 tile pattern of the
Mid Century era, with its
characteristic preference for
pastel colors.
Remember that, in addition to creating patterns with color alone, you can form designs by placing tiles diagonally or by cutting them into smaller shapes. One suggestion: the larger the tile size, the simpler the design should be. Fussy depictions of objects should generally be avoided altogether. Don’t aim for a rendition of the Last Supper behind your drainboard. Try to stick with straightforward geometric designs.

•  Many tile manufacturers offer decorative pieces designed to complement their regular tile lines.  They’re usually available in a range of colors; some also have embossed textures or hand-painted designs. By combining them with the basic field tiles, you can create some striking combinations. However, try to use such pieces sparingly, both to avoid diluting their design impact and to keep costs in line.

Glass tile: Pretty hip, but like all other fads, it will
date stamp your remodel "right around 2017".
•  Tile grout is also available in a range of colors. However, be aware that eye-popping grout colors may call more attention to minor defects in the installation, as well as distracting from the tile colors themselves. Colored grout may also be harder to match later on if it becomes necessary.



•  One obvious caveat applies to both tile and grout colors: Unlike paint colors, they’re permanent. Choose color combinations because you like them, not because they happen to be in vogue at the moment. The current fad for glass tile, for example, is sure to date-stamp your remodel with "Designed in 2017". Rather than going with the latest thing, choose a personal favorite you can live with for a long time.

Monday, July 31, 2017

BATHROOM DESIGN: There's Still Room For Improvement

Here's the origin of the term "water closet"—Victorians
were terrified of being asphyxiated by sewer gas.
This ad for the British fixture manufacturer
Thomas Crapper and Sons also demonstrates
the origin of the word "crap".
If you think Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius, take a look at one of his bathrooms. Wright, like most nineteenth century architects, couldn’t design a john to save his life—but back then, nobody cared. People were happy just to have indoor plumbing.  

The bathroom as we know it (that is, a lavatory, toilet, and tub contained in one space) is an American invention. Such rooms appeared in plan books as early as the 1850s, although they took a few decades to really catch on. Early bathrooms usually had a lavatory sink and a freestanding tub rather haphazardly placed in a good-sized room. However, the toilet was banished to a separate cubicle—hence the term “water closet”—due to a pervasive Victorian dread of sewer gas wafting out of the bowl and killing people. 

After reliable drainage traps finally alleviated these fears, the separate cubicle was eliminated, and the toilet was given an equally haphazard position inside the main bathroom space.
A fixture here, a fixture there...early bathrooms
were not too well organized.

Cleaning was a headache in these old bathrooms, with their high, wall-mounted toilet tanks and tangles of exposed plumbing. Things didn’t really improve until the introduction of close-coupled toilet/tank combinations and built-in tubs, which did away with a lot of inaccessible crevices.  The latter also gave rise to that mainstay of American tract houses—the five-by-eight-foot bath, with its tub placed crosswise against the far wall.

Bathroom planning finally left the dark ages during the 1960s, when architects began to think of aesthetics as well as function. The “do-your-own-thing” mindset of the time brought us the sunken tub, an early harbinger of the outrageous bathrooms we commonly see today.  While some of the design excesses since that time have verged on absurdity, at least the standards have been raised. 

One thing about bathrooms hasn’t changed, though: Everyone still hates cleaning them. Moreover, a lot of people make matters worse by choosing arrangements that are a real pain to live with. Whether your bathroom is big or small, here are some practical design considerations that shouldn’t be ignored:
A lavatory no-no—don't place the cabinet
right next to the tub wall, or you'll grow
all kinds of nasty stuff there.

•  If you have romantic notions about installing a clawfoot tub in a small bathroom, forget it.  There’s a good reason these tubs fell out of use: With their exposed piping and hard-to-reach surfaces, they’re a cleaning nightmare. Unless you have room to burn and you can get at all four sides of the tub, your bathroom will be Mildew Central in no time.

•  If you’re using a lavatory cabinet, don’t install it directly adjoining the tub. Not only does it look clumsy, but the resulting crevice traps water and crud, creating the same kind of nasty problems outlined above. The usual fixture sequence of lavatory/toilet/tub is common for a good reason—it works.    
As for as I'm concerned,
this faddish sink is not even in the running.

•  Unless you like to spend all day wiping things down, avoid top-mounted lavatory bowls, whose raised rims make it maddeningly difficult to keep countertops clean and dry. Integral bowls—the kind that are monolithic with the countertop—are the hands-down winners for ease of cleaning. Undermount bowls run a close second. That ridiculous fad known as the "vessel sink", which sits entirely on top of the counter, should not even be in the running.

•  Even if you’ll have an openable window in the bath, include an exhaust fan. The added air movement helps prevent a lot of weird things growing on the walls, so it’s a boon for people who take long steamy showers. Oh, and don’t get one of those anemic sixty-dollar fans either. Look for one with an airflow rating of at least 80 CFM and the lowest noise rating you can afford. Larger bathrooms will require proportionately higher CFM ratings.

Monday, July 24, 2017

DESIGN REVIEW: A Jab In The Eye of the Beholder

How would you like a committee deciding what clothes you could wear each day?

Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Robie House of 1909:
If design review boards had existed at the time,
it would never have been built.
One member might say,  “Sorry—those pants don’t match the surroundings. We think you should try another pair.” Another would add,  “We don’t care for that jacket. It attracts too much attention.”
A third would pipe in with,  “We’d prefer to see a blue shirt, okay?”

There’s a similar institution in many of our city planning departments. It’s called a design review board, and it presumes to tell architects and homeowners what “clothes” their homes are allowed to wear. In many cities, design review is required whenever a set of residential plans is submitted for approval.

Harry Oliver's Spadena House, Beverly Hills (1926):
Would it pass the Design Review Board
in your town? Not bloody likely.
Over the past thirty years, the design review process has exerted an ever-expanding influence on architects and homeowners. But in all that time, no one has really been able to demonstrate its value in making our surroundings more “beautiful”—whatever that really means.

Design review is based on the shaky premise that a panel of city appointees can judge aesthetics better than anyone else, and should therefore have the final say on what your project should look like—more of a say, even, than you or your architect.

Beauty is a highly individual perception, however. What’s more, our judgment of aesthetics is inextricably rooted in the context of our own time. Architecture that we find ugly or shocking today may well be perfectly acceptable in twenty years. Conversely, the features design review boards love to see nowadays may be considered schlock in a few decades. You se always on shaky ground simply can’t presume to make airtight aesthetic judgments from the vantage point of the present.

Bruce Goff's Bavinger House (Norman, Oklanhoma,
1955—now destroyed): Another non-starter
if Design Review Boards had had anything to do with it.
If design review boards had existed during the time of Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, his most brilliant works would undoubtedly have been muddled beyond recognition, if they were allowed to be built at all. Why? Because Wright’s designs were considered shocking and even ugly in the context of their time, and were generally disliked by the status quo. The same holds true for any number of our country’s most brilliant architects.

And as you might guess, design review boards are composed of ordinary humans with ordinary aesthetic prejudices. That’s why it’s so dangerous for them to decide what is “appropriate” design and what isn't.

Frank Gehry's Venice, CA Beach House (1984):
A Design Review Board might have
approved this design—but only if Gehry
had already been world famous.
Moreover, design review is an infringement on a highly personal freedom: one’s individual sense of aesthetics. You may want to wear a purple shirt—or you may want to live in a purple house. Why should the city government intrude in either of these highly personal choices?

Right about here, I usually get this rejoinder:  “So you’d let people build any old piece of junk, anywhere they want?”

Hardly. For well over a hundred years, cities have had a means of enforcing regulations affecting public health and safety, and rightly so. That instrument is the zoning code, and it’s the proper place for the city to wield its authority. It’s the zoning code, for example, that prevents your neighbor from building right up to your fence line, or locating a gunpowder factory next to your house. No one argues with the need to regulate matters of public safety.

But enforcing public safety is a very different thing from enforcing taste. A purple house doesn’t present any risk to the public.  Or does it, design review officials?  Responses are invited.





Monday, July 17, 2017

IN ARCHITECTURE, IT'S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT SIZE

This 18th century Colonial interior, with its low ceiling
and close spaces, has the sort of scale most of us
would refer to as "quaint".
If you’ve ever tried one of those huge, flavorless things growers call tomatoes these days, you’ll know that size alone is no guarantee of taste. There’s a corollary in architecture: just as monstrous girth doesn’t make a tomato worth eating, size alone doesn’t make a house worth living in.

This point was really driven home to me a while back, when I toured a house whose owner reminded me several times of its vast floor area—nearly four thousand square feet. What seemed more amazing to me was that, for all its size, the house was also utterly charmless. The rooms were huge, bland expanses in which the furniture looked lost. I seemed to walk for yards past blank stretches of spray-textured drywall intermittently pierced  by enormous yet flimsy-looking aluminum windows. There was hardly a nod anywhere to the modest size of an ordinary human being.

The interior of Reims Cathedral (c. 1211-1275): Here,
scale has an entirely opposite effect, but for good reason. 
Which brings me to a crucial property of architecture:  scale. Strictly speaking, scale is defined as the size of building elements relative to the human body (as distinct from proportion, which deals with the size of building elements relative to each other).

Scale determines how you, as a human being, relate to a building. When you walk into a tiny Provincial cottage, for example, it’s your own relatively large physical size that makes the surroundings feel so quaint and charming. On the other hand, when you walk into the soaring nave of a Gothic cathedral, its scale intentionally makes you feel small and humble—after all, it's God's house that you're visiting.

But what’s right for God’s house isn’t always right for yours. Inasmuch as bigger isn’t necessarily better, here are a few suggestions regarding the use of scale in design:

Is this a living room, or a lounge at La Guardia?
•  Don’t make rooms huge for their own sake. Occasionally, I’ll get a client who’ll insist, “I want a huge living room, say twenty by thirty-two feet.”  For him (or her), design is a numbers game meant solely to outscore the neighbors. But it’s a pointless competition: more often than not, such huge rooms have all the charm of an airport lounge, and in any case, the wasted ego-trip space would be better applied to an area where it’s more useful.

If you love large rooms, use smaller
sub-elements to break up the vastness
of the space and give it a more
human scale.
•  Be wary of any single room whose size demands multiple furniture groupings. Such arrangements necessarily split occupants into camps of “us” and “them”, which makes for distant and uncomfortable socializing. Take a lesson from that old saw about party guests always ending up in the kitchen—people naturally gravitate toward intimate spaces, not grandiose ones.

•  Try to get a sense of appropriate room sizes by looking at actual buildings, not simply by studying floor plans or, worse, by guessing.  I once had a client who insisted that his dining area be sunken eight feet below the living room. When I pointed out that eight feet was an entire story, he was horrified.  “I didn’t know it was that much,” he said.  “I just wanted to see out over the dining table.”
Lesson:  Make sure you’re familiar with the dimensions you’re planning on before you commit yourself.

•  Finally, if you simply must have that giant room (or a giant house, for that matter), try to make the rooms more people-friendly by including some small-scale elements such as alcoves and bays to break up the unrelenting volume. But as the lawyers would say—NOT TO BE TAKEN AS AN ENDORSEMENT OF HUGE ROOMS.

Monday, July 10, 2017

DESIGN ALL OUT OF PROPORTION

The Parthenon's design is based on the Golden Rectangle,
with a ratio of approximately 1:1.618. By removing
a square from this shape, another golden rectangle
is created...and so on.
Proportion is one of those fuzzy architectural issues. Webster defines it as “the relation of one part to another or to the whole with respect to magnitude, quantity, or degree”. Yet no one can say exactly what constitutes good proportion.  

The math-crazed Greeks thought they had proportion all figured out.  They devised a series of geometric ratios—1:2, 2:3, 3:5 and so on—that formed the proportional basis for architectural masterpieces such as the Parthenon. Later on, much of the architecture of the Renaissance was based on such ratios as well.  


The strangely gawky vestibule of Michelangelo's
Laurentian Library, with its unsettlingly busy
ornament, leads the viewer into...
But as always, other folks came along to prove that such rules were made to be broken. The sixteenth-century architects known as Mannerists delighted in tweaking Renaissance rules of good proportion by deliberately distorting the forms of their buildings. In Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, for example, a strangely gawky foyer leads up into a surreally long and low reading room. By juxtaposing unconventional proportions, Michelangelo introduced a sense of visual tension that broke new ground for future architects.       


...the remarkably calm proportions of
the library's reading room—
an unforgettable juxtaposition.
In his seminal 1856 book The Grammar of Ornament, the architect Owen Jones returned to the Greek notion of mathematical ratios, stating that  “. . .in every perfect work of Architecture a true proportion will be found to reign between all the members which compose it. . .the whole and each particular member should be a multiple of some simple unit.” 

Intriguingly, however, Jones added:  “Those proportions will be the most beautiful which it will be most difficult for the eye to detect. Thus the proportion of a double square, or 4 to 8, will be less beautiful than the more subtle ratio of 5 to 8." Here, he almost seems to imply that the least identifiable proportional scheme is best of all—in other words, whatever looks right, looks right.  


Frank Lloyd Wright's long, low Robie House of 1909.
Imagine how this design looked to people who were
used to seeing...
Although the ideals of good proportion are subjective, most people nevertheless judge a design based on its resemblance to architecture they’re already familiar with. Hence the big uproar over Frank Lloyd Wright’s long, low Prairie Houses of the early twentieth century: at the time, Wright’s impossibly low-slung architecture just didn’t “look right” to people accustomed to the spiky verticality of Victorian homes.   

To find out what looks right to you, try sketching your designs without allowing yourself the use of grids, scales or other constraints. Just draw freehand on a plain sheet of paper. You’ll find that when the mind is unfettered by a lot of rules and constraints, it falls back on its own innate sense of proportion.  

...houses with proportions like this one.
I always retain my very first rough sketches of a project for this reason.  Almost inevitably, after doing umpteen variations on the original theme, I end up going back to the proportions of the first sketch because they’re the most pleasing.

Moreover, in some cases, your proportion homework is already done for you: If you’re designing an addition, for example, just take your proportional cues from the original building.  If the windows are tall and narrow in the existing part, for example, use ones with similar proportions in the new work. It’s an excellent way to help unify the design.



Lastly, it’s good to be conscious of the classical rules of proportion, but don’t let them straitjacket you. If ratios or modules are helpful, by all means use them—but remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, July 3, 2017

As an architect, I usually get a front-row seat at arguments between couples who can’t agree on
design issues. You wouldn’t believe how testy some otherwise googoo-eyed partners can become under the pressure of making aesthetic decisions.  There are times I’d give anything to have Scotty beam me out of there.

Relationships are supposed to be more enlightened these days, what with the myriad forms of head-shrinking now available. Despite it all, many couples are still dreadful at communicating their design opinions tactfully.
"Your idea is a real riot, Alice!"
(Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows in
The Honeymooners)

I once sat through a meeting between two married couples collaborating on the design of a shared vacation house. Very early on, one of the wives enthusiastically outlined her idea for some sort of covered veranda. When she cheerfully looked to the others for feedback, there was a respectful silence.  Finally, the husband of the other woman replied:

“I think that would look really stupid.”

Net points for tact:  Zero.

One thing architects learn early on is never to cast their client’s ideas in a negative light, however dubious they may be.  It’s a wise approach for couples, too. Here are some tips to help stave off design-talk debacles:

Your project  won't get far at
this volume level.
•  No matter how crazy your partner’s idea seems, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps you just didn’t understand it correctly. Ask for a clarification.  Plenty of great ideas sound crazy on first listening. And even if the idea really is as bad as you feared, avoid responding with “You’re a hamster-brained aesthetic moron,” or its equivalent. Instead, try presenting an alternate idea:

“We could try that. Or—how about if we did something like this . . .”  Very often, the original idea is mercifully forgotten when a new and more promising choice presents itself.

•  If you and your partner can’t seem to agree on a particular design issue, try to find the root of the disagreement. Is it the idea’s functionality? Its aesthetics? Its cost? It’s much easier to seek a compromise solution when you know exactly what your partner’s objection is. If this approach doesn’t solve the problem, temporarily set aside the area of contention and move on. If the disagreement is so fundamental that it precludes further discussion, take a few days to cool off and reflect on the best course. A little introspection can work wonders here.

Sorry—not the architect's job.
•  If you’re working with an architect or designer, don’t expect him or her to mediate disagreements you have with your partner. That, I’m happy to say, is still your problem. You and your partner need to be in general agreement on the project’s scope before the architect can do any useful design work.  
However, if a technical ruling by your architect can decide the issue—“I’m afraid that, despite what you’ve seen in Snob Digest, you can’t have a staircase with no railing,”—then by all means solicit his expertise.

•  Finally, a warning:  Few things can nuke a relationship as quickly as a remodeling project. Be prepared for disagreements—in fact, expect them. Allow plenty of room for discussion, and remember that open-minded, freewheeling design debates can frequently yield the most splendid results.

Monday, June 26, 2017

FOILING THE BEST-LAID PLANS

The Faculty Glade at UC Berkeley, and the famous bollards:
Now, how did those kids get up there?
At the University of California in Berkeley, surrounded by a passel of important academic buildings, there’s a grassy little hillock known as the Faculty Glade. When it was laid out, the landscape architects intended students to stroll obediently around its perimeter on an asphalt path they'd provided. But of course, the harried students cut across it instead, making a crisscrossing cowpath that defined the shortest distance between classes.

Exasperated, the landscape architects finally resolved to install a set of bollards draped with heavy chains to block the mouth of each shortcut, probably chuckling evilly to themselves the whole time. When the imposing barriers were completed, the students nonchalantly jumped over them and continued on their way as before.

Le Corbusier's Pessac housing estate as designed in 1925:
People filling his apartments with antique armoires

and wrought-iron chandeliers drove the architect crazy.
And if he thought that was bad...
I’ve always been cheered by this small triumph over a seemingly pointless restriction on human nature. Sure, it was just some college kids, a hill and a bunch of barriers—but to me, it was a demonstration both of the steadfastness of the human spirit, and the unwitting penchant people have for screwing up the best-laid plans.  

In any case, a truly humane built environment should be able to absorb such trifling deviations from intended use. One problem with Modern architecture was that many of its proponents simply couldn’t live with this idea. They perceived their buildings as pristine works of art frozen in time and space, ones in which human occupants often seemed little more than a necessary annoyance.      

...here's the Pessac housing estate today,
with various modifications made by residents
desperate to make it feel more homey.
The architect Le Corbusier is said to have become apoplectic when he stopped by an ultramodern apartment house he’d just finished and found the new tenants installing Baroque armoires and wrought-iron chandeliers. Those unpredictable humans were messing up his big plan.

The legendary Mies van der Rohe was equally put out when he noticed that the occupants of one of his toney highrises all had their window shades set at different heights, ruining the gridded perfection of the building’s glass exterior. He decreed that henceforth, the shades would be adjusted to one of four standard positions, and just to make sure, he had stops installed on all the windows.

Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Apartments in Chicago,
circa 1948. Note the window shades, which are all
in one of the four positions approved by the architect.
This sort of fixation on planning and control seems unreasoned, not to say futile, considering how much humans resent being told what to do. More tellingly, having all the window shades line up, and the tenants’ furniture match, and the Faculty Glade remain pristine but unappreciated, wouldn’t really have made anyone happier.

We architects, and perhaps people in general, need to let go of our incessant mania for controlling the world around us, and learn to make peace with the uncontrollable. For matter how carefully we may plan, there will always be some unexpected quirks that surprise us. Still, we ought to rest assured that things will work out in spite of them, and maybe even because of them. Apparently, even Le Corbusier eventually came to this conclusion when he observed

"You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong."

Monday, June 19, 2017

ARCH-ITECTURE

Sometime around 700 BC, the Assyrians began arranging sets of wedge-shaped stones to span drainage channels. From this humble beginning came one of the most momentous developments in architecture—the arch.   

The Romans really knew how to make use of the arch.
Before the arch hit town, ancient structures such as Stonehenge used enormous stone blocks called lintels to span openings. Unfortunately, this meant you couldn’t span any distance greater than the nearest giant monolith that was handy.  

The arch was different. Instead of spanning openings with a single block of stone, it used many smaller wedge-shaped blocks stacked into a half-circle, all pushing one against the other.  Since the width of the opening was no longer limited by the size of the individual stone blocks, it became possible to span much greater distances. 

Those nutty Romans are generally credited with using the arch to its full potential. Perhaps the most elegant of their works are the gracefully arched aqueducts, sections of which still stand today. And of course the Romans also invented that pompous monument of self-congratulation, the triumphal arch. 

Even after the Roman Empire packed it in, the Romanesque architecture of the Middle Ages retained the round arch as its hallmark. Later, in the thirteenth century, a pointed arch became the basis for the incredible structural feats that distinguished the Gothic cathedral.

After traveling in Europe, the American architect H. H. Richardson became positively smitten with arches. In Richardson’s monumental stone buildings of the early 1880s, the use of a single huge masonry arch over the entranceway became his trademark. 

Although today an arch is seldom used to actually hold anything up, its dramatic potential is quite undiminished. It can still turn an ordinary opening into a dramatic focal point. Here are a few tips on designing with arches:

Moorish arch, 10th century Spain.
•  Use an arch to call attention to an important passageway. The most common interior location is between the living and dining rooms, but there are many other possibilities.Echoing the same style of arch in other locations, such as niches, fireplaces, or important windows, can help unify the design theme. Don’t go overboard, however—placing arches at every turn can become cloyingly cute, as well as expensive. A few well-placed ones will carry more impact. 
Door with Tudor arch
(courtesy Tudor Artisans)

•  Choose an arch shape that’s appropriate to the style you’re designing in. For example, most Spanish-based styles use a simple semicircular arch, while French Provincial architecture often uses a segmental arch. Chinese, Moorish, Gothic and Tudor architecture each have their own distinctive arch shapes as well. A few minutes online will help you sort these out.  

•  Mind your proportions.  Don’t bring the top of the arch too close to the ceiling or roofline—the area above it will look visually weak if there’s only a sliver of wall left showing.  In designs having multiple arches, avoid crowding the arched openings too close together, so that only spindly little columns remain between them. A column width about one-third the width of the opening is usually about right.
Mission San Miguel Archangel, San Luis Obispo County,
California. Note that the wall between the arches
is exactly as thick as it is wide.

• Lastly, allow a generous depth for the arched opening as well. If necessary, make the wall thicker to prevent the archway from looking like a paper cutout.