Saturday, May 24, 2008

Two Houses: the different modern yet traditional approaches between house and nature

In spite of the building type's relatively small size, the house is often the most challenging building type for even the most masterful of architects. In part it is because of the personal and complicated nature of the client relationship, but also it is due to the tension between a flexible yet individualized program and a freedom for the architect to demonstrate their concept of the meaning of home. Some of history's best architects built their reputations in a series of one-of-a-kind houses, while producing few large-scale institutional or commercial buildings. At the other end, world-reknowned designers known for their striking museums, academic buildings or stadiums often produce forgettable houses. Many of the latter will only choose commissions that allow them almost unbridled freedom, where they are expected to reimagine dwellings beyond our familiar notions. Such houses are not only unique due to the uniqueness of their client, they are also special in that they embody functions beyond simple domestic living.

This liberal adding of functions was evident in recent tours of a couple of homes designed by genuine "starchitects" in Dallas. In both instances, the houses contained traditional living spaces such as bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms, but were then supplemented by spacious exhibtion spaces for their private art collection. There were vast areas designed for entertaining, as these houses are known to hold frequent fundraisers, meetings and art shows. The first house I toured, the Rachofsky residence by Richard Meier, can be described as 10,000 square foot one bedroom/one bath home. The living spaces are tucked to the far corners of the house, with kitchen squeezed at the bottom floor, the small bedroom and bathrooms perched on the third floor, and the rest of the large volume given over to exhibition space for the owner's private (and frequently changing) contemporary art collection. The Rachofsky house is the very embodiment of the house as museum. Add to that the precision, whiteness and mild austerity that is Richard Meier's signature style, and it becomes clear that the architect (and client) were less interested in designing a modest home than in wedding his previous museum prototypes to the scale of and in minor deference to someone's private bachelor pad.

The second house, Antoine Predock's house at Turtle Creek, is different in that the residential functions are a bit more prominent and are actually lived in (the owner of the Rachofsky house no longer lives there, as it became to difficult to live within a museum, or in other words, too many art lovers wanted visit). The bedroom and master bath are larger, the kitchen is packed with food, and the formal dining room is celebrated by being perched on the upper level, connected by stairs, bridges and an elevator (which allows it to be serviced by the kitchen below). The living room is really an extension of the house's gallery, dotted with sculpture pieces that are so "contemporary" that it isn't hard to mistake some of them for everyday objects. But the gallery spaces are nothing compared to the sprawling roof terrace wich consists of gentle ramps and walkways spanning the entire length and breadth of the house, not to mention a small amphitheatre. However, the singular feature of the Rose house is its birdwatching bridge, which allows one to walk from upper level to a small steel platform nestled on top of the shady tree canopy. From the platform she not only can look at birds but also look down at the rocky creek that circumscribes the site. Unlike Meier's house, with its almost baroque relationship to the site in that it sits on an artificially flat site at the end of an axis facing a major street fronted by monumentally modern gate, Predock's house virtually hides itself, integrating itself to the sloped and shady site, with nary a true public facade but instead incorporates a series of massive planted terraces as its long front wall. The backyard is laced with footpaths leading to the creek and is framed by a large curtain wall, with one portion covered by a large curved surface of mirror-polished stainless steel, concealing the house even more by reflecting the thick tree canopies opposite to it.

From the two houses' contrasting relationships to the surroundings reveal contrasting heritages in the modern domestic design. The first of these is to have the building dominate the landscape, with all landscape features arranged to emphasize the house so as to make it monumental. This is in keeping with a tradition that date from at least the ancient classical era, and was a standard site planning practice since the Renaissance. It is intended to enhance the symbolic function of the building, drawing to either the building's owner or the institution that is represented by it. The second heritage is of merging the building to the original contours of the landscape, deliberately minimizing its monumental presence in favor of achieving harmony with the natural surroundings. This relates to the picturesque tendency in landscape design, The winding steets of medieval towns and the organic agglomerations of medieval monestaries. Harmonizing with the land explains the dramatic effects of works by Arts and Craft masters and the dazzling works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Maintaining a more traditionally monumental heritage, Richard Meier's personal style can be described as a kind of "Corbusier revival". More specifically he adopts of the vocabulary of the old master's series of white villas during the 1920's. In both the opaque treatment of the front of the house and glassy and open terrace treatment on the back side, The Rachofsky house shares an almost literal resemblance to Le Corbusier's design for Gertrude Stein's villa outside Paris. Beyond their shared lack of color on the outside, both Meier and Le Corbusier separate the wall from structure, exploit the idea of the free facade with openings and reinforce the free plan with a continuation of volume in between floor levels. Meier expands Le Corbusier's concepts even further by overlaying an orthogonal grid on both the exterior treatment as well as in organizing the interior spaces. In an almost quintessentially baroque move, Meier expands this grid onto the surrounding landscape, creating in essence a "tabula rasa", a perfectly blank slate on which the house sits, so as to avoid having to confront the randomness of nature. Implementing this grid in so many dimensions requires a great deal of precision, which is exhibited in the quality of the architectural details. Whereas Le Corbusier has never been able to execute detail with much skill, Meier's buildings demonstrate a perfectionism of detailing to a point that they almost lose their human touch in favor of a kind machine-like quality that has always eluded the man who saw houses as "machines for living". There is, nonetheless, a genuine playfulness within the Rachofsky house's careful composition as Meier subdivides the cube to modulate transparency and opacity to reflect function, to carve outside terraces and emphasize stairways. And although the house subjugates the land around it, nature is brought inside as copious glazed surfaces frame detailed views of the outside. Natural light permeates almost all spaces within the house, and the intricate pattern of the window mullions reinforce an awareness of the passage of time when they project changing shadows onto the surfaces.

Predock's house engages with its natural surroundings in a more metaphorical way. The house introvertedly addresses the steet, with no windows facing out and built-in vegetation helping minimize its actual large size. The site itself is covered with trees and tall shrubs, offering less abundant natural light to the interior of the house. Add that to the massive concrete walls that run throughout the house, and there is an overall cavernous feel to the spaces. This is balanced by the positioning spaces to capture specific directional views to the outside, with curved walls bowing to the outside to maximize the panoramic views. When one studies the actual plan of the house, the bold geometry of the circle combined with the circle stands out, and instantly seems to reference Frank Lloyd Wright's habit of creatively incorporating sacred shapes. There is a linear axis that organizes the gallery spaces and the main stair and roof terrace, from which the circle and triangle extend outward from the axis. This is countered by a more diminutive axis that articulates a path directly to a light steel bridge outside that terminates at the birdwatching platform. The whole house seems to take the cue of the owner's fondness for birdwatching, in which the wide variety of floor levels and steps and its exansive roof garden under the tree canopies gives recalls a tree with branches at multiple heights, offering distinctive views depending on where one is perched.

Both houses reveal the different approaches and in how geometric devices organize form and generate particular effects. In spite of its appearance as a rigid rectangular prism, Meier's house is an ode to the grid and hidden regulating lines and its resultant flexibility and freedom (much like Le Corbusier had preached). Predock distills abstract geometic shapes derived from conditions of the site and then proceeds to fit the program within the strict spatial parameters of these shapes. Such bold geometric gestures (and a rich palette of materials) lend the visitor's attention instantly to the architecture and seems to minimize the presence of the outside. Wedge-shaped rooms and curved glass walls make each space unique yet all-consuming. In contrast, the minimal whiteness and strict orthogonal character of Meier's house allows the architecture inside to dissolve and accentuates the outside environment more intensely. There is however an inverse effect when seen from the outside: the very orthogonality and whiteness brings much more attention to the building than to its natural environment. The cool grays and beiges from Predock's use of concrete and stone has the opposite effect, and its axial and sharp geometries slightly mimick the contours of the land.

Which house more appropriately addresses the surrounding context? Both do, but they respond to different kinds of places. Meier's Rachofsky house is situated at Preston Hollow, an up-scale neighborhood defined by the relatively flat land and generous suburban tracts. Predock's Rose house is situated along Turtle Creek in a neighborhood that was landscaped by a master of the picturesque style made popular in the U.S. by Frederic Law Olmstead. Neither seem to cry out for attention even as their neighbors in the form of McMansions do by coming close to the street and assuming as tall a profile as possible. The Rachofsky house sits near the rear of the site, preceded by a giant front lawn and a minimalist wall with gate facing the street. The Rose house atually frames a private drive with its planter walls, but it almost appears as if it had been there for a long time like an ancient Mayan ruin. From any other side, the house becomes invisible, even from across the creek veiled by lush vegetation and minimal landscaping. The Rose house is indeed quite the private refuge, while the Rachofsky house is more of late 1990s chateaux which has become more institutional in function as it has embraced a role as a public art gallery of sorts.

And now for the more interesting question: which do I like better? Judging from my pen-name, it would appear that I would be partisan to Meier, as he carries the torch of Le Corbusier's stylistic innovations. Meier's work has had a subtle influence on my personal design style even if I would never impose such a limited palette of color and material as he does. Predock is a precocious form-maker that gives his buildings symbolic value, using materials that often harmonize well to the outside context. Yet his sense of scale and proportion are somewhat lacking judging from the few buildings of his I've actually visited. Predock's details, while clean, are a bit dull when observed more closely, something that often occurs with architects who pay too much attention to the shapes of building volumes. Meier's house doesn't seem to fall into the same trap as he exhibits graceful proportion and exquisite detailing. Nothing is left to arbitrariness and each of the most minor of elements are carefully considered. There are many little coves and hidden spaces to maintain a visitor's interest even within the simple cubic volume. Daylight strikes the surfaces and exposes a rich variety of forms, profiles and the play of shadows in the passage of time. Predock seems less concerned for the architecture to reveal itself than to dissolve itself as part of a natural setting. The birdwatching bridge and platform are symbolic of this, its thin and lightweight steel structure tries to remove attention to itself in favor the tree canopies, while the vast areas of the house devoted to the roof garden diminishes the importance of the interior spaces. Such a focus on the outdoor experience seems to be undercut by the lack of warm surface materials, with monotonous grey concrete (or stucco?), grey painted concrete roof deck and colorless conrete pavers on the grounds make for an unstimulating impression. Even Meier with his strict material and color palette manages to make his exterior spaces more alive with use of water from the reflecting pool than brings the blueness of the sky to the groundplane. The contemporary sculpture pieces also benefit from the austerity of the landscape, some of which punctuate one's view with bright and bold colors.

It is important to understand that what makes these houses such a treasure for any city to have is not in their practical quality. Neither of the houses are models of functionality or performance. Both houses are inefficiently planned, and both contain spaces that are much larger than most people would need, while others are a bit smaller or less easily accessible. Their value isn't determined by how well their systems work, whether it is necessarily wise that Meier's house has a huge West-facing glass wall that overheats the house, or whether there may be possible leaks from so large a roof terrace. Such points of criticism are all too common when arguing about what's wrong with a work of architecture, as they concentrate on issues have little to do with a design's overarching concepts.

As much as the practice of architecture entails the technical with the artistic, it must be remembered that it is the latter that is the privilege and the domain of the architect with regard to a building. They produce the main concept to which all elements are organized, to which the client must buy into and to which the contractor must realize in a finished state. Meier and Predock were chosen for their conceptual prowess and were expected to liberally wield their influence in all aspects of project. Under their care, a project's success is due to its capacity to express its concept in multiple dimensions and at various scales. The quality of expression in both houses is exceptional and a real pleasure for lovers of architecture, from the precision and subtle playfulness of Meier to the bold geometries and creative response to the site by Predock. The level of execution in both houses is extraordinary, but even more important is the degree to which they convey the mind of their designers in as personal a design vehicle as the house.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Beauty and Waste: More Thoughts on Space and Worship

While watching a television show the other day about bread, I learned of a simple, but beautiful custom of Jewish bread bakers. While preparing the traditional Jewish bread Chullah, the baker will tear off a portion and bake it by itself, or simply throw it away. Traditionally, this was for the temple priests, offered as a tithe. But the tradition continues today to act as a sort of sacrifice, a reminder that God provides all that is needed, and this portion of the bread can, in essence, be wasted. This expresses very well what is at the core worship…that a component of waste is helpful in understanding what it’s really about, that it’s not a business, and that indulgence is, in a tangible way, a wonderful reminder of all that we have been given.

But in a conservative and efficient culture, waste has come to be seen as an altogether negative concept. In a culture where the “bottom line” dictates our thinking and where energy is to be prized, to waste at all is almost a sign of weakness, or failure. Certainly no church with a “green” conscious would want to be wasteful. But I’m not talking about turning up the thermostat or using plastic plates instead of Styrofoam, but substantial choices about space and aesthetics. We see, for example, the elevation of the “big box church”, where, even when churches have money, thoughts of beauty and waste are rarely afforded the architect. Instead, any space, be it a movie theatre, basketball arena, or shopping mall, can be converted into a place of worship, even if terribly tacky and not suited very well to the task. I can hear the head pastor saying, “Hey, they offered a free six month’s rent and it’ll seat 3,500! Perfect!”

But how can you convince someone that it might be worth creating a space that’s less than efficient, and that might take years to complete, not months? I could certainly quote scripture, where Jesus defends a woman who cleans his feet with costly nard. Surely this text allows the Church to be “wasteful” when it comes to adoring Christ. And it’s hard to argue that beautiful spaces help us do such adoring. Yet, this idea is foreign to many Protestants, who give little regard to aesthetics in lieu of practicalities like financing, efficiency and multi-use space.

Instead of offering beauty and mystery to its congregants, it replaces those needs with an emotional experience and preaching that promises certainty. The spaces used is often more corporate and functional than beautiful. Indeed, one has to wonder looking at the stage lighting and drum set surrounded by Plexiglas if beauty ever entered their minds. In other words, the space need not communicate; we’ll do all the talking. And talk they do. And talk, and talk, and talk…

But true worship, and its space, I would argue, may best be understood from the paradigm of waste. Yes, waste, as in, a sacrifice. After all, we agree we’ll only be here for a short time. So let’s enjoy it, and let’s splurge on our place of worship. Let Wal-Mart keep costs down by erecting ugly buildings. Let’s tack on another 5 years of a mortgage for stained glass, stone, flexible spaces and flowing fonts. Let our buildings speak volumes about our faith, let them say something when our words cannot. Let our worship be influenced by natural, not artificial light, and let the space be good for one thing and one thing only: worship.

Of course, there is a dark side to this way of thinking, and as always, we must find a “happy medium.” I think of Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of opulent, but spiritually dead churches. I found this quote here:

“Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher-theologian, once described how he went into the great cathedral in Copenhagen and sat in a cushioned seat and watched as sunlight streamed through stained glass windows. He saw the pastor, dressed in a velvet robe, take his place behind the mahogany pulpit, open a gilded Bible, mark it with a silk marker and read, 'Jesus said, "If any man be my disciple he must deny himself, sell whatsoever he has, give to the poor and take up his cross and follow me."' Kierkegaard said, 'As I looked around the room I was amazed that nobody was laughing.’

Here, in very few words is the perfect critique of waste for all the wrong reasons. When visual beauty takes the place of serving one’s neighbor, the issue has gotten away from us.

But the other extreme offers us problems as well. I’m reminded of a college friend critiquing the church, saying it was wasteful to even build a church. God could be worshipped out in the fields just as well. Wasn’t God in nature? But what about all that wasted nard? This story tells me that if we waste our treasure correctly, then it’s okay to waste it.

Or in other words, there are ways in which we worship beyond our feelings and our words; prayers in stone matter, too. Indeed they stand apart from a world that is looking more and more monolithic, where big box churches, malls and retail stores blend together all too seamlessly. Funny that when the architecture blends together, so too does the music, theology, and driving motivations for even existing.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Podcast #4

Relievedebtor and corbusier discuss all things green as they relate to architecture, design and morality. Are green changes in design really good for the earth? What are the costs? And who can afford them? Check out Episode #4 here.