I had a family reunion in Austin this past weekend. And you know how reunions go, you are so involved with enjoying the get together you push other things to the back of your mind. Like visiting the loo.
I, however, had a loo – front and center in my mind.
Lady Bird Loo, Austin Texas, Mell Lawrence Architects, AustinBuildings need to work amazingly well. Ours do. They reflect a deep sense of place and life pattern. Mell Lawrence Architects, Austin
It was late morning on a hot and humid July day, typical for Austin. The Colorado River looked serene in its placid state of pale green and blue water. A cooling breeze seemed to drop the temperature to bearable as we walked the gravel trail along its bank.
Two awkward looking rusted steel structures came into view. I instantly recognized them from their published photos. They looked more shadow than structure as the tall steel sheets rose directly from the ground.
When you are on an architectural pilgrimage, no matter how humble, attention is moreso. I walked around the structures, peeking into the narrow gap between the steel panels and the concrete end wall, noting the carefully detailed clips that held the steel panels to the frame. The panels were already covered in rust, the intended end game of Corten steel that allows the natural salt and humidity to corrode its surface to a point of patina before further corrosion is inherently stopped. This rust felt almost dangerous as I carefully inspected the corrosion flakes.
I ran my hand along the board formed concrete end walls, feeling the wood grain and the concrete bits that leaked through, forming thin rough rows across the wall.
As I continued to walk around the buildings, sensing the tall and folding walls, I eventually realized that they were locked for maintenance. Actually, that had not in the least diminished my experience. The buildings were quite available as simple structures along a trail. Belonging to the site regardless of their use. Good design is like that.
Ansel Adams – that American icon of photography and champion for wild places. But he didn’t start out with the capacity to translate into his medium – photography – the power of wild places. It all began with the wild places lighting him up and then building within him an insatiable need to express those experiences. Like the time he stood before the tall granite wall in Yosemite and could not find peace until he uncovered a means to express the feeling.
If I feel something strongly I would make a photograph that would be the equivalent of what I saw and felt. Ansel Adams (American Experience: Ansel Adams)
‘A photograph that would be the equivalent’ to what he saw and felt, there is perhaps no greater challenge to those of us who make things than the leaps we must take to embed into the work the profound sensations that we have experienced but cannot explain except by provoking them through our work. As the career of photographer Ansel Adams attests, artists must stand on that fine line where on one side normalcy and usual perception prevail while the other side touches the abyss where infinity whispers.
I trust the first impression, the initial glance at an image seems to reveal its inherent qualities. Ansel Adams (Ansel Adams, an autobiography)
Adams professed a process he called the Zone System which commenced with an intuition-driven visualization where excitement and perception held him to account. He accordingly set his camera, with the vision in mind, to capture the sensations he experienced – using his framework of camera exposures to capture areas of different luminance in the subject, each related to exposure zones and these in turn to approximate values of grey in the final print. He was a master of light and he bade the camera to do his bidding as he tuned the exposures to grant him the qualities that would explode through his pictures.
I am interested in expressing something that is built up from what is within rather than this extraction from without. Ansel Adams (American Experience: Ansel Adams)
It is impossible – totally and utterly impossible – to make anything of any consequence without having had that profound and altering experience in knowing the thing you are attempting to translate. Detachment is not an option, you must hold an intimacy of excruciating vulnerability to first have the experience and then, to believe it, you must be courageous because as an artist it will be your job to provoke that profound experience. This is the consequence of stepping into the realms that cannot be explained: we are haunted to bring back the bits and to make portals that guide back to their source.
Architecture knows no other means for manifestation. Do not be fooled by the computer renditions, it is from the hand that the charge of the sublime must flow. Adams developed and used his Zone system in such a way that the camera was altered to reveal what he saw not what the mechanics of its predisposition proposed. As in computer drafting/design – the machine has a predisposition that lulls you into its reality. My design process is surprisingly akin to what Adams devised, it begins with almost meditative intuitive hits about the land and program (this is where I make power-filled little models that hold the gesture – the fullness of the experience) and then I make geo maps and physical models – lots and lots of them – to capture the areas of different luminance – each related to material and scale and sitting. The building sections and plans toggle back and forth and in turn develop into details and constructions. I hold the original intuitions as a reference throughout the design even as construction materializes. That initial seeing holds the inherent qualities that will become the architecture.
We all move on the fringes of eternity and are sometimes granted vistas through the fabric of illusion. (Ansel Adams, an autobiography)
Do not even for a blink suppose that the creative life is other than this. We must hone our ability to see through the fabric of illusion if we are to make good design.
Some of you might have noticed, although shifts in society seem to happen so slow they are hard to notice, that housing has become not only a low to no income issue, it has hit the middle income. It is actually identified as a crisis in most major cities in the US. The shameful housing crash of 2008 should have guided us to a course correction in housing and not just in lending. But it didn’t, not really. Builders continue to churn out cheap mass housing, cities continue to allow speculation on land that drives up premium real estate in amenity-rich neighborhoods, and houses remain big as do mortgages. The lenders and the builders make money, the people go into debt and begin to dream about being free from all the stuff and the mortgage they had thought necessary for happiness. Stuff and a big mortgage are necessary for the lenders’ and builders’ happiness. Meanwhile the people dream about doing work that is satisfying not just providing a paycheck, they dream about freedom to travel and learn and experience and live the life they choose. The dream shows up on blogs and travel diaries and YouTube videos. And the dream has shown up in tiny houses and ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Unit – second small houses on a single family lot). Places where the owner is in charge to make the sort of house they want to live in and to support the life they want to be in.
I have been dreaming about small houses. I am one of those hundreds of thousands who has lived in a city I love for decades while the real estate industry crept in with its speculative for-profit goals, eroding so much of the original fabric and shooting up land value and property taxes. The uber-rich are buying up all the good stuff, but I don’t want to sell my good stuff and fade quietly into the setting sun. I want to fan the dream of a vibrant community and small houses for intentional simple living. I want what the Boomers want, I want what the Millennials want, I want what the wealthy think they have and what those with little know they have. I want to live my one wild and precious life with intention, every day not just on weekends or while on holiday. I want to cast off all the things that society (read capitalism) has deemed necessary for a good life. No, I will not refinance in order to get that new car; or pull out a credit card for the must-have new shoes. Sorry merchants, you will have to make your fortunes on some other back. I will continue to reject cheap goods over human or environmental rights to wellbeing. It is time the housing industry took a tumble toward the people. I have been dreaming about small houses and everything they foretell.
My adventure to realize this dream begins as all good design does, by unearthing what exists. By listening. Beside my house in one of Boulder’s most sought after neighborhoods (I was here before it was deemed so and when the houses were mostly 800 square feet) stands what used to be a two-car garage. In the 1980’s I converted the unused garage into my architecture studio.
26 years later, the world has changed and that 480 square feet should have a higher purpose. It is heading toward becoming a small house. And it will get there by very unconventional means… I will not demolish nor will I build as big as I am allowed. I will reuse and reconfigure to create a remarkable small house that will go forth and tip housing toward people and the world we want to inhabit.
I emptied the studio except for a few vital pieces. There are the lamps I made from the Mylar I had drafted projects onto; there is the tufted faux leather minimalist sofa acquired on Craigslist for $60; and there is the skinny oak table eighteen feet long reclaimed when CU’s art school moved and they were tipping all the furniture into the dumpster. These pieces, all reclaimed from a former life, sit confidently in the space, knowing that in my studio things do not get thrown away. Good design is like that.
I lay on the cool concrete floor and dream, empty feels so very very good.
The alessi 9091 kettle designed by Richard Sapper is beyond beautiful… it sings, it shines, it boils water and it gets better with age…
Launched by Italian brand Alessi in 1982, the kettle features two whistles, each tuned to a different note, so that a harmony is produced when water in the kettle boils. Richard Sapper was a German designer and the story goes that Black forest craftsmen used a small pipe (pitch pipe) to tune musical instruments as the pipes produced the perfect note. Sapper took this lead and designed the small pitch pipes into the kettle whistle that is made from gold plated brass.
I purchased my 9091 kettle shortly after they were released in 1982. I love a cup of hot steamy tea – even in the summer. There is something transcending about immersing my senses into a just filled hot cup. Being an architect, I also love beautiful things.
In the thirty plus years of use, the first thing to vanish – about a decade in – was the little rubber grip on the spout pull. I was told by the house sitter that “it just popped off”, never to be seen again. OK. So I got used to using a potholder to pull the spout. Then the plastic handle cover slowly started to melt away at the bottom, like a Dali painting. I tried to clean it up but eventually a majority of the plastic was just gone and one day it was down to bare metal. Definitely had to use the pot holder now. On a recent birthday, my husband announced that he was going to refurbish the kettle and replace the parts that had been lost in time. I was having nothing to do with that. The kettle had come into its own. Like a great old building, it was losing unessential parts and becoming more of its essence. I loved the patina and clean lines. I believe the kettle has purposefully discarded everything that did not serve and is aging with elegance. Good design is like that.
There is something truly inspiring about well-made buildings that belong in their place on the planet; whose little details build up to something far, far grander than merely sensible solutions to enclosure. Glenn Murcutt is a master whose work can make you want to just sit down and cry it is so sublimely beautiful. Good design is like that.
The triple layer wall, a neat logic to deal with the specific climatic conditions of eastern Australia:
-operable glass through which to sail the breezes
-insect screens to stop the little buggers
-aluminum venetian blinds that direct solar gain, views, and privacy
The walls are exemplary of place-based detailing but then, there is the soaring roof overhang feathering into the vastness of the site and there is the ground dropping away below to keep you from harm’s way. The design connects powerfully to its landscape: to its specific site, to the climate, to the memory of the indigenous shelters and it all tingles through you, anchoring you squarely in the Australian landscape.
Its beauty is undeniable for it is sourced in what Julene Bair astutely observed in Ogallala Road: “Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct telling us that a place can sustain us.” The work puts an entirely new spin on sustainable design, oh wait – good design is not about a spin. It is the result of deep observation, intentional experience, and profound connection. You need to have skin in the game, only then do you get to make something that sends shivers up your spine.
You won’t find a Glenn Murcutt web site, facebook or any such online presence. You won’t find him using CAD of any sort. What you do find is an incredible human being pressing his innate sensibilities, talent, and wisdom into making deceptively simple buildings that humbly do their job: they sustain their place in the world and the people who inhabit them. That is Architecture at its base core root. Thank you Glenn.