Sunday, October 14, 2012

Five Who Differed

Continuing on the theme of architecture, love their work or hate it, here are five architects who struck out on their own decidedly non-mainstream path:

Christopher Alexander:
    The purpose of all architecture, writes Christopher Alexander, is to encourage and support life-giving activity, dreams, and playfulness. But in recent decades, while our buildings are technically better — more sturdy, more waterproof, more energy efficient — they have also became progressively more sterile, rarely providing the kind of environment in which people are emotionally nourished, genuinely happy, and deeply contented.

    Using the example of his building of the Eishin Campus in Japan, Christopher Alexander and his collaborators reveal an ongoing dispute between two fundamentally different ways of shaping our world. One system places emphasis on subtleties, on finesse, on the structure of adaptation that makes each tiny part fit into the larger context. The other system is concerned with efficiency, with money, power and control, stressing the more gross aspects of size, speed, and profit. This second, "business-as-usual" system, Alexander argues, is incapable of creating the kind of environment that is able to genuinely support the emotional, whole-making side of human life. To confront this sterile system, the book presents a new architecture that we — both as a world-wide civilization, and as individual people and cultures — can create, using new processes that allow us to build places of human energy and beauty. The book outlines nine ways of working, each one fully dedicated to wholeness, and able to support day-to-day activities that will make planning, design and construction possible in an entirely new way, and in more humane ways.
David Sellers:
David Sellers, an architect based in Warren, was an architecture student at Yale with a job on the New Haven construction site. He was hanging around the garage one day, delivering coffee, when the site was buzzing about a big meeting: Rudolph is coming! Rudolph is coming!

Sure enough, the architect showed up with his design plans, spread them out on the level under construction, and had a word with the crew. The concrete foreman stood behind Rudolph as he talked to the builders, making funny faces. What's going on? Sellers wondered.

He learned the concrete guy was teasing Rudolph because the architect didn't know how to build things — he couldn't actually make stuff, Sellers said.

"That's it," Sellers decided. "I'm not going to let that happen to me. I don't ever want to be on a construction site laughed at by the builders. He finished architecture school a semester early, walked away from the prestigious Rome Prize, pulled out a map, and moved to the Mad River Valley in January 1965. Soon, he was building plywood houses on a Warren mountainside that had no road and no power when he got there.
Malcolm Wells:
    "...We live in an era of glitzy buildings and trophy houses: big, ugly, show-off monsters that stand--or I should say stomp--on land stripped bare by the construction work and replanted with toxic green lawns. If the buildings could talk they would be speechless with embarrassment, but most of us see nothing wrong with them, and would, given the opportunity, build others like them, for few of us realize that there's a gentler way to build. 
    ...A building should consume its own waste, maintain itself, match nature's pace, provide wildlife habitat, moderate climate and weather and be beautiful. That's a series of pass/fail evaluation criteria...."
Hassan Fathy:
"Since antiquity, man has reacted to his environment, using his faculties to develop techniques and technologies, whether to bake bread or make brick, in such internal psychological balance with nature that humanity historically lived attuned to the environment. Man's creations were natural when built of the materials offered by the landscape. Learning to manipulate clay, stone, marble, and wood, man penetrated their properties, and his techniques gave expression to his aspirations toward the divine. In architecture, environmental harmony was known to the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks, and others. It produced the temples of Karnak, the great mosques of Islam, and the cathedral of Chartres in France."
Paolo Soleri:
"Arcosanti is a place where the green(lean) movement has been practiced for 42 years in a coherent and consistent way, not reforming by improving inherited patterns, but reformulating the present into something more promising."


  1. I came across Christopher Alexander's book "A Pattern Language" many years ago and started weeping as I paged through it at the book store. It is one of the most thoughtful and humane books I've ever come across and it covers such topics as what optimal size for a nation; how to educate children in such a way as to encourage creativity and curiosity-driven learning, without isolating them from the surrounding community; why urban design should encourage napping and dancing in the streets; what are the mental health effects of high-rise buildings; the relationship between ceiling height and personal space; the benefit of placing windows so that a great view is experienced as an elusive glimpse rather than as a picture window spectacle.

    I live in a city (Seattle) where the downtown is designed to discourage lingering -- without such amenities as benches, public restrooms & drinking fountains -- and I often think about Christopher Alexander's vision of a city that is actually alive and welcoming rather than a web of hostile passages.

  2. Paolo Soleri's work is cool, too. I was exposed to it at a high school assembly where an Arcosanti volunteer gave a talk w/slideshow. His book "Arcology: The City in the Image of Man" is full of gorgeous, crazy drawings of his giant city-buildings in various shapes and sizes. And instead of settling for creating impossible designs, he went ahead to start building such a city in the Arizona desert, essentially by hand. (It helps to first build a cult-like following of volunteers.)

    I like the idea of stepping out the front door of one's mega-apartment-workplace building and being surrounded by farms and wilderness. And his giant hive-like cities are probably the most energy-efficient way to house huge populations (especially since Soleri discovered solar power.)

    But I think living like that would an endless stressor for me or anyone else with a deep need for peace and solitude.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.