The Architectural Insider

The Architectural Insider

The old joke “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” isn’t a joke to architects, it’s part of their profession. Dwell asked one design veteran for his take on the world’s take on his world.

An architect’s role in the world is a curious one. While the doctor is expected to heal and the lawyer to know the law, people seem to expect many different things of an architect. The public wants an architect to compose buildings, to satisfy dreams, to ensure good construction, to avoid litigation, to be func-tional, artistic, and professional all at the same time. They want architects to become their agents in a contest with the physical and social environments, when contest seems required, and to be collaborative partners when conditions are more favorable.

The difficulties posed by these multiple expectations are compounded when architects engage with society, rather than build simply for themselves. Building with someone else’s resources, as architects usually do, requires working within a web of contractual constraints; not only with those for whom they build but, through them, with the city and its codes, the contractor who will execute the work, and the many others involved in designing and making the place and giving it use. These contractual arrangements are intricate and extensive, and at their core are based on establishing limits and delineating the terrain in which an architect’s moves can be made.

Yet the architect’s most fundamental (though certainly not the most obvious) skill is observing relationships. An architect must be able to reach beyond the conspicuous and singular—the tightly conceived—in order to see the possibilities that enfold differing conditions and open ways to proceed. Architects are often maligned for being arrogant and willful, as well they often should be. While arrogance is unnecessary, if an architect has listened well and imagined broadly there’s some reason for willfulness: Tenacity is essential to his or her success.

Listening is another indispensable ingredi-ent of the architect’s ability to compose: listening to the cadence of the place into which a building will fit, hearing and interpreting what clients and neighbors are saying about their intent, registering the deep continuum of what people really will do in the spaces created, attending acutely to the multiple instruments and materials of building and how they can be compiled into a singular structure that might actually mean something to someone. Listening, as architect Louis Kahn would have it, for "what the building wants to be." Listening in all these ways is fundamental to creating good works—all the while humming, as well, to the sounds of one’s inner voice.

With all this listening and humming going on, one might suppose that it is no coincidence that the disciplines of music and architecture are so often compared. This pairing came full circle when recently I had the good fortune to attend a Kronos Quartet concert in Bernard Maybeck’s Kennedy House and Studio, in Berkeley, California. The group played the late-20th-century quartets of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. It was an astonishing event, which brought home the extraordinary complexity, richness, and intellectual reach that can be embedded in musical composition and brought to life by the intense concentration and skill of great performers.
The event, played out in Maybeck’s evocative, intricately conceived spaces, made me think once again about what we expect or can expect of composition in architecture. All of which, of course, plays into how architecture (and thus architects) are perceived by their fellow citizens.

Architecture is experienced in various ways, and the artfulness of the architect’s designs—like those of the composer’s in music—is appreciated with various degrees of knowledge, subtlety, and awareness. And, as with music, architecture’s pleasures are expanded by, not dependent upon, the discerning perception of patterns. 

The composition of architecture is not   only a matter of materials in space, beautifully arranged and finely crafted, but of the actions prompted within that structure—the shifting patterns of light, for example.

The nature of architecture is that much of the experience of it is there to be beckoned. Observers have some control over what they see and touch, how they move through spaces and when and how quickly and intently they consider the scenes before them. In music it is the composers and performers who structure the sequence of experience, who dictate the timing of presentation with precision. The listener can pay more or less attention, and bring more or less knowledge to the listening, but there the participation typically ends.
Architecture is inherently more interactive. Where you look and how you choose your paths through the space severely qualifies the nature of your experience.

Architecture establishes the substratum of our lives, and presents itself for consideration. In many works of architecture there are traces of systematic thought that can be followed throughout, leading the mind through a network of closely related decisions that invite and reward examination. Such exercises in adroit consistency and exceptional care transform technical possibilities into illuminated thought. Still others embody imaginative vision beyond all ordinary expectation, startling us with shapes and forms that reveal another aspect of human possibility. In some exceptional cases (like the Spanish Steps in Rome), there are spaces or objects, or qualities of light and sound and movement, that simply overwhelm all other sensations and gather the experience of place around them.

Architecture can be moving in ways that unsettle our everyday responses and bring new life to the world. And despite some public perceptions that the profession (or at least its critics and publicists) has become somewhat self-obsessed, it’s the art that embodies the most involvement of its audience. While architects and architecture may seem to have difficulties inviting outsiders in, architecture requires that we all be a part of it in order for it make sense.


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