Thursday, July 11, 2019

Q: What is organic architecture?


I named Organon Architecture after two of my heroes.

"Organon" itself comes from Aristotle's Organon -- his collection of books on logic and induction that, when rediscovered, led to the led to a rebirth of knowledge and science."Organon" being defined as a tool or instrument, in this case an instrument of knowledge ...

And "organon" also refers to the principles of Organic Architecture -- sometimes called The Other Modernism -- that I try to practice and that Frank Loyd Wright was the first (and the best) to espouse.

Over the decades, Wright and others gave many explanations of what this Organic Architecture consists:
  • architecture perfectly integrated with its site; a free architecture ... architecture that belongs where you see it standing, and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace
  • recognising that nature and materials, machinery, and technologies are allies, not antagonists
  • understanding the higher truth that form should not simply follow function -- that outward appearances should reflect inner purposes -- but that form and function are one
  • an interpretation of nature’s principles manifested in buildings that are in harmony with the world around them
  • architecture used to make human life more natural, and nature more humane
  • an architecture from within outwards ... where the whole is to the part and the part is to the whole.
  • a building that functions like a cohesive organism, where each part of the design relates to the whole.
  • an architecture in which a building is allowed to develop in relation to the forces and context that generated it in a manner analogous to the way a tree (for example) develops according to its generating forces and site context -- a reinterpretation of nature's principles as they had been filtered through the intelligent minds of designers
  • an architecture recognising the human need for order, pattern, nature, prospect and refuge
  • an architecture in which space and time become place and occasion, and reason and self-esteem are embodied in the expression of motion and purpose
  • a building that complements its environment so as to create a single, unified space that appears to “grow naturally” out of the ground
  • choosing one dominant form for a building and integrating that form throughout (often in a fractal manner)
  • using natural colours: “Go into the woods and field for colour schemes”
  • don't simply imitate nature, but understand and emulate nature's abstractions of geometry, form, colour, pattern, texture, proportion, and rhythm
  • respect and reveal the nature of materials
  • open up spaces, using nested, overlapping and interlinked spaces
  • integrate natural foliage in the inner spaces and wider views of the outer spaces -- "capturing those views alive"
Integration is the key word: of site and landscape and colour and material with the life within.

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer worked with Frank Lloyd Wright for many years. This conversation brings the ideas home ....

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Quote of the Day: "Architecture is a building conceived from an idea or vision of good living."



"So to a definition: ... [architecture] is a building based on a concept of good living conditions... building conceived from an idea or vision of good living...
   "This vision, then is translated into reality by qualities of surface, space, structure and psyche. I could be more fashionable and even more alliterative by calling the last item 'soul.' Perhaps it is best to average it out and settle on 'spirit'..."

       ~ Australian architect Robin Boyd, writing in his manifesto Living in Australia

[Pics of Robin Boyd House by Darren Bradley, from Robin Boyd Foundation and Australia Post Collectables]

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Thursday, July 04, 2019

Recent Project: Malvern Hills: 'Wind Screen'


I've been dreadful at posting new projects here, mainly because I've been busy designing them rather than posting about them, but I'd like to catch up a bit. There are quite a few to show you!

This project here began being discussed two years ago. It's for a very exposed very steeply sloping site in Wellington. That's just Wellington, right -- but this one is a little different: with the very steeply sloping site comes striking views right across the harbour: which makes it extremely exposed -- both to the public eye and to the weather.

And as they say, Wellington doesn't have a climate. It has weather.

The strategy, a simple one, is to hang the house between the retaining walls that are needed to hold up the street, and the cantilever beams sprouting in pinwheel fashion from a single large concrete pile. This takes account of the sloping-site problem. One enters and sleeps at the top level, lives on the middle level, and offers children and guests sleeping and play space at the bottom.

Did I say "simple"?
Once out of the ground, the house needs to deal with the weather problem. Because this house doesn't just have slope: with that slope comes both the spectacular views over the harbour that make it worth building there, and all the winds of Aeolus sent to batter anyone daring to step outside to see it.

Trouble. But as they say, problems are an architect's friend!

View from the proposed roof terrace: spectacular view; spectacular wind!
So how to solve this problem? The answer is a "wind screen" built around the drum containing our lower floor and protected terraces.

Add these windscreens around the outer drum, intersect this with the main circular drum, add trees and vines, mix all ingredients sagaciously on this sloping site and you have this house -- or nearly so. From there it almost designs itself!


Concept

Concept Plan

The house that designs itself:
add retaining walls and one three-storey drum to a sloping site; to that add
an intersecting drum with wind-screen,
an open terrace extending the view back to the city,
and trees and vines
and voila!


Can you see this rising from the hills above the Wellington Harbour? A strong form making it easily seen even at great distance.

And while the screen looks a little 'heavy' in the pictures, our windscreen is an almost diaphanous perforated metal screen, lightweight, decorated and visually permeable. A light steel veil draped over the drum and cinched down tight; a "breathable" screen, with sections easily slid away on Wellington's intermittent but glorious good days.

This Cultural Centre in Corsica gives you an idea of just how visually permeable a fine-grained steel 'veil' can be:



Cultural Centre in Bastia, by Paris Studio DDA
And this house in Israel shows how permeable (yet still sheltered) a coarse-grained perforated screen can be.

Pitsou Kedem's 'MA' House' in Israel
And this here is our screen, suggesting how decorated our screens can be; perforated metal being an ideal material to take integral decoration, we have added ornament based upon the interlocking circles of our two "drums." The effect in the sun is dramatic!:


Visually permeable perforated decorated metal screen, rejoicing in the sunlight (above) -- and rendered in red below:



Drums in the sun

The perforated metal is used to create a see-through screen that offers protection from the wind on the main terrace overlooking the harbour, with other open decks (that can be used on better days) that take the visitor further out to enjoy views over the central city.

View out to open terrace
 The perforated metal drum continues from base to top floor, piercing floors all the way up to form the balustrade at our entry level. Each of our levels, of course, enjoy spectacular views!

View from day bed on upper level
View from built-in seating at 'back' of lounge
These axonometric cutaway plans of each level should give you some idea of how it all comes together ...


[Hat tips, of course, to Sullivan, Botta, Melnikov..]

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Quote of the Day: “A house is not a machine to live-in..."


Pic: Portrait of Eileen Gray by Berenice Abbott
“A house is not a machine to live-in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation. Not only its visual harmony but its organisation as a whole, the whole work combined together make it human in the most profound sense... The poverty of modern architecture stems from the atrophy of sensuality.
      ~ Eileen Gray, architect and designer
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Friday, June 28, 2019

An Italian-NZ co-production


Two or three years ago, a delightful young architect called Marco Fois from Sardinia appeared in my office wanting to improve his English, and learn about New Zealand architecture. He spent over a year with me before heading home, and achieving his registration.

One of the projects he worked on while here was a renovation design underway when he arrived: we we just at the stage of hearing form our geotech surveyors that their more detailed site investigations had revealed the ground conditions to be very much worse than they'd originally reported.

So Marco and I wondered about a redesign, one that put a new house on a smaller footprint, and for the most part using the existing house foundations, which seemed sound. And since this was the project Marco knew best, literally from the ground up, when he returned home to Sardinia and began learning about Lumio (a sophisticated video presentation software) he modelled his scheme (without the pool) for that house. And here it is: an Italian-NZ co-production.

You can see how much fun he had doing it all:


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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

But don't all designers need to compromise?



The great Colin Chapman -- founder and designer of Lotus sports cars -- was once wrestling with a design problem: he had the world's most beautiful car on his drawing board, "a racing car for the road" he called it, yet early testing had indicated the roof needed to be raised 1 1/2 inches to fully accommodate most drivers. "I'm not doing that," Chapman famously shouted, "that's a bloody compromise!"

I had a similar discussion with some clients recently, listening to them bewail their need to compromise their dreams for their house because of their small site. "But we don't want to bloody compromise," they said.

It's said that all designers need to learn to compromise: sometimes dimensionally, like Chapman; often aesthetically -- if, say, your two favourite colours won't go together on the same page; frequently functionally -- when you wind up with your kitchen, with all its plumbing, near the plumbing (and smells!) of your bathroom; and almost always financially, when the client's champagne tastes won't come anywhere near their beer budget.

But is compromise really the right word for what designers really need to do when weighing up all the myriad factors that influence a design?

Spoiler alert: No, it's not. 

It's not even the right way to think about it.

A compromise is "an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions" -- a process beginning in conflict, and usually leaving all conflicting parties unhappy when they finally leave the table.

What a designer needs to learn to do is not to compromise, but to harmonise. Two ways to help a designer harmonise the competing claims of any design involves two concepts coming from outside the field of design: a notion from economics called marginal utility, and something from philosophy called teleological measurement.

Let me explain the last one first.

Teleological measurement simply means measurement with a purpose, measurement that is "performed in and against an enormous context: it consists of establishing the relationship of a given choice to all the other possible choices and to one's hierarchy of values." 

We do this all the time in the real world. The simple fact in any real-world situation is that doing one thing always precludes doing another. If I go out to a party on a Saturday night I can't also stay home and study. If I use my truckload of wood to burn during winter for heat, I can't also use it to build my house. If I spend my last few dollars on beer I can't also spend it on the bus home. What we do decide what we do in each of these cases reveals our own ultimate standard behind decisions like these, and our own hierarchy of values that informs these choices. Even subconsciously.

Every designer must do the same, establishing a clear brief for their design and, in many cases, testing the design over several iterations in order to discover the ultimate value of that which she is designing, -- and also all the several lesser values that contribute towards these ultimate values, and how precisely all these values are ranked.
Teleological measurement deals, not with cardinal, but with ordinal numbers—and the standard serves to establish a graded relationship of means to end... This requires that [an individual] define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly. Thus all his actions have to be guided by a process of teleological measurement.
In any project, it may take some time and many iterations to uncover these things (this is after all one of the key aims of every period of concept design) but ranking in order of their importance  the values associated with a design project is (or should be) a key part of every design process. 

Ranking them properly means that the final design need not be a compromise, but instead comes as a result of weighing up these values according to their place in our hierarchy

Sounds great, you say. But just how the hell do we do that?

That's where the economists' idea of marginal utility comes in.

The theory of marginal utility begins with this recognition that the values of each good are best ranked in order of their importance to the acting individual, the ranking providing a basis for these values to be harmonised:
All action involves the employment of [finite] means to attain the most valued ends. Man has the choice of using the [finite] means for various alternative ends, and the ends that he chooses are the ones he values most highly. The less urgent wants are those that remain unsatisfied. Actors can be interpreted as ranking their ends along a scale of values, or scale of preferences. These scales differ for each person, both in their content and in their orders of preference. Furthermore, they differ for the same individual at different times.
(First)
1. Going for a drive
(Second)
2. Going to a concert
(Third)
3. Playing bridge
(Fourth)
4. Continuing to watch a baseball game
The choice of which ends to include in the actor's value scale and the assignment of rank to the various ends constitute the process of value judgment. Each time the actor ranks and chooses between various ends, he is making a judgment of their value to him.
Marginal valuation recognises that humans value goods according to our ends -- to be precise, according to the individual units of those goods, and each of these units themselves fits into our values scale. (We value our afternoon's first ice-cream cone more than our first coffee, our first coffee ahead of our second cone, our first beer ahead of our second coffee...)

Discovering this sort values scale in each of our design projects allows us to avoid compromise, and instead to harmonise our project's values based on each unit of the finite means available -- trade-offs between goods happening "at the margins."

The recent discussion with my clients offers a good example of how we might do this.

My clients have a small site. Simplifying things enormously for the sake of illustration, they like lawn. And they want five bedrooms. How does marginal utility theory harmonise these apparently competing wants? Simple: by testing each unit of these goods against their position in the clients' values scale.

  • The house's first bedroom (their master bedroom), is clearly more important than any patch of lawn.
  • The house's second bedroom and third bedrooms are still more important to them than any amount of lawn. (And on a tiny site, might preclude any lawn at all -- hence, they would be living in an apartment.)
  • The house's fourth bedroom is probably more important to them than that same area of lawn (although on that one, they are still deciding).
  • The house's fifth bedroom, they decided (when put to them this way) is definitely less important to them than that same area of lawn.

Thus, our quick discussion reveals that on this site and for these clients that the fourth bedroom is probably "the marginal bedroom" -- and they now have a framework within which to go home and think through whether that's truly the case.

The framework of marginal utility has allowed the clients to easily determine for themselves the likely number of bedrooms in their future house, and I will soon have a much clearer brief that better harmonises their wants with their site.

In a very simplified way, this is what I try to do in every briefing meeting. And it is what every period of concept design with every client tries to uncover.

Furthermore, it is precisely what every good designer does every single day, either consciously or subconsciously, when it looks like they're just pushing around lines on a page: they are seeking a way to bring together all the apparent conflicting values of a design into one harmonious whole. This framework of marginal utility allows the designer a way to think about that process explicitly, and to talk it through with their clients.

I often liken the design process as being, first, to uncover all the elements and inputs important to a design, and then to throw all these balls up in the air to see where and how they land. (And then doing that all over when we discover the need for a new ball.) That's essentially what happens when applying these two notions of teleological measurement and marginal utility in design. The first essentially gives us the relative size of our balls. The second explains how the balls bounce off each other to best effect.

Together they offer a designer a way out of any bloody compromise, and towards a more harmonious outcome.

Colin Chapman and his car's stylist produced one of the era's most beautiful cars, but there was never very much room inside and in the end only 1,000 of the cars were made, and on every one they lost money. Lotus however went on to take the hard lessons learned in producing the Elite and apply them to the Elan, which did make money -- and went on to become one of the most successful small sports cars of all time (a model of design that still survives today in the watered-down example that is the MX5).

We can only speculate how different things may have been if the great man had learned about marginal utility at an early age?

[Pic of 1961 Lotus Elite Tye 14, designed in 1957, from the Mk14 Restorations website]
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Friday, February 22, 2019

A notice to all readers ... an Organon Architecture home of your own?



An important notice to all readers: If you want to get your hands on a ready-made pre-loved home by Organon Architecture, then here is your chance -- a home in Hamilton very much loved by its owners, who are moving to a new opportunity and new home in another city so need to find the right owner for this one.

Says the blurb:
The design is timeless, the combination of raked ceilings and lowered 'ceiling decks' cleverly defines spaces within the open-plan living areas.
When featured in House 'n' Lifestyle magazine, this property was described as '... a meld of dwelling and garden that's innovative, subtle and clever.'
So if you or anyone you know is in the market for a place set in landscaped native bush and just a stroll away from downtown Hamilton, give this some serious thought.












[Photos by Lodge Real Estate]


Monday, February 11, 2019

Q: Why employ your architect for construction support during construction of your home?


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Today I want to tackle one of those questions that every client asks as a project moves toward construction ...

Q: Why employ an architect for construction support during construction of our home?

It's a question I’m often asked, and it’s one that every home owner should be asking the designer of their new home: why the hell should we be paying you to visit our new place during construction?

A very fair question. Let’s see if I can answer it.

1. Because every new home has many enemies

There are several levels of construction support, and man things it might be called, but the first and very simple reason to employ your designer to make regular site visits this: to make sure that your new home is built as you’ve had it designed. You (the owners) and your designer have spent many hours getting everything about your new place just right – getting each and every detail just the way you want it, to make it just the house that you want. And it’s very easy (frighteningly easy) to muck up many of those things during construction – for you or your builder to do “small” things onsite that may have big implications for all those big things you really want; or for you or your builder to be persuaded by a building inspector or an engineer that things will have to be changed.

And every change may have an unexpected impact. Change a door swing and a whole room may become a place nobody wants to be. Remove too much wall in a renovation (or too little) and you end up with spaces not flowing (or embracing you) the way they really should. Alter a window and a space may not get the sun that makes it work. Add a thicker layer of tiles and you suddenly discover your new stair no longer works. Change a flashing material at an upper level and you may affect the corrosion profile of all materials below it. Install a different lighting system and you may end up repelling guests rather than welcoming them in. Even removing a tree that your designer has relied on can end up in bringing in more sun than you want – or end up in you and your neighbour seeing far more of each other than you’d ever really intended!

Your builder won’t necessarily see these things – nor will he necessarily identify, say, the foundation or locational problems that might emerge from a slight change in, say, the position of a post – and your engineer or building inspector will not even be interested – but there is nobody better placed than the designer to do it, and he can only do it properly if he’s on site to sniff them out.

2. Because every change has unexpected implications

You see, it’s your designer’s job to be your eyes and ears on site, to sniff out all the implications of any changes you or your builder may suggest, or may inadvertently make.

Your designer will not be opposed to making changes – once a building project is under way, it’s then that many improvements can be very easily seen, and made – but it is his job to ensure that changes made are necessary changes (how many clients have been gulled by builders/engineers/inspectors or just folk they meet at dinner parties to do things that are utterly unnecessary and often very pricy). And also that you do understand the full implications of any changes you do propose (implications on both your wallet and on the way the house will work for you) before you authorise the go-ahead. Not to be negative about any changes proposed, but to let you decide what is more important to you – the thing proposed, or the thing that change may rule out.

3. Because your builder will have many questions

At the very beginning of a building project, and at the beginning of every stage thereafter, the person who has most thought it through and will understand it is the person who has drawn it up in the first place. So even if neither you nor your builder nor anyone of the grey ones has proposed any changes, your builder will undoubtedly have many questions that, in being answered, can save him an awful lot of time (and you an awful lot of money).
And there is no better person to answer those questions, or make time- or labour-saving suggestions, than the building’s designer who has thought through the whole process, and then watched the building being erected from the ground up.
Because it’s important to understand that every new-build is in essence a prototype – a one-off – and if it weren’t, then there would be few reasons to have engaged a designer in the first place! (And it’s an old saying that every builder likes building things that he’s already built before.)
So, being a one-off, that will mean the design will almost certainly contain things your builder will not have considered before, or considered doing that way before. And if he doesn’t ask those questions out loud, you can be sure he’ll be asking them in his head.
Much better if he has those questions answered before they appear in unexpected ways in his bill, or in your house!

4. Because every new-build is a prototype
The other very good reason to employ your designer on site during construction is because of this very reason: that every new piece of architecture is a prototype. It’s never existed before on this earth, and so, even if your builder has no immediate questions then, like every new thing as it’s brought into being, there will be unexpected things occurring from time to time.

This is the very reason that prototypes are made! To sniff out anything unexpected before you go into mass production.

Now, your new home is not going into mass production, but it is still very much a prototype in the sense that it’s a one-off that’s never been built before, and just as a prototype for mass production is built in order to discover anything unexpected about the product, we should (with every new-build) almost expect that unexpected things are going to occur.

It’s best when those unexpected things are called to everyone’s attention that the designer be there to help think through the best response. And he can do that best if he’s been there every step of the way first, so he thoroughly understands all that’s gone before, and all the cost implications of the decision(s).

Because one of the important implications of this is that if you do ring your designer when the unexpected occurs, then if he hasn’t been part of the process up to that stage then he will need time to try to come up to speed (because he won’t know all that’s happened before this, and he will no longer have been focussed on the project), and you will then generally have to pay him by the hour for any work he does at this stage rather than have it covered by your agreed weekly/monthly/fortnightly rate, which will often end up cheaper, and will almost certainly allow him a fuller grasp of the issue in question.

4. Because having your designer on site regularly affords him the fullest focus on your job

Ring your designer out of the blue when you’re halfway through your job, and he or she hasn't been involved onsite thus far, and they will have to take their head away from the projects on which they're presently focussed, and wonder where they've stored your plans. In other words, you won’t have their fullest focus, and they can't do their best work for you. And you won’t have that unless you've actually employed them to maintain that focus.  

5. Because having your designer regularly on site makes them part of the command structure

And another thing ... if your designer is not on site regularly and then you ask him to just show up out of the blue (which I guarantee will happen at least once on every project), what builder (or tradie, or QS, or site engineer) is likely to take them seriously? You've shown by not employing them yourself to provide regular construction support that you don't value that input, so why should they? And without that regular opportunity to be part of the command structure on site -- to share conversations about job progress and proposals; to vet quotes and payments; to run or attend regular site meetings; to issue variation orders when necessary -- there is no opportunity for your designer to gain that respect that can often, when the moment might arise, spread much-needed oil over unexpectedly troubling waters.

6. Because regular payments are generally more affordable for you, in the long run, than most of the alternatives

Because the thing is, there are many reasons why you should and will need to employ your designer during the construction stage – even if it’s just to draw up the now mandatory “as-built” drawings that council demand at the end of every job (something easy to do with regular site visits, but frustratingly hard without) – so in many ways the decision is really this:
will we be paying our designer an hourly rate every time we call him (which may discourage you making that important call? 
Or: 
should we pay him a regular weekly/fortnightly/monthly rate for him to keep our interests uppermost?
For my own part, as a one- or two-person office, I much prefer having that regular engagement on site that keeps me personally involved with the project, and being there regularly to support the builder and owner. (And it’s much less stressful for everyone involved when I’m suddenly involved in a project about which I’m by then somewhat unfamiliar, and with tradesmen who I’ve never met.) For most medium-sized projects, unless there is something particularly challenging, then one or two hours a week, or a fortnight, seems to work well for both me and my clients, and for their builders. Some weeks there will be more, and some less, but it generally evens out and (a little like how insurance can cover the unexpected) when or if there is much more work to be done, then those regular payments will generally absorb the work required.

Conclusion

So why should you employ your designer during your building project? Here's the short summary:

·      Because even if you know how to build, no-one will know your new building better than your designer
·      Because you will want to build the place you’ve had designed, not inadvertently build something different
·      Because even if you do decide to build it differently, you will want to know that you are aware of the fullest implications of that difference
·      Because when you build something that’s never been built before (or built in this way before) then the builder is going to have questions
·      Because when you build something that’s never been built before (or built in this way before) you need to expect the unexpected
·      Because when you build something that’s never been built before (or built in this way before) then you will want your designer’s fullest focus when you or your builder do call with questions.
B   Because making your designer part of the command structure affords them the respect they deserve.
·      Because it’s easier for everyone to have an expected regular outgoing than an unexpected and reluctantly-paid hourly rate.

I hope that's helped to answer the question for you. 

Leave questions in the comments if you have more.