Friday, December 09, 2016

The ruins of the “City of Culture, ” Galicia – by Peter Eisenman


ENTR ECOT | Cidade da Cultura from urbanNext on Vimeo.

Back when I was studying architecture at Auckland uni, starchitects like Peter Eisenman were all the rage.


My own sympathies were with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and work like it that embraced human life. Architecture like Eisenman’s I characterised as neutron-bomb architecture – architecture from which all human life and humanity were rationalistically erased.Galicia2

For the most part however, neutron-bomb architecture was what my lecturers wanted. This, they held, is architecture with real rigour. Wright, and work like it, was mostly shunned.  What they wanted was architecture generated not by life, but by diagram.


So it’s with great sympathy for the good people of Galicia, Spain, who had inflicted upon them in the name of said rigour the architecture of Mr Eisenman, an abomination never completed but which has left them €475.9 million in a hole. All that’s left to show for it is the

hulking cultural complex Ciudad da Cultura de Galicia (City of Culture of Galicia) sits incomplete and empty. Commissioned to the American architect after an international competition hosted by the Parliament of Galicia, the cultural center presented an ambitious feat of construction on the slopes of Mount Gaiás… [C]onstruction of the six-building complex endured during the 2008 Spanish recession, and as costs for the building’s materials and construction continued to rise, the project became a crippling burden on the regional government of Galicia… Considered a “white elephant” to the government and the people of Galicia, construction of the project was halted in 2013.

What rigorous vision is being imposed here?

The parametrically configured design was conjured by overlaying the map of the city of Galicia on top of Mount Gaiás’s sloping topography. The result was a series of granite-clad slopes interconnected by streets and plazas meant to invoke an urban environment.

This is what passes for rigour in the rarified world academic architecture: a 3-dimensional multi-million-euro equivalent of the scribble patterns you drew in kindergarten. The result, in reality? A White Elephant, as Peter Eisenman’s Ambitious “City of Culture” Fades Into Ruin.

[U]ndulating marble forms that extrude from the earth are flanked with scaffolding, metal barriers and caution tape. Shrubs and weeds have already begun to sprout between the cracks of the pink granite panels. Despite a few pedestrians, the site remains empty, untouched, all too uncannily fulfilling Eisenman’s vision of an “archaeological” site.

How appropriate.


The suspicion will be that if completed the work may have appeared more humane. If you truly think so, just Google his finished work …

[Film by ENTR_ENCOT. Pics by, Alex Lievens]


Monday, November 21, 2016

Rose Pauson House, by Frank Lloyd Wright



One my personal favourites designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is the delightful little desert house he designed for Rose Pauson that was sadly destroyed by fire not long after its creation.

It does make a beautiful ruin, but a tech whiz at the Hooked on the Past blog has reproduced it virtually with the aid of AutoCAD and a bit of trickery.



Head here to see it all, including the story of the virtual creation.



[Pics by Hooked on the Past, Wright Chat]


Thursday, September 15, 2016

“The joy of growing up in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright”



Frank Lloyd Wright’s modest Haynes House, in which Thomas French grew up
{Pic by Tony Valainis, ‘
Indianapolis Monthly]

We build our houses, observed Winston Churchill, and then our houses mould us. Writer Thomas French reflects on the joy of a childhood moulded by a genius, by the sheer joy of growing up in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Growing up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Indiana meant living inside the famed architect’s imagination—an influence that stays with me still….

Architect Claude Megson writes that a house isn’t just a garage to park yourself but “a whole universe for ourselves to inhabit,”a place reflecting our whole universe of needs and emotions. The universe of our own soul – and, for the family’s youngest, playing a large part in its creation. French’s description of the sensory excitement and natural joy transmitted by the house reflects Megson’s vision:

Wright’s design already was shaping me in ways I did not yet recognise. Small as it was, the house had enough room for my many moods, all the versions of myself that were emerging. Sometimes I could not bear the sight of my parents—not because they’d done anything wrong, but because I was 13. Other times I would happily join my mother in the kitchen, helping her bake oatmeal cookies, both of us bathed in sunshine from the skylight above. Before we moved to that house, I had never heard of anyone putting a window in a roof. Now I couldn’t imagine living without one.
    On stormy summer nights, [my sister] Brooke and I would turn off the lights in the living room and watch the dark clouds explode with lightning strikes that illuminated the yard and the woods and our faces. Together, we counted out the seconds until the ensuing thunder shook the room’s giant windows.
HaynesHouse    The house was tactile and primal, a wonderland of the senses and a trove of Jungian archetypes. In our bedrooms we hibernated like bears, dreaming on and on. When we woke, we shuffled through the long, low tunnel of the hallway until we were freed into the open space of the living room, endlessly repeating the sequence of compression and release. All of it seeped inside me slowly, almost without my noticing. Walking from room to room, I absentmindedly ran my fingertips along the red-brick walls, tracing the stubble of gray mortar. The air carried a faint scent of cypress that was strongest in the library. The clerestory windows across the top of the walls in the hallway were carved into vaguely geometric shapes. I got it into my head that these shapes formed a code and that the master was speaking from beyond the grave, waiting for someone to decipher his message. I never cracked the puzzle, but the windows gave the entire house a sense of mystery that I found satisfying.
    The house and its creator were teaching me to hold still long enough to see patterns all around me—in the movement of sunlight across the kitchen, in the shadows of the trees at the edge of the woods, in the way our family broke into a symphony of cries and complaints in the mornings before we left for school and work, which crescendoed again in the evenings as we got ready for bed. Wright had sketched it out for us, this fabric of connection and meaning, and now I was paying attention…

Frank Lloyd Wright helped me navigate the rapids. When he designed our house, he had been an old man who knew a great deal about life and death, creativity and loss. He was an artist, fully formed and fully aware, on the edge of his final journey, and he had bestowed upon us his maturity, his wisdom, his abiding calm and limitless passion. The balance of light and dark he created inside that house was durable enough to contain the storms inside me, our family’s ups and the downs, all the multitudes within us. When I struggled, the walls cloaked me in quiet. When I felt strong, I sat in the living room and gazed out those big windows toward the horizon, imagining the blank pages of my life waiting to be written.

What a beautiful tribute to the house that shaped him, “a testament to one artist’s beguiling vision of a country where all of us, not just the rich, can lead lives of beauty and grace and possibility.”


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Architectural Mini-Tutorial: Using tricks to deliver meaning


The human eye can be 'tricked' * -- something of which every decent artist and architect is aware.

Take this tricked-up meme currently doing the rounds,

an image of intersecting grey lines against a white background, with 12 black dots on the nodes where the grey lines meet.
    All 12 dots are really on the image, but most people are unable to see them all at the same time, making the dots seem like they appear and disappear with every blink. This occurs because the eye’s stimulated light receptors can sometimes influence the ones next to them, creating illusions.
    In this particular image, tweeted by game developer Will Kerslake on Sunday, the brain can see some black dots but guesses when it fills in the peripheral vision. Because mostly grey lines appear in the periphery, the black dots don’t appear…
    How many dots can you see at once?


So because we perceive in a certain way, artists and architects use this in their work.

Based on understanding how we perceive colour and colour contrasts, artists use it to create real spatial depth in paintings.

Based on understanding how we perceive light (strong contrast between light and shadow needed to see real contrast), artists use it to create life and excitement on a canvas, and architects to create it in spaces.

Based on understanding howwe perceive colour in light and shade, architects use it to select darker colours on a window wall to relieve glom inside and better connect us with nature outside.

Based on understanding how we perceive continuity and spatial enclosure, architects use it to 'break the box' and expand the sense of space.

Based on understanding how we perceive the visual field, architects use it to order space and to ‘capture a view alive.’

Yes, these are all visual tricks. But they work because they respond to the ways we perceive, and because they work they can and are used to create real meaning.

* This does not mean the eye is unreliable - it simply means that (in the case of refraction, for example) it often shows us more context than we know, so while our perception is automatic what what we perceive sometimes needs interpretation.

[Hat tip Kaila Geary Halling.]


Thursday, July 07, 2016

Architectural Mini-Tutorial: More about windows



“So, what about our windows?” It’s usually a half-asked question at some early stage of a project, about the colour of windows generally – which are usually picked by someone who has a favourite colour they see in a brochure – or about how many windows in a space – just so many holes punched in a wall -- but the placement and colour of your windows is more important than you might think.

Consider it from the point of view of perception, as architect Richard Neutra used to. Former Neutra apprentice John Blanton explains the importance of size and placement:

Studies in neuroscience in architecture will continue to show the benefits of bright, daylight rooms..
    Lowering costs through simplicity was always a factor for [Neutra] so that the client could afford gracious social areas within a limited budget, which he took very seriously.
    A room with a single exposure, especially a bedroom or business office, is the hardest to work with. Neutra’s answer was wall-to-wall windows, but not necessarily floor-to-ceiling. Extending them to the corners created light onto, and gained reflection from, the side walls. This accomplishes brightness with lessening of glare. Some light from those walls reflects back onto the solid portion of the window wall, again decreasing glare. Thus, a feeling of a dark cave wall with a single overly bright opening was avoided.
    The effect of opening up the room is further enhanced because the eye flows to the nature beyond the glass, unhampered by the enclosure of dead corners. I have long believed that glare is caused by the eye’s rapid re-focusing between light and dark. This is stressful, which is why it is uncomfortable. Together with similar adjacent rooms, these wall-to-wall windows produced a long ribbon window on the exterior.

So it’s not enough just to punch a hole in your wall: to avoid the dark cave means more glass than you might have thought: and  glass especially going to the corners, so light can fully wash the internal walls.  (And feel free to even take the glass round onto the next wall plane itself to fully open up your corners!)


And bear this in mind when you’re hanging your curtains: make sure you have enough curtain rail to take all of your curtains well past their window when they’re open, and to draw them away from any adjacent wall lest they remain and cast the very shadow you’re trying to avoid.

Notice too that the exterior effect (the long ribbon window) is produced by the interior purpose, that purpose being to avoid glare and dark corners, and fully open up the space to nature outside the glass. This connection, Neutra believed and neuroscience has since confirmed, is essential for human health and well-being.

Bear in mind too, especially if fitting blinds, that because the brightest part of the ‘sky dome’ is directly above us, we will get most of our light through the window’s top-third, so unless you do want that dark cave you’d best avoid having your blinds bunch up at the top of your window.


So what about the colour of your windows, and the window walls? Does perception play a part in suggesting how to handle these? Sure does: to minimise the contrast between the outside brightness and the shadow unavoidably cast on the inside of your window joinery, Neutra always favoured the light-reflecting colour of silver. But for his window-walls themselves, something much richer:

The walls below Neutra’s continuous windows might have built-in cabinetry or in a colour different than the white side walls, perhaps the favorite colour of a child occupant. If white paint were to be used below the windows as on the side walls, that low band of paint would actually appear to look dirty because less light is being reflected there. However, because using a colour could detract from the view outdoors, which was his invariable goal because it promised the most actual health benefit, he did this on an individual basis. Ideally, his choice for this lower band was his chocolate “Neutra Brown.” This particular brown, it seems to me, is a “magic colour” in that the eye identifies it but does not attempt to focus on it, so its use is oddly comforting, as I have experienced.
    Any post in this extended bank of windows was usually painted silver, another “magic” colour. It created the least amount of contrast with the incoming light, and it almost made any post disappear to create openness. Again, expansiveness! Additionally, Neutra ensured that any vertical sliding door jamb would be hidden on the exterior side of a post or wall. Likewise, he concealed the horizontal head of such door so that it was hidden within or behind the roof framing. Again, openness, rather than a sliding door frame silhouetted within the structural frame, which would pose another obstruction to our view of the outdoors. It is an experience so subtle that it is not seen other than subliminally.
    All this gives us the “Neutra impact.” We do not look at his windows, we look through them.

That’s the reward of we get it all right: by starting from the inside out, letting the function dictate the form.

I hope this Mini-Tutorial has helped you see the placement and colour of your windows rather differently.

Feel free to check out all the other Architectural Mini-Tutorials for more fresh ways to see architecture.


* * *  Pics used show Richard Neutra’s Hailey House, pics by Angeleno Living. Text quoted from Barbara Lamprecht’s wonderful Neutra blog.


Thursday, February 04, 2016

Architecture: Making ‘a home for man.’ Part 3: The essence of the home


“Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the
image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion. ... We are not
building buildings, we are building ritual, building occasion, building life itself.”
~ Claude Megson (after Aldo Van Eyck)

Over the last two days we talked about man and how to begin making a home for him on this earth: It’s not just about marking a spot; it’s about making places: human places, for human occasions.

But isn’t it the case that much of our built environment, and hence much of what architects do, is normally beyond our immediate awareness? Most people just don’t notice too much about the buildings they’re in, do they (at least not consciously) – they quickly become ‘second nature’ to us, unless of course something goes wrong!

We might ‘feel’ a space or a building as being good or bad or uplifting or stultifying or bland or glorious … but we don’t always consciously know why. So let’s start looking at what architecture is trying to say to you, and how you can begin to ‘listen.’  And let’s literally start in the home . . .

Part 3: The essence of the home

“A house is not an object but a universe we construct
for ourselves – not a garage where we park ourselves.”
Claude Megson

SINCE WE TEND TO take for granted the architectural experiences we are offered, so Jay Farbstein and Min Kantrowitz in their book People in Places suggest a starting point for learning to understand what architecture can say to you if you let it (assuming of course that the architecture has something to say!):

Architecture [they say] begins with the five senses, plus other (sub-senses) like those to do with temperature, humidity, air movement across the skin, and especially the kinaesthetic or haptic; the senses must come first!

Next, These sensations must be integrated into patterns i) of day-to day life – entering the house, engaging in conversation, cooking, eating, watching television, bathing, lying in bed – and ii)of integration with the wider world with the perceiver at the centre – detailed and complex recognition of siting, eye lines into the distant ( and close) landscape.

Of harbour, valley and hilltop (each with their own resonance for us) and even the gradual exclusion of the public realm (“this is our space”) down to individual realms (“this is my space”).

Architecture recognises and builds in all these patterns or rituals – try and identify them in the place you’re in now, and think too about that special place from childhood and see how its patterns go together, and if they played some part in making it special for you.

The point here is that all architecture begins with you – it doesn’t begin with some gods-eye view from above, or from some arid analysis of string-courses and pendentives. It starts from the point of view of the observer, of the person experiencing the whole ensemble---it starts there, and it radiates out1.

From this starting point then, architecture needs to integrate the material sensed (nothing should be accidental in art), and integrate it conceptually into a pattern that gives to the person experiencing it a meaning to life on this earth. It should be life-enhancing, on a distinctively human scale, because, as we’ve said, architecture is about making a home for man ­ - literally MAKING a home for man – and at the same time EXPRESSING the facts about our world and our place in it, and then underscoring whatever emotional evaluation follows from that.

* * *

Sometimes the house grows and spreads so that, in order to live in it, greater elasticity of daydreaming, a
daydream that is less clearly outlined, are needed. "My house," writes Georges Spyridaki, "is diaphanous,
but it is not of glass. It is more the nature of vapour. Its walls contract and expand as I desire. At times,
I draw them close about me like protective armour .. But at others, I let the walls of my house blossom
out in their own space, which is infinitely extensible.” Spyridaki's house breathes. First it is a coat of armor,
then it extends ad infinitum, which amounts to saying that we live in it in alternate security and adventure.
It is both cell and world. Here geometry is transcended.
~ Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

AS WE’VE SEEN in Part Two of our story, the essential meaning -- the very essence of the dining occasion-- is celebration. Giving to a home this essential human meaning of celebration is what we’re doing when we build a space for dining (or, if we’re not very good, we build something that might give almost the opposite impression).

Thus, the essential meaning given to the dining space of a home should be celebration.

In the same way, architect Claude Megson suggested that every space in a home has its own essential human meaning that must be given its essential place and expressed appropriately in the architecture (and in the following outline I use Megson’s schema). When we build a house, in the words of Megson “we build a whole universe for ourselves to inhabit” – that place must reflect our whole universe of needs and emotions. The universe of our own soul. So let’s take a tour round our ‘soul,’ and the essence of all that it contains.

If our Dining area isn’t just a place in which to gnaw on a raw bone, then the Bathroom isn’t just a place to hose ourselves down. It is, or should be, a place wherein we experience our physical selves (visuall via our mirrors) and receive our full physical sensation of being; a place in which to cleanse and refresh ourselves both physically and spiritually (it’s no accident that religionists adopted bathing as a symbol of baptism.) It should express, if we can manage it, a feeling of cleansing and rejuvenation -- almost of rebirth.2 The term used by Megson was “Regeneration.” That, oddly enough, is the feeling a good bathroom should give.

Just to clarify here: A good bathroom, or indeed any space designed and built properly, should both support the function intended for that space, and at the same time express the meaning -- the essence – of the space. Both feeling and function are equally important – indeed, the feeling is an integral part of the function that needs to be built into the form I f form and function are realy going to be made one. (And as Frank Lloyd Wright said on a somewhat related subject, if done properly “form and feeling become one.”)

So Dining = Celebration; Bathroom = Regeneration. What else needs to be expressed in Megson’s schema?

Our Living Room is the place where life reveals itself; wherein a stage is set for our lives, for all our entrances and exits; a place of both continuity and permanence; both adventure and security; a place for books, for relaxation, for discourse, for the good news and the disappointments of our lives; for the gatherings and the adventures and occasional withdrawing from the world we all do and need to do .. the place wherein the nature of our selves is worked out and revealed, with all the other spaces in the house acting as support.

And like a stage (and like our own private souls) the Living Room both exposes and hides us: as Gaston Bachelard explains the house should sometimes be around us like an armour, like a cloak, and at others it should hardly be there at all.

Most of all, a living room should express the adventure of life. All these things described in the living space reveal the nature of a full life, so the living room as a who;e shows us the whole cosmos of life. If dining is a mark in time, then our living rooms should reveal a sense of the infinite. So a Living Room worth its name must both support the function of lounging, and at the same time it should, Megson argues, express the concept of Revelation. That concept, he argues, best describes the human need fulfilled in our best Living Rooms. In this place, more than in any other part of the house, this concept should be most evident.

The Entrance: Here is our hinge, our place of welcome and farewell, the place in which we are midway between coming and going, where we are poised “cat-like” between entrance and exit, between rejection and welcome … a dynamic equilibrium representing the occasion of greeting; the concept best expressed here is Poise.

The Bedroom is our ultimate place of withdrawal; our place for solace and sexual excitement, for peace and repose, and for reflecting, planning and dreaming. Bedroom = Reflection.

The Kitchen is the place in which life is sustained and nurtured; in which the first lessons are learned of chemistry and physics; of safety and danger. The essence of the Kitchen is Sustenance, or Nurture.

All these functions and feelings and meanings take place under one roof, in one house. In the same sense that all artwork is making a statement about the world in which we live – whether the artist likes it or not -- every piece of art is a microcosm of what the artist considers to be fundamentally important within this universe – so too the house should contain a whole universe in microcosm.


In Megson’s words, the house is not just a garage where we park ourselves; nor is it merely an object: it is instead a whole universe we construct for ourselves -- “it should embody the complete human spirit.”

This is how we go about our task, of making a home for for man . . .


1. A point to anyone who can see the similarity to Austrian economics, or to Montessori education.
2. We cleanse ourselves of ‘the outside’ while symbolically cleaning ourselves within; we emerge physically revitalised and metaphorically reborn. (It is no accident that bathing is the essential religious symbol of baptism.)
    Water represents purity; as does its complement, light; which together produce an essential sparkling, uplifting effect.

[Cross-posted to the Claude Megson Blog]

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Architecture: Making ‘a home for man.’ Part 2: What is a man?

If we’re going to make “a home for man,” as we talked about in Part One, we need to know why man needs a home. And to answer that there’s a more fundamental question we have to address first . . .  

* * * *

Part 2: What is a Man?

Hamlet: What is a man?
If the chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
William Shakespeare

LET’S BEGIN TO ANSWER our two questions  – what is man, and what it means to make a home for him -- by looking at two very special spaces which will help us get a grip on what sort of people we human beings are, and what ‘home’ means to man: two dining rooms (pictured below) created by Frank Lloyd Wright, one in 1902 for Susan Lawrence Dana, and the other in 1941 for an un-built project. Each one creates a space for people to celebrate the event of dining together, because for humans the act of dining together is something to celebrate. Not just time for a feed, but a stop, a reward for succeeding at the job of existence.

Wild animals hunt down their food and eat it raw. A lion rips the innards out of a lesser beast and eats it while the blood is still warm, and the heart still beating. A hyena finds the windfall and tears the remaining flesh from the bones, and vultures fortunate enough to discover the remains pick over what’s left.

Not us. That’s the way of the beast. We’re animals, true, but we’re rational animals. Our enormous brains have enabled us to succeed at life, to plan ahead, to flourish and to celebrate our successes. If the chief good and market of our time be but to sleep and feed, then we truly are no more than a beast. But we don’t just do this. We don’t just gnaw on a raw bone then fall asleep in a darkened cave: we sleep in comfort and we eat gloriously prepared food in the most elegant surroundings we can manage with the people we like and admire, and we celebrate we can do that by building into our homes this important ritual –this occasion.

In this sense, a dining space is not just a place to eat and be fed; it is the place in which we mark the occasion of dining – a place in which we share in goodwill the goods of the world together; where we mark the occasion of coming together, of our celebratory. Understood this way, as architect Claude Megson explained, the one-word essence of our dining space is: Celebration.

In a very concrete way then, architecture is simply built-in ritual, making a special place to host each of our special occasions.

From man’s earliest days, we’ve marked the things of importance to us with our rituals. The ritual of saying Grace at dinners has a good secular reason, a pause for thanksgiving, a moment in which to reflect on our success in providing for ourselves.

Man raises himself above bestiality partly by a simple elegance that speaks to who we are and what we need, and partly by marking these regular rituals as something life-sustaining. As architect Claude Megson used to say (echoing Aldo Van Eyck),

whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion. ... We are not building buildings, we are building ritual, building occasion, building life itself.

If you’re a Frank Lloyd Wright, then you do it in a particularly life-enhancing manner.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Dining space, Susan Lawrence Dana House, Chicago - 1902

Note for example those two very different dining areas by Wright, above and below. Study them, and try and imagine yourself there—how it might feel to be there. Note for instance the lighting fixtures, the high-back chairs and the moulding lines, all of which help to contain the seating group and also to bring the focus of the diners’ attention down to the group, making it a smaller, cosier space but still part of a much larger space in which the diners are framed by the seating, and their faces lit up by the lighting fixtures to become the centre of interest that they should be in such a gathering.

Frank Lloyd Wright: ‘Sijistan’ Project, 1941

The vaulted ceilings contain, gathering without overpowering – like a tent canopy above – giving a very human scale to what is quite a large ensemble. Warm colours and special detailing massage the space to fit the occasion – offering the sense of a group that is gathering together to celebrate their own efficacy, the bounty they have produced, and their joy in each other’s company. In short: a celebration of thanksgiving – every day.

“ARCHITECTURE,” AS FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT SAID, “makes human life more natural, and nature more humane.” And THAT is the starting point of understanding the meaning of architecture: that it’s about life – human life – in ALL its forms – literally all of its forms – and the job of architecture is to keep us connected to what’s important in our lives; celebrating our important occasions; making the most of the material the earth provides in all its forms, and at the same time mediating, excluding and shutting out that which isn’t wanted.

Hamlet’s question above affirms for himself thatthe unexamined life is not worth living” He’s right. ‘Building in’ such simple rituals as our celebration of dining gives us the opportunity to daily examine and celebrate our lives as we go through those daily rituals that give and keep on giving meaning to our lives. The result is a heightened sense of existence connecting us to our most fundamental values. “We build our homes,” said Winston Churchill, “and then our homes build us.” And so they do.

What good architecture does is to deal with the totality of a human existence, to provide at one level the support structure to make human life possible, and at another much richer level to express back to us what it means to be human by giving a sense of place to all our occasions, by building in all our important rituals, by connecting us to what is meaningful in our lives: To sunrises and sunsets; to the sharing of food together; to relaxing with friends; to having time and space for contemplation and for conversation, and for rest, and for sex -- and for rest and contemplation (and conversation) after (and during) sex.

That’s about as important as a job gets, right?

* * * *

BUT ISN’T IT THE CASE that much of our built environment, and hence much of what architects do, is normally beyond our immediate awareness? Most people just don’t notice too much about the buildings they’re in, do they (at least not consciously) – they become ‘second nature’ to us -- unless of course something goes wrong!

We might ‘feel’ a space or a building as being good or bad or uplifting or stultifying or bland or glorious … but we don’t always consciously know why. So tomorrow, we start looking at what architecture is trying to say to you in your home, and how you can ‘listen.’


Architecture: ‘Making a home for man’–Part 1

“The purpose of architecture is
to make a home for man.”

~ Aldo Van Eyck

The purpose of architecture is not just to look nice in magazines. In five words or less, the primary purpose of good architecture is: giving meaning to our lives. To quote the late, great New Zealand architect Claude Megson, "If it doesn't have meaning, then you're just wanking."

In this three-part post, I argue that architecture ‘marks our spot,’ engages our spirits, and tells us daily who we are.

Read on to begin . . .

*** WHEN MAN FINALLY CONQUERED mountain, when Hillary and Tenzing reached the top of Everest for the first time, the story goes that Tenzing fell to his knees and gave thanks to the spirits that had helped their journey; he prayed to each of the four winds who had remained in abeyance; and he carefully placed in the ground at each compass point a small stake on which prayer ribbons were attached. While he was doing this, Hillary stuck a flag in the ground, unzipped his fly and took a piss.

We each mark our territory in very different ways. But we do each mark our territory.

We make buildings to keep the rain off, and in doing so we raise a crown over our head and mark out from the world our own space below.


We mark out for ourselves a place in the world by building a campfire that we keep burning and around which we make comfortable for ourselves, or by raising high our own totem that seems to say “here I am!”


We recognise the important rituals we’ve built into our own lives by making these rituals concrete, literally making them concrete, and by doing so we are saying, “This is important.”

We erect buildings to perform some useful function, and in the act of erecting them they unavoidably perform another crucial useful or symbolic function for us: They embody our values. They tell us we exist. They show us who we are.

Buildings are a concrete expression of values – the values of the people who commissioned, designed, erected and occupy them.

Like every art, architecture is a shortcut to our philosophy. In building architecture we erect an armature that will support ourselves and our important values, and offer us as a place from which to look out upon the world around us. Amongst the myriad of ways this could be done, we each choose the one that does it for us. Live every artformm architecture is a shortcut to our philosophy – which is why our choices are so often so personal to us. The way architecture does that is as an extension of ourselves.

Architecture, as architect Aldo van Eyck says, is about ‘making a home for man.’The space we build is space for human life, for us to inhabit, and from which we can emerge to 'do battle.' It is a place that expresses what a home for man looks like, smells like and sprawls like; it is here that we begin to find the meaning in architecture: the meaning resides in how it makes its home for man.

In the act of making and placing our buildings in the world, we make decisions about what’s important in the world. What values need to be 'built in' and made concrete.

  • What should we include from the immediate environment around us?
  • What of oit should we keep out?

Early morning sun is good; later-afternoon sun often isn’t. Gentle breezes are good inside the house; heavy rain is not. Views of the lake and the trees and the beautiful hills about us are wonderful – views of the local slaughterhouse are not.

Some of these things are highly contextual. Early morning sun is great in Reykjavik, but not always in Dubai in mid-summer. Later-afternoon sun is bad in most parts of the world, but in Murmansk, inside the Arctic Circle, “late afternoon” extends for several months, and is always a welcome guest. Gentle breezes in Hawaii are welcome; in Siberia they might be called a draught. A view of the local slaughterhouse from your lounge window might be highly prized if you’re … okay, I’m stretching on this last one.

The fact remains nonetheless that the choices we make about how we build our shelter, mark our place and decide what functions our building serves for us define something both about us, and about the place we make -- and about the context in which we make it.

HERE’S A VERY BASIC fact from which we start:


Why so? Animals in general adapt themselves to nature, and they’re mostly already adapted to do that. But humans can’t. We adapt nature to ourselves. We must. We either adapt nature to ourselves, or we die. Unlike animals with their claws and armour, their feathers and strong hides, with all their multiple defences against the world, we human beings have but one: our reasoning brain. On its own this offers no physical defence against predation, and no guarantee of survival: we must learn to use our brain to plan, to invent, to create; to understand the nature of the world around us and to make sense of it and to adapt it to ourselves; to make of it a place in which we are protected, and (as we become more accomplished and learn more about our psychological as well as our physical needs) a place in which we can feel ourselves at home.

We need buildings to shelter us, and not just in the physical sense of shelter. We need a place that is a home: our place, wherein we see ourselves and our own values reflected back, including the value of the home itself and all of us it contains. (When we build a house, in the words of architect Claude Megson, we don’t just build a roof over our heads, “we build a whole universe for ourselves to inhabit” – that place must reflect our whole universe of needs and emotions; the universe of our own soul. In Part 3, we’ll take a tour around our ‘soul’ as reflected in our houses.)

Good architecture then is not just functional on the bare physical plane. We've been out of the caves long enough to do much better than that. “A house is a machine for living,” declared Le Corbusier on behalf of today's cave dwellers. “But only if the heart is a suction pump,’ responded Frank Lloyd Wright.

Architecture is not just shelter; it is not just ‘marking a spot’: its function is also to delight. Our crown might become a dome . . .


Bread and water nourish our stomachs; we need also to nourish our souls. Thirteenth-century Persian poet Muslih-uddin Saadi Shirazi offered this wisdom:

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft
And from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed the soul.

But buy them only if your heart is not a suction pump.

What good architecture does then is to deal with the totality of a human existence, to provide at one level the support structure to make human life possible, and at another much richer level to express back to us what it means to be human by giving a sense of place to all our occasions, by building in all our important rituals, by connecting us to what is meaningful in our lives: To sunrises and sunsets; to the sharing of food together; to relaxing with friends; to having time and space for contemplation and for conversation, and for rest, and for sex -- and for rest and contemplation (and conversation) after (and during) sex.

That’s about as important as a job gets, right?

Writing about Ferraris, PJ O’Rourke expressed it this way: “Only God can make a tree, but only man can drive by one at 250mph.” THAT is the feeling good architecture should communicate! We take the material that nature provides, and the needs that we have, and those moments where we say to ourselves, “Ah, this is what being alive is all about!” and we give those needs wings -- and we build in and celebrate those moments, and by doing so we express our lives, and we help bring meaning to them.

What could be more important?

In Part 2, we’ll answer the question: if architecture is about ‘making a home for man,’ then what exactly is man?

And in Part 3 we’ll discover what it is about man that needs a home—and we’ll take a tour of the ‘places’ he needs a home for.