Size Still Matters
Sirmai-Peterson Residence. Courtsey: Arcstudio
It needs to be bigger. That was my conclusion as I was sitting with a student at the University of Kentucky last week, trying to help him towards the final presentation in the design studio I was co-teaching with Drura Parrish. After all the theoretical discussions and the complexity of translating functional requirements into spatial experience, it came down to the fact that there was something not quite right about the images that were appearing on the screen. They just sat there, or blinked without presence.
It reminded me of my first day working for Frank O. Gehry and Associates. After a morning spent running the blueprint machine (which tells you how long ago it was), one of the associates handed me a façade sketch from the hand of the man himself. I sat down at the drafting table and interpreted the overlapping lines into what I thought was a neat and correct measured drawing. I took it to Greg Walsh, the mercurial and brilliant architect who was then Gehry’s right-hand man. “That’s about right,” he said, unrolling his tracing paper over my sheet, “it just needs a little adjustment like so.” He proceeded to sketch over the drawing until each window and door was slightly taller and broader. Suddenly, a boring façade not only looked monumental, letting the house sit on its site with more confidence, but also showed windows that would provide more generous views from inside, expanding the rooms' sense of space.
I don’t pretend that I could provide the same touch to the student’s drawing, though I think the design turned out better at the final review. It did remind me of what bothers me about a great deal of design I see today. In general, the level of buildings designed by architects (of course only a small proportion of what is built) is much higher than it was in the 1980s, when I was trying to learn the ropes. The attempts to humanize a technology-driven modernism, or to create thin cloaks of historical styles over cheap structures, are generally failed efforts in the past, and architects have learned how to use both technology and cultural knowledge to create reasonably interesting and appropriate designs.
What is lacking, more often than not, is a sense that the resulting building reaches beyond correctness, beyond just being there, and beyond fulfilling its problem statement. Few buildings today soar, or squat squarely, swell, constrict, or amaze. They are not bigger than they need to be—or smaller, for that matter—in any dimension. They fulfill their program, they have been value-engineered into correctness, or they are afraid to be noticed.
Being correct is better than being bad, and certainly I applaud the general improvement in what fills our sprawling human-built environment. But where is the architecture? Such correctness only affirms and dulls, rather than opens and challenges the world as we think we know it. We need a few more buildings like the ones Gehry still designs, or Steven Holl, or a younger architect like Brad Cloepfill, or any number of younger still architects who refuse to just do the absolutely necessary. We need a few more architects to lay their tracing paper of our cities and expand our horizons.