Living in Art(’s)Work: The Spirit of My Organic Homes and the Man Who Designed Them

It is this potential of improving the human condition that motivates me.  And it is the foundation built by my direct predecessors Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, and William Gray Purcell, that has given me the platform to work for a more meaningful and humane architecture.

                                                                                                Arthur Dyson

The way Art explains it, he doesn’t have a “style.”  He initiates each planning session with questions seemingly unrelated to architecture.  As his previous employer Lee Gage explains it,  “He finds out how the client lives, then plans the house around their personalities.” Art explains, “I relish the role of detective. I study people.  When architects build structures for zoos, they study the animals, but many architects never study the people they’re building houses for.”

“We’ve never made an attempt to be different, but our clients are different,” Art says, “My objective is to produce a design that will enable my clients to fulfill their potential, and to live and work in a most meaningful way.  Hopefully with order, clarity and harmony we will arrive at a solution that is both practical and beautiful.”  He flatters us:  “My clients are very courageous because they will go against the tide of fashion.  They’ve allowed us to create a setting to care for their souls.  That’s the difference between an architect and just a builder.  We’re trying to create a romance about our clients, something to almost make you dissatisfied with the ordinary.”

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton suggests, “where we are heavily influences what we can be…[and] it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.” Botton writes, “[architecture] gives voice to aspirations and suggests possibilities. The question isn’t whether you’d actually like to live in a Le Corbusier home, but whether you’d like to be the kind of person who’d like to live in one.”  (The funny thing about the Le Corbusier reference is that Frank Lloyd Wright publicly dismissed Le Corbusier’s (usually) linear style.  So, when young Art sassily told his boss he was impressed with the Chapel at Ronchamps–atypical of Corbusier’s work–Mr. Wright winked and said, “Well, let’s let that be our secret, Arthur”).

From Wright he learned about responding to the site.  Art points to the two Taliesins to show the strength of Wright’s work and maybe the whole essence of his architecture.  What really signifies good architecture, he says, is whether or not it’s “appropriate.”   He says both of the Taliesin projects are so appropriate given the circumstances and location and time.  At Taliesin in Wisconsin, the stonemason George Haas used beautiful limestone and sandstone native to the area, but at Taliesin West, there were no stone masons so the apprentices developed a completely new system of masonry with the split desert stone, gravel  from the riverbeds and sand that had washed down the hill and repeated the whole palette of the desert floor in color and texture with the stone.

In her book Tales of Taliesin, Cornelia Brierly writes, “Mr. Wright—like Emerson—felt that ‘Beauty is its own excuse for being.’  Mr. Wright considered ‘beauty the highest form of morality.’”  I had the great fortune to speak with Cornelia Brierly–by then, 98 and the matriarch of Taliesin–about some of her recollections. Cornelia called Art “fun-loving” and said he can fit in anywhere because he is compassionate.  Whenever he visits Taliesin, Art says he makes a point to sit down with Cornelia.  When he asks her questions about the old days at Taliesin, she scolds him and says, “I wrote all that down, Arthur–just read my book!”

Art explained in an interview with Cornelia’s daughter Indira that Mr. Wright’s philosophy was that a building designed for human activity will elicit certain human responses.  “That’s the most important part of the work,” Art said, “to improve the quality of life and the environment that people are in.  And maybe make this world a little bit better world for having done what we’ve done.”

Art takes it one step further.  Having studied psychology and philosophy, Art interposes design ideas intended to comfort and stimulate his clients.  As he told Indira:  “[If I] can make it a better world for them, maybe they, in turn, can be more productive and better citizens because of the atmosphere and environment that they’re living in.” When I asked Art which were the most influential books, he listed  The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, Care of the Soul by Thomas More, anything by James Hillman or Carl Jung.

Art said much of his inspiration derives from writers and people in the other arts.  We have such a huge palette to work with as architects.  We have form and line and texture and color and balance and rhythm.  And then all of these materials themselves that bring so much into being, and with all of the spaces that we can use, we have such a gigantic palette to work with, as opposed to a writer who has a piece of paper and a bunch of letters.  Of course, the creative spark of all of this is the human imagination.  A writer can take a bunch of letters and arrange them on a piece of paper in such a way that can make you can cry or make you laugh, can you make you melancholy.  If somebody can do this with a bunch of letters and a piece of paper, think of what an architect can do with this huge palette.   But to be able to do either, he says, you need to understand how people think, how they respond to different textures, how they respond to different colors, how they respond to different vistas.  It makes a big difference whether a window looks down or it looks up.  It makes a big difference on what it’s facing and what it isn’t facing.  A lot of the buildings that we do are very — people say, “Gee, there are roof lines flying all over with things happening in all directions.”  But it’s in response to a certain view or a certain line.  And we’re trying to make it more uplifting, where people are looking up —  where it just seems to be a happier experience.

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