Soul Search: Planning a House with Art

To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.

                        –Anatole France (on the white board in Dyson’s conference room)

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—he’s a genius at doing that.  And he tries to work with the site.  He likes to work with the side of a hill or the trees or if there’s a creek nearby—he loves to work with that.” 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 [them] 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.  Art told Indira that what really signifies good architecture is maybe the word “appropriate.”   He says both of the Taliesin projects are so appropriate to the given circumstances and areas and time that they were in.  At Taliesin in Wisconsin, he had George Haas, that old German stonemason who did beautiful work — he had all this beautiful limestone and sandstone that was just native to the area.  So he used this natural material with the expertise that he had at hand to do his beautiful, beautiful rock work.”

At Taliesin West, there were no stone masons.  There are “just a bunch of apprentices” who have never done that work.  The stone is different.  “You just have all of this rock that’s split–desert stone lying all over the place–and it’s free.  You have gravel that’s in the riverbeds and you have sand that has washed down the hill that’s just lying here.  So the natural thing to do was just to develop a completely new system of masonry that had never been used before.”  He said they filled the voids with colorful, natural desert stone that minimized the amount of concrete and “repeats the whole palette of the desert floor in color and texture with the stone.” It could go up without any masonry expertise at all.  “I don’t know of anything that could have been more appropriate than that.”

He emphasizes that it’s not appropriate to replicate this style with these materials in other areas where this stone is not native and the temperatures and weather conditions are different.  Eric Wright said the same thing in an interview at his Malibu cliff dwelling as we marveled at his use of sandstone and fossils.  Here at the RiverHouse in Piedra (Spanish for “stone”), we have rocks, which feature heavily in our design.

“You want as much light in as possible and to be as open as possible [in winter],” Art continued, “and so [Wright] used canvas.  And because you can’t have large expanses of canvas, he just made “shingles” that were almost like painter’s canvases that were just set on top of each other, so that in the vertical slope they would overlap and the water would flow right off.   Where they connect horizontally down that shaft, where he had the ribs — you notice that he has what’s called ‘flitch-beams’ — there’s a steel plate in the center of it, and to keep the plates from bending, he laminated two redwood boards alongside of it.  That keeps it from bowing out.  A continuous channel runs down past the bottom of that plate, which gives it rigidity, lateral strength, but it also takes any of the moisture that seeps down between the panels, carries it and shoots it outside in a trough.”  Art emphasizes that at Taliesin everything that is done has a meaning. “That’s what gives it real expression, and that’s what makes it such an honest architecture.  Nothing was done for effect.  It was done for a specific purpose.”

He said Wright was responding to the environment, doing simple things like proper solar orientation–devising green designs before the terminology was popularized.  For instance, he promotes the use of solar chimneys that don’t have to protrude higher than the roof-line.  He explains that a black pipe heats up in the sun and creates a vacuum through convection pulling the warm air out of the house while people are not even home during the day–better than having the air-conditioner work all day long. He advocates using local resources which obviously require less fuel.

“Sustainability has been part of organic architecture from day one, says Art.  “Architects are now trying to learn the principles of sun angles and designing for climate,” which the Taliesin Fellows were using all along.  Art finds out where the sun rises and sets and works it; he says he pays attention to light the way the Incas and the Anasazi did.  “They had the technology to chart the sun at different times of the day and year,” he says, “and now we have special machinery to gauge the exact place of the sun at any time of day or year.”  Art says when we’re looking for sustainability today, we look for ways to bring the sun in when it’s cold and screen it out in the summer.  “We can do that, and it’s good building,” he says, “but we can also use it to reach to the hearts of the occupants.”  Most of the work he did early on were homes for middle-income individuals. He tells about a couple who had a great deal of art in their home.  It was the first time he’d had a client who collected much art.  He says he looked around and asked, “if you had to evacuate this home at a moment’s notice, what would you take?”  Without hesitation, they both pointed to two small glass goblets that their children collectively bought them on their 25th wedding anniversary.  It was the first time the children had ever recognized the significance of this event to them.  “So obviously, we put them in a nice area that could be seen.”  But he also made sure that by means of the clerestory window, the sun would shine in through that window and hit those goblets at 3PM, June 5th, the date and time of their wedding.

In another house, he calculated for a birthday greeting:  “If nothing else, an architect can make the sun come in and shine on your face the first thing in the morning on the day of your birthday.”  (Conversely, an apprentice of Art’s, Sam Malinak, thought that surprise was intended to startle the client who’d been difficult to Art—a happy birthday sun-in-the-face greeting from his architect once a year–I suppose it could go either way).

In Oakland, in a home with a commanding view overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Art proposed a concrete monolith immediately inside the entry—not to block the view, but to focus it.  “As you opened the door, a small window in the wall directed your eye to Coit Tower where the couple had met and had their first date.”

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 told of trips to the Minona Terrace in Madison and social evenings.  She 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 made a most curious connection one day between Zen art and menudo (although it makes perfect sense to me).  The Zen artists, he explained, would restrict themselves to black and white because color was something the viewer could—no, should—bring to the work.  The works are bold, but unornamented.  “Like menudo,” he continued.  “It’s a bold but simple soup, then it’s served with an array of condiments—each individual can customize the menudo.  It makes sense.”

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.”

Contends Harvey Ferrero, an apprentice of Bruce Goff’s with Art, “These so-called “super-star” architects want to give you their house. In other words, if you go to Richard Meier or you go to Thom Mayne or something like that, they’re going to give you a house that they designed. What Bruce Goff always taught us and instilled in us is that you give them a house that they want–only they really don’t know they want it because they don’t have the imagination to create that, so you do question them and ask them about certain things.”  Ferrero and Dyson both encourage clients to bring in images of things they like.  Sometimes people will say “I’ve got a bunch of clippings of houses I like; they think that a lot of architects will say, ‘No, I don’t want to see any of that stuff,’” but those images indicate the kind of space that they prefer.

I told Fred Stitt from San Francisco Institute of Architecture about my quasi-regret that I’ve come to Art both times with a floor plan I’ve created, asking him to design an elevation.  Of course he always tweaks the floorplan in brilliant ways, but, Stitt thought my modus operandus was fine—“If you can do a very good floorplan—if you can draw to scale, I can’t think of a better way to do it.”  He said, “Art probably educates you about the reasons for those changes—because he always has a reason; it’s never arbitrary or some geniusy-type thing,” and he’s right, of course.  “You might spend weekends with a client, which is what Bruce Goff used to do,” Stitt said.  “It’s crucial to know your client fairly intimately.”

Larry Brink, an apprentice with Art under Frank Lloyd Wright, says understanding the client is something they both got from their mentor. “I do the same thing [present a questionnaire], though I don’t think I have 40 pages. I do ask a lot of questions and am interested in how the people live. ‘Do you entertain, do you cook, do you like music, do you garden, what are your interests?’”  Brink says, “You have to ask those sorts of questions before you can design something that’s appropriate for your client. I think that’s partially from Mr. Wright– understanding your client. What [the client] should have, maybe not what he wants per se, because he’s still thinking inside the box.”  He explains, “Architects–good ones anyway–think outside the box.”

“So we start from scratch,” says Brink. “If you revolve around your kitchen, we’d better make the kitchen pretty important–a focus. Or your site you’ve chosen has particular views or certain amenities that need to be taken advantage of instead of bulldozing everything down so it’s flat and you can put down some sort of box on it. With Mr. Wright, you learned how important nature is, how the site was, and you fit the personality of your building to your site and to the person you’re building it for–either a company or a resident, same thing.”

Eric Wright says an architect has to see the site.  He needs to know how an owner uses the space—“do you entertain?—what are your relationships?—what societies to you belong to?”  When I asked how he conveys those ideas into design, Eric said, “If they like music, it’s got to work acoustically, and if they like to entertain there has to be provision for that, but it still has to function as a living room.”  Eric likes to know what poets the client favors.  Sitting in his workshop, where he’s made sure we have a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean over the Malibu cliffs, he quotes  the Persian poet Rumi’s “The Wine and the Cup”:  “Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon,” and he adds, “How much it can fill your room depends on its windows.”

Most of my favorite poets are from the 1930’s—Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams.  By his keyboard, Greg keeps A Poet to His Beloved by Yeats.  I’m pretty sure Dennis Lencioni read no poetry but mine and was never sure what to think of that.  Still, good architecture is a form of structural poetry. Art says his homes should engender “a poetic way of living life.”

Rationalists, wearing square hats,

Think, in square rooms,

Looking at the floor.

Looking at the ceiling.

They confine themselves

To right-angled triangles.

If they tried rhomboids,

Cones, waving lines. ellipses—

As, for examples, the ellipses of the half-moon—

Rationalists would wear sombreros.*

            -Wallace Stevens from “Six Significant Landscapes” (VI)


*[architects should wear sombreros]


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