One site promoting the message of innovative architecture is a website called Architizer. Several of Arthur Dyson’s buildings are featured, but only the Lencioni residence received comments–some flattering (“magnificent,” “so beautiful”), some descriptive (“a wooden shell,” or “Hobbit’s nest,” followed by “que pena…Frodo Bolsón debe de estar de viaje, no se le ve en la foto de su casa,” which, as far as I can tell, means, “Silly Frodo must be on a journey because he’s not in the picture of his house”), to flaming (“holy s**t. tell me this is a joke, please! anyone?” (that one is still up as of this posting—thanks, Architizer!)and “bad architecture and air pollution are both products of our society and both affect our health.” The flamers were “schooled” by architects who suggested a) readings by Sullivan and Greene and b) experiencing the space before passing judgment. We invited serious architectural scholars to come see it for themselves (if they promised to be polite.)
There has always been resistance to counter. Commenting on a letter to the editor of The Fresno Bee (January 16, 2005) on the proposed design for the late Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Art Dyson questions the letter-writer’s desire to “incorporat[e] the architectural styles from the surrounding area” to “reflect the neo-Renaissance style” of adjacent buildings. Art counters such a move would create nothing but, “more copies of another time and place.”
The letter writer fears, “the futuristic architectural style of the proposed museum expansion will clash horribly with downtown Fresno.” The writer, James A. Sigala, contends: “Fresno’s insecurity complex is revealed with the history of its downtown—never content with oneself—always tearing down the past and replacing it with new modern identities (buildings). Do the giant birdcage from the 1960s, also known as the Fresno County Courthouse, or the spaceship design of Fresno’s City Hall ring a bell?”
Art agrees that architecture reflects its community. “However,” he writes in his response, “Fresno has the opportunity to speak with its own voice, expressing the pride and confidence of its citizenry, just as the Renaissance architects did in their time. This honesty of expression is precisely what derivative, neo-Renaissance architecture lacks.” He extends the comparison: “We seem to have few reservations about cloaking modern buildings in remnants of the past, yet few of us would advocate wearing Renaissance [costumes] or period clothing from other times and places…A culture is not created by pilfering images from the past, but by conceiving its own authentic vision.”
Both the letter writer and the neighbors for the award-winning, and now very popular, Woodward Park Library relied heavily on the word “complement,” as if the word means “replicate.” Sigala concludes his letter to the editor thus: “Downtown Fresno’s true rebirth will commence only when future buildings are designed to complement it, instead of challenging the downtown with odd and contemporary architecture.”
Dyson’s mission soars beyond the bricks and mortar. “Any competent draftsman can design a good building,” he argues, “but it is someone that can touch the soul of an individual that creates architecture.” The introductory paragraphs of a piece Art calls “A Search for the Soul of Architecture” begin like this: “When one thinks of architecture, one generally thinks of buildings and of walls, as architecture is generally defined as the art and science of designing and constructing buildings. Perhaps it is the influence of my early studies in psychology and philosophy, but for me, architecture was never about buildings, but about the individuals who would occupy them.”
Dyson articulates his design philosophy: “I did not become an architect to design what I have already seen. My designs originate from ideas, not styles, and the appearance of the work is a product of the individual uniqueness of the client. When the complete building is a true physical expression of the idea, the result will be genuine, original and innovative. It will impart meaning, promote endeavor, elicit response, and enhance the concept of place. The result is architecture.”
In a 1984 essay in Friends of Kebyar, he argues that architecture “can enrich or suppress [imagination].” He says his work has, “no pretentions of implying utopian resolutions; [it is] simply the result of honest efforts to provide an atmosphere where man’s creativeness can be enjoyed in harmony with the natural environment.”
“Arthur Dyson has shown professional courage in producing future-oriented building designs where many others are looking to the past,” writes Fred Stitt of SFIA. “His buildings subscribe to no fashion or style and so remain essentially timeless.” Since his work is different, Art says that people ask him why he tries to be different. He says, “I don’t try to be different; I don’t try to be the same. I just try to be good. In today’s world, perhaps that’s different enough.”
Effi Casey from Taliesin says, “I think some of it is really far out. But I love being carried off the floor with his imagination.” She said people say that about his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, too, that the space “changes people’s lives, and sometimes people couldn’t handle it.” She says the “daring part” of Art’s expression comes from his second mentor Bruce Goff. “It takes a particular client to even go on that trip with Art.”
In an interview, writer and expert on organic design Mark Hammons says Art’s architecture has the potential to wake us from our persistent torpor. He insists, “People need to wake up. And the single most profoundly powerful force that governs your waking, sleeping, and every moment in between is architecture. The choices that you make versus the choices that you allow other people to make–or which you must endure—are entirely up to you.” He sets his hands on the table in his Los Angeles garden apartment and leans forward for emphasis. “You can resign yourself to a strip mall existence if you want. You can pretend to be Lord or Lady Whatever if you want. But if instead you wish to encounter the substance of life, if you wish to engage your spiritual evolution as a human being in the here and now, this [the design of your surroundings] is something you need to consider.”
“Louis Sullivan was right,” says Hammons, “You can look at a building, and you can like it, and you can find beauty in it, you can find genius in it, except it’s not in the building, it’s entirely in you. If you take you away, it doesn’t exist. It’s all about that transformation, that interaction that goes on.” His point becomes clearer when he adds, “So much of writing about architecture is a dry analysis. It has nothing to do with what actually matters about buildings. What matters about buildings is life. Is the life that exists there better or is it worse?” He points across the street where several small shops crowd a shared parking lot. “Look at a strip mall, then look at one of Art’s buildings, there’s your answer. When you’re looking to engage somebody in the discussion of architecture, the discussion of what matters, you have to start off not with glass and steel and bricks and concrete, or even plants. You have to start off with hope and life and warmth and intelligence. Not even psychology—it’s way beneath that—it’s spirit.” Hammons sighs. “This culture has completely abandoned spirit. If it can’t be solved in a Petri dish, it doesn’t exist. Well, that’s a dead end. This culture will die if it doesn’t get past that, and that’s what organic architecture’s message was 120 years ago.”
Art’s former employer, Lee Gage, called Art more an artist than an architect. “Sometimes we’d clash,” said Gage. “I’m more practical; he’s more artistic. I was trying to make things feasible [meaning profitable], and aesthetics were secondary. For him aesthetics are first. In short order, I knew this kid was a genius at what he was doing. For an architect, it’s hard to come up with something new that works and looks good, and fits the people’s needs.”
“An artist-architect is probably trying to do something with the soul, more spiritual, and more poetic,” says Harvey Ferrero, Dyson’s co-apprentice under Bruce Goff. “Really, trying to look at it idealistically, I think the difference is the artist architect is not a slave to the client. The regular professional architect, when the client says ‘I want a commercial structure and I was it done this way and that way,’ they leave practical planning, circulation and that sort of thing to the architect, but they want to control the overall aesthetic, and naturally, of the total utmost importance is cost, and they want it as cheap as possible, but they want it to appear as expensive as can be. I would say this is the basic difference. An artist architect performs a service, but you’re not just a servant. You’re not just somebody your client has to have because they need your seal and they need your expertise in mechanical structural things and fire codes. That’s a professional requirement that all architects have to have, but some architects sort of stop at that spot.”
“I try to please my clients too,” says Gage, “but a lot of my clients are business clients who don’t want to offend most of the people. They say, ‘Give me a box, and make it look decent, but if it’s too far out, people won’t want to do business with me because they think I’m a little eccentric or priced out of their range, so they won’t come and buy my merchandise. So let’s make it more plain and simple—make it feasible and get the cost down so I can build it and make some money.” In contrast, he said, “People’s house is their castle. They live there every day.” Of course, most people spend several hours a week in an office.
“I’m more of an engineer,” Gage told me, in his Fresno office in a complex of similar offices. “That’s where my background is at. I’ve evolved into an architect—Art helped me get to that point. Me being an engineer, I helped him make some of his designs work. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and he’s able to make it work with circles and hexagons, diamonds, whatever. He has this flow that works, consistent throughout. I think it was Sullivan who said ‘Form follows function,’ and Frank Lloyd Wright’s principle of ‘outside in’—Art’s clever in that way.” Louis Sullivan’s famous quote is, “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.” Art is clever in that way.