Chapter 6. Soul Search: Planning a Space Where You’ll Feel Utterly At Home
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)
If a house is to reflect the owners and the setting, the architect has to invest in understanding the clients and how they interact with the site. Dyson says he relishes that “detective” role. “I study people,” he says. “When architects build structures for zoos, they study the animals, but many architects never study the people they’re building houses for.” I plan my classes using as much foreknowledge as possible about my material and my students, but I wish I could interview each of them before the semester starts to find out their unique goals and needs; some semesters I take a pre-syllabus survey before choosing the works we’ll study. “Most architects don’t know if their client is right- or left-handed,” Dyson said one day when we were talking about planning.
Over the course of this project, I have had the privilege to meet some extraordinary architects, many of whom have connections to Dyson, Wright, or Bruce Goff. Not surprisingly, their take on planning similarly involves client analysis from the head right down to the soul. Harvey Ferrero, who apprenticed with Dyson under Goff in Oklahoma, says Goff always insisted they start with the clients’ preferences and encourage them to reveal individual priorities and styles. “You give them a house that they want–only they really don’t know they want it yet because they don’t yet have the imagination to create that, so you do question them about certain things.” He says he encourages clients to bring in clippings and photos of places they like, and he extracts their yearnings from those. Dyson gives an example: someone who comes to him with a colonial plantation in mind doesn’t actually want all that’s implied with the dated design (no indoor kitchen or bathroom, no air-conditioning, plantation masters, slavery, etc). Dyson says, “maybe they’re looking at the monumentality of it or the monochromatic color scheme…you try to find out what they like about it, and introduce something that’s more representative of today’s materials and today’s climate and today’s energy problems, and their way of life.” My admonition is exactly this: if you’re a client, find an architect whose work you admire (maybe someone whose work isn’t all the same?) and utterly open yourself in the planning process. Don’t hold back—it’s your own private space you’re planning. Allow yourself to trust, and align your imagination with the professional who is unfolding your singular space and creating your design.
Larry Brink, who was an apprentice with Dyson under Frank Lloyd Wright says understanding the client is something they both got from their mentor. Referring to Dyson’s lengthy questionnaire, he said: “I 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, Mr. Wright taught them to design appropriately for the client, understanding what [the client] should have, maybe not what he wants per se, because he’s still thinking inside the box.” Matt Taylor, architect and originator of the online Post-Usonian Project, describes a conversation with Frank Lloyd Wright’s client Mrs. Pew. At first she’d hated her house and felt Wright had ignored her preferences. After two years, Taylor recounts, she was ready to sell the house at a loss, but decided to “give the house a year without struggling with it.” Taylor explains:
In that year, a transformation took place. She discovered that “Mr. Wright had not built a house for who I was” – but for “the person that I could become.” “It turned out that Mr. Wright had listened well and understood me very deeply.” “Now, I can hardly stand to be in other people’s homes.” (Taylor, The Post-Usonian Project)
Dyson argues that any competent draftsman can design a good building, “but it is someone that can touch the soul of an individual that creates architecture.” The introductory paragraphs of a piece Dyson wrote entitled “A Search for the Soul of Architecture” begins 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.
Harvey Ferrero, Dyson’s friend from their young apprentice days laughed out loud when I read that to him, but Dyson takes the soul search seriously. When Jim Wasserman interviewed Dyson for a Fresno Bee column in October 1995, he wrote about the elusive search for “soul” in art. “The conversation became quickly indistinct, roundabout and vague—in the way of art and about the way things are. And about how we live as human beings…Known for the offbeat, [Dyson] was talking about being adventurous. And romantic. About writing and poetry, mystery and paradox, beauty and soul, and all those things that seem visibly downplayed in city life today.” Wasserman asked Dyson about square, unadorned, functional, practical buildings, as if money were the only determinant and nobody ever had a poetic thought in their lives.” Wasserman called his own question “long-winded,” but it shows the columnist gets it. Look how people exercise today, Art told him. They work on their hearts as a muscle in health clubs instead of taking a walk in the woods to exercise their hearts and their souls. “Most people live and work in environments that are containers for human beings [intended] to screen out the elements. People rely on a world of “images with no depth and no substance.” Wasserman rants, “Architects, developers, government, banks, they all prop up the industry-standard undernourishing bland landscape of the same orange with different peelings.” What should a house look like? Dyson says, “architecture is not the repetition of something learned but, rather, the exploration of something sensed, for extending the boundaries of human experience and understanding.”
“We’ve never made an attempt to be different, but our clients are different,” Dyson says, attributing all his work to a third-person collection of collaborators. “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. ***ADD TAYLOR’s SMITH STORY? My clients,” Dyson says, “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.” He distinguishes 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.”
Sue Jacksha, a client, remembers questions about lifestyle, music, but was mystified by questions about the first room she entered when she came home and how much time they spent in the bedroom. “At first I didn’t realize what this had to do with designing a house.” Because the Jackshas work away during the day and travel on the weekends, the house was an evening house for the two of them, or 40-50 people: one large room with the kitchen, dining room and living room reaching out at different angles. Where my houses are both curvilinear, theirs features dramatic reaching angles designed to maximize the view within the restrictions of the housing development. She said Art pulled out a piece of paper and drew a circle, “This where the sun would set.” He arranged the line of site so the dining room wouldn’t block the view of the sunset, and he drew another circle, and another—“I wish I would have saved that piece of paper,” she said. (Me too!).
Fred Stitt of San Francisco Institute of Architecture praised Dyson for spending extensive time with the clients, “acquainting himself with the essentials of their lives, and especially of their aspirations. Other architects—even well-renowned ones—will first show what they’ve done and awards they’ve won before ever asking a question of the client, and that’s the first thing Arthur will do.” Ferrero said the same thing: he named some “superstar” architects who, he says, want to give you their house, a house that they designed in their style, not specifically for you. David Pearson, in New Organic Architecture, quotes architect Sim van der Ryn: “our clients [must] become true partners rather than masters or victims.”
All the architects assume that site is an essential consideration. Brink said, “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. 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.” We met Eric Lloyd Wright at his site perched above the Pacific Ocean. The fluid cement structure nests into the cliff like an eagle’s aerie. He said both architect and client have to become intimate with the terrain, the views, and assess the possibilities. 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 Wright 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 [the living room] still has to function as a living room.
Wright likes to know what poets the client favors. He favors Walt Whitman, the Persian poet Rumi, Ranier Maria Rilke, and Emily Dickinson, which, I suppose, gives him a transcendental edge. Eric Wright said that Art especially likes people—clients, students, fellow associates—“he’s very good that way—it’s one of the things that attracts me to him. He does have this concern [for the client], which is what a good architect should have, but most of us don’t. Usually we get so wrapped up in all the problems [of building], understanding what we’re trying to do, trying to work with the clients. He compared and contrasted Dyson to Frank Lloyd Wright, “My grandfather in many ways could irritate the clients and there were lots of problems, and he could get blown up, but as a whole he was pretty good with the clients. He had a wonderful way of bringing them around. Many clients claim he was charismatic—just being in his presence—[made them relent]. ‘Okay do it, Mr. Wright. We won’t object,’” implying that Frank Lloyd Wright was convincing and articulate even with a recalcitrant client. Of his own client relationships, Eric Wright said, “I believe they can understand what I’m trying to evolve for them. The client is part of the design team, just as much as their designer, but many clients [just] want the architect to take care of it.” Sitting in his workshop, where he’s made sure we have a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean over the Malibu cliffs, he quotes from 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 and the way you look through them.” Good architecture is a form of structural poetry. Art says his homes should engender “a poetic way of living life.”
When I asked Mickey Muenig, a Goffian architect in Big Sur, if he would liken poetry to architecture, he said he preferred to talk about site. He camped on the site of the Post Ranch Inn for a calendar year as he was designing the guesthouses. Of our lengthy planning and design period, he said it was to our advantage because we had the opportunity to observe our site over all the seasons (twice, actually). Art was involved from the very beginning: to celebrate close of escrow on the River House property, we invited Art and Audrey Dyson up for a picnic. That August evening the water was high and lazy. A deer made a cameo appearance just as we approached. We talked about how to orient the house to maximize the views (I lift mine eyes up to the hills) and take advantage of shade from sycamores. We were already sensing the hypnotic effect of the river—hypnotic, but constantly moving in one direction, like life. We wanted the house to become part of the scenery without interrupting it. Unlike the Creek House, the River House would be visible from the road.
I asked Art what the difference was between designing the first and the second house for me—I thought it might have something to do with the differences between my husbands. He answered, “You’re different than most clients. Both times, you came to me with an intricate floor plan.” Sometimes I regret having come to Art with any design (what might he have dreamed up?), but I never lost that thrill of sketching floor plans. I’d taken art classes in the meantime and had that sophomoric sense of knowing something, when I really knew nothing. I loved the one-room Barrett-Tuxford House he designed in Richland Center, Wisconsin right after the Creek House. With the floor plan shaped like a broad leaf, Art explained in one of his “archilectures,” it was simpler as it relied on only two walls—and had been famously economical. Will Green, second owner, with Cliff ****Surname, of the Barrett-Tuxford House wrote in an email: “Our house has its roots in Prairie Style architecture, but Dyson took a more organic and metaphysical path, the more difficult and risky path, to be sure.” He wrote that it feels like “what Virginia Woolf called ‘a moment of being.’ I feel both grounded (the house is half underground) and connected to sky (the windows on the south side are 12 feet tall and the moonlight bathes the entire house)” “It’s a great compliment,” he says, “that the deer haven’t figured out that this is a place where humans live.” Before living in their Dyson home, his complaint about “the architecture that surrounded him (as a human spirit) was that architecture, in general, felt so detached from the earth, and so temporary.” He says that when people come up their driveway “they feel like they’ve entered into not just a different world but a different reality. No one can believe that it is a small house. Everyone can relate immediately to this grand curving shape without even having to describe it…being more of a feeling than a design, their connection is visible and immediate. The most common reaction when people enter the home is an audible gasp. People look like they’ve just entered a cathedral and become quiet.” Nice.
Dyson, using his background in psychology, initiates each planning session with personal questions seemingly unrelated to architecture. Ron Evans, who built his house in 1974, said he was introduced to Art Dyson by a potential architect for the job who, once he heard that the Evanses wanted to do something different, said, “You want a fellow by the name of Art Dyson.” Evans said Dyson told him and Ruth Ann first about his philosophy and asked them about what they liked: what art they liked, what music they liked, how they lived. “He asked us all sorts of questions and listened to the answers. We thought, this guy is great; he’s going to build something just for us.
Questions of Fashion, Style, and Imagination: The Consequences of Doubt
I love period costume parties. Dressing in the style of a book we’ve read or arbitrarily choosing a theme for a dinner party is fun and reminds us of our evolution. I’m thinking of Greg in a Dickens top hat talking on his anachronistic iphone. And the changes are social as well as technological: at the Isaak Dineson croquet party, to which I invited my friends to dress in white for an afternoon of leisure sport on the lawn, my Nigerian-American friends generously forgave me, but came in less-colonial attire. Whole neighborhoods model the authentic fashions of the past: Wildwood Island in our area hails from the 70s with diagonal wood paneling, indoor foliage, and Pebble-tec floors; Greg’s old house was in a 1940s development with hardwood floors, several little rooms and one bath; the craftsman homes in my parents’ Pasadena neighborhood from the 20s were authentic in their time. I admire those, like Eric Wright, who restore or retain authentic elements from a home’s time, even as they modernize for our time. But to replicate designs from another time, place, climate suggests a fear to move forward. Lacking in self-awareness, we stagnate in doubt.
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.” Eric Lloyd Wright said, “My grandfather was very harsh on imitation. He hated imitation. He said, ‘if you really understand what I’m talking about—the principles—then you’ll be creating your own forms. [The new designs] will be coming out of those principles of mine, but they won’t be imitating my work. They’ll be your essence, and your character will be expressed in the building.’” Bruce Goff called it “a continuous present…using everything…beginning again and again” (qtd in Pearson, Wave 12). From Alain de Botton: “The great modern houses are happy to admit their youth and honesty, to benefit from the advances of contemporary materials, but they also know how to respond to the appealing themes of their ancestry and can thereby heal the traumas generated by an era of brutal rapid change…they show us how we, too, might carry the valuable parts of the past and the local into a restless global future…succumbing neither to nostalgia nor to amnesia.”
Each age responds to its particular zeitgeist. Architectural historians trace the reasons living rooms shrink or expand, parlors disappear, etc. They describe grander trends as well; for example, David Pearson suggests that, “the rectilinear, orthogonal mode came to dominate the 20th century as a reflection of materialist values of an industrially driven age.” Our recent era of replication and conformity reflects economic uncertainty and an uncertainty about our individual identities. Our political arena has fractured our sense of collective identity, so people mask their unique selves. One way to resist the cultural labels people want to place on us is to conform to the lowest common denominator; the other is to boldly profess our own personalities in the designs that reflect our authentic selves.
The future is unknowable, but a unique design is less bound by its time. Fred Stitt of SFIA praises Dyson for “professional courage in producing future-oriented building designs where many others are looking to the past.” Stitt says, “[Dyson’s] buildings subscribe to no fashion or style and so remain essentially timeless.” Since his work is different, Art says that people ask him if he tries to be different on purpose, but 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 [Art’s work] is really far out. But I love being carried off the floor with his imagination.” She said people said that about his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, too, that the space “changes people’s lives.” 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.”
Looking at a newspaper clipping from the Fresno Bee June 1, 1969, it’s clear that this architecture is more timeless than fashion. Despite the fact that the Bee dubs it “The 10-Years-in-the-Future Home,” this Dyson-designed house, 48 years later, with a dramatic reach thrust dynamically over a carport looks utterly contemporary–perpetually ten years in the future. By contrast, the costume sported by the lovely housewife is temporary: her head-to-hair ratio is exactly 3:2, with alluring side-parted bangs that drape threateningly close to her dark false eyelashes. As was the fashion, her eyes are dark, but her lips frosty pale. Her tunic-style wide-legged pantsuit (with 12-inch ruffles on the bottom) are cut from a pattern with flowers so large, there’s only room for four massive chrysanthemums—one on each leg, one in the skirt of the tunic, and one collared about her neck. Matching blooms ornament her slip-on heeled sandals. Up-to-the-minute 1969, but not a minute later.
When I turned on the recorder at the planning desk and asked Mark Lucchesi about Art’s work, his comment was that the buildings need space. “They’re ‘different,’ so it’s better when they’re not surrounded by ordinary houses.” Being a space junkie myself, I tend to agree. I prefer any house to have ample breathing room, but Marc Dyson defended his father’s in-town designs. “I think it’s cool to have an angle jutting out in the midst of uninspired architecture. You’re going down the street and suddenly you’re pleasantly surprised.” In a 1997 article in the Fresno Bee, Kathy Clarey writes something similarly fulgent: “Arthur Dyson’s architecture is like a bright sunflower blooming in the middle of a dry field. It catches the eye and makes you say ‘wow.’”
Who would dislike this architecture? Mark Hammons writes: “Sometimes rejection is dressed courteously in remarks about artistic eccentricity, implying an untrustworthy frivolity or strangeness of character.” Direct scoffing, he writes, results from “virgin ignorance.” My first house has often been referred to as a sculpture, usually in a positive way, but people close to me have remarked, “I don’t think it’s necessary to live in a sculpture.”
Once, in a fit of pique, Art Dyson pounded out a treatise justifying the bold and rejecting the mediocrity borne of compromise. He asked me not to share it at the time—he’s too kind to risk offending anyone or tainting a project. So I didn’t, but, since I think it represents an important position, he’s allowed this slightly modified excerpt:
…we will be remembered for what we built, and also for what we didn’t build.
A Building becomes a Work of Architecture when it satisfies and transcends the requirements of practicality into the realm of aesthetics; it should articulate a beauty of its own. The unknown should hold no fears for the informed, but be a welcomed prospect to grow and add something significant to the world. It offers us the opportunity to create something that the world has never seen before. If we eliminated the hindrances of the familiar, the cocoon of the traditional, and the rote repetitions of the customary, we will discover the means to create an enduring presence of our own.
We are attempting to transcend a predisposition towards borrowed images and standardized answers of another time and place and produce an architecture relevant to each project’s mission and goals. Previously unseen forms not only demonstrate new possibilities, but also help distinguish the present from the past—and step toward a better future.
Louis Sullivan wrote of a similar circumstance concerning unfamiliar building forms, proclaiming, “It was the spirit animating the mass and flowing from it, and it expressed the individuality of the building.” Unfortunately, it is not easy convincing someone of the value of architectural evolution. I remember Frank Lloyd Wright telling me that in the eyes of average people, average is always considered outstanding.
Unfortunately, all too may decision makers can only see with their eyes. As John Stuart Mill cautioned, “Originality is one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of.” They appear to lack the vision to see the possibilities of what could be. And John Mason [author of An Enemy Called Average] declared, “Mediocrity is a region bounded on the north by compromise, on the south by indecision, on the east by past thinking, and on the west by lack of vision.”
Previously unseen forms not only demonstrate new possibilities, but also help distinguish the present from the past—and step toward a better future.
Commenting on a letter to the editor of The Fresno Bee (January 16, 2005) on the proposed design for the late Fresno Metropolitan Museum, 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?” Dyson 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 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.”
Planning the Creek House
When architectural photographer Scot Zimmerman introduced Dennis and me to Art Dyson in that brick office on P Street, I brought my graph paper drawings and explained to him what I’d drawn and why, but that the elevation just didn’t work. I picture this conversation happening in the Lencioni Home at the dining table, but that’s impossible because it’s a planning meeting for that house. Art corroborated that it was in his office; we were sitting on one side of a table and he sat across from us. “We need to lengthen out the lines,” he said, smoothing his hand in an arc, as if over an expectant mother’s belly. “And then come back in,” he continued, scooping both hands to meet, cupped at his heart. The house looks like that—arched as if it has erupted gently out of the river bottom, as if next season it will burst into flower like a rununculus.
Over two sessions, he asked a battery of questions that had less to do with form, and more to do with preferences in music, art and food, the patterns and rhythms of our lives. He asked about our dissimilar backgrounds. I’d grown up in an upper class suburb of Los Angeles, my father is a successful LA lawyer, my mother keeps a lovely home and is active in the community; my family all have advanced degrees. Dennis’ family struggled to farm cotton and grapes; his father died while we were dating. Dennis’ brothers, Ron and Gary, graduated in engineering from Fresno State. Dennis, after studying ecology at community college, took a program in horseshoeing and became a farrier. Dennis and I responded reflexively. Art asked, “When you doodle, what do you draw?” The imagery is so prosaic now, but we were too naïve to know that: I showed him curves and concentric circles, and I still make this ripple pattern around words or objects like a slow river lapping a protruding tree or the pattern after a fish has jumped. Dennis’ doodles were more angular (now, I’d say, more masculine), and both of those are reflected in the house design.
Art asked what houses I remembered admiring as child growing up in San Marino, a town which looks like you’re driving down the streets of Architectural Digest. I remembered the O’Connor’s Spanish style house as my favorite, but I said I didn’t want something Spanish—not here in the forest. Art remembers my affinity for the Spanish style and says the curved entry originated from the idea of an arch.
On his hand rendering of the elevation, because we were newlyweds, Art drew a mock picket fence encircling the house and a very cool sports car for Dennis with the same “female” lines they both admired in cars.
Art recently had an inquiry from “a fellow architect” who saw the Lencioni Residence (Creek House) in Architizer. He wanted know if Dyson “would be open to the possibility of rebuilding [the] exact design on a property in Wisconsin?” He would pay for the CDs (Construction Documents) and Dyson’s services “to further refine the design to the exact lot.” He attached links to two entirely different sites from Zillow as possible building sites. Art’s response clearly articulates his relationship with his clients and his work:
Thank you for your email, your kind words, and your interest in our work (specifically the Lencioni Residence).
Although I am the legal owner of the drawings and design, I feel morally obligated to my client and my pledge to them that their home is exclusive to them and would not be replicated.
This little residence, like all of our work, was designed for a unique client, on a specific site, to support an individual lifestyle, and for a specific time (1985).
The core belief of my work has always been that architecture has an integral relationship with both its site and its time, and that a true expression of its place and its time intimately connects to a particular moment and site—never the result of an imposed style. I believe a building’s architectural character essentially creates its own style.
Throughout my career I have attempted to maintain a respect for the inherent properties of materials and an appreciation for the harmonious relationship between the building’s form and function, and we and integrate those spaces into a coherent whole: a marriage between the site and the structure and a union between the context and the structure.
I currently have a 31-page Client Questionnaire that my clients complete before beginning the design process. We respect and reflect the authentic voice of the client in the resultant design. While the process of understanding and comprehending the personal mythologies and family dynamics that drive the design is lengthy, it is pivotal in forming the building program and defining the design direction. I have always attempted to first listen, discover, analyze – then design.
Although your proposal is flattering and your concept intriguing, I don’t believe that reproducing one of my designs would be of any meaningful value to you or your clients.
Planning the River House
For many reasons, Greg and I went directly to Art. Greg had been living in the Creek House, but he hadn’t yet met the man who designed it. We emphasized our restricted budget, but our desire to work with him within our means. Again, I brought the graph paper floorplan Greg and I had drawn together and no clue about the elevation. “Are you still getting along?” Art asked and told the story of a couple who had brought in a draft floor plan carefully taped back together. It seems they tugged and struggled until the plans ripped in two.
Art’s more efficient now, but no less thorough: in planning our current home, Art emailed a 40-page questionnaire reminiscent of the interviews 30 years prior. He says he used to miss things when he was trying to ask questions and write down answers. The questions are comprehensive and I share many of them in service of all people, designers, clients, architects, everyone becoming more in tune with their surroundings. You should cite Arthur Dyson, not me, if you adopt any of these in your practice.
The exercise, in and of itself, feels like art therapy. All the ideas come from you, but you didn’t necessarily know you thought that until prompted. For a couple, it’s like marriage counseling. Art says the way clients fill out the form is revealing. Some print, some write in script, red ink, black, or pencil; some, he says, you can tell what they had for breakfast because it’s dribbled on the page. Art said some are funny; some are clever; he’s had people tell him that they cried when they read some of the questions. One client, he said, realized that, when he grew up, the only safe haven he had was at the dinner table—“otherwise people were yelling at each other, people were squabbling.” It’s emotional. “Folks are giving you the inner blueprint that they walk around with,” he says. “So it’s really easy for me, once I have that, just to put it all together.” Easy, he says, but inspired. “I always tell Audrey I’m as surprised as anybody else the way things turn out.”
Greg and I filled them out independently before comparing answers, not too amazed that our responses were eerily similar (we met on e-harmony.com, after all).
The introduction of Art’s questionnaire begins:
The design of a new home is the most personal experience in architecture. While we spend most of our lives within the embrace of architecture, decisions about what and how we experience a building are usually made by other people long before our arrival. Frequently, pressured for time in this hectic modern world, most of us come only rarely upon a moment of conscious perspective about our reactions toward the architecture by which we are constantly surrounded…Architecture is fundamentally a mirror. What we build reflects who we are, both to ourselves and to those around us. Ironically, the buildings we create in turn recreate us over and over again by providing the templates upon which we move in the patterns of daily life.
The first question has to do with beauty. Art writes, “Surrounding ourselves with beauty has been a fundamental of good living since ancient times.” He quotes Plato: “For he who would proceed aright…should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms…out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty in every form is one and the same.” He could have quoted Frank Lloyd Wright, who said famously, “If you foolishly ignore beauty, you’ll soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you wisely invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.” Dyson asks for our definition of beauty:
Deb: Taking the startling elements of nature and condensing them, arranged just a little off-balance.
Greg: Beauty is a real and open expression of the truth of God.
And things we find beautiful:
Greg: “Trois Chanson” by Debussy. I like teaching new music every year, and there is so much good music out there. But if I were required to teach one piece every year for eternity, this would be it. It is passionate. It is simple, yet not easy to learn.
Deb: when rough meets smooth and shiny there is often beauty. Austrian painter Friedrichsreich Hundertwasser used metallic paint or metal in otherwise primitive and abstract paintings..
Greg: Honesty and openness. Whether in personal contacts or when watching a stage play, sincere feelings are beautiful. When Harold Hill stops Winthrop, who is mad because there is no band, Harold Hill says, “Hey kid. I always think there’s a band.” I cry every time.
Deb: The most tingly, beautiful experiences of my life involve an unusual cast of light and shadow: Looking out over moving water morning or evening—there’s a stillness in the air which contrasts with the water; the surprise of orchids in a forest; the way a wild fig tree wraps around an oak and the transparent backlit leaves contrast with the burley trunk; I love the yellow undulating hills of the Valley with dark green oaks and granite outcroppings.
Art frequently refers to angles of light at different time of day and of the year. He favors angled windows and skylights—this explains the angles on many of his houses. Without stars and sunsets, and access to the out-of doors, he contends, you don’t know whether the wind is blowing or if the birds are singing, or if it’s raining or if there’s a sunset. “We try to bring those things back into the buildings,” he says. I search for words to describe prism light moments, or moments when the light dances across a room. Dyson explains that architecture should celebrate nature. “Too many homes are isolated from their natural surroundings—the soaring rooflines are in response to view lines or view corridors,” he explains, not random aesthetic tricks. He says, “the clients’ spirit, their uniqueness spawned the worlds that you see here.”
Our answers to his questions about our dreams and what we’d like to achieve spiritually were similar. I wrote that I wanted to relax and accept that I am not in control of every aspect of my life (building a house is excellent practice for this quest). Greg hoped to create a community of family and friends where all are welcome, encouraged and fulfilled, including himself.
We realized from Art’s probing (“Consider how a room, area, or space might facilitate those desires…What adjustments could be made to find a truer orientation with what you believe is most important?”) that we need separate, discreet places to create, and a completely separate place for bills and taxes. In fact, Greg composes in his Tree House studio above the barn, and I settle in the living room (“like a studio, I wrote, “but not warren-like, open with lots of glass”). We concluded a separate desk for bills and business would prevent us from being distracted or annoyed.
Art asks, “What will your life look like when your dream is achieved?” Greg’s will continue the path he’s on, but “with more confidence and vigor,” and if I can balance the dominant social side of my personality with a private need to create, I’ll be amazed, but pleased.
The questionnaire asks us to consider where we spend time, which activities take place where, and how each area relates to another. He encourages us to consider the passage of time and seasonal needs. We chose similar words to describe what we wanted our home to be (open, connected to the outdoors, flowing from space to space, warm, calm, light, elemental). He asked about the impression of the house as you drive up to it, and we both answered “in harmony with the landscape,” and “unique and elegant, yet playful.”
Art asks questions anyone might ask, such as, “What is most important to you in a home?” or “which rooms have you most enjoyed in previous homes or vacation houses?” but he asks questions which evoke deeper contemplation: “Think back to your favorite childhood spaces.” The house I grew up in was a stately white colonial in a neighborhood of lovely lawns and shade trees, big back yards with swimming pools. Sensibly, my younger sisters occupied the bedrooms upstairs near my parents, and I, the eldest, stayed downstairs with my own bathroom, but it made me a little crazy. My bedroom, originally maid’s quarters, had a louvered window onto the driveway and neighbors’ brick wall and a high vine-covered window above the garage. I cleared the bougainvillea for light (and sometimes for escape, removing the glass louvers and slipping out unseen—I didn’t do anything but go out to the back patio and think in the dark). I would fantasize about replacing the wall that faced the garden and the pool with glass; usually, my imagination also doubled the size of the tiny room. Once, when my parents were away, I talked my youngest sister Annie into trading rooms with me, marketing the advantages: “you don’t have to share a bathroom; you’re close to the kitchen.” Annie’s room had large second-story windows looking out through a liquid amber and an oak and over the houses north and east. We had to switch back when my parents returned, but the year we hosted an exchange student, Franziska and I shared that room, and my sisters shared the other. One college summer, when I was working, and they were all somewhere else, I often slept up in Katie’s room where a bank of windows faced south and east over our garden and the neighbors’. Perhaps I’ve been craving windows ever since.
It seems there’s a balance between retaining cherished elements (Greg’s parents ran a summer camp, so he slept in open-air cabins for much of his childhood; our bedroom’s wall of 18-foot windows allows for indoor star-gazing) and opposing less-favored elements. Dyson gives an example from his grandest residence, Charles and Lela Hilton’s in Panama City Beach, Florida. Art suggested a metal cool roof to deflect the heat and keep a clean profile, but the Hiltons wouldn’t hear of it. In their childhoods, metal roofs covered the shacks of the poor and didn’t belong on their mansion. Similarly, he says barnwood siding can evoke nostalgia for “upper-enders,” but not for farm families, who crave an interior that’s sleek and clean.
Page 7 launches into Space Exercises for each room in the house, first qualities, then activities, and there’s a similar battery of questions about the site: Why did you choose the site, what are the positives and negatives, what features do you want to emphasize, how important is privacy? He asks about sun angles, the yard and outdoor activities and asks for favorite photos of the lot.
Perhaps the most interesting section is the Lifestyle Inventory. Clients who haven’t known Art well have said this was startlingly personal at first; yet, they all realized in retrospect that the answers guided important design choices. Art writes:
How you live, both in daily and longer cycles of time, determines how spaces in your home need to be arranged and configured. In a general sense, lifestyle is just the way you go about being at home. Personal traditions, family habits, and cultural inheritance are some of the many aspects of lifestyle. The constellation of activities you enjoy or honor, from private individual occupation to public social gathering, deserves to be served as fully as possible by the structure you build.
He asks about how we spend our time, favorite pastimes, typical weekday, weekend, personal activities, group activities, outdoors activities, provisions for pets or nannies (?!), entertaining, overnight guests, working at home. “What furniture, artworks, and/or artifacts do you wish to feature or put in special locations?” What do think about built-in furniture? For example, Greg’s grand piano needs space and protection from direct light.
He’s wise to ask us to speculate about the future. Will our children boomerang? Will they bring grandchildren? Will our parents move in? What will our retirement look like? Our prescience was tested this last year when my son’s ex-wife needed help getting on her feet, so she and her children (whom we love as if they are our grandchildren) moved into Greg’s studio and ate dinner with us each night. The kids had the run of the outdoors lawn and gardens and pool and patio, but we could still work in peace until I called them for dinner and games after (if they had finished their homework).
There’s a whole page on music, computers, and media. For us, the live acoustics were critical, and the television, unimportant to us, is relegated to the den.
Ten pages are devoted to Room Planning with an introduction that encourages multi-purposing. “A creative and engaging architectural solution need not be confined to familiar limitations.” Multi-use is a guiding principal in the RiverHouse. Piano and concert hall, yoga studio, writer’s workspace, library, easy chairs, kitchen, dining room, den, and guest room all coexist in 1,000 square feet. It seems silly to me to designate a single purpose to a room so that it waits in pause mode until awakened for a formal dinner like the personified teapot and candlestick in Beauty and the Beast. My childhood house had an entry, formal living room, family room, den, formal dining room, and a breakfast table in the kitchen. Stepped down from the white-carpeted living room, the wood-floored family room was where we lived. The entire wall facing the tree-ringed back yard, patio and pool was glass, and a green and leafy buffer separated our house from the next. That room had a game table (where I often did my homework), fireplace, and bar. It occurred to me around sixth grade that those rooms could easily be combined, and I sketched plans, which rearranged the downstairs with fewer walls (and a bedroom for me with windows). In Greg’s childhood home, his parents added on to the living area, essentially creating a great-room, the kitchen opening out in an open format, so he wanted to retain the great-room. Dennis had grown up in a tiny space, where rooms were multi-purposed by necessity (his bed was in the laundry porch; he did homework standing at the washing machine).
Dyson opens the section Living Spaces with an observation: “Modern life tends to be more casual and informal than in earlier decades. Just as the formal “parlor” of late Victorian times passed away in favor of a “living room” in the twentieth century, contemporary uses of interior domestic spaces are also evolving. He asks about the function of the living room. “Is it a place for adults only, adults and children, or a special occasion area?” For seating arrangements, “conducive to formal discussions or more intimate conversation?” Is the focus inward or outward? What activities? What about storage? Our responses were identical, calling for the 1902 Steinway grand piano in a windowless corner for the piano’s protection, but a wall of windows to the river with seating that takes all advantage of the view.
Either he tired of the questionnaire, or the intimacy of the bedroom questions made him bashful because Greg skips 8 pages here, deferring to mine. As Art writes, “Bedrooms tend to be the most personal, private and intimate spaces in a house. Most people spend at least one third of every day sleeping, and these spaces also commonly become personal refuges for rest and relaxation.” The questions range from sleeping schedules and habits to size of bed and the “feel”: “Do you prefer a cozy, confined sleeping area for your bed? Do you generally prefer a light or dark bedroom, or the option for either?” Is it a “suite,” is there a sitting area, fireplace, deck or garden, or a desk? “Should the master bath/dressing area be designed to allow one person to shower, dress, and leave without waking the other?” How much closet space? He asks which areas should have most direct access from the bedroom and most separation.
Art supplies several options for multi-purposing the additional bedrooms, and our one extra bedroom will be library, media room, den, and guest bedroom—handicapped accessible for Greg’s brother, who uses a wheelchair. For the bathrooms, he asks for principal users, location, and desired features with suggestions: a view of the outdoors, small and enclosed or open and spacious, shared or private, single room or compartmentalized, bright and sunny or cozy and softly lit, many decorative objects on view or tidy and uncluttered. Based on observing their wives taking out the blow dryer and all we need to get ready on busy mornings, then watching us pack it all up again or leave it out, Greg and Art came up with a lift-up counter with the plugs inside, so I’ll open the top, dry my hair, and close the top back over all the tools of beauty.
The laundry room/mudroom also performs a variety of functions. Reviewing the questionnaire inspired me to re-draw the what-goes-where diagram.
Twenty-three pages in, Art invites the client to lie down on the couch for analysis in order to determine “a personal pattern of activity.”
Where do you spend the majority of your day? (by the windows in the living room)
What does your everyday work environment look like? (same)
What is your favorite way to relax or unwind? (a glass or a book on the terrace)
Several questions are devoted to reading—do you? Where? Which authors, books, magazines? He himself had loved Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the way cadences of the language change. He asks, “Were you read to as a child? By whom? and asks for a favorite childhood story. (Greg said Seuss; my favorite is Wind in the Willows).
Art asks about favorite music, songs, performers (ours is eclectic). As a musician, Greg says that the closest metaphor to composing music is architecture. “You build the frame first and put the details on later.” Dyson said we allow discord and resolution in music, but people are reticent to introduce dynamic elements in architecture. How square and repetitive such music would be.
He told us one night that Debussy was Bruce Goff’s favorite composer, mainly because the work that he did was very athletic and light, whereas Mr. Wright liked Beethoven, Sebelius and Bach, but particularly Beethoven’s heavier and more monumental works. Greg said he might choose Bach if had one book of music on a deserted island because the music’s elegance. Art said he couldn’t settle on just one, but he likes the sound of an oboe.
About the correlation between music and architecture, Eric Wright quoted a 19th century arts and crafts artist who called architecture “frozen music.” While the comparison to music is apt, the participant has to move through architecture to make it move, just as music has to be played in order to thaw. David Pearson writes:
Organic architecture is living, rather than frozen, music, performed in the continuous present. With its juxtaposition of harmonies and discords, its diverse rhythms and syncopated movement, and its asymmetrical proportions and structure, it has closer affinities with modern music than with classical compositions.
The structure of music and buildings are the same—the theme that begins in one place develops in another with motifs and variations. De Botton writes, “Buildings are choirs rather than soloists; they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord.” Art suggests that architecture is experienced as, “a time sequence when individuals travel around and through the space.” He points out the obvious, that human beings are kinetic by nature, and as such, alter the perception of scale and the rhythm of a space.
It’s so difficult to photograph such spatial dimensions. When I imagine our house, I don’t imagine it empty and static, but full of people—who’s in it? Greg and me; Greg, me, and the kids; holiday crowds; friends at a concert or a dinner party. In my anticipation of any event, I glide through the house mentally observing the dynamics of flow.
Art has recognized that architecture has become significantly more impacted by auditory interference. “With the introduction of energy standards that prevent not only thermal transfer, but the natural sounds of nature,” he says, “we are further disconnected from our biological connections.” In “A Search for the Soul of Architecture,” he writes, “The wind in the trees, the rain, and other echoes of nature provided calming patterns which resonated with the human heart.” Arboreal sounds “harkened to our primordial memories of a safe environment absent of predators.” He laments that the “songs of nature” which once soothed us are today replaced by the harsh mechanical noises of garbage disposals and air conditioners. I am bothered by white noise. While we had trouble convincing the County that we don’t intend to have either a garbage disposal or AC.
He asks about favorite movies, plays, or performances and where we see them. Our choices are overwhelmingly hopeful and a little romantic: Les Miserables, Billy Elliot, Romancing the Stone, Guys and Dolls, old tap dance musicals. I think that optimism and romance is reflected in the architecture of our home. We wanted to incorporate home performances into our design.
He asks about favorite places we have experienced: in our present home, in our childhood homes, on vacation, in a restaurant (we both said a table by the window). “Do you enjoy spending vacation time at home?” he asks. Greg wrote, “We are at the river property right now, filling out these forms. It is a vacation.”
He asked about hobbies in the past, present, and five, ten, twenty years out. He asks how we would like to see our lifestyle changing in ten and twenty years. I thought long and hard about this because we didn’t even have children when we built the first house, and twice I became too cramped and had to move. Barring a catastrophe, we didn’t think the children would boomerang or our parents would live with us, and the den or the Tree House can handle visitors. We both thought we’d spend more time at home creating (and we do).
He asks you for a single color to represent yourself. “For most people, color has an enormous importance in the experience of architecture,” says Art. “Personal surroundings reflect emotional patterns and tendencies through the presence of hue, tone, and shade across the spectrum of visible light.” He spends a page discerning a client’s response to color and another for sound: “Sound is a natural corollary to color.”
Greg turned to me when we were filling these out and said, “I know a lot about a lot of things, but I have very few opinions about color.” Fortunately, I have enough opinions about color for both of us. I suggested he think of colors and which goes with him and which with me. He chose deep blue for himself and bright yellow for me. Hmm. I also chose dark blue or dark green for him, but, for myself I chose blue—blue-green—blue/grey. I always aspire to be calmer than I really am, so cool colors respond to that yearning. Art’s next question comes with the guided imagery: “Close your eyes, feel wonderful, all your senses are satisfied. What color comes to mind?” When I followed his instructions honestly, I was filled with a golden yellow/orange. Greg wrote “swirling purple and brown,” then, “I really do have some sort of block related to color.” For the next question, “What colors leave you indifferent or have no particular impact,” we both eschewed pale colors, but Greg makes a good point: “Tan/brown in my lawn is depressing; tan on the hillsides is beautiful; brown in an ale is glorious. Everything has its place.” When he asks what color exudes strength, Art adds, “Feel strong; everything around you is supportive of well-being. What color gives you that feel?” I wonder if different clients answer this differently because we both wrote deep blue. The last color question is about security: “Envision yourself completely at peace, restful and safe; you want for nothing; you have it all. What color comes to mind?” Why do I say grey? But that is the dominant color we’ve chosen for the house.
The questions about sound are standard at first: what natural sounds to you enjoy; which sounds displease you; what house noises to you normally pay attention to? But there are three interesting ones: “If you could have any sound for your doorbell, what would it be? If there were any sound in the world that you could delete permanently, what would it be? What single sound might you want to give everyone as a gift?” Greg wrote, “a contented sigh.” I think that’s good.
Art’s background in psychology is most evident in the final section on Heritage and Relationships. Reminding me of Taylor’s story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s client, Mrs. Pew, he begins:
Who we will become is often greatly determined by our reaction to where we have been. Our experiences in the past have a strong bearing on what we look to find in the future. This set of questions looks back over the broader scope of time to examine the oft-forgotten, and sometimes hidden, things that have brought alive the present urge to build a home.
He asks about favorite and least favorite childhood activities, including smells, tastes, or sounds. “When you were young, what kind of places did you dream about having as a home (e.g. castle, cave, forest)?” He asks, “How would you describe the way you were raised?” and about school, siblings, holidays and religious observance. “Are you right or left-handed?” he asks, and, “If you are married, how did you meet?” and he asks when and where did a couple marry and what are important anniversaries? These, so he can possibly create a special sun moment to observe the special date.
Greg and I were practically newlyweds when we began the design process, but we broke ground two weeks shy of our three-year anniversary and didn’t move in until after our 6th anniversary. We’re grateful we lived in a lovely place—the Creek House–in the meantime. Greg thrived in this space (“There are no ghosts,” he says). We just need room for the grand piano—and the two of us entertain more than Dennis and I had. Greg says he is constantly stimulated by the angles in the first house—“the way this one ties into that, and the way the light changes the way it looks at different times of day and the way the openings reveal the broad span of the ceiling. It’s anything but boring.” He says he could have been happy living here forever, but he’s grateful to have the chance to infuse his ideas and personality and ideas into our River House.
Art brainstormed with cardboard. I’ve scribbled “Spring ’08” on photos Greg took of rough cardboard models arranged on Art’s conference room table. One looks like a croissant, the layers of roof lapping one on top of another like pastry; one squats like an Anime sumo wrestler. I know Art doesn’t like similes, but the forms were all evocative of one thing or another. I was having trouble picturing this house as simple and elegant—especially simple. He persisted while we focused on the inside of the house and its placement on the lot. We printed images from Google Earth and sketched the floor plan on the topographical overview to ensure it articulated with the setting, so the curve of the roof would stretch east-west like the hills across the river. We knew we wanted to walk in the front door and see the river in the foreground and the hills behind through floor-to-ceiling glass.
The resulting design was stunning: a massive, elegant, trilobite with a cascade of clerestory windows down his back. It had swollen to 2,800 square feet, but the additions were thrilling, even if we weren’t sure we needed a master suite that grand. I especially loved the loft office with a pop-out glass-cornered window looking up to the foothills and the way the clerestories would certainly shift the angles of light at different times of day, different times of the year. Secretly, we knew it wouldn’t make budget, so we calculated how far we could stretch, up to 25 percent over the original figure. I filled a couple pages of a legal pad figuring scenarios, we determined our ceiling, and put it out to bid.