If we are to devote our lives to making buildings, we have to believe that they are worth it, that they live, and speak (of themselves, and the people who made them and thus inhabit them) and can receive investments of energy and care from their makers and their inhabitants, and can store those investments, and return them augmented, bread cast on the water come back club sandwiches.f a div block.
If buildings are to speak, they must have freedom of speech. It seems to me that one of the most serious dangers to architecture is that people may just lose interest in it; the number of things buildings have in this half century been allowed to say has so diminished that there is little chance for surprise or wonder. If architecture is to survive in the human consciousness, then the things buildings can say, be they wistful or wise or powerful or gentle or heretical or silly have to respond to the wide range of human feelings.
Building must be inhabitable, by the bodies and minds and memories of humankind. The urge to dwell, to inhabit and enhance and protect a piece of the world, to fashion an inside and distinguish it from the outside is one of the basic human drives, but it has been so often thwarted that the act now often requires help, and surrogates which can stand upright (like chimneys or columns) or grow and flourish (like plants) or move and dance (like light) can act as important allies of inhabitation.
For us each to feel at the center of our universe, we need to measure and describe points in space as people used to do—in terms of ourselves, not the precise but meaningless relations of, for instance, Cartesian coordinates or “rational” geometries. Soon after our birth we arrive at a sense of front and back, left and right, up, down and center which are so strong that we can and do assign moral significance to them. Our architecture needs to remember them, too, so that we can feel with our whole bodies the significance of where we are, not just see it with our eyes or reason it out in our minds.
The spaces we feel, the shapes we see, and the ways we move in buildings should assist the human memory in reconstructing connections through space and time. Half a century ago, those passages of the mind seemed oppressive, and full of cobwebs and much effort went to cleaning them out and closing them up. It certainly must have seemed useful effort to Le Corbusier and the others, more than adequately justified by their sense of the oppressive shadows of the past and their faith in a future which would sweep the past away. By now, we have frequently enough seen the past swept away to speak with sense as well as sentiment when we demand to maintain our connections, or reinvest them, Then those of us—and that’s most of the world by now—who lead lives complicatedly divorced from a single place in which we find roots can have, through the channels of our minds and our memories, a built environment which helps establish those roots.
The principles are general (though not eternal; they will change as our needs change) but enthusiasms are personal, shared, I hope, but not necessarily with everybody.
I especially like farms, in California or Pennsylvania or Japan or Finland, or almost anywhere because they are rich in unguarded responses to particular problems or possibilities, from fitting a hillside to joining two odd pieces of wood, and can be at once grand and gentle. But I like palaces and temples too, and am not scornful of people who prefer palaces to barns. Perhaps the best of all is something like Yoshijima House in Takayama in Japan, which is both.
I am excited by miniatures, that distill connections into tiny compass. I collect toys and souvenirs and enjoy juxtaposing familiar things in surprising ways.
I have a long-standing enthusiasm for water, for its particularly potent magical quality to lead our thoughts from wherever they are to all the water in the world. I did my Ph.D. thesis on water in architecture and twenty years later am writing a book I think will be called Design for the Water Planet.
I think that fairy tales have a great deal to teach us architects. The way that most magical adventures, even ones involving dynasties end in time for tea (back to the theme of alternating the familiar and surprising) seems to me worth careful looking into.
I am especially interested in vernacular architecture. It is familiar to me, I enjoy it, and I believe it is proper for it to be the prime source of my own work. I think it is important to note that ours is not a peasant society; to see vernacular architecture as hooked to the land, free of exotic influences or of pretension, at some odds with an aristocratic “high” architecture is, in the United States, altogether to miss the point. I was brought up in Battle Creek, Michigan in a new house across the road from one my great-great-grandfather had built, four years after the first settlers had driven off two Indians to establish possession of the land. My great-great-grandfather was a farmer, with modest holdings, but this house is a beautiful Greek Revival house. His son kept the farm notes in Latin and his personal diaries in Greek, and late in his life introduced coeducation to the University of Michigan (the first in a U.S. State University) by a ruse using a Latin resolution so high-sounding that it was approved before anyone found out what it meant. Not your standard peasant activity, but still modest, down-home, vernacular.
There’s a line in Henry James’ Aspern Papers: “I delight in a palpable imageable visitable past, the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries.” I do, too, and I like playing the near against the more distant and exotic, though in some ways the recent past and nearby places turn out to be the most poignant of all. This enthusiasm is frequently put down as an unworthy one, limp and nostalgic, but I’m on the edge of pressing for Nostalgia as a guiding Principle.
Another doctrine I have toyed with, so far with incomplete success, I am pleased to call the doctrine of Immaculate Collision. The idea is that if two or more plans or shapes or systems can crash into each other so as to achieve some serendipity, to gain energy from the collision, rather than to be maimed or destroyed by it, then a new device for designing would be at hand. I have been enthusiastic, given the typical situation on raw land where there is little basis for deciding about the shape of a new building (or worse, a group of buildings by several architects) about the possibilities of inventing a past, a set of ephemeral footprints against which new buildings might collide. The possibilities remain untested.
My favorite images generally involve multiple layers of facade or of interior. I am especially excited about syncopated, layered facades, and geodes, or Russian Easter Eggs, objects rough and simple on the outside, crystalline and complex and magic on the inside. The Alhambra, fortress on the outside, plaster fantasy within is an admirable geode.
My enthusiasms include the work of a number of architects, from that past and present. I have had some splendid architect-teachers, especially Roger Bailey, Jean Labatut, Enrico Peressutti, and Louis Kahn, and have been very lucky in my friends and contemporaries, Hugh Hardy and Robert Venturi, and a great many others in addition to the people who appear elsewhere in this volume. I feel especially close to three architects of the early nineteenth century, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Sir John Soane, and Thomas Jefferson, brilliant architect in a revolutionary era who faced the future by developing their ties with the past, who saw buildings as able to speak and shout and whisper and proclaim and giggle, and used the shapes of the classical past freely, heretically, and, I have to suppose, joyfully.
For years, I have been told that there are “rational” architects (good) and “irrational” architects (including me, and bad). I have come to suspect that there are imposters in the House of Reason, that the logically deduced but altogether untested postulates of architects who claim sweet reason for their constructs of rules are the historical parallel of the group, who, having logically derived from science from the Greeks, and having decided that a ball would fall five times as fast as one one-fifth its weight ridiculed Galileo for climbing up the stairs and dropping the balls from the tower. This time there are no balls to drop; maybe instead there are postcards to send. It is altogether likely that inhabitants themselves can be trusted to know where the real places on the planet are, to go the them, from Disneyland to the Athenian Acropolis and to send postcards back when the places have spoke to them, and they perceived, with great good feeling, that they were somewhere.