Let’s talk architecture. A friend, syndicated real estate journalist Katherine Salant, recently asked me to explain what I meant by good design. I went into my usual rant about functionality, balanced light, good proportion, deft use of materials, connection to a place and time, and the need for serendipity or an occasional sense of surprise. And it occurred to me that this is a lot to ask from a home plan, so maybe it’s more relevant to public buildings — like, say, the Pantheon in Rome, one of my favorite structures.
This extraordinary monument built between AD 118-126 by the emperor Hadrian — apparently an amateur architect in his own right, or at least a very well traveled and informed client with a sizable checkbook — uses the simplest of forms: cylinder, triangle, dome to create a grand, formal, almost abstract structure. Called the Rotunda, it was a designed as a temple to all the gods (photos, gothereguide).
It is a vessel for holding nothing less than the universe itself (ambitious folks, those Romans). The swelling dome encircles the visitor in a spatial surprise, at once vast and intimate. The oculus — a skylight to beat all skylights — brings the real universe inside (one cloudy day when I entered, it was actually raining inside) as the shaft of sunlight falling from it moves across the floor and walls like a high intensity tractor beam. It centers the space on the individual, er god. Standing in the middle of that space you do feel almost deified… well maybe I’m getting carried away. But that’s great architecture.
Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, begun in 1788, achieves a similar effect by doing the opposite.
Here the space is overfilled by the marvelous monumental glowing gilded statue. The disparity between container and contained heightens the sense of wonder as you crane your neck upward to take everything in. There is hardly room for the visitor, which makes the visitor appreciate the experience of walking through this sacred space all the more.
I think I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre is a stroke of genius
for the way it uses geometry and transparency to fuse history and modernity. The pyramid acts as a simple and eloquent foil for the facades of the 17th century buildings lining the Court d’Honneur.
At Kiyomizudera Temple (founded in 780) in the hills above Kyoto, the journey up to it from the valley floor is almost as important as the arrival at its gate
because on the way, you catch glimpses of the enormous interlocking timbers that support it, making you realize the feat of engineering that made the building possible. The artful manipulation of structure and scale is most memorable here.
My favorite building in Houston is the Menil Collection of 1981, a museum by Renzo Piano to house the modern art collection of Dominique de Menil. It is an understated but powerful frame. Slender columns
float across the porch-wrapped front under skylights that are curving leaves of iron. Architecture is reduced to a play of proportion and light — and therefore becomes magnified.
What about context and connecting to the site and the world around us — this too is an important characteristic of good design and fine architecture. I think Chicago’s “Lima Bean” sculpture, officially known the “Cloud Gate” by artist Anish Kapoor at Millenium Park, is an excellent example.
The myriad highly polished stainless steel plates on the convex and concave form wrap the world around you and beckon you through to marvel at everything inside-out and outside-in, a sort of Mobius strip- as-mirror. The bean is all context and unreality at the same time. It makes you look at it and the surroundings in a new way. To me it says “Look at me, look at you, look at us!” That element of surprise, the way it draws you in for a double-take, is the sign of great design.
So, can, or even should, a house plan hope to do any of these things? A few do, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or Philip Johnson’s Glass House. But they can be difficult to live in every day. Most homes are not, and probably should not be, art objects or architectural monuments — but I think they should still be artful in some way, if only in their warmth, or flexibility, or the way they make you feel comfortable. What are your definitions of good design?