It seems with increasing frequency we see buildings online or in print or in person that shoot us a momentary thrill. Attention-seeking architectural forms and details, vaguely surreal building concepts, and stunts du jour all clamor for our notice. We scroll to the next image on ArchDaily, and then the next, and the next, and the next. The images may be irresistible, but they are seldom deeply satisfying, and as a result, this cultural compulsion of ours to constantly renew architectural expression carries with it a certain tenseness. How rare it is to find architecture that is shelter from this wind.
Not long ago I was in San Francisco, wanted to go for a hike, and chose Point Reyes as a likely spot to find a good trail. It is a hauntingly beautiful peninsula about an hour north of town, mainly agrarian, defined by cliffs that tumble down to the Pacific, its pastures and woods alternately veiled in fog or elated by yellow sunlight and the bluest skies. Nearing the northern tip, I drove over a hill and hit the brakes: There, resting in the land’s lap below me, was an architectural tableau seemingly suspended in time. I soon learned that it was the headquarters compound for Pierce Ranch, established in the 1860s and apparently little changed. The ranch ceased operations in the 1970s, and the State of California reestablished the property as a state park. Turns out that’s where my hiking trail was, with the ranch compound now serving as the trailhead. Surprisingly, instead of messing up the buildings, they simply picked them all clean as an artist might do it, and have maintained them as an arrested ruin. Needless to say, I lingered quite a while exploring these architectural husks before setting off on my hike.
Individually, the buildings are utterly elementary, unselfconscious. Yet, spaced apart and vivified by the stark landscape, they take on a poetic power. And as I moved around through the compound, they joined in a rich architectural concert of form, proportion, placement, light, and shadow. Given a little breathing room, simplicity and utility and composure are a beautiful thing. The experience was so deeply satisfying that it made me think: We architects are all trying too hard.
I was struck too by the feeling I was experiencing. It was one of relief. Relief is also the feeling I get each time I enter the Kimbell Art Museum, even after all these years of entering. Finally, to be in a place where we can collect ourselves, a place that engages the mind, the heart, and the eye, a place that is a little less about itself and more about the life it shelters and frames. Isn’t it wonderful that can be accomplished as readily with white-washed boards out on Point Reyes as it can with concrete and travertine in Fort Worth?
Pierce Ranch is a sight for sore eyes.
Max Levy, FAIA, is founder of Max Levy Architect in Dallas.
I love this sentiment: “Given a little breathing room, simplicity and utility and composure are a beautiful thing. The experience was so deeply satisfying that it made me think: We architects are all trying too hard.”
I’m not an architect (perhaps another lifetime) but I partake in architectural flânerie wherever I can, and it’s rare when I arrive with high expectations and leave with any satisfaction. On the contrary, humble spaces with thoughtful composition and nuanced details leave me unpacking and experience long after I’ve left the space.
Max, I agree.
We now use unusual forms to catch the eye. Building for photography rather than for permanency. Maybe one of the reasons is the speed and economy of current construction. Previously, undertaking a building was a great task, one that would have to last. I wish we still built buildings. Today we assemble them.
…well said Max. the ‘clickbait-y’ world we now inhabit has permeated all aspects of life and attention-seeking – even architectural eye-candy – and it is soothing to partake in experiences like the ones you describe, it is a balm for the architectural soul.
i feel the same way you describe in the Kimbell, or at Chinati in Marfa, ambling around inside /outside the ‘bunkers’ and taking in Judd’s concrete boxes. it is needed, at least from time to time. thanks for the reminder.
I applaud your article. Far too often architects try to “break new ground” and create something unique, when in reality the correct and best solution to the client may be something quite simple and straightforward, design in context with the surroundings.
Two observations [from a long career].
First, i have heard [in the jury room for a design awards program] a juror state, “I am not giving an Honor Award to a project that is not truly unique”.
Second, I have seen design teams trying so hard to create “great design” that they ultimately sacrifice both the project program and the budget…and still never get “there”. And I am not smart enough to know which is worse – but it is always the client that suffers, in the end.
We architects should always follow good design principles, but maybe we should have a serious discussion about what good design and great design actually are. I for one do not think that great design has to be “unique” or ground breaking or even outrageous. Those are all fun, but if it doesn’t even solve the clients program requirements, what the hell good is it, really?
Max, significant imagery, magnificent prose.
I have a Stanford ex, son, still in Palo Alto who will much appreciate your beautiful SORE EYES piece. He loves the Point Reyes peninsula, the fault line, and Drakes Bay offshore. California Dreaming!
Max, the photos are as beautiful as the prose. I feel like I was there sharing the experience with you. Well done!