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.