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Opera, Pressure Treated Wood and “The Truth”

April 27, 2013

fine arts architecture has left the building

WillDickinson2One son loves opera, studies Italian to better appreciate it, and has sung it at the highest collegiate level (in the chorus). This spring he sang in Verdi’s Falstaff, where at the end of the production a choral fugue is said to be one of the great triumphs in music. I love music, especially romantic classicism, but attending the performance made me realize that I just don’t “get” opera. Especially three straight hours of it.

SamDickinsonAnother son is devoted to football, has started at guard for the last 2 years in college. He noted to me last week that the fundamental steps he takes on a tight pull have changed – I was delighted as I knew what that meant – arcane but real – just like the choral fugue. Listening in to our conversation, my wife had the same reaction as I did to Falstaff – having an intense desire to share in the joys of a child, but with no natural facility to “get” what gives him joy, – beyond his evident joy.

I am immersed in architecture – not the inside baseball/AIA world of “professional practice” – but in the energy of building and the extreme joy of my clients as we partner to realize something that has scary costs, high-risk trust in its ultimate utility – and real thrills when the built thing embodies beauty in the eyes of the beholder that matters most – the owner.


But architecture has several worlds. My tiny part of it involves building – versus teaching or creating unbuilt conceptual art. Fine arts architecture has left the building. It is living in a world of rendering, cyberspace, graphics and maquettes – with an occasionally built piece of exquisite occupied sculpture whose costs to fabricate and maintain are simply not part of the design criteria.

Building means knowing how things go together well enough to create a design that can be built for the money at hand. Techniques and materials have to be generic to be affordable. But the same lack of “getting it” that prevents me from appreciating a vocal fugue, or my wife from the joy of a drop step when pulling on an inside run afflicts most of those who teach or critique what I do when it comes to architecture that celebrates how it is put together, like this:


It’s a handicapped ramp for a music school. It had to meet federal codes and local approvals. It had to be affordable and resist the blunt force trauma of kids and total exposure to the elements. So it has cheap elements (all the wood is super-stock pressure-treated pine) and more expensive parts (all fasteners are stainless steel) and is touched by design beyond code (the waves of its edge).

Is it art? (Using the same software that makes images that exist only in cyber space). Is it carpentry? (Using identical techniques and materials as millions of decks on tract houses). Or both? Do these definitions, in the end, matter?

Should I judge the artist-architect who primarily builds in cyberspace and words on his or her own terms, or on mine – and vice versa? Does one “truth” fit all? There seem to be irreconcilable differences between those who are devoted to a truth that relies on a buy-in, versus those truths which are, dare I say, self-evident.

These “truths” (like the choral fugue and the drop step pull) can only be “heard” by those who “get it” – the beauty of common craft used artfully seems completely out of fashion for those who live in the fine arts land of academic and critical architecture.

I can’t see the beauty of the fugue’s raw fusion of theater and music, my wife is incapable of seeing the elegance of the pulling guard’s choreography – but they are, in fact truly moving “truths” to those who “get” opera and football.

I know I “get” architecture, but I am not always sure that my profession’s “thought leaders” “get” the “truth” I live every day, and for the last 40 years.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2013 3:53 pm

    Talked to a strictly paper architect this weekend about the craft and art expressed in coping a compound molding around head casings and the like.
    She actually cried when she “got it”.

    So, there’s lots of hope for all out there.

  2. April 29, 2013 4:04 pm

    Here’s what makes me cry – i once knew and believed in both ends of this “practice” spectrum – and have lost faith in both.

    I practice in that same “building” end of the spectrum and once found joy in reading all the mags/attending juries/even entering competitions. Maybe it’s just a bad day today, but both ends of the spectrum seem so futile these days. When an opportunity is presented to explain carefully to a client that just wants that detail because they know that they liked it on so-and-so’s house or some other magazine page that they picked up yesterday, the educational component seems so fruitless. I know, I just need to help them understand that this is better – even in the context of their fairly conservative tastes – but they want what they want. “I’m paying you to make my dreams of habitation come true – and it involves installing this ridiculous Palladian window with colonial shutters because that’s what I want.” This is dispiriting stuff.

    I was remarking to my biz partner today about the beauty I saw in a photo of Aalto’s Mount Angel Library this past week while attending a seminar on daylighting. Breathtaking beauty, and clearly in the realm of the “paper” architecture of then AND now. Why is this not the norm for Architecture, everywhere? Why isn’t Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language a source for bridging that gap? Maybe, it’s because our consumer based culture needs that quick fix rather than the lasting depth of appreciation either of these two paths require? I certainly don’t know the answer.

    The wave form fence brings to mind the sculptural works of Andrew Goldsworthy which frequently cause me to wonder aloud why can’t architects act/react/design/and be appreciated for their direct understanding of form in space – with a program and a budget. What we (all of those I know that are trained in this field) do with form, nature, program, and budget – daily – is beyond comprehension to most, and appreciated by fewer and fewer, it seems. But is your fence what we are reduced to for satisfaction (not that it isn’ beautiful and worthy of satisfaction) when we’ve been trained and ARE learned for so much more?

    What’s up with that?! Truth? It feels as though the two ends of this spectrum are as far apart as the word “compromise” and cooperation are in our Nations’ capital.

  3. April 29, 2013 5:26 pm

    there are too many folk with too much invested in broader realities than words, art openings and teaching jobs to let the work we do slide to some form of purgatorious oblivion…building is as essential as breathing or eating…

    we need to celebrate that

  4. Glenn permalink
    May 19, 2013 12:19 pm

    Sorry I seem to be coming to the party late but, I have a good excuse: I was trying to make money enough as an architect to support my very modest lifestyle. I’m tempted to call it the voluntary poverty of Thoreauvian existentialism but that would be deceptive because in the end its involuntary.

    The true test of good architecture for me is similar to that of fine art; it is of an experiential nature. If along the way from point A to point B a building, (or a construct like Duo’s ramp), or a piece of fine art causes one to stop, even if for a brief moment, to ponder, reflect and

    • Glenn permalink
      May 19, 2013 12:36 pm

      …experience a thought or emotion directly elicited by the work, good or bad, then the architect or builder or craftsman or artist has done their job successfully. This doesn’t exclude paper architecture or otherwise unbuilt projects as the same amount of thought and effort went into its creation.

      In the final analysis it becomes apparent that Home Depot, Lowe’s and cheesy Hollywood portrayals of what kinds of architecture people should aspire to are the real taste makers affecting our profession. How can 105,596 relatively powerless american architects turn the tides of mass consumption? Not very easily.

      All one can do is put it out there.

  5. May 20, 2013 8:18 am

    These words and dozens or hundreds of other sites filled with them are beginning to distill a sense of dismay, resolve, fear and anger that there is no common forum of future for what we were trained, apprenticed, tested and licensed to do- a process leading to uncertainty for most – not pride…

  6. Debbie permalink
    May 30, 2013 11:43 am

    Would love to hear of a particular example of this in regards to your work. Please expand on that.


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