Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are You Willing to Dream a New Dream?

Why is opening to the fresh visions so difficult? Why do we strive to force the world into old, preconceived images rather facilitating the forms and relationships arising within us? For years I have sought clients willing to rediscover their primal relationship to architecture and the land. My intention, to work with them to create designs that intimately respond to the needs and dreams specific to their sites and patterns of living. Instead, people bring grids of borrowed ideas to the table. The unspoken hope is that templets used by others will guide them toward designs that will work from them. What gets missed in the process is discovering the creative spark that can make their homes and workplaces vital links between the forces of nature and their personal modes of dwelling in the world.

I'm not talking about creating wild forms that display the ego's cleverness. I'm not talking about developing innovative designs just to be different or exotic. I'm talking about engaging the basic creative process of looking deeply into he design of the human spirit, the design of the nature and the design of culture to create buildings that are born from naturally emerging patterns. This process is not about dreaming old dreams of another people, time and place. It's about participating in the dream that is emerging from this era and location.

Architects and designers are also caught in this habit of looking in the rearview mirror while driving toward the future. It's standard procedure for architects to see design as a matter of already defined styles. "Do you want Craftsman or Contemporary?" They may say they long to create cutting edge work or a home the suits your needs, but their reference points are not the designs of the forces coming together on a particular project. Their bibles are the latest magazines and books that reflect what they believe is cool and smart. Their real longing is to use a client's money to enact their personal preconceived idea of great architecture. Countless creative opportunities are missed by not collaborating with the hidden designs on the building site and the subtle patterns of dwelling moving through the client's life.

As each day passes, I think of the wasted opportunities of not using what I've gathered over three decades about creating architecture in the way I've described. So, I offer this invitation. If you're interested in discovering an architecture that connects your emerging life to the new world that is emerging on this planet, contact me at Tell me your desires and what you hope to build and we can engage in a truly creative dialogue. Perhaps, together, we can discover a vision of the architecture that wants to be born in this time and place. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can Prefab Be Green?

This house, designed by Scott Spect Harpman of uArchitects, generates its own electricity, collects and stores rainwater, and processes its waste. It's shipped to the site on two flatbed trailers and can be erected in less than a day. The design fulfills the goals of green building. Or does it? I appreciate the attempt, but to say this a house is attuned to nature is to be caught in a fragmented view of ecology. Like Le Corbusier calling houses "machines for living," I call this house a "machine for mining natural resources." It efficiently takes and gives back the energy and matter needed for human dwelling, but is misses essential connections that make a nature sustainable, living ecosystem.

Reflecting on the way nature does prefab points out the disconnect between this house and vital ecology. An apple seed, for example, is a prefab component produced by nature. All seeds manufactured by an individual apple tree have a similar shape and contain the information needed to make new apple trees. Once the seeds arrive at their sites, they interact with the particular qualities of the soil, air, sunlight, rain and groundwater of those sites. The seeds also interact with the plants, birds, insects, humans and other creatures they find there. To survive and grow, the prefab apple seeds adapt to the conditions they find on the ground. This shapes the overall form of the tree and the qualities of the apples it produces. A prefab apple seed planted on the Iowa prairie and one planted on California coast encounter very different environments. They share the same DNA, but the local relationship turns them into different creatures. Would an apple tree grow at all in Panama or Antarctica?

I don't get this idea that a building is green without engaging a direct relationship with its location on earth. What makes a particular spot on earth a living place includes the geology that formed the terrain, the geometry of the sun's path across that specific latitude, the plants and animals that live in that watershed, and many other factors that make a Tahitian island different from Vancouver Island and a Greek Island. Architecture that is truly green is not born in a factory and dispersed on trucks. It is born from its site and grows in response to the land, sun, plants, animals, water and other neighbors it finds there.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Porch Can Save the Earth

Within a porch, Nature, Imagination and Architecture gather to talk. How the dialogue goes, so goes the destruction or renewal of the earth. If Imagination rocks on the porch and senses the familiar syllables of Architecture at its back while peering out and hearing Nature speaking in unintelligible tongues, Imagination may believe it best to tame what it sees as Nature's brutality and wildness. Imagination then spreads Architecture into the jungle with the intention of harnessing Nature and boxing it up as a useful resource. This kind of talk strangles Nature and sucks the air out of the porch. Imagination suffocates and Architecture disintegrates into a ruin.  

On the other hand, Imagination can rock on the porch and sense Architecture as a structure for framing a conversation with the vibrant mystery Imagination sees out there forming and transforming. From this worldview, Imagination employs Architecture as a means of exploring a relationship with Nature. Through the dialogue, Nature, Imagination and Architecture can discover the possibilities within them and their interactions.  The trio is enriched and the Earth has a better chance of thriving.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Contemporary Temples are Necessary

Temples are essential to human dwelling. Wherever people have settled in whatever time and place they have crafted shrines to the mysteries of inhabiting this world. For most of human history the places that honored being flowing into becoming and back again embodied the beliefs of a particular tribe or religion. The grid of belief used to organize each sacred place was seen as a description of absolute truth. Hindu temples embodied the viewpoint of Hinduism; Hopi kivas reflected the Hopi worldview. As belief systems changed across territory and time, the shape of the architecture manifested by those beliefs changed.  

In today's cut and paste global community, the shimmering digital screen challenges any and all notions that truth can be grasped, let alone be absolute. Yet, the essential human need for temples still stirs our blood. In response, people are exploring new possibilities of contemporary temples. One such place is pictured above. Skyspace, designed by James Turrell, occupies a corner of the sculpture garden at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. It's the kind of contemporary temple I love to visit; architecture that opens directly to the intersections of energy and matter without an agenda. 

Skyspace is simple enough, a domed enclosure with a hole on top. There are no words or images instructing visitors how to use the space or what to do there. In response most people who enter act a bit confused, giggle, and spin explanations as to what it's about. But, sitting on the curved concrete bench encircling the room and gazing through the oculus is a chance to look directly into wonder. On a clear day the blue sky is charged possibilities. A bird might dart over the shimmering azure disk; a wayward balloon might float a path across it. On cloudy days, the opening becomes a living painting constantly heaving and undulating in continuous slow motion transformation. On Friday nights, you can visit Skyspace and enter a wild, glorious surprise.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How a Donut Explains the Secrets of Design & Life

The design of a donut sums up what I've learned about life. Within the vast, unnamable expanse of Being rises the circle of sticky goo. Mind is drawn to the sparkling, sugary mandala. Body salivates. Fulfillment, it appears, can be had by biting into the ring of sweet fat. When swallowed, however, the pleasure of those empty calories passes almost instantly. 

On the other hand, pausing for a moment and gazing at the glazed halo reveals the donut's secret power and wisdom. The whole structure is about the hole. The circle of calories frames the calorie-less center.  The gap in the dough is not empty. It is vibrant spaciousness, ignited by being captured within the ring of sugar and wheat. The donut captures this bit of spaciousness not to harness or suppress its vitality, but to tease its potential into manifestation. The design of the donut embodies the womb of the universe. Without energized spaciousness the donut is a lifeless blob. Without the donut's sweet circle, spaciousness remains unborn nothingness.  

It's the same with architecture. We can make our forms and materials as tasty as we like. If, however, the sexy geometry, sensuous skin, green materials doesn't make spaciousness come alive we are just littering the landscape with more passing amusement and empty calories. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ode to the Site Guy

Yesterday, I made a site visit to a remodeling project I'm working on. It struck me how carpenters, electricians, plumbers, cabinetmakers and other craftspersons get little appreciation and a lot of grief from clients and architects. We all have nightmare stories about construction site incompetence. My favorite concerns the heating system installer who, after two years of fiddling with the furnace and not getting it to work properly told the client, "This is caused by your karma. You need to do a past life regression." For the most part, however, on site guys and women do a great job that often serves people for generations.

While you are sitting in your well-lit, temperature-controlled work space, the On Site Guy is standing in mud and cold wind wrestling to get foundation form boards into precise alignment. He's lifting a heavy ridge beam toward the burning sun, fitting a sewer drain in some dank, spider-filled crawl space... He's rebuilding a cabinet for the third time because the client changed her mind. He's standing in the living room watching his profit being eaten up by an architect and interior design debating the difference between three shades of white. 

In the end (most of the time), the building stands. The roof sheds rain. The windows open and close. The toilet flushes and the lights switch on. Things work so well most of the time that we have more faith in the kitchen faucet than we do in God and gold. Every time we move open the faucet lever we have complete faith that water will pour out. Can you say that about your idea of the divine or your money?

So when you open and close your front door today, plug in you mobile phone charger, pull milk from your refrigerator, hand pant in you closet... appreciate the anonymous people who installed them, checked that they work, and made your day a little bit better.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pirates of Creative Fire

"Every creative act is a theft from the gods," wrote Rollo May in his book The Courage to Create. He goes on to say that the deep powers of nature don't hand out the sparks of energy that shape the world to anyone who causally drops by. Getting the gold of creative force requires us to outwit and outrun the guardians of the vital fires of design and craft. 

There's energy in this idea. Sure, peacefully dabbing a few spots of paint on a canvas can create colorful images of pretty flowers. The result is often a tepid, lifeless object. On the other hand, peering over the edge of the known, gazing into the waters on the indescribable, reaching into that dark source, and pulling up the gleaming nuggets of creative inspiration invigorates the artist and those who encounter her work.

Perhaps artistic struggle does not come from blocks in our psyches. Maybe they are traps laid by Psyche, Eros, Demeter and other archetypes to hide the vital energies. Maybe the forces of nature like a good wrestling match because the struggle itself is what presses creative gems to the surface. So, if your creativity isn't flowing as easily as you'd like and you're lost in the land of what to do, maybe you are playing it too nice. Instead, find your inner, bad-ass pirate of creativity. Plot your way through the defenses of the gods, storm the fort, grab the gold, run like hell and put it into your work. At least it sounds more fun than writing another journal entry and hoping for the best.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Primal Wound is the Womb of Renewal

The primal wound is seeing 1 as 2. It is believing I am separate from you, that we are separate from the world. Belief in separation aches. Aching spawns the search for healing. Striving to heal puts us in conflict with what is and often inflicts more wounding. The weird mystery is that without the wound of duality there is no me, no you, no world. 

Without wounding, the materials of the garden of the world—stone, clay, trees—are not transformed into building blocks, bricks and lumber. Without digging a foundation pit into the earth, a building cannot come into existence. Without these materials, healing places cannot be created. Nature's incomprehensible law is that for something to be born something must break apart. We mostly see the chasm left by the breaking as an empty hole. It is a hole, but it is not empty. It is filled with potential on the crest of being born. 

To resist wounding increases suffering. To celebrate it is insane. But, we can step back and observe the forces of dissolution reveal hidden forms and relationships ready to come forth. We step forward and facilitate nature's mysterious process of ongoing birth, death and renewal. We can take the horror and disappointment of the primal wound and participate in its miracle of being the womb of renewal.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Will Cleverness or Insight Save the World?

Cleverness gets a lot of press. It also gets a lot of money, power and adoration. Our fascination with cleverness reveals our belief that the mind is superior to the heart, that flash is more important than substance. As a result, architects often aspire to cleverness rather than insight. In the bargain, the landscape gets littered with glittering toys rather than structures that engage the rich mix of nature and culture.

Cleverness is cute, perky, entertaining. It's Disneyland for the mind's insatiable desire for entertainment. But, as a wise friend said, we may want the world to be like Disneyland, but nobody really lives there. On the other hand, insight is perceptive, responsive, nourishing. Cleverness screams, "Look at me. I'm incredible. Check me out." Insight whispers, "Look at the world. It's amazing. Check it out." Cleverness believes, "I am the source of the innovation and change that determines the state of the world." Insight believes, "I participate in a world that is creating and transforming itself again and again."

Our fascination with cleverness feeds an ego-centered, competitive approach to architecture and life. It separates us from nature. Even when cleverness says it is working to benefit the world, it is working to feed itself. Perhaps this is because cleverness sees itself as the world. Insight promotes an eco-centered, co-operative approach to architecture and life. It engages nature. By seeing itself as integral to the workings of nature, it cannot help but foster the renewing processes of nature. 
Ultimately, cleverness fragments and wounds the world. Insight appreciates the interconnectedness of the world and heals it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sacred Places Make Us Human

Sacred places are usually associated with something beyond this world. I see them as portals into this world. One reason is that sacred places seem to be as essential to being human as food, shelter and clothing. Wherever human beings have settled, they established sacred places. Even those who don't believe in the divine have places where they find peace and vitality. A baseball fan friend of mine, once said, "Standing in Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs) is like standing on the banks of the Ganges." The most analytical scientist is moved by the sight of his laboratory.

Here's what I've discovered about the ways sacred places deepen our humanity. Contrary to their image as environments that promote purity and exclude impurities, sacred places invite all impulses into a circles of inclusiveness. The ring of Stonehenge, the dome of St. Peters, the courtyard around the Kaaba in Mecca, the cylinder of the Great Kiva at Chaco Canyon, and countless other places draw welcoming circles in the garden of the world. Here, all the characters in the human drama gather to be revitalized by the currents of energy and wisdom that power and guide existence. The skill of sacred places is that their circles of inclusiveness are not stages for conflict. They are cauldrons where opposing forces stir the pot of creation. Sacred emblems such as the Cross, the Star of David and the Yin/Yang symbol depict how opposing forces come together to ignite the spirit and distill insight. Paintings and sculpture often narrate the detailed accounts of the struggles and breakthroughs that make the journey through life human. 

The rituals performed in sacred places are more about the human beings making offerings than the divine receivers of those offerings. Placing a cup of flowers into the waters of a holy river allows the giver to sense the flow of life through her heart, mind and hands. Baptism and communion do nothing to change the infinite; these acts open the worshipper to the mystery of the infinite.

Here's an outrageus statement. Sacred places have nothing to with religion. They are used by religions to invite people through the doors of their belief systems to what is beyond those belief systems. Temples, churches, mosques and other religious structures are often built on top the sacred structures of the cultures that previously inhabited those spots. As the belief systems changed, they shaped new styles of architecture. These styles spoke in the language of the era and sent out the call in words the people of that time could understand. Once through the gates of the new cathedral, synagogue, or shrine, people encountered the same process of encountering forms that pointed beyond themselves to the transcendent. All the characters of humanity dipped into that soulful pool and went back to their homes and workplaces with their humanity deepened.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dwelling in the River

This house would never be built today. Planning codes intended to protect the stream would squash it. The artful genius of a creating this home attuned to this waterfall would be lost. In the race to care for the environment, laws and restrictions often block deeper connections between the earth and human habitation. In the process, new possibilities of creative thinking are shut down. Instead of imaginatively exploring new relationships with local ecosystems, we often let fear and ignorance of genuine ecology cloud our vision of what sustainable living actually is. 

I love this house, but not for obvious reasons. Certainly, Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed it, employed outer forms that are dynamic and beautiful. What I appreciate, however, is that the design rethinks our relationship with the forces of nature. The client who hired Wright imagined a structure that would view of the waterfall from on the opposite side of the stream. Wright leapt out of that box and suggested placing the house in the waterfall. The result was a design that responded to the interaction of stone and water, fixed and fluid.

Inside this house, I feel as though I'm inhabiting a modern cave dwelling. I sense my connection to the rocks and trees. I feel gravity's pull down the steep site. In the rush of stream over cascading stones I feel the rush of blood through my veins. The abstract geometries of the mind and how they intersect with the organic forms of nature are also encountered. The resonance between intellect and ecology opens to our primal relationship to dwelling on earth, that impossible to describe, but tangible spaciousness that gives birth and receives death while leading to new births.

Organic architecture is not found in buildings that look like trees. It does not honor the body and deny the mind. Simple minded, heavy handed codes that crush these multivalent connections do not weave human dwelling into the fabric of nature. They close off openings to the new relationships we are trying to discover. Instead, real sustainable architecture takes the totality of what we are and the totality of what a building site presents and combines them into an alchemy of transformation

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Power of a Table

As soon as I set my new table on my deck, my world changed. Instantly, I had an outdoor room. There were some chairs out there before, but the table focused the energies of the space toward tangible eating, creating and gathering. Seeing the power of this table to transform space into a place, I realized that tables are altars for daily living. On the horizontal surfaces of tables we offer food, our creative juices and friendship. We offer the imaginings that shape the world. On tables, world leaders sign treaties and children do homework. On tables, gamblers test their luck and writers risk expressing their most intimate thoughts. At dining tables, we celebrate the networks that gather sun, soil, water and air, farming, distribution, and cultures that produces food. At a table, someone designed the great pyramids and the neighbor's bathroom remodel. 

Without tables we would have no place to set out keys. At wedding feasts we would hold plates on our laps. Without tables it would be a laptop world. How often do you rest your laptop on your lap anyway? Without tables, lovers would have nothing to support the candles and wine glasses that sparkle in their gaze.

How many tables have you tucked your legs beneath and rested your elbows upon in your life? Countless. Think of the wonderful and horrible moments that have involved tables. Would those essential life experiences have been different if no table was involved? From the Formica tables at McDonalds to the oak and stone tables in ancient monasteries, tables have been the focal points for the mundane and the sublime. Notice all the tables that influence your life today and discover their power to transform your world.