Architecture and the Illusive, Maddening and Thrilling Quest for Beauty
First published at Common/Edge. Why am I an architect?” It’s the architect’s lament. Sometimes it’s easy to forget. In creating a talk for other architects a couple of months ago, it suddenly became clear: Beauty. It’s the “why” for me, and what’s often lost in the maelstrom of building.
The house you see in this piece is finally nearing completion. A great builder, clients and site facilitated a decade of focus on the essence of why I decided to become an architect. Of course it took thousands of my office’s hours, at every level of design, bidding, construction, and detailing, but there was a core mission: beauty.
I believe that God lives in beauty, and, yes, I often forget its essential purpose in my life in these decades of helping to get things built. In truth, this should be an unrelenting mission for all architects. But we often get distracted. We design to the photograph, to what we see others do, what we assume the clients want. We often don’t ask ourselves the simple question, “Is this beautiful?” We can be trapped imitating what we think is beautiful, often using old answers for each new question.
I find that as a Christian, prayer is similarly elusive. It is hard for me to pray more than “I’m sorry.” I can be overwhelmed and distracted, and simply cope, rather than act in faith. Similarly, I often find it hard to find my passion for building in beauty. But beauty is the fundamental reason I am an architect, just as faith is the undeniable truth of my belief in God.
There are of course an infinite number of ways to be disconnected from the reason why we first became architects. There are few rational recommendations to build beauty. It costs money, takes more time, and always involves risk.
Jousting with clients, contractors, codes, money, even artistic pretense and affect, can deafen us to the beauty that’s possible in every move. Architects often lose themselves in these battles. The ego frenzy of convincing clients, the engineer, the town, the builder that your way is the right way, can completely blind us to our ultimate value.
The rest of the world often seems to take what you care about and scream “LAME!” back and make what should be effortless impossible. Building beauty is not about whether you are “right” or “wrong” or “respected”—it’s about balancing all of the necessaries of budget, weather, laws, site, and clients into architecture.
The opposite of ego fulfillment—pandering—also derails our purpose. Going along to get along with all the screaming issues of code, cost, and clients can make many architects cave to those priorities that ignore beauty. And in truth, very few of the factors that shape buildings are keyed to beauty. It’s easy to forget our values when there is so much noise around us, especially in these loud and raging times. No matter who you are, surrendering to cliches to avoid all the sturm und drang in our social media culture is often easier. Many of us just throw puppy pictures at Instagram to stay in touch and let all other portals go dark. I find a lot of Houzz lives in that detached distraction.
I think we’ve forgotten the necessity of beauty in our purpose. It’s easy to miss that as we respond to the hard changes in our profession and opt to “CLICK” and drop in design cliches onto our infinitely malleable drawings. It’s easy, too, to just copy and paste the routine code solution, the latest magazine/website fetish, or tear sheets from the clients—or simply accept stock specs to deal with budget pressures. Those excuses deafen us to the potential for beauty.
Every person reading this piece knows beauty. The images shown here are just one attempt by one architect to focus on beauty for a decade. All the other issues were fully engaged. Codes on every level were worked through—there were no variances. Money was always an issue; the project had multiple budgeting sessions due to a protracted building schedule. The landscape was fundamental in the creation of the home, and was an elemental focus of the endeavor. And through it all the client vision and how the home would be used was central to every decision.
But the common thread of the building depicted in these images, and the thousands of attendant decisions, was this quest for beauty. It’s not about style—others may not find these photos beautiful at all—but that’s not the point. Like the definition of porn by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I only know architectural beauty when I see, feel or do it. I cannot conjure it up, argue it through, or fabricate it—beauty just happens when I listen for it.
Despite all the screaming realities in everyone’s lives, there are moments of compelling beauty in art, music, children, nature, even architecture. It’s easier than ever to lose that truth. For architects the trivialities and fears of a changing profession can make the hard seem impossible. But, yes, beauty is possible.