August 01, 2013

The Poetics of Structure

This text was excerpted from a 2005 Eric Fisher lecture in Havana, Cuba:

Today many artistic minded, creative architects avoid dealing with the way buildings get constructed instinctively, and with all their heart. These days work and art are thought to be incompatible. Analytic thought is consistently perceived to be at odds with creative thinking. Poets from Auden to Saint Exupier have spoken against a love of numbers and facts in favor of a world of thought and feeling. This mistrust has been expanded to a distrust of engineers and their work. Technicians might be, as the architect Le Corbusier said, “healthy and virile, active and useful, balanced and happy in their work, but only the architect – by his arrangement of forms – realizes an order that is a pure creation of his spirit.”

Yet incorporating ideas about construction into the forms of a project is important because they adds depth and richness to its reading. In a strong project, the viewer can work through the making of the project by studying the forms. My belief is that people respond phenomenally to construction ideas in the same way as they do to other architectural ideas. Reading the construction of a project connects people to the buildings they inhabit. As I walk through Pittsburgh, I – the subjective viewer – expand myself with the aid of my camera onto and across the fine, old constructions of my city. When a structure cantilevers in a daring way, I imagine myself leaning out over the space below, which explains why it moves me.

Knowledge of building structure is necessary for an architect, in the words of Peter Rice, “To make real the presence of materials in use in a building, so that people warm to them, want to touch them, feel a sense of the material itself and of the people who made and designed it.” Peter Rice was the structural engineer at “Ove Arup” who made sure the Pompidou Center and the Sydney Opera House would stand up.

Strong architects have their feet balanced firmly on the ground as their eyes scan the skies. We are never more fully human than when we exhibit both sides of our nature, the creative and the analytic. As I was writing these words, I was reading Nietzche, Bachelard, and Stavinsky at night while designing canopy and curtain wall details during the day. Dealing with the physical reality of built form is one of the challenges that architects face. These days I attempt to look at the expression of building construction in the same way I view the expression of other building ideas: It takes analytic skills to manipulate form and it takes creativity to think about how buildings get built.

I am learning to neither be intimidated by building construction nor to fear it. For inherent in the design of construction sequences, means, and methods are the same dramatic possibilities inherent in the design of other building strategies!

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