Building Styles

Why My Buildings Look the Way They Do…

A couple years ago as I was just starting my firm, I designed and built a home for myself.   The project, exceedingly open and filled with natural light at all times of the day, was not exactly ordinary for Pittsburgh.  As a result, ever since, organizations often approach me hoping for a walk-through.  One timeI was just beginning a tour when an elderly woman, trying to be witty, called out from the crowd, “My husband calls you Frank Lloyd Wrong”.  I would like to say that I came back with a snappy comeback.  (I came up with a couple good ones after the fact!) In reality, I stammered back something like, “Well, you can be the judge of that after your visit.”  Sure enough, she approached me after the tour and said how different the feel of the house was from what she had expected.

Most Pittsburgh homes are designed to look like homes that were built fifty or a hundred years ago, but construction techniques and materials have evolved.  Even the way people live has changed. My houses may not look like the houses you mostly see in Pittsburgh.  Even so, they fit well with their surroundings and my clients tell me that they respond to their needs. It occurred to me just how far removed I am from Frank Lloyd Wright, and not just in time.  The myth – or maybe it was the truth, I don’t know – is that a successful architect like Wright could just draw a design once and get it right.  That is certainly not the case with me.  I have to draw things over and over, and my ideas evolve over time.  Fortunately, unlike most architecture firms, my business model is set up to minimize my overhead, so I have the time to be able to go through this sometimes painful, sometimes revelatory progression. As well, I have the time to explore new technologies and materials.  Certainly I can say that all the houses I have designed share certain qualities:

  1. A) The homes have large windows that allow light in during Pittsburgh’s gray winter.
    B) They are filled with green materials and technologies that lower energy costs and are respectful of the environment.
    C)    They tend to possess an industrial look that shields them from Pittsburgh’s weather and is reflective of our steel heritage.
    D)    They feature an open plan that responds to our generation’s need for flexible, efficient spaces

Yet  “meaning”, being associated with memory and experience, goes beyond those formal qualities.  I would like to believe that the reason my homes look and feel the way they do is that they not the expression of formal strategies, they are the expression of ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Mostly they come from my clients and the building site.  However different our buildings may be, this is what I have in common with other skilled architects around the globe. We all listen with great care to our clients and then propose site-specific solutions that address their needs and desires.

Which is not to say that I do not bring my own past to the table. Designing buildings is not like growing plants, where we add water and simply wait for the design to sprout.  Decisions are constantly informed by personal perception, which is biased by cultural interference.  Design strategies are always “negotiated” with culture, which is a good thing for architects because now different architects are free to design in different ways.  There is now no single right way to design a home.  For that reason, it is possible now for a professional practice to truly become a place, to paraphrase the architect, Peter Eisenman, “…of constant renovation, constant rereading, constant reinterpretation, (and) constant reinvention.”

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