Pecha Kucha talk: “Designing Through Adversity”

Designing Through Adversity


Mostly, I’ve been a pretty fortunate guy since I moved back to Pittsburgh more than a decade ago. I was well married. Moreover, I was content and proud, perhaps overly proud, of my success and what I considered to be my remarkable luck. In short, I was a fat, happy cat. Then, two events happened in quick succession: First, in June I ran short on work.


This, I have learned, happens to even so-called “successful” architects. Then, my wife left me on a Saturday evening early in October. I had a proposal due the following Monday for an oversized lakefront house in Gibsonia. The excitement I felt about the project dissipated through the low “E” windows of the house I had designed for the two of us along with my hopes and dreams of the two of us growing old together.


Fortunately, I’ve written a lot of proposals over the past couple years. As I was writing in my den, I felt as though focus and concentration were my only protection from the feelings of grief, loss, and fatigue that were washing over me in waves. I finished the document late that Sunday evening. And somehow I got the job.


Three weeks later, I met with a second client, Randy Edgar, for whom I had designed an ellipse-shaped home that I was dying to see built. Guests entered the house through a sedum-covered roof that formed an observation platform to the surrounding woods. The bad news was that his wife felt the house I had designed for them was too fancy. The good news was that he wanted me to create an entirely new design!


I started the Edgar House designs knowing only that I didn’t want to go to my grave known as “Cantilever boy”. (You have to know my architecture to get that…) As Philip Glass once said, “You will find your voice. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it.“ These first sketches show a pier resembling a horseshoe crab’s tail extending from the building up into the canopies of the trees.


Here are the developed Edgar House foundations. As I couldn’t sleep and had completely lost my sense of humor, it seemed natural to turn to DeChirico’s melancholic work, with its empty piazzas and tilted spires. His was an architecture of dreams, one that called attention to the futility of life: It matched the mood of my new favorite TV show: the “X Files”. I watched all 9 seasons in a 3 month span.


The medium we use as we design determines the look of the result. The fact that my 3D software,“Rhino”, has 26 commands having to do with surfaces leads designers to use them. So as I designed the building on the computer, I came to understand the idea of conceptualizing the walls of the building as wrappers containing space rather than as volumes.


As the home ceased resembling images of modernist buildings I had admired back when I was in school and began to respond much more directly to its surroundings and its making, I came to feel comfortable with its look. At the time, we were calling the building “Blue Steel”, in honor of Ben Stiller’s infamous modeling move in the movie, Zoolander.


This is the Southeast view of the home. As I was designing my GSD thesis, a museum in a park, I listened over and over to Mozart’s Requiem, convinced that listening to this music, arguably the most powerful ever written, would somehow improve my thinking process. But my thesis turned out poorly.


Here is a night view of the entry. At my final review, I remember Dean Raphael Moneo asking me with his thick Spanish accent, “Ereec, “Does your building have anything to do with the bark.” He said park. I heard bark. I answered no, which doomed the rest of the conversation. But the point is that you can’t force talent.


I love the way buildings respond to their sites and the way sites respond in turn to the presence of architecture: I too was changed by my circumstances. Stress narrows our focus, leaves us vulnerable to negative thinking, and disrupts our ability to think rationally. Yet experience really does matter: Somehow I was able to function and to create.


Lotus flowers grow best in manure. The implication, of course, is that filth and ugliness somehow facilitate the creative process. Nietzsche called attention to the ironic truth that that although creativity provides respite from suffering, it also requires it. I took these pics on the streets of Amsterdam during an OMA-sponsored long-weekend trip to the Netherlands.

Pecha Kucha talk: “Designing Through Adversity”

Here is one of my first Lake House sketches. The idea was to orient the new home perpendicular to the water in order to hide its mass and to create powerful interior experiences. Unexpected directions can free us to see things in new ways. The mind naturally seeks to make sense of the world it perceives.


Here is another early Lake House sketch, inspired in part by the Villa Malaparte, which you see to the left. I find it poetic when certain fuzzy-minded Chaos Theory experts suggest that when we are forced to give up control over our lives we may be opening ourselves to a deeper form of wisdom, allowing new forms of subtle order to sprout from confusion.


And here is the developed Lake House roof plan, with its Neutra inspired pool and extended green roof. Truth be told, I was far more interested in distraction than enlightment. Harvard professor, Shelly Carson, writes that Ernest Hemingway used writing as a way to counter the pain and depression he felt after being injured on the Italian Front in World War I.


This will be the view across the roof. I was attracted to the idea that the building would emerge from the ground like an excavation. So now I was conceptualizing my recent past by designing ruins! You would think I would have come to terms with the idea that loss is part of life before now, but, as I tell my students and interns, different people learn in different ways and at different times.


When we drew the project on the computer, we were able to explore different façade treatments and massing strategies. Did the house want to be light or heavy? Did we want to feature color or texture? I appreciate how fortunate I was to be making these kinds of decisions, and that, although both projects are exceeding their budgets that my clients have forgiven me.


I don’t want to place my feelings on a pedestal. You have no idea of the number of truly heartbreaking stories I’ve heard from my friends in the past six months. I know now that many of you here in this room have been in a similar place. And we didn’t have kids, which made things easier. It is a real luxury that I didn’t have to be strong all the time.


Sometimes interior views can reveal new truths regarding one’s surroundings. If pain was truly creative fuel, then the world should be truly beautiful all the time.   Yet these two building designs are representative of my progress. All of this introspection – so necessary for a time – is beginning to seem self-indulgent. I am hopeful that I will soon sleep through the night once again, maybe even with someone else beside me.


So here is where the Lake House design is at the moment. And here is where I am, in a boat rowing on the lake. I may have someday have one leg, or find myself entrapped in a dark and strange place, and it will be the same: No single stroke you take is ever perfect, and on the recovery of that stroke you ponder the next stroke and you fear it until it is upon you, and you take that one, and the next – one after the other until your life is complete.

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