Viewing entries tagged
Frank Lloyd Wright

Something More About Mary

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Mary Colter and the Desert View Watchtower. I talked about how great the building is and how much I could have learned simply by studying it rather than earning the degrees and working at the firms that I did.

Although I still I stand by the basic thesis of that post (that the Desert View Watchtower is a really great building that has a lot to teach a young architect) a colleague of mine pointed out that the post was written from a place where the existence of choice was assumed: I could choose to go to architecture school, I could choose to work at the firms that I did or I could choose to do none of those things and instead hang out on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The reality is that not all people are afforded those same choices: Mary Colter certainly was not.

Born in 1869 her life was closely circumscribed by the prevailing societal norms of the day. In the 1880s there was no real mechanism for a woman to receive formal training as an architect. Instead she went to art school and eventually "backed" her into to the profession. She was ultimately able to do the work she was able to do because of her amazing talent but also because she was fortunate to find a one-in-a-million patron in the form of Fred Harvey who had the resources and the open-mindedness to give her talent the freedom to flourish.

Her career was exceptional not only because of the quality of the work it produced but also because it existed at all.

As a point of comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright was born just a couple of years before Colter in 1867. He had the freedom to go to architecture school (and to subsequently drop out). He had the freedom to work for Louis Sullivan, one of the leading architects of the day (and to later be fired by him). He had the freedom to choose clients and build the career he wanted for himself. These were all choices Colter simply did not have. Indeed they were choices the women who worked for Wright did not have.

The goal here isn't to compare Colter and Wright in terms of talent or influence. Rather the point is that these two architects were given radically different opportunities based solely on weather or not they happened to be born with a Y chromosome.



The Function of Paint

illustration of typical Saturn V paint scheme by Nick Stevens

What color should we paint this?

This question often gets asked toward the end of a project when all the "important" decisions regarding the design of a building have been made. With names such as "Positive Red" and "Lavish Lavender", it's easy to dismiss the selection of paint colors as an frivolous choices to be made.

But color is important. Not only can it radically change the perception of a space (dark colors make a space seem smaller while light colors tend to make it seem larger), paint can also do things. To make my point it helps to momentarily step outside of the world of architecture.

Camouflage is probably one of the most obvious examples of the use of color to serve a particular function. Although camouflage is typically thought of as the use of color to hide something from view, it can also be used to confuse as well as to conceal. Dazzle camouflage used on ships in World War I is probably the best example of this (for an excellent podcast episode about check out this great 99% Invisible episode). Since no single color proved effective for concealing a ship in all weather conditions, naval architects instead tried to develop a paint color that made it all but impossible to determine a ship's size, speed and heading. 

Another example of this is the type of confusion camouflage is used by automakers when they test new vehicles on public streets before a formal public unveiling. Obviously making a car invisible is a problematic endeavor, but they can make make the appearance of the new vehicle harder to discern. More interestingly, they sometimes use patterns that are intended to confuse not the casual observer, but the autofocus system of the cameras used by auto magazines and blogs trying to publish the spy photos of upcoming vehicles.

But just as paint can be used to confuse, it can also be used to clarify. The color patterns on rockets, for example, are there so that observers on the ground can better understand what is going on during a launch. At higher distances and greater altitudes it can be difficult to tell if a rocket is rolling about its long axis and alternating bands of black and white help observers tell weather or not the vehicle is stable. This explains the distinctive black on white banding of the Saturn V launch vehicle (the pattern is so iconic you can buy a version of it as cycling jersey). However, be careful that you don't paint too much of your rocket black - sunlight can cause problematic spikes in temperature as black paint absorbs heat more that white paint (there's lots more about this and why we paint rockets like Nazis in this extensive blog post).

The story goes that early modern architects eschewed paint in favor of a more honest expression of materials but the reality is more complicated. Frank Lloyd Wright used earth tones to make his design seem even more a part of its surrounding landscape. Alvar Aalto used strategic blasts of color in his elegant interventions into the Finnish landscape.

How do we use color in our practice? Well, it varies. In some projects we work to match an existing palate of colors. In others we take a cue from the dazzle camouflage playbook to try and break up the mass of a building while referencing a company's logo. In all cases, however, we seek to employ all the tools at our disposal to create a design that is appropriate, beautiful and functional.

Even if someday that might mean using the color "Lavish Lavender".


Why I love Frank

Like many great men in history, Frank Lloyd Wright was a complete and total jerk. Lucky for him he was also a genius which allowed him to get away with behavior most of us mortals never could. Although I don't see Mr. Wright as a role model demonstrating how to live a good life, I do see his architecture as illustrating how to design a good building.

And here I make an important distinction between "good" and "great".

There are plenty of "great" buildings in the world that while influential and important, are actually quite miserable to places to inhabit as a person. Wright designed more than a few of these himself, but may of his projects - especially his houses - are detailed so as to make them humane in ways you might not expect from a person who, as mentioned before, was a jerk.

For me, one of the most compelling examples is at the Robie House in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. I gave tours there back in the early 2000s when I lived there and I recently had the opportunity to revisit it while I was working on episode 5 of the podcast. It's a great building on many levels, but one of the details I find so compelling occurs not on it's street facade or at its main entrance, but next to the garage near the stair used by servants to reach their quarters. It's a narrow opening in the roof of the building that allows natural light to illuminate this stair that was used not by the wealthy family who commissioned the house, but by the much less affluent workers who attended to them. Wright apparently felt everyone should inhabit a well-designed world.

I credit this detail as the one that inspired the "mission statement" of HiWorks - the one about "good design" being accessible to everyone. In other words, here at HiWorks we do not seek to be great, but we do aim to be good.