Notes on Architecture

Notes on Architecture

This page presents my philosophy about what makes beautiful architecture. These thoughts inform and guide my work and my process pages provide step by step examples of how we travel from philosophy to shelter, to home.

The Dancing Oaks Process page is a gallery of photos taking you from bare land and deep into the building stages. If you click an image, a slideshow will appear and you will be able to read the descriptive notes for each picture. The Givens Kitchen Process has a similar gallery system, but it shows the process of a major kitchen remodel.

Room Composition

A Window Place

Watercolor by James Givens

When composing the architecture of a room, we are actually shaping the moments that the room will help make possible. To place a wall is to suggest a condition of protection. To place a column is to imply a fixed position in the open flow of space. To articulate steps is to place us into vertical motion. To shape daylight is to transform ordinary light into a kind of living presence in the room that will change our perception of space. To do any of the above (and a great many more besides) with an eye toward making evocative settings is also a way of anticipating the moments wherein someone’s beauty may be recognized. Consider the following description:

Below the half-open hope of the window, asleep in the innermost keep of the wall, if you feel the warmth of a hand on your cheek when you wake to find it was only the sunlight on your face, will this be the love you were promised?

An ordinary moment mingled with the memory of an intimate act of devotion. When the physical world affirms an experience to which the heart aspires, in this case to affirm the memory of a promise through a moment made possible by the making of a wall, it is like an act of love. Alberto Perez-Gomez wrote about this in his book Built upon Love:

…materialistic and technological alternatives for architecture…do not answer satisfactorily to the complex desire that defines humanity. As humans, our greatest gift is love, and we are invariably called to respond to it. Despite our suspicions, architecture has been and must continue to be built upon love…true architecture is concerned with far more than fashionable form, affordable homes, and sustainable development; it responds to a desire for an eloquent place to dwell, one that lovingly provides a sense of order resonant with our dreams, a gift contributing to our self-understanding as humans inhabiting a mortal world.

A moment like that is very different than the merely efficient or technically precise manner of organizing of space.

To make such a moment possible, the wall and the alcove pictured above must be designed up close, in full scale, carefully testing its position in the room, its proportions of depth to length to height, the angle of recline of the built-in seat, its distance off the floor, the operation of the window and its division into panes, the view, the way the sunlight will enter, the sounds and fragrance of the garden outside, the opportunity for a trellised edge outside that will create shadow play and seasonal changes of enclosure around the window, and, finally, the way someone will enter the room so as not to inadvertently intrude upon the alcove’s domain. The idea of room making as an expedient or pre-programmed design act dissolves in the face of these simpler and more powerful concerns. So do ideas of pre-determined styles. A place ends up looking the way it does by first fulfilling the deeper charge of carefully anticipating and then shaping the moments that may happen there. In this case, the wall can no longer be just a means of enclosure.

Attend to the sovereignty of the room first, attend to its highest calling. Realize that it begins with the intentions of a program, but quickly surpasses those considerations as a place that must accommodate many unanticipated activities, and that may also be modified by the many latent opportunities found in the setting. The room will become more nimble regarding purpose, more varied regarding scale and accommodation, and more likely to adapt to changes of circumstance and needs. In short, it will be more than just four walls. Freed from the meagerness of narrow composition, it will gain layers of spatial variation and intrigue that promises experiences not fully disclosed, characteristics that only multiple visits at different times may reveal. A place that does not move us on some level rarely evokes anything beyond being a storage room — and no arrangement of furniture or stuff in the room can make it great, or mask a nagging feeling that it is but a box made for the packaged lot of stuff we’ve been sold.

The initial program of a room, therefore, is a point of departure, not of arrival. By starting with the idea of making the room beautiful first there is a chance that we could transform whatever initially may be programmed to happen there, and in so doing, escape the limitations of narrow functionalism. Consider the contemporary kitchen, a room frequently so fettered by appliances, cooking accouterments, and storage cabinets as to prevent a clear view of the room itself. Most modern kitchens feel more like appliance showrooms than real rooms in which to cook. Refrigerators, microwaves, double ovens, warming drawers, multiple burner cooktops, wine refrigerators, dishwashers, all vie for wall space. The connection these kitchens manage to the garden (if there is one at all) is frequently cerebral or physically arduous. Most of them are identified in plan and in actuality by where all the cabinets are stacked — storage boxes glued to walls. In contrast, consider the following kitchen designed by Christopher Alexander.



In this case, the room, and its connection to the garden, came first. There are no upper cabinets.Open shelves invite guests to access what they need. The wood-fired oven stands at the hinge of the room, unifying the two spaces while ritualizing the cooking of the meal. The making of food is open and communal, the dining table doubling as a center for chopping, staging, assembling, and finally sharing the food in a bay that is strongly connected to the view and the garden. This place feels like a great room first, a kitchen and dining area second.

Another room, this time in the rolling farmlands near Monmouth Oregon. The orientation of the room to the view and morning light came first. A continuous bank of windows looks both eastward and southward forming a corner that accommodates a long “L”–shaped counter. There are no upper cabinets to get in the way. Next to the turn of the counter is a door that opens onto a future herb garden. A large table occupies the center of the room flanked by a buil-in seat. Conversations happen here frequently, mingling with the activity of food being prepared at the table. The site-built trusses crown the eastward view in joyful leaps across the room. They are oriented perpendicular to the movement into the room, and so help to quietly turn all who arrive there, inviting them to stay. At the west end of the room, out of the picture, an elevated alcove large enough for intimate gatherings around a low table happens. French doors extend that sense of intimacy to an enclosed terraced garden.  

A House at Dancing Oaks Nursery, Copyright James Givens Design

A House at Dancing Oaks Nursery, Copyright James Givens Design

This room, its position, its orientation, its proportion, its structure, and its daylight all came first. The fact that food is prepared in one half of the room and shared in the other half came as a natural response to how the room suggested where those activities could occur most organically. In a way, the program found the room, much as you might search the spaces of an old stone building, one that never had a kitchen or even running water, for the one room that might be a good place to wash and chop vegetables.

                                 A view of the Saloon from the stair landing; Fonthill by Henry Chapman Mercer, 1912. Photo by James Givens

          A panorama view of the Saloon looking from the western edge of the room; Fonthill by Henry Chapman Mercer, 1912. Photo by James Givens

Fonthill was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, an attorney by degree, but an archeologist, artist, tilemaker and gentlemen architect by choice and experience. Completed in 1912, it was designed room by room by Mercer himself who managed the construction and adjusted the design daily while the house was being built. It is radical for its time: it is constructed entirely out of concrete, it integrated many modern amenities such as electric lighting, and it featured Mercer’s own tile designs that skillfully evoked the poetic features and imagery of the many places he had travelled to and experienced throughout his life.

One room in particular epitomizes Mercer’s artistic sensibilities. This is the Saloon, a mysterious and forest-like room, a place where Mercer would receive guests. It is filled with slender concrete columns arranged eccentrically like a small grove of trees, each one reaching upward into a darkened canopy of asymmetrical beams. Against the far wall, a massive fireplace with its tall open firebox looks as much like an entrance to a grotto as it does a place to make fire, especially as viewed through the grove of columns. Evocative imagery and rich allusions pervade Fonthill: the mysterious light of caves, the complex silhouette of eccentric roofscapes, the intricate spatial layering of landscapes and interior arrangements of rooms along a poetic visual line of sight, all serve to create a changing and memorable experience of space.

Sometimes, as in the Saloon, the feeling is also bound to the room¹s geometry: an irregular rectangle that swells slightly at its center before bending and widening to the west. Always, places within places abound in Mercer’s rooms and the spatial effect such complexity established created atmospheric nuances of interior light and unfolding internal vistas.

If space, like water, has a current, then it would explain how the Saloon¹s roughness of plan causes the space inside to appear to drift, a quiet visual movement stilled only by the pool of calm that surrounds each column. Tall banks of windows modulate this movement by aligning themselves with particular hours of the day. Bold groupings of arched openings anchor the east and west faces and a single large opening at the north accentuate the smaller gathering places suggested by the plan. As such, Mercer used the rhythm of the sun to dramatize the feeling of space unfolding within the Saloon: the sunny columned edge of the room in morning, the shady expanse at the heart of the room during mid-day, and the surprising diagonal volume of the room¹s western edge with its equally dramatic sweep of late afternoon light.

Thus, the Saloon keeps the hours of the day. It is for Fonthill what the Piazza del Campo is for Sienna with her tall Camponile and its time-telling shadow. And, just as with the Piazza del Campo, in Mercer¹s Saloon you feel the length of the day moving through the room and the whole of the house gathering round. There is a feeling of places to explore just out of view, and of many ways into and out of the room.


                                         A view of the Summerfelt House, nearing completion.

From an email that my client Scott Summerfelt wrote after having lived one summer in the house we had designed for him and his family. The house is built on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean just North of Newport Oregon.


I want to thank you for such a wonderful house design. I want to give you praise for your vision and assistance in making it real.

When we first met and discussed the house I had a very demanding wish list. I had read the “Patterns of Home” and really liked your designs in the book as well as your web site. The book highlighted some of the key ways to make a house into a home.

The key design items are listed below.

Fit the house to the site despite the difficult access Maximize the views of the ocean Make the house full of light even in the gloomy winter months House needs to fit my family now and accommodate guests (two sets) Needs to handle the issues of being a beach house with lots of dirty returns from beach House ideally works as a retirement home (possible addition of elevator) Minimize maintenance despite extremely difficult environmental conditions (high wind, rain, salt) Extreme building conditions in terms of geology, wind loading, earthquake conditions Modest budget

When you presented the house design I was impressed and was optimistic that it would in fact do everything that I wanted.

After living there for a summer I am extremely happy that its exactly what we wanted despite being very small. My feedback from this summer is shown below.

Despite having a small floorplan it doesn’t feel small inside. I think that the light filled rooms with windows that draw you outside do a magnificent job of keeping you from feeling constrained. I heard that as we add more details especially the built-ins that it would feel progressively smaller. While that might have happened it still felt really open and not crowded even when we had guests.

There are so many wonderful views that every room has something special. Even the views to the East are quite interesting in such nice pine trees.

The living room/dining/kitchen area is fabulous. The viewing angles are great. Even when we had 8 people it never felt crowded.

The entire layout especially the built in window seats in living room and the dining bench seats make it so much larger and spacious.

The kitchen peninsula with sink at just the most perfect position makes it almost a privilege to work there cleaning up. The chairs on the living room side of the countertop make it so welcoming to sit and visit. The wall cabinet makes a great pantry for almost all of the food storage.

All three rooms are open enough but separated in feel that its really the highlight of the house.

The color on the living room walls was inspired. The colors are just like that in the ocean.

The kids just love their bunk beds. Each bed is completely perfect in having their own window, wall outlet and book light. Kids just loved it.

Every room has cross ventilation from windows. This is so important because without air conditioning the windows are are air conditioning. When the sun shines its really needed even if its only 60 degrees outside.

The third floor just feels like a master bedroom suite. It is isolated enough that you can get away and just have private space when you need it.

The master bedroom has the best views of the entire house. We didn’t yet have cushions that would make lounging around the private pleasure it will be.

The study / guest bed is really spacious and open. I look forward to staying there and using it even more.

One of my biggest concerns is what will happen when we have guests especially 2 sets of guests. The result when this happened last summer were just as I hoped. I think that everyone could get the togetherness that they wanted to in the living areas or the privacy when needed. The 3 bathrooms really we ideal (one per floor) made dealing with 8 people a breeze.

I really appreciated the extra touches in making the home unique and special. This includes the whale on the stair rail (we have even seen a humpback whale from the house), interesting lights everywhere, built in bench seats, fabulous cabinets, wonderful wood beams, interesting floor colors and textures, built in storage almost every room, great mud room, wonderful entry that just makes it easy to come back from beach and recover, plus many more.

I was hoping to be with you when you saw it almost completely finished. I don’t consider it really done yet because we still need cushions for the bench seats and some privacy blinds for some of the key windows.



Oxford University

From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

Everywhere, on the cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling and in the college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the wet river mist, drifting across the grey walls; the flags were oily underfoot and as, one by one, the lamps were lit in the windows round the quad, the golden lights were diffuse and remote, like those of a foreign village seen from the slopes outside; new figures in new gowns wandered through the twilight under the arches; and the familiar bells now spoke of a year’s memories.

 Pantheon, Rome Italy

From Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade by Vincent Scully:

It is true that the hollow volume of the Pantheon is defined by broadly solid Classical shapes, strong columns and entablatures, deep, heavy coffering and all, everything picked out clearly by the shaft of sunlight penetrating from above. When we step into that shaft, however, all matter disappears. We are blinded: Everything beyond the glow is dark. We are in the darkness of cosmic space. Planetarium in more than the simple representations of the planets, and far transcending in the end any image of terrestrial empire, the Pantheon releases mankind at last to the void, the universe, eternity.

Chartres Cathedral, France

From The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers

But the spiritual symbolization of our own civilization is basically lost to us. That’s why it’s so wonderful to go to the lovely little French town of Chartres where the cathedral still dominates, and you hear the bells ring when night turns to day, and when morning turns to noon, and again when day turns to night.

I consider Chartres my parish. I’ve been there often. While I was a student in Paris, I spent one whole weekend in the cathedral, studying every single figure there. I was there so much that the concierge came up to me one noontime and said, “Would you like to go up with me and ring the bells?” I said, “I sure would.” So we climbed the tower up to the great bronze bell. There was a little platform like a seesaw. He stood on one end of the seesaw, and I stood on the other end of the seesaw, and there was a little bar there for us to hold on to. He gave the thing a push, and then he was on it, and I was on it. And we started going up and down, and the wind was blowing through our hair, up there in the cathedral, and then it began ringing underneath us-“Bong, bong, bong.” It was one of the most thrilling adventures of my life.

Over the years, I have made it a point to record literary passages that are particularly vivid regarding descriptions of places. I believe that the author and the architect are not so far removed from each other. Each one has the task of establishing descriptions of rooms and gardens, courtyards and streetscapes that are alive and memorable. Settings within which people interact in ways that are poetic, tragic, and deeply moving.

A Day in the Life of a Window Bay

This is a composite of images following the changes of light and connection to the garden of a window bay that adjoins my kitchen. My friend Demetrius Gonzalez assembled these images and set them to music. The elements of architecture have the capacity to capture, amplify, and renew the moments that play within them. Anticipating how that might happen is one of the most important challenges of room design. 


An Alcove on Whidbey Island, Washington

 Alcove, house on Whidbey Island
Photograph: James Givens

Houses on the shore always bear witness to the sea. At the northern end of Puget Sound, along the strait of Admiralty Inlet, there is a house on the western shoreline of Whidbey Island that looks across the shipping channel to the distant Olympic Peninsula. Inside the house, at the far end of its main room, there is a low alcove with a deep built-in seat facing the ocean channel. The room and the alcove are both clad in cedar boards reclaimed from a hundred year old building, brought plank by plank some 300 miles out of Oregon. From inside the alcove, the ocean seems to draw nearer. When you lay there in the late afternoon, close to the ceiling, with windows open at your elbows and feet, there is a particular mixture of salt air and cedar that at once evokes the ocean’s sovereignty while it wraps you with the fragrance of old wood.

Out on the channel, lonely freighters follow the sea bound for China. Laying there, you could always tell when one of them passes by way off in the distance, even without opening your eyes. You could hear the shoreline surge to life in a rush of waves from the freighter’s wake breaking against the beach, followed by the clear sound of round rocks rolling against one another as each wave drags its skirt back out to sea. In the late afternoon, low beams of sunlight would warm the wooden ceiling and wooden walls until the boards ticked and popped–moving like the planks of an old ship’s hull. And if the late afternoon lulls you to sleep there, the sunlight will cut the cool ocean air like warm hands resting on you.

Waking up at dusk from an afternoon nap gone long, the first thing your eyes will find is the long flat silhouette of a lone freighter on an almost spiritual procession to the horizon–its running lights like votive candles set against the serrated figure of the Olympic Peninsula. The ocean seems deeper then, and the sky more remote, poised now against the oncoming distance of stars. The tapering last light of day seems to point to the way ahead, but as if to say the way ahead is even further than you think. There was something about how that ship in the distance, slowly getting smaller, made you feel. Something about how it made the distance personal, and how the alcove staring out to sea made you a witness, and so joined the two of you in a kind of solemn bond. As if on that occasion you will have made an unspoken confession of faith or mortality. Now the alcove will always mean a place wherein you feel the most alone and the most connected to the world. But from out at sea it will mean something more. Out there, returning at night after weeks on the ocean, the light in the alcove will appear to them like a small glimmer of salvation on a darkened distant shoreline.

Window detail, The Corner Market Building, Pike Place Market
     Photographs: James Givens

Two people, each lost in thought, lost in the quiet beauty of an ordinary moment. This building makes a place wherein the freedom to be just who you are pervades.

Seen from the street below, the window, the cafe, the couple at the table, almost go without notice.

But there is something profound at work here.

The reason why this moment at the window exists, the reason why there is an almost Edward Hopper quality about it, is because of the way the building is made–especially in relation to the life of the street.

Look carefully at the setting made by the window. The arch creates a poetic frame and an intimate division of space. The window inside the arch is divided into three parts, thereby reducing the scale of the opening. Each part of the window is further divided by mullions; thus, every pane of glass composes the view like individual tiles in a mosaic. The center window opens–almost unheard of in contemporary commercial architecture. The way it opens is unique. By pivoting at its center it creates an awning-like enclosure at the building edge, a small shelter at the cusp of the building. The sill height is low, around 27″ off the floor, just right for leaning on and just low enough to allow easy views downward to the life on the street. All of these elements make it possible for this couple to find a place of deep comfort; to be free in themselves. No forced conversations, no self-conscious public postures; no false public face. Just the right convergence of elements that allow the people using the place to become its most profound ornament.

Now, look carefully at the building as a whole. It is a good example of a “background building”. By “background” I do not mean inconsequential or apologetic. Rather, I mean a building that provides a quiet and lasting beauty. This building does not shout “Look at me!” as so many “signature” (read: famous architect-designed) buildings do today. Nor does it insult us with poor materials and clumsy design as so much of the big-box Wal-mart, Costco, etc., retail architecture does. Instead, the Corner Market building is made out of tough and beautiful materials all carefully proportioned: concrete softened by brick masonry walls. The concrete forms a rhythm of arches aligned in repeating bays. The bays are infilled by brick and patterned at places into simple panels of integral ornament. While it is all order above, the street level is allowed to change and flex radically with seasonal open air markets. The structure of the bottom floor is entirely open, and is generously sheltered by a fixed horizontal canopy and adjustable canvas awnings. Thus, the unkempt ebb and flow of Seattle’s street life finds its appropriate structure. Meanwhile, lamps at the top of the building accentuate the rhythm of the bays and create beautiful light for the street at night.

Finally, in spite of all of the details I have noted above, there is a quietness to the building–a feeling that you could pass by it and not think twice about the building per se. That is, in fact, the strength of its beauty. Squint your eyes at the facade as a whole and it becomes a humble urban wall content to stay out of the spotlight.

 Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
        Photograph: James Givens, August 2006

The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye is that an order has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Frank Lloyd Wright understood well that Nature cannot be improved upon, but it can be revealed, described and intensified by art. In the Allegheny mountains of southwestern Pennslyvania, a pristine stream called Bear Run flows through towering stands of hemlock, maple and oak, through huddled masses of rhododendron and Christmas ferns, and over layered outcroppings of sandstone where it drops in cascading sheets of water chasing the contours of the land. It is a setting that needs no justification. How, then, could one place a house in such a context without it seeming invasive, foreign, or trivial? How could it not offend or become a symbol of mere ownership?

By becoming a threshold into the setting.

Every experience of Fallingwater places us three-dimensionally into Nature. We are no longer viewer and object. Inside fallingwater, we move not through the building but through the setting. We walk on stone floors enveloped by the sound of water. We are suspended, literally, in space and feel caught up in the canopy of trees. We climb stone steps that lead to precarious cantilevered perches and we are drawn by the danger of the ledge. We look across long, unbroken internal vistas beneath the low reach of the concrete planes, and it is the trees themselves caught in the horizontal frame of the house that provide the final sense of enclosure. The thrill of the floors floating in space is only surpassed by the mass and weight we feel in them, thus making the acheivement of shelter seem an intoxicating and daring act. But it is, in fact, these layers of space that are so essential: in the absence of visual support, the trees, the sunlight, the movement of wind, seem to flow continously through the house as easily as Bear Run flows through the heart of this secluded glenn.

Window, Taliesin East, Spring Green Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1925

“A house, we like to believe, can be a noble consort to man and the trees; therefore the house should have repose and such texture as will quiet the whole and make it graciously at one with external nature.” –Frank Lloyd Wright, 1931

The Window as a Carefully Shaped Volume of Space

I chose this image of a window for the depth of feeling it possesses. The feeling is rooted in how the window is made. The window is made by its position at the corner of the room; by the low wall and small garden just outside; by the rough stone wall that climbs onto the house from the garden; by the way that same stone wall frames one side of the window; by the statue that sits within view on a small bench of the stone wall; by the low sloped ceiling just inside the window made by the shed roof; by the low fascia of the shed roof that also becomes the top trim of the window; by the decision to clip the eave so that beautiful light will enter there; by the fact that the window is, in part, a pair of casements that swing out to the land; by the plainness of the glass where the window opens; by the careful pattern of mullions at the place where the window makes the corner; by the heavy vertical division between the fixed corner sash and the operable casement windows; by the broad stone sill that wraps the corner and echoes both the horizontal line of the roof and the cap of the low garden wall…

This window resulted from all of these decisions. It was not chosen in an abstract moment away from the setting, or out of a catalogue, or in some showroom for windows.

Contrast the window above with the following two examples:

In both of these examples, typical of new house construction today, the windows are simply glass bandaids for holes cut into stud frame construction. The house on the left has the same exact window repeated 9 times: it does not matter whether the window is on the ground floor or upper floor, under a porch or under an eave, nor does it matter that it is placed in a protruding bay over the entry. The house on the right is perhaps even more insincere: it attempts to project an image of affluence by varying the windows a little and making special shapes. The shapes in this case have more to do with projecting the realtor’s vaunted “curb appeal” than it does with making a particular place on the inside or on the outside of the house. These windows instead have a kind of deadening effect that prevents the house from having the quiet “repose and such texture as will quiet the whole and make it graciously at one with external nature.”

Marinsky Theater during intermission, St. Petersburg, Russia.
  Photograph: James Givens, June 2005
Like the theater paintings of Manet, the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, defines space by showing the people in it and how they are grouped. The result is a spatial order whose depth of feeling is most manifest only when the room is filled with people participating in the performance. This is an entirely different way of defining architecture. Certainly more profound than the countless representations in architectural journals and books that tend to show buildings and built environments as pure constructs devoid of people.

Like Being Held in the Palm of the Building

The photograph above shows the upper tiers of the Marinsky Theater during intermission. Note the close wrap of small spaces around the expansive volume in front of the stage. The ceiling here is low enough to touch; the depth shallow enough to feel the wall at your back even at the edge of the balcony; and the individual doors at the back wall are frequent enough to suggest private ownership of your seat. The “U”-shaped wrap of tiers creates lines of sight that cross against the central axis made by the stage. This makes the theater a place to watch people watching the performance. There is an intimacy and informality of feeling here that complements the formal symmetry of the stage and the gilded surfaces of the walls. When the lights dim and the curtain rises, there are traces of light that are held as equally on the curved edges of gilding as they are on the soft contours of faces stacked tall around the darkened central volume–just enough to make the viewer a visible participant in the revelation of art.

 Marinsky Theater during the performance, St. Petersburg, Russia.
 Photograph: James Givens, June 2005

In both drawings deep feeling guides the hand. On the right, the interior of a small chapel by Susan Heinking; on the left a modest dining hall by Monica Whitney.

“What matters is that the building — the room, the canyon, the painting, the ornament, the garden — as they are created, send profound feeling back towards us.”

– Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: The Process of Creating Life page 372.

Exercises in Deep Feeling

Both of these drawings came out of an assignment I gave to my students in an advanced studio I am currently teaching. It is one of a series of design methods that I call “Exercises in Deep Feeling”. The drawing on the left was done by Susan in 1 hour; the time limit was important. There needed to be an urgency in the making of the room. Only the essentials. I told them that there should be more darkness than light in the drawing. That the light should be there because it was intended to be there, not because the paper was white. I then asked my students to take a bit more time in order to find out specifically what it is that might be making the quality of light in the first sketch. In Monica’s drawing, on the right, we can see the progress as it pertains to the making of a dining hall. While the drawing has more detail, it is important that it remain a little obscure. The emerging structure must be as much evoked as it is willed by the architect. Remember, the goal is to slowly articulate the emerging elements and details that deliver the life of the room. The order here is important. In the first sketch it is the visceral life of the space that is the object, getting that right at the expense of finer detail such as the specifics of materials or primary structure. Gradually, the bones of the room step out of the darkness and reveal themselves.

D.L. James House, Point Lobos, California, 1918, by Charles and Henry Greene Photograph by Marvin Rand

…it is through place that we put out roots, wherever birth, chance, fate, or our travelling selves set us down; but where these roots reach toward…is the deep and running vein, eternal and consistent and everywhere purely itself, that feeds and is fed by the human understanding.

– Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction” The Eye of the Story, 1956

On Sculptural Form, Part Two

Welty goes on to say: “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about history partakes of place. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else…From the dawn of man’s imagination, place has enshrined the spirit; as soon as man stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him, he found a god in that place; and from then on, that was where god abided and spoke from if he ever spoke.” What is true about the role of place in writing is true for architecture as well. All great buildings reach for the particulars of place as a root of their identity.

In the James House, Charles and Henry Greene literally reach for that “deep and running vein”. The house seems to grow out of the rocky cliffs of Point Lobos. In particular, note how the Greene brothers extended a long, buttressed wall of stone down the length of the cliff in such a way that it seems to reach for purchase on the lower banks of the slope. In this case, the sculptural form that resulted is not about form for its own sake. It is about form in the service of establishing a deep and meaningful connection to a place; one that may even come to symbolize the larger human struggle against the fleeting, the impermanent, the inevitable mortality of things. We feel the house take hold on this stony peninsula against storms gathering over the Pacific Ocean, and we take solace in the heft and brace of its stone. Knowing how the Greene brothers worked, it is most probable that the sculptural form was not in fact intended at all; it simply emerged out of carefully fitting the house and its terraces to the land.

Now compare the James House against the use of sculptural form in the following two examples. It is clear straight away that the architects began with the image first, forcing the organization of rooms into the pre-conceived image. Moreover, it is clear in both examples that context, the “deep and running vein” of place, has no role or relevance to either building. It is as if they could be transplanted without penalty to any place anywhere in the world. This kind of sculptural form, currently making the covers of architectural journals every month, is all about ego and whim. Sadly, it is impossible to know, in even a general sense, just where either building calls its home.

  • Building or slug in a context of asphalt…?
  • An indifferent prism in New York? Los Angeles? Berlin?


Charles S. Greene House, Pasadena, California, 1908. Photograph by Marvin Rand

When one approaches such a house it must not obtrude itself upon one’s sight but rather fit into things about it.

– Charles Sumner Greene

On Sculptural Form, Part One

In order to accommodate his growing family, Charles Sumner Greene added a full second floor to his house in 1906, complete with a private studio and reading room on a third level. In doing so, he carefully fitted the new volume over the old one, taking pains to keep the massing and silhouette from overwhelming the intimate setting of the garden. What is remarkable here is his fearless embrace of the modest eccentricities of form that such an addition could cause. Those eccentricities, however, were not driven by a personal desire to create sculptural form. They were driven by the practical needs of the rooms themselves and by a straightforward desire to shed water. In particular, note how the octagonal configuration of the original studio has been altered to accommodate a small porch roof on one side. Note further how the porch roof casually blends with an asymmetrical shed roof that just manages to spill onto a lower adjoining roof set against it at 90 degrees. There is an almost naive, straightforward quality to the way those extensions were shaped and roofed. The resulting sculptural form has a relaxed quality about it, and suggests a physical empathy with the gnarl and lean of the nearby tree.

This kind of sculptural form is far removed from the highly personal and frequently self-conscious scuptural massing found in the work of architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Thom Maine. Ironically, the thinking of Charles Sumner Greene was well ahead of Gehry, Hadid and Maine. As far back as 1906, and probably without intending to, he not only showed us one of the possible roots of contemporary form, he showed us one that could generate a more authentic basis for scuptural composition.

The Annunciation Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
  Photograph: James Givens, June 2005

In many cases the light comes from colors which are roughly complementary. Blue is made to shine by yellow and orange, red is made to shine by green, orange by purple… All we know is that sometimes colors together create a glow of life. The colors, like centers, help one another come to life; a life which is created and can be felt.
– Christopher Alexander

The Nature of Order Book Four: The Luminous Ground

At first it is the white stone walls and noble massing of form that captures your attention. Then it is the gilded roof that intrigues: a golden landscape of domes and cupolas that cap the walls like a sacred hilltown shining against the sky. Finally, it is the surprising intricacy of ornament and color made in the dim light of the narrow entrance hall that leads you to this luminous blue portal. The modest proportions of the portal stand in sharp relief against the planar spread of subdued color made by the icons painted on the walls. The blue of the portal shines quietly behind the carved ornament, as if the intricacies of the pattern were more like an ornate screen veiling a glimpse of a glowing blue room. In other words, the blue appears not as a color confined to surfaces, but as a luminous blue volume that is shaped and contained by the careful interlock of golden carvings. The depth of the blue in this case is made to shine by the darkened gold of the ornament that surrounds it and by the shapes of the spaces that the blue fills. The golden pattern makes the blue move in vertical and horzontal bands, makes it peer out from the interstitial spaces of vine and leaf, makes it leap in a fragile blue arc over the doors that lead into the sanctuary. This is what it means for one color to help another come to life.

Archangel Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
 Photograph: James Givens, June 2005

“In every case where it occurs, color which has inner light has a special kind of subdued brilliance. It is quiet, very quiet, yet bright at the same time. It is an overall single sensation, not a composition of colors, but a single overall color field–almost like a musical chord–which strikes simultaneously from all parts of the picture at once. It comes from the picture as a whole.”
– Christopher Alexander
The Nature of Order Book Four: The Luminous Ground

If you were to imagine this space without its painted walls, the life you feel within it would diminish. Though strong in its geometry and bold in its proportions, without color the bare surfaces of the domes, vaults, columns and walls, would struggle against the darkness of the space. In contrast, the subdued brilliance made by the pattern of color on the surfaces of the structure causes the light to feel perpetually in a state of setting, like the last glow of a sunset held in place. It possesses a solemn majesty that causes even the most secular person to be moved by the belief that motivated these artists. There are scenes so high up in the space, so removed from view, details so fine, that they can only have been done for a divine eye. Here, certainly, these paintings cannot be seen as merely applied ornament, or as an obligatory record of biblical stories. Their color and pattern create a global effect that transforms mass and geometry, and infuses stone and vault with an ember-like glow of religious feeling.

It is my hope that such integral manifestation of color might yet make it back into the places we live in today.

Doorway, Norwich Cathedral, England, photograph by Frank Wright

“If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life.”
– Gaston Bachelard
The Poetics of Space

I chose this image of a door for the depth of feeling it possesses. The feeling is rooted in how the door is made. The door is made by the steps from the garden, by the landing just outside, by the space of the landing as a moment of pause, by the need for the door to swing out, by the mass of the stone wall and the shape of the opening in it, by the small cluster of columns that recieve the vault of the ceiling over the door, by the position of the door as a part of the stair, by the steps that grow wider as they descend into the room, by the sunlight that spills in through the opening, by the reflection of light on the wall from the floor, by the sunlight caught in the leaded glass of the door…

This door resulted from all of these decisions. It was not chosen in an abstract moment away from the setting, or out of a catalogue, or in some showroom for doors and windows.

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