Arts 101: Architecture

FORM, FUNCTION & FEELING

ARCHITECTURE MORE THAN BLUEPRINTS, IT’S HEARTPRINTS, TOO

 

 Not everyone loves paintings, not everyone goes to the symphony, not everyone reads poetry. But almost every person in the world has a relationship with architecture: It is the art we live in and work in.

 

Whether it’s a tract house or a $1 million A-frame, the place we sleep in becomes something more than wood and windows: It’s home.

 

Of course, some architecture is better than others. And the difference isn’t just cost or engineering.

 

“Architecture is the difference between art and mere building,” says architect Eddie Jones of Jones StudioInc. “Architecture is spiritual; building is just construction.”

 

Jones is bringing his entire studio to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art this month in an unusual exhibit that puts the daily work of his firm on view for the public. Everything will be there, from staff meetings to staffers drawing plans to meetings with clients.

 

“We were asked to do a traditional show, but I wasn’t really interested in doing that, with photos and plans and text on the walls,” he says. “But then we thought, ‘Why don’t we just put ourselves on display, let people see what architects really do.’ ”

 

Jones is one of the best-known firms in the Valley, designing a range of buildings from private homes to the new Lattie Coor Hall at Arizona State University, a 274,000-square-foot classroom building in which every room has natural light.

 

“You can buy a beige stucco house,” Jones says. “Get a variation of one of the five cracker boxes on sale that week. But there’s something else out there.”

 

Among the clients who have come to him for a home is Lou Ann O’Rourke, who has a Jones house in Scottsdale.

 

“The house is a very high-tech contemporary home, but very soft and livable inside,” she says. “It’s just the entire environment that is happy, and it’s exactly what my husband and I envisioned. I consider my house a happy home, because it makes you smile.”

 

And emotion is what architecture, like any great art, is all about.

 

“If it’s architecture, it’s emotional,” says Michael Schroeder, of Langdon Wilson Architects, who designed the Phoenix City Hall and was consulting architect on Richard Meier’s federal courthouse in downtown.

 

“If it’s just functional, then it’s a numbing intellectual exercise. Architecture impacts your moods. You feel emboldened, or humbled, or joy and delight, or claustrophobic. It can induce, in good and bad examples, a whole range of emotions.”

 

But how does architecture do this? What is the essence of the discipline?

 

We all recognize that some buildings make us feel comfortable and others make us twitchy. There’s the coziness of a well-designed home and the anomie and angst that is a bad shopping mall.

 

The trick is that architecture isn’t just a visual medium. It isn’t just sculpture that you walk through.

 

3 elements

 

There are three essential elements of a well-designed building.

 

The first is called sculpture: the building as a three-dimensional form. You walk around it, front to back, and its lines are interesting. This is the part of architecture you learn about in art history, and the part that bears the weight of nomenclature: a Gothic cathedral or a Tuscan home. How does it look from the street?

 

The second part is engineering: An architect had better know his stuff or his building could fall down. It’s also well designed when its function fits comfortably into its design. A school has to have workable classrooms; a garage had better have a place for a car.

 

Architects can use engineering to create something new, with an innovative lighting scheme or experimental heating system. The engineering is not just the boring parts.

 

But there is a third aspect to architecture that’s not often understood: It is the heart of the endeavor, the part that isn’t shared with sculptors or engineers. And that is the empty space inside.

 

“Architecture is creating space,” says Marlene Imirzian, a Phoenix architect. “Creating a space that enhances the experience of the people who are in it.”

 

Because it’s not like other, more familiar art, it’s the most difficult part of architecture to discuss.

 

But an architect molds empty space the way a sculptor molds clay, moving from small spaces to large spaces, opening up space to the outside with windows or closing it in with walls, raising a ceiling up or lowering a floor. You move through a well-designed building like an explorer finding ever-new ideas about space.

 

Many of us know the magic of the embracing hollow from childhood, when we built a fort in the woods or threw a blanket over a table to create the tiny space within. When we were children, we had a natural sympathy for architecture.

 

Comforting shelter

 

“For me, it was underneath my neighbor’s porch,” says Vern Swaback, dean of Arizona’s architectural thinkers. “I’ll never forget that: comforted, sheltered, mysterious, explorative.”

 

Even a cardboard appliance box can be seen as architecture.

 

Too many of us lose our sensitivity as we become adults and feel any space is good enough. It is not.

 

“Think of all those people who move here to Arizona because they love the desert, but buy a custom home and move in and close the door and lock out that spirit,” Swaback says. “And inside could be anyplace.”

 

But if they could live in a home that gave them the same feeling as underneath the neighbor’s porch, or that tree house — that’s what good architecture gives them.

 

Although we are talking primarily about the architecture of Western civilization, other cultures have their own, but those also partake of these three qualities: what it looks like, how it functions and how the interior makes you feel. That much is universal.

 

“Great architecture doesn’t need to have an intellectual agenda,” says architect Will Bruder, who designed the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, “but it gets to your senses and embraces you. It gives you a way to look at the world from a different perspective.

 

“You don’t need a degree to understand great architecture, but it raises the hair on the back of your neck.”

 

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Glossary of architectural terms

 

* AIA: American Institute of Architects; the largest advocacy and support group for professional architects.

 

* Adaptive reuse: To teach an old building new tricks, such as turning an obsolete factory into condominiums or a warehouse into an art gallery.

 

* Art Deco: A type of modernism from the 1920s that emphasized geometrical shapes and ornamentation. Also called “Moderne.” Best-known examples are the Chrysler Building in New York, and the Luhrs Tower and the old City-County Building in Phoenix.

 

* Beaux Arts: An umbrella term for a movement in design that used motifs and ideas from the past to create seriousness in buildings. Popular from the 1880s to about 1920. The Walker Building in Phoenix is an example. It is also the parent of the many “revival” styles so popular in tract housing.

 

* Box: What needed to be smashed: the old habit of making rooms into discrete boxlike cubicles. So yesterday.

 

* Client: The reason a building is built: the person or organization that foots the bill.

 

* Design-build: A system of designing and constructing that integrates all the separate parts of the process so they can happen concurrently and not just serially, as in the traditional scheme, where the architect designs, the project goes out to bid and then the contractor is hired to build. In theory, it means that the architect is also the contractor; although in practice it can also mean that the contractor is the architect.

 

* Elevation: A schematic architectural drawing of what the outside of a building looks like straight-on; also, the outside of a building, i.e., facade.

 

* Entrance: Not only the door, but what looks like the door: How is it perceived by a person approaching it? Sometimes hidden, sometimes glorified, depending on the ideology of the architect.

 

* Gated neighborhood: A voluntary prison.

 

* Historic preservation: In Phoenix, saving what was good from the past, while allowing developers to do what they want.

 

* Interior design: A point of contention in the field, over whether architects should design the insides of a building as well as the outsides, or whether the insides should be left to a specialist.

 

* International Style: A subspecies of Modernism, popularized by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, most easily recognized as the glass-and-steel tower. See Bank One Center or the former Mountain Bell Building in Phoenix.

 

* Machinery: Gymnastics has its compulsories; architecture has its machinery: the boring stuff you have to get right — plumbing, air-conditioning, elevators.

 

* Mission Revival Style: A modern style borrowing details from historic mission architecture of the Southwest, often with arches and stucco. See the Heard Museum or St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix.

 

* Moderne: A branch of Art Deco, sleek and with a love of machinelike imagery and surfaces.

 

* Modernism: In architecture, the movement to try new ideas and designs, rather than quote old ones, but generally with the emphasis on engineering and classicism, with a disdain for ornament. “Less is more” was the watchword, “purity” the dogma. See the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse in Phoenix.

 

* Passive solar: A means of using the sun for climate control, without the use of fancy technology; i.e., shade.

 

* Postmodern: Since the 1970s, the attempt to reinstall ornament and “fun” in building design, often purposely quoting or comically misquoting styles from the past and often using many styles at once. See the new Municipal Courthouse in Phoenix.

 

* Processional: Fancy word for the footpath you take approaching a building and through a building. It can be seen as a scenario and controlled by a clever architect.

 

* Program: the list of specifications and requirements that a client has for the design of a building.

 

* Scale: The size of a building relative to other buildings, relative to the size of a human and relative to its importance.

 

* Sense of place: The expectation that the landscape or a building’s surroundings will make itself felt in the architecture.

 

* Site: Architect’s word for vacant lot.

 

* Spanish Colonial Revival Style: Sometimes called “Taco-Bell” architecture, this stucco-and-tile-roof style borrows decor from colonial Spanish architecture of the Southwest.

 

* Sustainable: Green, not greenback.

 

* Victorian: The popular style of the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign, even outside England, characterized by superfluity of ornament; often called “gingerbread.”

 

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Styles abound downtown

 

In the small space of downtown Phoenix, you can take a short tour of architecture and style.

 

* Victorian — Rosson House, 139 N. Sixth St., built 1895, A.P. Petitt, architect.

 

* Beaux Arts Classical Revival — the Walker Building, 302 W. Washington St., 1920, J.W. Walker, builder.

 

* Neoclassical Revival — Arizona Capitol, 1700 W. Washington St., 1900, James Reiley Gordon, with many additions.

 

* Mission Revival — St. Mary’s Basilica, 360 E. Monroe St., 1903-14, R.A. Gray and George Gallagher.

 

* Spanish Colonial Revival — Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., 1929, Lescher and Mahoney.

 

* Art Deco — Luhrs Tower, 45 W. Jefferson St., 1929, Trost and Trost.

 

* International Style — Chase Bank Building (formerly the Valley National Bank Building), Central Avenue and Van Buren Street, 1972, Welton Becket.

 

* High Modernism — Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse, 401 W. Washington St., 2000, Richard Meier.

 

* Postmodern — Phoenix Municipal Courthouse, 300 W. Washington St., 1999, Daniel, Manning, Johnson and Mendenhall in association with Helmuth, Obata and Kassabaum and the Omni Group.

 

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5 notable buildings in the Valley

 

There are many interesting buildings in the area, but these five have elicited the most comment, for and against. People either love ’em or hate ’em.

 

* Arizona Biltmore — It’s either the best non-Frank Lloyd Wright building in town or its original integrity was compromised by its makeover by the Taliesin Associated Architects.

 

* Burton Barr Central Library — Most people love its clever and innovative design; some think it’s the biggest metal shed they’ve ever seen.

 

* Nelson Fine Arts Center — It has one of the most interesting interiors in the state, but some say its exterior looks like a penitentiary.

 

* Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse — OK, it would be a great building elsewhere, but who thought it was a good idea to build a greenhouse in the desert?

 

* Taliesin West — It was the Valley’s first tent city, but it’s showing its age, and for some, there is too much odor of a cult.

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