Traditional Building Portfolio

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, ouside of Charlottesville, VA, was built in phases beginning in 1769.

 

Opinions

Building a Culture of Purpose

By Braulio Casas

My paternal grandmother was not a trained architect. While she may not have had a formal education, at least not a conventional one, she taught me a lasting lesson. In this time of economic uncertainty, relativistic indifference and utter turmoil, it is a lesson that bears repeating.

In her later years my grandmother would sit at the dining table with colored pencils and a large sheet of newsprint paper and dream of church façades that would appear on the paper. Always devout and always praying for the welfare of others, especially her grandchildren, she would talk mostly to herself, sometimes uttering, “with purpose.” Once, when home from university, she pulled me to her side and showed me one of the façades – which looked amazingly like a cathedral one would find in France – and said to me, “Whatever you do, do it with purpose.” I was stunned – I had never seen one of her drawings until then, but according to my parents she had been doing them prolifically. She was just doing one of those eccentric things that grandmothers will do and true to her words she was doing it with the purpose of teaching us, and me specifically. So I say to fellow architects, builders and patrons: Whatever you do, just do it with purpose. In our built world that purpose ought to be to make our environs a better place for ourselves and the generations that will inherit our built legacy.

It seems I am constantly picking a bone with my profession, and so here we go again. I am not a glutton for punishment, but I must say that I am continually dissatisfied by the lack of attention many of my fellow practitioners place on their understanding of traditional building types and the inherent detailing that each requires. I know I should not, but invariably I will pick up one of the newsstand magazines touting the latest gadgetry in kitchen and or home design. I find that I am horrified by some of the things I see in publication, this periodical being one of the exceptions.

The most troubling are the ones offering real estate for sale. On their covers are some of the most garish homes one can lay eyes on. One can see houses with more gables than some neighborhoods and more linear feet of moldings than some state capitols. Of course I am exaggerating, but I am not far from the truth when I say that restraint was not on the minds of some homeowners and their designers.

Why should it bother me? It should bother all of us. The act of building, it is said, is one of the most important political acts we as citizens will ever perform. If it is worth doing, we should do it with purpose or not bother doing it at all. If the act of building is that important, and I agree that it ought to be, why then do we not think more carefully about what and how we build? In the pages of this magazine we see some wonderful examples of professionals and their clientele fully engaged in the pursuit of making the built environment a better place. Sadly, this is the exception – the vast majority of the building that occurs in this country is mindlessly and woefully banal at best. I fully believe that we can all right the ship, however painful that process may be, and I also believe the longer we wait to change things the longer it will take to recover from the mess.

What mess you ask? The ugly mess that is happening mostly on the peripheries of our villages, towns and cities along foul placeless highways that seem to resemble every other locale. While I lament the strip mall and its ersatz architecture, I most lament that our housing stock is so terribly over-articulated and miserably constructed that we are wasting tremendous amounts of resources on what amounts to nothing more than ugly window dressing. Every town or city has the placeless subdivisions of which I speak, and they seem to be getting more and more dreadful. The names of these places read like a botanist’s fantasy: “The Oaks” or “Weeping Willow Estates,” each with an ever increasing flight of fancy attempting to be “Tudor” or “French Country” and falling far short of the bucolic vision they promise.

Aside from the horrific planning, each home is “designed” to be something they can never be: authentic. So why is there a market for these things? Largely, I would argue, because most of the general public is not aware of their mistake. Despite all of the television networks, publications and blogs dedicated to house design and design in general, the level of understanding of truly good design is sorely lacking.

Herein lies the perfect opportunity for the architect to step in and fill a void. One of the roles for the architect I advocate whenever possible is that of teacher. In the absence of true architectural understanding, I think the architect ought to step up to the challenge of encouraging and engaging in thoughtful scholarship with our clientele and the public at large. I believe the public is yearning to participate in a meaningful dialogue about their frustrations with our profession and lack of satisfaction with most of the recent iterations of our work. I think this will elevate the discourse in such a way that it may slowly turn the tide. The process will be difficult, but is utterly worth doing.

We start by simplifying. Traditional architecture is actually beautifully simple at the various scales it is perceived. Look at a truly marvelous example of simplicity at work, like the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, by Charles Platt, and one sees a nuanced approach rather than the overt manner used by some architects in the present day. As you approach from the mall, the arches are the first thing you perceive; as you draw closer more and more detail is revealed, displaying a complexity only apparent from close in, and the effect is an ever increasing sense of delight as the full breadth of Platt’s work is revealed. Have you ever noticed the diminishing stone coursing as your eye travels up from water table to cornice? Next time you are in the neighborhood look at it closely – from far away and up close you will see what I mean by the delight it affords.

These days, most of the work that tries to pass itself off as traditional or even worse, as Classical, lacks the simplicity of form and the complexity of perception that is a common trait in the very best of traditional models. Monticello and Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon come to mind, where the basic form or type is understood from a great distance and the same fractal effect as in the Freer Gallery is apparent as one approaches and the basic form gives way to infinitely more enriching detail.

This type of effect is found in nature as we approach a set of woods or a forest; we perceive the whole first, then slowly gain the measure of the singular only as we approach until we see that the form is actually a set of trees in a grouping and that each tree has a natural set of scalar elements all the way down to its cellulose structure. If we were to approach the design of a simple neighborhood house with the same fractal notion in mind, from the basic form of the neighborhood, the block and then the building all the way to the choice of materials that create its architectonic expression, we would be using a most natural process, one of which we are born. Think of how the development of an infant’s vision parallels our comprehension of our environment and you will see how natural the process of recognition really is and how our creative process might best respond in kind. So how does this type of thinking apply to the design of a mere house for any typical client in any typical location? Purpose.

What is the purpose of a house? If you answered by saying that the role of a house is to provide shelter, you would not be wrong, but you would not be answering with full purpose. The house is not just a unit of habitation, it is also a basic unit of a larger whole: the block, the neighborhood, the street, the district and the city. We think of the house in terms of a singular, individual endeavor when we ought to think of it as having a higher purpose. The house is so integral to the creation of place and community that we cannot ignore the responsibility the home has to the larger construct of the traditional city.

Think of it as the triad: utilitas, venustas, firmitas – as opposed to the other triad most notably attributed to the way we build presently: lowest common denominator. Build on cheap land, using cheap designs, with cheap materials – this is the mantra of the vast majority of builders out there and the public buys it up like its going out of style (and by the way, it is going out of style). If we purposefully think of the house as a vital and necessary component to creating community, and contributing to the continuity of the city rather than merely our own individualistic stamp on the fabric of society, then I think we can head in the right direction. As citizens and stewards of the world we both inherit and leave behind, we have the shared responsibility to build our homes with purpose and meaning.

As patrons of this magazine, we all fully appreciate the beauty and the vitality of the period home and the value of its significance to the built environment. We care enough to do the best we can to ensure that we get the building right, and in doing so we continue and foster a set of traditions and practices that we hope will far outlive us. Whether we are practitioners, patrons or enthusiasts, we serve a higher calling by thinking of simple, elegant buildings that contribute to the greater whole in form, detail, materials and relationship to the larger community. If we do that, we add to the already ongoing conversation rather than disrupt the natural flow of the dialogue as some current structures attempt to behave or rather misbehave. If we think of each other rather than only ourselves, we approach our endeavor with purpose, a purpose worth slowing down for and appreciating more fully. If we share this purpose with those around us we can stop the madness of the subdivision, the strip mall, the office park and replace it with lovable places worth passing down to our grandchildren.  


Braulio Casas is the principal of Seaside, FL-based Braulio Casas Architects. In 2010, the firm won a Palladio Award for a new residence at Seaside.

 

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