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Native places by Frank Harmon

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

A recent observation that “Architectural debate in London is like an overcrowded party at which the fashionable guests all shout louder and louder to be sure of being heard” could be applied to many places.

Over the past 40 years, we have seen passionate beliefs bloom and wither: defensible space, post modernism, passive solar design, deconstructivism and parametrics to name a few. Yet there is no comparable call to action for the fundamentals of good architecture: color, texture, proportion and scale.

These sketches are about experiencing architecture. They look at everyday things and places in an attempt to discover the common ground on which architecture stands.

Thinking large, building small

In a world that rewards size, Seattle architect Tom Kundig likes to build small. He designs modest houses to be made of steel plate as thick as your finger and concrete you could sharpen a knife on. The physical immediacy of his buildings is like biting into a lemon.

Kundig designed the entire wall of this Idaho vacation house to pivot and open to the sky. Its hand-powered gizmo is so efficient the owner’s eight-year-old daughter can use it to lift the two-ton wall. A gesture like this would go unnoticed in an airplane hangar. In a small house, it is sensational.

There is a history of small buildings that have an influence greater than their size: for example, Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas by Fay Jones, the Magney House in Australia by Glenn Murcutt, and the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps, France, by Le Corbusier. Each has inspired architects to rethink building. Building small doesn’t guarantee great architecture, but it doesn’t prevent it, either.

Thick Walls Thin Skins

New buildings are changing the London skyline, and not all Londoners are amused by the view. Wags have nicknamed some of these skyscrapers the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe), the Cheesegrater (the Leadenhall Building), and the Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street).

When I visited the Cheesegrater recently, I noticed a squat brick structure nearby named the Scottish Provident Building, designed by architect William Curtis Green in 1912. Green made the front of limestone, the sides of white glazed brick, and he supported everything on a thick granite base. His windows flood the workrooms with daylight.

Thin-skinned skyscrapers aspire to a new world architecture, but the thick walls of Scottish Provident belong to the streets of London. For over a century its granite base resisted the banging of carts and trucks, its white glazed bricks shed the London soot and brightened the narrow street, and its windows provided light for clerks at their desks on dim winter afternoons. These thick walls are probably good for another 100 years, if they’re not torn down for the next Cheesegrater. Buildings like Scottish Provident don’t make the history books, but they make sense.

Faith and Reason In Columbus, Indiana

As war raged, the First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana was consecrated in 1942. It stood in contrast to the elaborate style of Classical and Victorian churches of the time. It was designed by Eliel Saarinen, who embraced modern architecture as an antidote to the superstition and closeminded society that led to World War I. Saarinen’s contemporary Hannah Arendt wrote: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evildoing?” The congregation asked Saarinen to design a church where even the most humble member “would feel at home there and able to worship her god.” He designed walls that were unadorned, windows the proportion of tree trunks, and a sanctuary suffused in daylight. On a recent Sunday morning the sun streamed thru its east windows and bathed the congregation in sunlight.

We continue to witness the frailty of reason in the face of war. But if clichés and adherence to conventional forms have served to protect us against reality, as Arendt said, the First Christian Church remains an oasis of self awareness.

The Forgotten Craftsman

For nearly one hundred years this house near Deltaville, Virginia has welcomed the rising sun to the east and warmed itself by the sun setting in the west. It is one of countless houses of its kind built by unknown craftsmen in Tidewater Virginia.

It may be considered among the finest houses in America, not because it is exceptional but because it is ordinary. The great English architect Philip Webb was unhappy with his design until it looked commonplace. An artistic house is made to behold, a common house is made to be held in our hands.

The beauty of this house comes from the fact that we don’t notice it. The brick clay was dug from a hill nearby, the oak and pine boards were cut from local trees, and the same house was made over and over. Like a wildflower in a thicket, it is without consciousness of beauty, style, or fashion. Straightforward, natural, modest and without contrivance, it has the same qualities we admire in a person.

In Zen there is a saying that at the far end of the road lies effortless peace. The beauty of this house lies in its effortless peace.

The Lawn at the University of Virginia

U.S. President and architect Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1825. Its buildingsare ranked around a terraced hilltop planted in grass and collectively known as the Lawn. Here Jefferson hoped that freedom and discipline could be reconciled.

At one end of the Lawn Jefferson built the university library, a half sized replica of the Roman Pantheon. He left the other end of the Lawn open to the Blue Ridge Mountains, inviting us to take a larger view. Down the long sides of the Lawn he built rows of small brick rooms for students, houses for professors and class rooms.

If one end of the Lawn represented Order and the other end Freedom, Jefferson placed students and faculty squarely between the two.

On a recent spring evening groups of students sat on the Lawn laughing, talking, and looking at the distant mountains. In a few days many of them would graduate in a ceremony to be held on the grassy landscape where they sat.

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