drawing as practice – hand and eye and mind

I often make idea drawings at some time during the duration of the design phase of a project.

Similar to making a physical model of the project, idea drawings take time and are a kind of meditative practice focusing on the nascent building but shedding the usual constraints of setbacks, budgets and functionalism.  There certainly is a kind of mind/body thinking that is enacted only when the hands are engaged in making whether that be cardboard and glue or pencil and paper.

On occasion these drawings are more explicit imaginings of the project space itself, like the image above.  At maybe the other extreme, they can be drawings of just the site or something on the property that sparks the imagination and may not directly influence the project but place you on the site for some concentrated time.

In all cases, they are akin to a slow marinating of the project, stepping away from the quick prep of all the necessary requirements of utility, function, structure and budgets.

piano noble – architect's glossary

The “piano noble” is not a fancy musical instrument, rather it is the “noble floor”.  In a traditional Italian palace, the most important  floors were at least one story above the ground level which was often used for storage or, in Venice, as a rather damp entryway from the canals.

Venetian palazzo

This elevated level for the family’s most impressive public rooms – salons and receiving rooms – allowed for greater views and in urban palaces better access to sunlight amongst the narrow streets.

Villa Savoye by LeCorbusier

For more contemporary houses, not having store rooms and servant rooms to occupy the ground level, the piano noble design places the family’s private rooms on the lower level and grants the upper level to living room, dining room, kitchen etc.  This reverses the typical configuration of the usual house and paradoxically places the most private rooms on the ground floor in the least private location.  It does however, give to the main rooms what might be panoramic views that are available with the additional elevation.  This situation occurs often in Colorado where the mountain views may be blocked at the ground but open dramatically just 12 feet or so up.

The piano noble reverses the usual evening course of living in a multi-level house in that you do not go up to the stars and moon to go to sleep, but rather down to the earth.  For most people the loss of privacy on the lower level in especially urban areas as well as this odd phenomenological reversal of the place of sleep can not be overcome.  But, with good design and sensitivity to privacy issues, I think the piano noble can be very interesting and make for extraordinary houses.

architect's pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

architect’s pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

a house lost to fire

A weekend of working through a lot of drawings has put me hopelessly behind on the Reverb 10 project.  Catching up may not be possible, but in the midst of many studio hours logged over the last few days, I have been thinking about Friday’s prompt:

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year

I am working on a design for a house for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Fire west of Boulder.  The first time I was going to meet them at their burned-out house, in that devastated landscape, I went up a bit early to give myself some time to react to the aftereffects of the fire without embarassing myself, without letting the sadness of the scene overwhelm me.

Looking at these now, I can still vividly recall the dry, blowing ash, the snow-crunch under foot of glass, embers and debris.  And of course the somber black of the trees and landscape and the desiccated whiteness of hard-baked drywall.  But most of all, the smell of smoke that lingered in my car for week.  I have a small piece of broken, melted glass from the fire in my office and just looking at it recalls that smoke, acrid and merciless.

Reverb 10

For the month of December I am going to try to participate in the Reverb 10 project.  The idea is to respond to a daily prompt and use the opportunity to write or comment on that topic via a blog or twitter.  Hopefully at the end of the month and year, a picture of the thoughts and concerns of a small segment of the online community will have been mapped and traveling that landscape will help us all navigate the year to come.

In that I only post things to the blog every few days, I’m afraid my responses will be probably brief and certainly often quickly thrown together.  However, today’s prompt, from author Leo Babauta, has caused some more lingering musings.

“Writing.  What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing – and can you eliminate it?”

My first response was to say that I am not a writer, and virtually everything I do every day “gets in the way” of writing.  And I’m good with that.  For the most part I would rather be making buildings than writing and I get to do that everyday.  Along with that flippant first impression I thought “why of course everything contributes to my writing”.  Which is stupid and certainly the author of the prompt, an actual author, knows what he is talking about and that kind of childish sentiment is not what he is getting at.

The sinking realization however is that although I am not a writer, I do find myself doing just that, if not every day then at least more than a few times a week.  It does in fact get in the way of making buildings sometimes as the easiest excuse not to tackle yet another drafting task is to spend a few minutes writing another blog post.  And I have to admit that the writing of the blog, which started 3 years ago as a bit of an experiment and maybe a little free marketing, has become significantly meaningful to me.  I am not entirely happy at this prospect as I have spent some 20 years or so crafting my skills, honing my intuitions, to make the best possible buildings I can.  I am unabashedly passionate about architecture and have to constantly reign in my enthusiasm to be even vaguely socially competent.  To find myself occasionally distracted by writing is unfamiliar ground, foreign lands.

So I’ll turn that prompt around a bit and say that although writing does sometimes distract me from architecture, it has now become a necessary component, a lesser-traveled but parallel track to making buildings.  I think as I get more comfortable writing in addition to drawing, they will be mutually reinforcing and the mental shift that writing demands will contribute to the process of designing in something other than a necessary distraction

(Have I sufficiently diverged from the prompt to wrap this up?  I think so.  Back to the drawing board. Really, I get to do that.)

stile and rail – architect's glossary

“Stile and rail” is a type of wood construction for doors and other panel-like objects.  The horizontal piece is called the rail, the vertical piece is called the stile.

door parts, from McFarland Door

In ye olden days, before the advent of plywood and other engineered panel products, doors were made from solid planks of wood.  If you have a wood floor, you may know that gaps appear and disappear throughout the year depending on the season, humidity, species of wood, etc.  For a door or any large panel, this kind of expansion and contraction wreaks havoc on the fit of the door creating gaps and binding.  To overcome this problem, stile and rail construction became the preferred solution for quality carpentry.  The boards that make up the panel, the center part, are slotted into the surrounding stile and rail and can slightly move, expanding and contracting, within this frame without effecting the overall dimensions and stability of the frame. The familiar look of stile and rail, the surrounding “frame” and inset panel, was not simply an aesthetic choice, but the result of a technological solution.

For the last almost 100 years, typical doors and cabinets are made with a variety of materials, often composite wood products, that are dimensionally stable without the need of the use of stile and rail technology.  However, the familiar look of stile and rail has persisted, especially in door styles.

So, remember that “stile” is not “style”, but “stile and rail” has become a style.  Simple.