Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sounds Like a Plan

I was nine years old when I decided I would be an architect. I would live on a farm. I would own a radio station.

As it turned out, I worked in several radio stations, I designed and built some houses, and I live on a farm. I actually studied architecture (briefly), before I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That was before I discovered writing, the work that compels me even today. At the same time, I have never lost interest in architecture, and in building things.

My most recent building is a woodshed next to the outdoor furnace that heats our rambling mountainside home on our farm. When we bought this property more than 25 years ago, it had three houses already on it, but none really suited us. Instead, we designed our new home ourselves, and our contractor worked from drawings I prepared, most of them finished a day or two before he was ready for the next phase (site preparation, foundation, framing, roofing and so on). Skills I had learned during summer jobs in an architectural firm are still relevant today, although most architects depend on computer aided design (CAD) programs. Now our daughter is preparing to move back to the farm, taking up one of the existing houses, and one granddaughter is preparing to move here in the summer and build a new house in one of our fields, so there will continue to be interesting construction plans and projects to follow.

As part of keeping up-to-date about structures and materials and design trends, I recently read a book that surveyed architecture over about the last thousand years. It was interesting, not because I had not been familiar with early exercises in designing buildings, but because I haven’t kept up with trends in modern building design. Reading the book has been somewhat akin to surveying trends in literature, particularly fiction. Fiction because it is where the writer’s mind is free to leap from real to beyond belief with little penalty. As new directions in fiction appear I often find myself longing for the period that spanned the first half of the Twentieth Century. The same with architecture.

The advent of CAD, and of new materials and the engineering that makes them work often leaves me wondering “Why?” Why design something that to me looks like things we did in the design lab that occupied three hours every day when I was still studying architecture. We experimented with materials, with form, with color, but precious little was thought of as practical either in approach or usefulness. They were exercises, and that’s all.

I’m showing my age, I know, and I’m at risk of being one of those “we didn’t do it that way in MY time” bores, but it is how I see forms and structures (books or buildings) that strive for the outer limits, for edginess in construction. All too often those forms wither on their own. The  energy and creativity and just plain giddy experimentation that go into those attempts could serve a much better purpose if the energy spent was aimed with more precision at providing usable space or telling a wonderful tale.

I do admire a creative use of space or materials, and derive great pleasure from words that fit
together as if hand-carved to be joined in just the right way; the only way those elements could go together and be perfect. I don’t want or expect every story to read like every other in terms of form or language. But sometimes, as a reader, I can be distracted to the point of losing my way. When the form the author has imposed is more challenging or interesting than the story itself, when the form the building takes makes it easy to lose your way, it is often easier to simply turn around and leave.

Book or building: both should have a discernible shape, with clear guide lines to get you from entrance to exit.

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