Making Better Architecture

 

A recent comment by Ricochet member extraordinaire James Lileks discussed an article from Forbes which stated “Frank Gehry, the world’s most famous architect, recently said that “98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure [crap]. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else.”*

The Forbes article continues with “insulated architects are “increasingly incapable … of creating artful, harmonious work that resonates with a broad swath of the general population, …this has been a problem for over forty years, and that things are even worse today.” The article also shows a pretty “Katrina cottage” vs. another modern monstrosity in New Orleans. As we have little power over what’s chosen by politicians, we can (still) choose our residence to reflect both our needs and wants.

When I was young, I enjoyed drawing superhighway exchanges and houses, so I thought of becoming either a Civil Engineer or an Architect. My older cousin went to a special four-year program at Michigan State University in Architecture Engineering but then became an Urban Planner instead. After I graduated with a Computer Science degree in Engineering, my Architect dream never faded, and within ten years I designed the first of two houses.

I spent many nights and weekends not only drafting plans but also learning about all the subsystems (Electrical, Plumbing, Heating/Air Conditioning, etc.) and construction details. The two-story house was ”solar ready,” with a 45-degree pitched roof on the south side and three bedrooms upstairs. The first floor had a bedroom/office with a full bathroom for guests or special needs. The downstairs Family Room and upstairs Master Bedroom both had a fireplace within a common wall. For the façade, I found a modern design with an extended stone wall (a required covenant) to help hide the outside air conditioner unit. After making mistakes on the first house, I returned six years later with a bigger house and better floor plan, and tackled designing the façade. It was also “solar ready,” trying to anticipate future modifications.

Like fashions, house designs go through fads. In the 1970s, houses had intercom systems that played music and also incorporated the doorbell. Upscale, one-story houses in Texas included “conversation pit” in front of the fireplace. Frank Lloyd Wright developed this idea before World War II, but it wastes space by being inflexible. Since then, we’ve gone through the McMansion stage, where people buy the biggest house to sell later at a profit. The present Open Floor Plan (Kitchen, Dining, Family) tries to compensate for smaller houses, but it mimics the 1930s Usonian homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and others. In my daughter’s apartment, the noise from the kitchen made it difficult to listen to the TV or read a book, so another enclosed room is still needed.

If you want help designing your home, I recommend reading the following:

A Pattern Language “The wonderful places of the world were not made by architects, but by the people.”

The Not so Big House by Sarah Susanka

I especially liked the first book, as it gives templates such as a “sheltered entrance with a sitting space” (e.g. a short wall) as an example. In Georgian architecture, the “five (widows) over four with a door” is pleasing, but it doesn’t have an entry sitting space and sometimes not even a roof for the rain. Georgian designs work in London’s tight city streets by reducing the exterior entry space.

The second book was written by an architect who adds functionality with less space. Because so few homes are custom designed, her experience tends to be very upscale. From Goodreads with a positive and negative comment:

What a concept. Small is beautiful. And yet we continue to build MacMansions. This book made me rethink what I want and need in daily living. I guess I am not alone because Susanka has spun off about a dozen books reflecting this sensible concept. “Return to Simplicity” is now my mantra.

The biggest challenge was the totally open floor plan, with kitchen, living room, and dining room all in one rectangular space that didn’t lend itself to built-in dividers such as ceiling beams or bookshelves;

Even after designing two houses, I still have the bug and have purchased a half-acre lot. The present design is focused around a south-side sunspace. The main rooms (Family, Room, Nook, Kitchen, and Master Bedroom) share solar heat in the winter and cross ventilation during the summer. The small Living Room is isolated using doors and can become a fourth bedroom. Removable panels allow Dining Room adults visual contact with children in the Nook, with hot and cold food areas around the oven. It’s designed to be Americans with Disability Act (ADA) ready, with the large lot and “reasonable” size/cost appealing to young families.

Do you have comments on good/bad house designs throughout the years? Is a smaller house with more architecture details better than more space? Do you think the Open Floor Plan is a fad again?

* Gehry’s designs like the Walt Disney Concert Hall above (one of his “best”) still put him in the 98 percent yuk category. Gehry’s design method has been satirized as “dropping sugar cubes on the floor, throwing water over them until they mold into an interesting shape” and then drawing the result, as shown in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology building on the right. In Architecture, form follows function is not an absolute, but it is a good starting point.

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There are 71 comments.

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  1. Boss Mongo Member

    Awesome post. I don’t know squat about building houses. My lifestyle has not lent itself to owning property. But I may be reaching an aging where it is time to do grown up stuff.

    Were I to design a house, I’d have “Roman villa” in mind. That doesn’t mean grandiose, but a U-shaped house where every room’s interior wall is all glass and opens to the outdoor interior, which would have a picnic table or something that would be the primary gathering place during fair weather. If I could build that villa under an ancient oak tree, even better (yeah, I know; roots).

    • #1
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:11 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  2. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Awesome post. I don’t know squat about building houses. My lifestyle has not lent itself to owning property. But I may be reaching an aging where it is time to do grown up stuff.

    Were I to design a house, I’d have “Roman villa” in mind. That doesn’t mean grandiose, but a U-shaped house where every room’s interior wall is all glass and opens to the outdoor interior, which would have a picnic table or something that would be the primary gathering place during fair weather. If I could build that villa under an ancient oak tree, even better (yeah, I know; roots).

    Your design makes great sense for South Florida! 

    If you place a “solid” wall at the top of the “U,” you could defend it from all comers, even Chuck Norris. Now as for hurricanes, that’s another matter.

    • #2
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:22 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Awesome post. I don’t know squat about building houses. My lifestyle has not lent itself to owning property. But I may be reaching an aging where it is time to do grown up stuff.

    Were I to design a house, I’d have “Roman villa” in mind. That doesn’t mean grandiose, but a U-shaped house where every room’s interior wall is all glass and opens to the outdoor interior, which would have a picnic table or something that would be the primary gathering place during fair weather. If I could build that villa under an ancient oak tree, even better (yeah, I know; roots).

    So not the Spanish colonial villa, with enclosed courtyard? Maybe firing points on the roof and wall corners?

    • #3
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:31 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Steven Seward Member

    I agree that Frank Gehry’s buildings are awful. They are all based on the same gimmick of drooping goo and they look like buildings made for little children. I’m not surprised that he is so arrogant about it as well.

    • #4
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:32 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  5. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Like fashions, house designs go through fads. In the 1970’s, houses had intercom systems that played music and also incorporated the doorbell.

    I remember the intercom system . . . and the popcorn ceilings. Popcorn ceilings were the leisure suit of home design.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2019 Theme Writing: How Do You Make That? There are plenty of dates still available. Tell us about anything from knitting a sweater to building a mega-structure. Share your proudest success or most memorable failure (how not to make that). Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits; several days are still available!

    March’s theme is posted: “Unexpected Gifts.”

    • #5
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:32 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. DonG Coolidge

    dining and formal living rooms are a waste. Focus on kitchen and family room where most folks spend waking minutes. Open floor plans are great. A covered patio/outdoor-living space is very nice for entertaining and relaxing. A laundry tub and some space for a workbench in garage is nice. I seem to need a lot of space to store seasonal items and most floorplans don’t plan for storing crap. 

    • #6
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:34 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  7. cirby Member

    One near-future consideration for new homes will be media/Virtual Reality room design.

    With the advent of very large, cheap screens, a “home theater” is no longer a rich man’s plaything, and a wall-sized roll-up display will probably be in the under-$1000 range by 2025.

    Then there’s VR.

    Within a few years, having an unobstructed, well-cooled space of at least 150 square feet (with a vertical clearance of at least eight feet) for virtual reality play will be more and more important. I already have a dedicated room for VR, and it’s pretty damned neat.

    Between these two things, the central “social room” will be even more important.

     

    • #7
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:37 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Boss Mongo Member

    cirby (View Comment):
    Within a few years, having an unobstructed, well-cooled space of at least 150 square feet (with a vertical clearance of at least eight feet) for virtual reality play will be more and more important. I already have a dedicated room for VR, and it’s pretty damned neat.

    Or, I ignore that because I get my VR through a Kindle, and instead have a vertical herb garden.

    (Sorry, I sound like a douche in that comment. I re-wrote it three different ways and they all looked like they sounded douche-y. No rancor in this comment at all. Honest word)

    • #8
    • February 20, 2019, at 5:59 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    I’ve often day-dreamed about designing my own home. Never really had an opportunity. Maybe when I’m closer to retiring, and can talk my wife into letting me…. /-:

    • #9
    • February 20, 2019, at 6:11 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    DonG (View Comment):

    dining and formal living rooms are a waste. Focus on kitchen and family room where most folks spend waking minutes. Open floor plans are great. A covered patio/outdoor-living space is very nice for entertaining and relaxing. A laundry tub and some space for a workbench in garage is nice. I seem to need a lot of space to store seasonal items and most floorplans don’t plan for storing crap.

    The Dining Room is much smaller in the 3rd house design, because it borrows visual space from the entry and transverse halls. The Living Room can be repurposed as a home office (not shown in the simplified drawing above) with a separate entry door. My present house (not designed by me) has a 1st floor study off the front door, where I did my contract work away from household noise. If you need more room for stuff, you can even repurpose both the Dining and Living Rooms. As said previously, we can still choose our residence for our needs and wants.

    • #10
    • February 20, 2019, at 7:16 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Full Size Tabby Member

    Enclosed space vs architectural aesthetics:

    Now that we are financially fairly well off empty nesters, we value architectural aesthetics higher relative to the quantity of enclosed space higher than we did when we had children in the house.

    Also, when we lived in a geography that had cold winters (Rochester, NY) we valued the quantity of enclosed space over architectural aesthetics. We now live in a new, relatively small, but architecturally interesting house in Texas. Covered outdoor space (particularly at the entry doors) was important to us.

    When we lived in Orange County, CA (before it got prohibitively expensive) we could afford architectural aesthetics because the climate allowed us to use outdoor space as living activity space, so the amount of enclosed space was less important in our priorities. 

    • #11
    • February 20, 2019, at 7:42 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    I agree that Frank Gehry’s buildings are awful. They are all based on the same gimmick of drooping goo and they look like buildings made for little children. I’m not surprised that he is so arrogant about it as well.

    Like much of “modern” architecture, the “curvy style” was preceded by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in Barcelona Spain. His Casa Batlló is different and not my taste, but much more functional than Gehry’s.

    • #12
    • February 20, 2019, at 7:47 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. Full Size Tabby Member

    Open floor plans:

    We were surprised to discover when we started looking for what became our current house that we liked the floor space efficiency of the open floor plan concept.

    BUT – only because of a couple of things.

    One is, as noted in the previous comment, we are empty-nesters, so there are only two of us, so kitchen noise is not constant. We (actually I) use a separate room that the builder labels “dining room” as my study, so that when Mrs. Tabby is working in the kitchen I don’t get the full effect of the noise.

    Second is that we chose a design in which the kitchen is in a corner of the open space. Most of the open floor plans we saw had the kitchen as the centerpiece of the open space, with the kitchen projecting prominently into the open space and/or being positioned so that the primary path from the house entry door to the living space either actually passed through the kitchen, or passed so close to the kitchen operations that it felt like you were passing through the kitchen. We did not like those arrangements.

    When we had our large house in Rochester (NY), we liked having a large living room separated from the kitchen, and we did actually use the formal dining room twice daily (breakfast and dinner) as a dining room. It was nice to enjoy a family meal without being able to see the kitchen utensils and dirty pans.

    • #13
    • February 20, 2019, at 7:54 PM PDT
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  14. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    Most of the open floor plans we saw had the kitchen as the centerpiece of the open space, with the kitchen projecting prominently into the open space and/or being positioned so that the primary path from the house entry door to the living space either actually passed through the kitchen, or passed so close to the kitchen operations that it felt like you were passing through the kitchen.

    This is my major complaint of Open Floor plans.

    • #14
    • February 20, 2019, at 8:03 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Steven Seward Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Like much of “modern” architecture, the “curvy style” was preceded by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in Barcelona Spain. His Casa Batlló is different and not my taste, but much more functional than Gehry’s.

    So was Antoni Gaudi the inspiration for the word gaudy?

     

    • #15
    • February 20, 2019, at 10:52 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. James Lileks Contributor

    Gehry’s designs like the Walt Disney Concert Hall above (one of his “best”) still put him in the 98% yuk category. Gehry’s design method has been satirized as “dropping sugar cubes on the floor, throwing water over them until they mold into an interesting shape”

    I think it’s more like a combo of Jiffy Pop containers and broken glass. 

    My house is more than a century old. It’s been modified over the years, but the bones of the home seem to have an innate understanding of the way people wish to live. A canny remodeling before we got here sacrificed a bedroom for a master bath that compensated for the era’s parsimonious closet space – apparently people in 1915 had a suit and two shirts and little else.

    There’s nothing I could do that wouldn’t ruin it. The downside: no space for a TV as big as I’d like. The upside: tradition and history galore. The previous owners left us a copy of a memoir written by the son of the man who built the house; Dad was a candy maker, back when Minneapolis was a big confection hub.

    When he was in his later days he wrote a series of articles for the local free weekly, recalling life in the neighborhood in the 20s. In his last piece he talked about going back to the house, and screwing up the nerve to knock on the door and talk to the present owners.

    A few years ago a woman came by with a young man; they used to live here. Could they have a look? But of course. Turns out she was the woman in the newspaper piece. So I’ve shook hands with the woman who shook hands with the kid who grew up here. 

    There are days when I think about having to move because I’m old, and it’s a lance to the sternum.

    • #16
    • February 20, 2019, at 10:55 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  17. Mrs. Ink Member

    I have to defend big houses, if you live in a place with long winters. It is a matter of sanity to be able to get away from each other without going outdoors.

    Gehry is awful, and arrogant with it.

    • #17
    • February 20, 2019, at 11:21 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  18. sawatdeeka Member

    I love open floor plans, with their feeling of space and the sense that I can stand in one place and know the layout of the whole house. It bothers me when houses are labyrinthine and seem to have rooms leading to other rooms to no logical purpose.

    With open floor plans, you do have to have the TV tucked away in another part of the house, which makes them all the better.

    • #18
    • February 21, 2019, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  19. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    I’ve always liked some of the Midcentury Modern style houses. They harken back to an era of possibility where we hoped for a Jetsons-style future.

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    • February 21, 2019, at 6:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Boss Mongo Member

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    I’ve always liked some of the Midcentury Modern style houses. They harken back to an era of possibility where we hoped for a Jetsons-style future.

    OP, I hit like, but honestly I don’t even know what that means. 

    Rock on, Jetsons.

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    • February 21, 2019, at 6:20 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    I’ve always liked some of the Midcentury Modern style houses. They harken back to an era of possibility where we hoped for a Jetsons-style future.

    OP, I hit like, but honestly I don’t even know what that means.

    Rock on, Jetsons.

    You can watch the latest PBS network This Old House for an (awful) example, as shown in the link.

    I grew up in a Midwest “planned community” where most houses were single story slab, 0-1 car garage, 1 bath, 3 itty-bitty bedrooms, about 1200-1400 square feet. Most were mid-century modern, with low sloping roofs and little decoration. We also lived in a two story townhouse with no garage. But the town was clean, with a good school system and little crime.

    • #21
    • February 21, 2019, at 6:34 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    With open floor plans, you do have to have the TV tucked away in another part of the house, which makes them all the better.

    The previous project on This Old House was modified by an architect to an open floor plan, and also had to include a separate TV / study room.

    • #22
    • February 21, 2019, at 7:00 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. The Reticulator Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    With open floor plans, you do have to have the TV tucked away in another part of the house, which makes them all the better.

    The previous project on This Old House was modified by an architect to an open floor plan, and also had to include a separate TV / study room.

    TV room is incompatible with study room. Actually, a TV room is incompatible with living space.

    • #23
    • February 21, 2019, at 7:51 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. cirby Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    With open floor plans, you do have to have the TV tucked away in another part of the house, which makes them all the better.

    The previous project on This Old House was modified by an architect to an open floor plan, and also had to include a separate TV / study room.

    TV room is incompatible with study room. Actually, a TV room is incompatible with living space.

    My “TV” is a monitor, not used as a television. Hook a laptop or other computer up to the big monitor for study.

    Likewise, my “reading room” is my gaming machine with the 40″ monitor and a computer running the Kindle software.

     

    • #24
    • February 22, 2019, at 5:54 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    Antoni Gaudi

    Is that where the word “gaudy” comes from? If not, it should.

    • #25
    • February 23, 2019, at 2:58 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Kozak Member

    It’s been a problem for a century….

    From Bauhaus to Our House

    Tom Wolfe

    • #26
    • February 23, 2019, at 3:09 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  27. Kozak Member

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    Antoni Gaudi

    is that where the word “gaudy” comes from? If not, it should.

    I was in Barcelona last March. You can’t swing a dead cat in that town without hitting something he built.

    • #27
    • February 23, 2019, at 3:27 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  28. EDISONPARKS Member

    Here in Chicago plans for the Obama Presidential Library has created controversy and lawsuits in relation to the taking part of Jackson Park, using the lakefront, substantially altering the existing infrastructure and roadways, as well as using taxpayer money, mostly for the latter.

    https://www.apnews.com/5ebba6848efe4800918654935c84eb45

    It’s important to note the lawsuit is not ideological (Left v Right) , it is just another enjoyable internecine Lefty battle in the one Party State of Chicago.

    I personally don’t give a sheeet either way, my only objection is to the butt ugly architectural design of the taller main building (the one story low rise stuff with the landscaping over it is actually fine IMO).

    Image result for obama presidential library

    • #28
    • February 23, 2019, at 4:22 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  29. Steven Seward Member

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Here in Chicago plans for the Obama Presidential Library has created controversy and lawsuits in relation to the taking part of Jackson Park, using the lakefront, substantially altering the existing infrastructure and roadways, as well as using taxpayer money, mostly for the latter.

    https://www.apnews.com/5ebba6848efe4800918654935c84eb45

    It’s important to note the lawsuit is not ideological (Left v Right) , it is just another enjoyable internecine Lefty battle in the one Party State of Chicago.

    I personally don’t give a sheeet either way, my only objection is to the butt ugly architectural design of the taller main building (the one story low rise stuff with the landscaping over it is actually fine IMO).

    Image result for obama presidential library

    It looks like a big industrial furnace, or some part of a hideous nuclear reactor. There is an architectural term for this, known as “BRUTALIST”

    • #29
    • February 23, 2019, at 4:29 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  30. SkipSul Moderator

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Here in Chicago plans for the Obama Presidential Library has created controversy and lawsuits in relation to the taking part of Jackson Park, using the lakefront, substantially altering the existing infrastructure and roadways, as well as using taxpayer money, mostly for the latter.

    https://www.apnews.com/5ebba6848efe4800918654935c84eb45

    It’s important to note the lawsuit is not ideological (Left v Right) , it is just another enjoyable internecine Lefty battle in the one Party State of Chicago.

    I personally don’t give a sheeet either way, my only objection is to the butt ugly architectural design of the taller main building (the one story low rise stuff with the landscaping over it is actually fine IMO).

    Image result for obama presidential library

    What a monstrous and terrible building! It is fitting, though, as it makes any visitors feel small and insignificant before the great and terrible Oz obelisk.

    • #30
    • February 23, 2019, at 5:07 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
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