I’m at Greenbuild in New Orleans. A walk through the exhibits reveals a lot of manufacturers trying to prove that what they’ve always sold is green. That’s the definition of greenwashing. On the other hand, there is some really clever stuff here as well. I’ll be blogging about both on my Useful Stuff blog today and tomorrow because it’s better suited to quick, short posts with images than this blog. Check it out!
There’s a strongly-held view in some architectural camps that minimalist design is unlovable, but I believe that’s a misconception based on the famously-sterile architecture of the 1970s. I even railed in last week’s post against the dangers of pursuing minimalist design so hard that we get rid of essential things. So let’s take a look at ways clean design can achieve lovability.
Love and Respect
It’s hard for design to be lovable and therefore sustainable if it’s not respectful of its setting.
Wanda and I moved to Miami eleven years ago, buying a unit at The Dixon, a noted Art Deco landmark in the heart of South Beach. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a long-time advocate of lovability as the first foundation of sustainable buildings because if a building can’t be loved, it won’t last, because we'll find some excuse to rid ourselves of the unlovable. But I’m also a huge advocate for contextual design that respects its surroundings, so it was a foregone conclusion that our renovated condo would not look like something we might have done in another setting. Instead, it became an intriguing exploration of a new part of the character of lovability.
The high standard of great minimalism is losing no essential thing while keeping no unnecessary thing.
Our bedroom is the simplest room I have ever designed, and I thought for a long time about what was really needed. A tent is exotic yet peaceful to me. The bedroom was almost perfectly square to begin with, so I began by encircling the room with a curtain that is precisely an eleven foot square.
The curtain runs across everything… windows, closets, yes, even the door. Come into the room and close the curtain and it’s very much like being in a tent. It’s also very quiet because the fabric absorbs so much sound. Andrés Duany said “this room feels better than any room I’ve been in for a long time for reasons I can’t quite describe.
The huge white ceiling fan indulges a bit of fancy with a nod to our island home: each blade’s spine is a fishing rod stretching sail cloth into a blade. The bed is a white leather platform bed with a white down comforter. There are only two other things in the room (other than us): two little floor lamps of a perfect height for reading in bed.
Other than that, what is really necessary? And editing all those other normal bedroom artifacts out creates a couple’s retreat so immersed with and peace and calm that it borders on the sublime.
A Chef's Kitchen
Visual simplicity in a kitchen hides all the tools from view. Far better to see everything, so cooking is simple.
Our kitchen is a very different room from our bedroom. It abandons the visual simplicity of the bedroom so that it can achieve simplicity of use. Our son Sam, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, calls this a “chef’s kitchen,” the opposite of which is a “show kitchen.”
A chef’s kitchen creates a different sort of lovability. By being quirky, engaging and warm, it invites others to join in and cook together, like Wanda is doing with her sister Janna here. Several types of lovability are delivered by the design itself, but in this case, the design merely sets the stage for people to have experiences they will recall in pleasant memories.
Things that Curve
No part of the body is without curve. We resonate with design that reflects curving human form in some way.
These shelves are soapstone slabs, cut in a gentle mirrored S-curve (or reflected cyma, if you prefer) to honor the Art Deco heritage of the building, as that language of architecture was well-stocked with repeated ribs of various shapes used for many purposes.
Most consruction materials and components are straight, from wood studs to concrete block to sheets of metal roofing. Curves, therefore, are usually quite expensive to achieve. A space composed only of curves would be so exotic that it might even seem psychedelic, as you might recall if you’ve ever seen any of the 1960s architecture that tried to do precisely that. So use curves sparingly, but don’t forget about them because well-designed things that remind us of our own form usually get points for lovability.
Things that Grow
Places that welcome living things, plant or animal, tend to be more lovable than those too polished to be bothered.
We’ve all seen rooms so visually sophisticated, whether classical or modern, that it seems as if any intrusion might degrade them. “Too perfect to live in” is a description I’ve heard countless times for places like this.
Because minimalism falls off this cliff faster than classicism, it’s really important for a minimalist space to be imperfect enough to accept various life forms. And a minimalist room arguably benefits most, because these two palm fronds arguably make a bigger impact in a room like this than they would in one already chock-full of decorative embellishments. Bringing the outdoors in can be a responsible thing as well… Wanda almost always salvages greenery that was trimmed or pruned away, giving it a few more days of life indoors as it delights us in exchange.
Lovable places frequently are built with at least one thing that brings you up short and makes you chuckle.
The most chuckle-worthy thing in our condo is probably the door casing. For reasons that are a story for another day, I needed the casing to sit very flat against the wall. And I wanted to honor the metal detailing found throughout our Art Deco building in some way. I was walking through one of those great old lumberyards in Miami one day… Shell Lumber, if you know the area. I was looking for something else, but then a piece of flashing caught my eye. It was precisely the right width, and quarter-inch drip crimp not only would hold the free-floating edge straight along its length, but it was a near-perfect metaphor for the edge band often found on classical wood casing. Delighted, I purchased my galvanized-roof-flashing-turned-door-casing and headed back to the condo, where my trim carpenter thought for a moment that I had completely lost my mind… but who still to this day occasionally brings people here to show them his most unusual casing job ever!
Head to Foot
Lovable design reflects the vertical arrangement of the human body, which has a top, a middle, and a bottom.
Most often, reflection of the body from head to foot is thought of as a head, body, and foot, like the capital, shaft, and base of a classical column. But there are other ways of reflecting us as well.
This room, for example, divides between middle and bottom at the waist, marked by a black soapstone belt. The tile wainscot reflects the legs and the black soapstone base (not visible here) reflects the feet, while the mirror and painted wall above the belt reflect the body and the painted coffer reflects the head. It’s a bit of a high waist, but that’s because I needed to align the band with the window sills beyond, as you can see from their reflection in the mirror.
Reflecting Our Faces
We resonate with things that reflect us, including the form of the human face.
It’s not essential for a design to have an abstracted face in order for the design to be lovable, but when you can make that happen, people almost invariably smile. Of all the ways of reflecting the human body, the reflection of our faces reaches us most deeply.
If you’re interested, I’ve posted a portfolio of images of our condo, including these and some other images, on the Studio Sky site. Studio Sky, in case you don’t know, is a design firm I run with two great friends, Eric Moser and Julia Sanford. Our goal is to build places and buildings that are highly sustainable according to Original Green and related ideals. I’m building a really interesting Original Green section on Studio Sky, where I step through each of the foundations of the Original Green, all the way to frugal buildings, illustrating each principle with a collection of patterns, some of which might not have occurred to you yet. You’ll find some of the examples from this post on the lovable buildings page, along with several others. I hope you find these Studio Sky pages useful… please keep coming back, as I’m adding stuff all the time.
Leading with principles that anyone can use for free instead of the normal sales pitch makes Studio Sky’s site a bit unique among designers and builders, but I believe this will be the future of designers’ and builders’ websites. If you’re interested in what the future may hold for us, I’m doing a New Media workshop for designers and builders November 8 in Celebration, Florida. Hope to see you there!
As for this post, it has just touched the tip of the lovability iceberg. Have you had enough, or would you come back for more? I’d be happy to do a series of posts on lovability if anyone’s interested… just leave a note below… thanks!
Simplicity isn't so simple, but simplicity done right can create some of the most lovable experiences and things… and the things we love the most are usually the things we sustain the longest. The problem is that there are several types of simplicity, including at least one charlatan close to the end that's not nearly so simple as it appears.
The Bandwidth Pendulum and the Victorian Revival
Conjuring simplicity with images of a simpler time works for a while, but doesn’t ease our bandwidth demands.
The architectural establishment won't acknowledge it, but a Victorian Revival has fluorished for the past three decades in the US, arguably getting into full swing at Seaside. How is it possible that people have embraced things that high-style designers might tag as "fussy" or "frilly" during precisely those decades when our bandwidth has been increasingly sapped away by the 24/7 connectivity of the digital era? I believe the Victorian Revival sprang from a desire to strip away our modern burdens of time demands and complexities and invoke the perceived simplicity of an earlier time. But pendulums always swing back, and while things that recall images of a simpler time can transport us out of the digital torrent for a while, we need a deeper simplicity now, as time demands wash ever deeper over us. Let’s consider several ways of achieving more deeply-rooted simplicity.
Simple to Use
The life expectancy of a tool is inversely proportional to the thickness of its manual.
The best tools need no manuals at all, because their uses are self-evident. And the things that are simplest to use actually lend themselves to much inventiveness of purpose because it’s easy to imagine other things they could be used for that their original designer may never have envisioned.
A simple pleasure is more easily repeated than one that depends on a complex set of conditions.
The caption of this post’s title image asks an important question: Is that bowl of Tuscan bean soup sitting on a checkered tablecloth somewhere in Tuscany simple or not? Visually, there are a lot of things going on, from the texture of the soup itself to the knotty fabric of the tablecloth. So designers might consider the image to be visually complex, but almost everyone else would consider the experience of eating a bowl of Tuscan bean soup in Tuscany to be one of life’s simple pleasures.
And as such, it’s something you can have any time you’re in Tuscany… or any time at all, if you know how to cook. And that’s the great pleasure of simple pleasures: they’re so accessible to us because they come so easily, and many of them can be repeated for a lifetime.
Outsourcing work might be more efficient, but things done in-house are less susceptible to disruption.
Take the IT department, for example. It’s good to have a good IT department. But it’s better to work with systems that are simple enough that you don’t need an IT department. That’s why Apple has fans, while all the other computer companies merely have customers. Those other companies make consultants more powerful; Apple makes me more powerful by making power simpler.
Imperfections are signs of depth - only thin veneers can be perfect, and that perfection doesn’t last.
Veneers had a long and illustrious history… until recently. For centuries, people overlaid structures built of strong but crude materials with thin layers of costly materials with the intent of making buildings more noble. Today, our motive has changed: we're no longer seeking to make buildings more noble, but to make them maintenance-free. So now we coat building elements with thin layers of cheap materials like vinyl or aluminum in hopes that we will no longer have to care for the building. But because they're cheap and thin, today's veneers can only hide the imperfections of the base material for so long. And when they fail, they do so hideously. Because we've seen far too many cheap veneers come apart at the seams, there is now a budding desire for building with real materials. A timber column, even with its cracks, is better than a structural column encased with a flimsy wrap of other materials. Those cracks in the timber column show that this is the real thing: a building element with depth, and that won't suddenly come apart one day.
Nature’s accountant balances all of the books.
Nature is incredibly complex at the microscopic level, but everything balances out. One creature’s waste is another one’s food, as we’ve known for a long time. And even when humans put things far out of balance at one moment in time, nature finds ways of achieving a new balance. Consider how quickly an abandoned place is reclaimed once the people leave. This simplicity of everything balancing out even though the individual workings of nature might involve very complex chemistry or physics is a high standard we cannot really even aspire to yet. The best way to invoke the simplicity of natural economy is simply to plant stuff and feed things, and let nature do its work. We can’t yet manufacture tomatoes, but we can grow them.
Elemental forms can be very efficient carriers of information when they ask less of us to unlock their story.
This round pool, for example, is recognizable as such in fractions of a second whereas a more complex water body might require some investigation to see if it’s a stream or a pond. Even if we don’t consciously ask ourself that question, our mind is still burdened with having to recognize the complex shape. The whole world cannot be composed of elemental shapes, of course. But things that can be simply shaped while at the same time being understandable are a welcome relief in our increasingly complex world. In the end, the goal should be to achieve a healthy balance between simplicity and complexity, so the more we’re bombarded with more and more information, the more we appreciate elemental but understandable things.
The Minimalism Hazard
"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” ~Einstein
Minimalism seems at first like the ultimate simplicity, removing every non-essential thing until we're left with the real essence of whatever we're designing. Unfortunately, many architects ignore Einstein's dictum and begin removing essentials. They eliminate the visible roof entirely, for example, leaving the owner with leaky flat roofs in wet climates. They try to reduce the top of the wall to a single line, but then can't properly flash the parapet. Unlike the iPod, which kept all the essentials but got rid of everything else, much architecture today gets rid of essentials as well in the name of style, and then suffers for it.
Don’t confuse the path to simplicity with a simple or easy path, as it requires many choices, and editing things out.
Which sorts of simplicity should we choose? Everyone will likely have their own mix, but I’d suggest that any choice that removes clutter and allows us to focus on the most important things is probably a good choice. What do you think?
Yesterday was the third anniversary of the loss of Steve Jobs, and to this day, most people completely miss his biggest contribution: the enabling of new living traditions where there had been none before. Much like the way Gizmo Green dominates green building conversations, almost all stories about Steve focus on the technical side of his brilliance. But if you go back and read what he actually said, it’s clear that one of his core motivations was to allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
There’s an apparent disconnect between what Steve did and what a few of us are trying to do for sustainability that actually isn’t a disconnect at all. Steve built powerful tools without knowing everything that people would do with them. He had some ideas, to be sure, but there’s no doubt that he took delight in people coming up with uses he never considered. He famously said that a Mac is a “bicycle for your brain,” because bicycles transform humans from one of the most inefficient species at travel to one more efficient than all but a few species such as condors. Steve didn’t need to know where you would go with your bike in order to design the bicycle/Mac… he just needed to design it to make you more effective.
The Original Green is sustainability built upon an operating system of living traditions, and it’s what kept humanity alive for almost all of human history. We’re at a strange and rare point in history where the living traditions for building sustainable places and buildings have died almost everywhere on earth, beginning in the early 20th Century. And so there is much confusion about the nature of living traditions, and whether they can even exist at all today.
News flash… they can and do exist. The blogosphere is a vibrant living tradition that sprang up in just the last decade, with millions participating and hundreds of millions (or more) reading their work. So there’s no doubt they work well today, even if architecture and urbanism aren’t reaping their benefits yet.
Part of the resistance in architecture stems from rejection of things before our time because of the need to do transgressional work. This prejudices architecture against things that have long been proven to work, which is where new living traditions probably need to begin. The other part is a misunderstanding of how the process works because most of us have never seen them work in architecture or urbanism. The illustration above shows how it works.
The worker in the illustration is like the Original Green itself… the intelligence behind sustainable places and buildings. Living traditions are similar to the tool (or operating system) wielded by the worker. The products created are the built artifacts of places and buildings.
Problem is, architects tend to confuse the artifacts with the worker. An intelligent worker can build different things tomorrow from what is built today. Just because we begin with artifacts long proven to work doesn’t mean we won’t be producing better artifacts tomorrow. As a matter of fact, a living tradition is always learning because the heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: “we do this because…” Basing design on principles in this way, rather than style, means that everyone is allowed to think again, and that what we build tomorrow has the hope of being better than what we build today.