The Mysteries of Lovable Buildings

infinity-edge pool at Strawberry Hill overlooking Kingston, Jamaica

   If a building cannot be loved, it will not last, and its carbon footprint becomes meaningless once its parts are carted off to the landfill. But how do you define lovability in clear enough terms that it can be repeated by others? More precisely, how do you code for lovability? One glance across the landscape of recently-constructed buildings clearly shows that this must be a vexing problem, because we’ve had so little success with building lovably recently.

   Ask most groups of architects, and you’ll quickly conclude that the term “lovable building” is as difficult to define without self-reference as the word “time.” This panel of starchitects concluded recently that beauty was not a concern of theirs. And beauty is only a threshold to lovability, because we’ve all experienced beauty that is cold and aloof, and therefore hard to love.

   But we have to start somewhere, if we have any hope of learning how to replicate it broadly. There are three general categories of buildings and objects that can be loved: those which reflect us, those which delight us, and those which put us in harmony with the world around us. We have varying degrees of understanding of each. I’ll be attempting to expand my understanding of the more mysterious ones between now and Thursday, October 21, at 10:30 AM on Navy Pier in Chicago, at which point I’ll tell you what I discovered at the Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference.

Things that Reflect Us

Leonardo daVinci's Vitruvian Man drawing is likely the most famous drawing in human history

daVinci's Vitruvian Man

   This is one of the more well-understood types of lovability. Clearly, traditional architecture has reflected the shape, proportions, and arrangement of the human body from earliest times. But architecture can reflect us in other ways as well.

   Certain building elements have become icons of a region; the classic American example is the Southern front porch. How might elements like this emerge in the future? There’s a developing story on one such element at Schooner Bay... I’ll share the latest with you next month in Chicago.

Things that Delight Us

colorful frontage garden tucked between tan stone wall of house and street paving in Bourton-On-The-Water in England

frontage garden

   Some forms of delight are easy, such as the pure sensual delight of this beautiful frontage garden. Others are tougher to get a handle on. How about “memory delight,” which is the solidity of being able to say “I remember what happened, and it happened right here.” Much of today’s construction prevent us from hooking our memories to a particular place because of a few fundamental errors embedded in our construction system. And how about the maternal “sheltering delight” and the paternal “challenging delight”? What can we do to enable them?

Things that Put Us in Harmony

Golden Mean spiral diagram

Golden Mean diagram

   This is the category most shrouded in mystery. Granted, most of us have rediscovered many of the secrets of classical proportioning systems in recent years. And we’ve rediscovered the pleasure of harmony with natural laws, like gravity and thermodynamics. There’s a solid pleasure in a building that looks to be capable of carrying the load. And many of us have grown beyond the adolescent desire to plaster glass all over a building, especially on the western wall in warm climates where the sun would be intolerable except for massive infusions of air conditioning.

   But what of the harmony with natural processes? I have a few hints about how this works, but there’s much work that needs to be done here.

   The biggest mystery, however, is one that I’m calling “harmony with the region.” Simply put, we might love a little clapboard cottage in Beaufort and a stone farmhouse in Tuscany, but putting that clapboard cottage on a Tuscan hillside would look absolutely ridiculous.

   I suspect that much of the mystery of lovable buildings may be embedded somewhere in the harmony with the region. I don’t understand it now, but it’s one of my top priorities, because we really need to figure this out. Please come and join the discussion in Chicago!

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013