When I’m told that architects ‘just make boxes’ my reply is usually ‘but of course’. When the inevitable frown follows, I’m puzzled. ‘Boxes are bad?’ I might inquire. This is usually met with a look of incredulity that says ‘but of course’. I’m hoping to explore some of the reasons for the confusion in this post.
Perhaps we should start with a definition of box:
1. a container with a flat base and sides, typically square or rectangular and having a lid.
2. an area or space enclosed within straight lines
1. put in or provide with a box.
That seems pretty straightforward. I think we are all talking about the same form when we refer to the box. We architects must then simply place a particular value on that form.
One simple explanation for the discrepancy in values is that architects are taught to see things a little differently, and we build up our own conventions. Preconceived notions are broken down from the first day of class in an architectural degree program. This is explored in detail in a series of articles by Tim Culvahouse titled “But I Still Think It’s Ugly”, where he examines the specifics of the architect’s learning process. The conclusion is that we all tend toward the familiar. For the non-architect it follows that when considering typical forms, especially in residential architecture, the common expectation is a form that has a pitched roof on top. Anything without this triangular shape is then a ‘box’. When in fact, traditional forms are often simply a box with a sloped roof. The interiors are also divided into many smaller boxes, while this occurs less in more contemporary architectural forms (more on this later).
It is interesting to note that many detractors of contemporary architecture (where the pitched roof is often eliminated, usually to abstract the form and remove potential connotations) consider the ‘box’ a problem. However, flat roofed Italianate Victorians are simply boxes with a lot of molding laid out according to a particular set of rules. This is also true of numerous Spanish Style homes, as the climate they fare best in does not require a pitched roof for drainage due to the lack of rainfall. The only trouble with recreating those type of boxes is that they are more or less extinct. When contemporary builders and designers try to replicate these ‘styles’, they usually fail because they lack the knowledge and technology required. The other trouble (for me at least) is following any formula or ‘style’. Our work at its best is the result of a process that incorporates specific environmental conditions, built context, program (use), and construction technology, among other inputs.
It may be that the negative connotations come primarily from the repetition of simple, singular boxes. A great deal of urban infill housing is regulated in its form by combinations of patterns of property division, planning codes, and construction convention and cost. In this respect, you get the same repeated box throughout any given ‘zone’ of a city, with different ‘styles’ attached to it, usually in the form of a façade. From an interior standpoint, most historical buildings are also an assembled series of boxes, also known as rooms, which most of us still live in today. Of course there are a number of ways to mitigate this effect, both from a perceived exterior and a spatial standpoint.
One of the first to challenge historic forms of architecture in a ‘modern’ sense was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was and is highly regarded for his concept of ‘breaking the box’. However, when looking at a FLW project, one might see boxes, at least by the definition of a box as ‘a space enclosed by straight lines’. Indeed, part of his notion for breaking up a box was about space. A FLW building is not composed of separate distinct ‘boxes’, but tend to merge the forms together. They remain rectilinear, but flow in and out of one another. This is now a very common practice in contemporary design (and one we often use in our work). This method can also help from an exterior standpoint. The singular box can be broken down into a series of distinct and intersecting elements that are articulated through shadow lines, changes in material, and variation in size and scale. Addition layers can be added through the articulation of skin, the creation of openings, and the relationship to landscape.
But in the end, it’s still ‘just boxes’. Of course there are the exceptions of the work of Starchitects and academics. The former have tremendous budgets, and create spectacular public projects which often warrant the effort. They generate amorphous forms created by the latest in design and construction technologies. They also often create the public perception of architects, which is an all together different effect that damages the architect, and it has nothing to do with the belief that we create boxes. Peggy Deamer explores the foibles of famous architects in this New York Times piece, and suggests the sole, ego driven practitioner is not necessarily the contemporary reality or goal for most architects. But I digress.
Pure academics need not worry about a client, a schedule or a budget – and they most often do not build, or they create installations that tend more toward what would traditionally be considered fine art. There is validity in all of these efforts of course, they just are not the spaces that most of us live, work, and play in. Those spaces do tend to be boxes, or some derivation of, for many of the reasons described above. And there is something to be said for life in those boxes. Lebbius Woods expands on his support of the ‘dumb box’ as a backdrop for complexities of living. He argues that there is a need for all types of architecture – that nothing would be worse than a sea of boxes, or a sea of spectacular forms all competing with each other for attention. I couldn’t agree more. The more diversity the better. Our contribution is but a small part of the urban fabric, and I for one find the box beautiful.