Out of Context?

Architectural ‘morality’ in the United States comes in the form of the ordinary. There is a belief (often present in other aspects of our culture) that suggests we need ‘consistency’ in our built environment. This usually means the most superficial historic or formal sameness, and asks that our new buildings draw from images of the past, or borrow forms, details, and materials from our neighbors. Absolute replication is virtually impossible because of technological and other shifts, but repeated attempts at copying lead to a sea of monotony. Contextualism has become synonymous with architecture you’ve seen over and over again.

The notion of ‘authenticity’ is also held in high cultural regard, primarily when it aligns with the morality of the commonplace. Authenticity is defined by Webster in part as ‘real or genuine, not copied’.  I believe the contradiction exists because it is unclear what is ‘authentic’, or when ‘authenticity’ is present. For example, Victorian facades may be highly prized because they are considered morally correct – they meet the historic and, in some areas, neighborhood sameness test. But there is a conflict; they are not authentic by default, especially when they are recently built and have no way to capture original workmanship and detailing of historic architecture. And a modern form is not authentic by default because it implements contemporary technology, especially when it follows a prescribed set of design rules. This effectively makes it a copy of a historic style, no different than the Victorian.

Societal pressures come to bear on the architect because she cannot work in relative isolation as can the painter, writer, musician, philosopher, even scientist. We have responsibilities outside of ‘art’. For one, an architect needs a client and the client often comes with their own ideas. Collaboration with clients can be a great experience, but architectural design is scrutinized by a large number of others (neighbors, planners, investors, the best friend or family member of the owner) and must carry the burden of these  preconceptions. The architect must satisfy all interested parties in the interest of minimizing risk to the project which then becomes the least offensive architecture it can be.

This may all explain why so much architecture is, to paraphrase Frank Gehry, shit. We may obtain lasting property values, but what good is longevity in an uninspired non-place?

It becomes nearly impossible to create anything inspired in this environment. No one is really willing to take chances (outside of the 1%, the starchitects, who have problems of their own). Designers need to make a living by providing the least common denominator design, to be most digestible by the majority. This means much of the architecture that sees the light of day is something we’ve already seen. The more we’ve seen of it, the safer it is. The safer it is, the more accepted it becomes. This is the morality of architecture, which is essentially limiting the possibilities when it comes to free thought and subsequent invention. It stifles progress.

Interestingly enough, there are myriad examples of art and architecture that were once believed to be strange and outside the cannon that are now accepted as genius. So there is some hope, if not inevitability, that what is seen as strange today may become commonplace tomorrow. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim was once strange and new, it horrified critics because it dared to defy the street wall; now it is revered. However, once accepted and reused repeatedly, an idea can no longer be considered innovative. And in the meantime, real innovation continues to be stifled.

Rather than looking to the image of neighboring buildings, a better approach might be to look to deeper structures. The overall makeup of the context including scale, form, and proportion should inform new designs. Materials are of importance as well, especially those suited to a climate. Some may be time tested, while other material technology may have advanced beyond those used in historic buildings, and may not necessarily ‘match’ .  External factors such as solar orientation, shadow casting, prevailing winds, and views should be considered. Views may look to unique or rarely considered points, not just landmarks that have been assigned high value by real estate professionals.  Finally, a connection to even broader environmental conditions such as infrastructure, topography and  landscape can provide clues to a deeper integration into context.

When we are asked why we “don’t pay attention to context” at Baran Studio, it is usually with respect to the surface meaning of context.  It is my hope that our efforts are reflected when looking a little closer.  We continue to develop our ideaology in these endeavors.  We hope that continued innovations coupled with site integration in varied aspects will continue to bring the owners, occupants and neighbors of our projects continued success and satisfaction.

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One Comment

  1. Jeanine Weller June 15, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    Matt: I love your design sensibility and have marveled at how popular your residential designs have become. Almost singlehandedly, you have begun to change the residential landscape vibe of West and North Oakland. However, I fear that the studio’s work may be in danger of falling into the same trap as this blogpost so ardently rejects. Lovely and well planned in their own right, your projects are starting to look very much alike in form, mass and materials use. I can now spot a ‘Baran house’ from a mile away. This is not intended as a criticism but rather as a concern that your work may start to lose its dynamism as the number of Baran houses continues to grow in North and West Oakland. Having a ‘signature’ style can be a blessing; however, the overpopulation of your work in a very small geographic area may diminish the freshness and impact of your design vision. Might it be time to begin exploring new forms and materials?