Architecture is not photogenic

Blank Studio's Jacaranda Avenue.
Blank Studio’s Jacaranda Avenue (Image by Forbes Massey)
If you are reading this, you woke up in a home with a roof, at least a few walls, and at least one window. Is the space you are living in crafted for you or is it something to move through and be forgettable? We spend our days going in and out of structures and moving through spaces. Most of us do not stop to consider the architecture. What is the use of natural light? How are the window and wall spacing affecting us? What about the positioning of the furniture? We keep moving.
I didn’t think about architecture for a long time. When I decided to rent an apartment, my only thoughts were location and price. The paint scheme was Builder Beige, it was lit like a cave, and the views were of a parking lot or a neighbor’s front door. I was spending at least 8-10 hours in my apartment every day, I wasn’t considering how the design of my home made me feel. I didn’t realize architecture had that power.
Architecture is difficult to explain because it is a phenomenological experience. A photograph of a building isn’t always great at translating that knowledge. An image or a drawing doesn’t tell you how you will feel walking into a building or waking up in it. We may spend a lot of time in architecture, but we don’t adore it. Architecture doesn’t fill up our Instagram feeds like photos of food. It doesn’t create an emotional reaction the way a picture of a croissant might. This may be because we haven’t enjoyed our spaces the same way we have experienced food.
The first place that drew me into to thinking about space was Fallingwater. Fallingwater has appeared in more publications than any other home. Its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is the one architect an American may know by name. When I first looked at a photograph of Fallingwater, it was not that impressive to me. My first impression was the waterfall looked pretty, and my eyes grazed over the house. It was beige. It was rectangular.
Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright (Image from Dezeen)
It wasn’t until I had a chance to visit Fallingwater that the photograph changed for me. The wonderful gift of a tour is that it slows down the viewer’s experience of a space. I had never walked through a building with such deliberate, focused steps. The docent led us through the home. She commented on material choices, construction methods, and shared Wright anecdotes. I focused in on taking in the space. I couldn’t believe someone could live in this way. Rooms were full of warm light. Windows positioned themselves to embrace their outdoor surroundings. The cabinet size limited the amount of stuff that could clutter a space. The cantilevers blended the house into its environment instead of opposing it. It was unclear, with the large boulder as part of the family room wall, where the forest ended, and the house began. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt happy sitting in that space.
Now when I see the photograph, I hear the waterfall as I imagine myself looking through a window. I remember the way the sunshine provided natural light and warmth for the family room. How the narrowed doorways discouraged lingering and the open family room invited movement.
We need more spaces that reflect their place. Buildings that embrace where they are from and make us feel good as we spend time in them. I live in Phoenix and the buildings I enjoy most here could only succeed in this environment. I have noticed some design trends that go against this idea. They include the generic condos that contain wooden beams painted to look like steel. Houses that are laden with brick veneers. A home that is slapped down without a consideration of its orientation to the sun. I can do without these trends because I want a city built out of something real. I want to feel that special feeling that rushes in when I am in a thoughtful space. That sense that an architect with a phenomenological design mindset crafted the space. They exist. We need more.
We all need to slow down and think more about the spaces we occupy and what we construct in our community. I encourage you to make some time to visit beautiful buildings and stroll through them and take them in. If you live in Phoenix, here are a few places to visit. They make me happy.

Burton Barr Central Library 

Maryvale Community Complex

Yoga Deva

Taliesin West

Pizzeria Bianco

Phoenix Art Museum (explore the stairwells)

I encourage you to share your favorite spaces in the comments to this post.


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