Home Thoughts on Architecture and Design

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m beginning the summer Book Scene in the spirit of the old Billie Holiday song, “Back In Your Own Backyard,” where “the bird with feathers of blue is waiting for you.” The traffic at our community of bird feeders kept us smiling during the long haul of the work from home mandate, providing a cheerful, melodious alternative to “sheltering in place.” It helped to imagine the chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and goldfinches as a microcosm of pre-pandemic society where the only masks were worn by the cardinals, with comic relief coming from the acrobatics of squirrels; even the mob scenes made by starlings and grackles were welcome signs of life.

Taking the architectural/design theme to the backyard, I see a miniature Swiss chalet favored by the goldfinches, a rustic green bungalow for the cardinals, and a suet feeder with a rust-red roof favored by the woodpeckers, and, on either end, two elegant Edwardian towers, the larger of which reminds me of Norman Foster’s London Gherkin. After checking out the possibilities in birdland, I found The Bird House Book: How To Build Fanciful Bird Houses and Feeders from the Purely Practical to the Absolutely Outrageous by Bruce Woods and David Schoonmaker; Paul Meisel’s Wild & Wacky Bird Houses and Feeders: 18 Creative and Colorful Projects That Add Fun to Your Backyard, in paperback from Fox Chapel Publishing; and 23,000 Bird Feeders: A Common Sense Guide for Crafting Success by Connie M. Thompson, which describes how the author and her husband Pat sold 23,000 of their hand-painted bird feeders at craft shows and art fairs for over 20 years, “as well as thousands of bat houses, squirrel feeders, snow gauges, walking sticks, and butterfly houses.”

Understanding Who We Are

Advised to look into stirworld.com’s recommended architecture and design books to read during quarantine (stir stands for “see.think.inspire.reflect”), I found Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness (Penguin UK), in which he says, “It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value …. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.” In the same key, he suggests that “bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design,” a result of “the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.” What he’s getting at is in line with the way the pain and paranoia of the pandemic mindset was eased by our five backyard bird feeders.

Spiritual Ideas

Between Silence and Light (Shambala) by architect Louis I. Kahn and John Lobell is “a luminous book” that “beautifully captures the essence of my father’s spiritual ideas about architecture,” according to Nathaniel Kahn, Academy Award–nominated filmmaker of My Architect. Stirworld presents Between Silence and Light as “an insightful book to refer to while under isolation.” A review in the New York Times declares, “Ideas change society; architecture changes the visible, functioning environment. Occasionally, one man’s creativity spans both; and the way men build to express their emotional and physical needs is never quite the same again. Louis Kahn was such a man.”

Thinking and Living

With its Dali-esque cover, Juhani Pallasma’s The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture (Wiley) is offered as “a manifestation of the primal connection between the hand, body, mind, self, and the artist.” In Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore (Phaidon), Owen Hopkins showcases examples of the movement in all its forms, taking his subtitle from postmodernist Robert Venturi’s response to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that “less is more.” According to Design Anthology, “The book features some gleefully nonconformist postmodern architecture from around the globe.” Another book from Phaidon is Living in Nature: Contemporary Houses in the Natural World, a selection of 50 architect-designed houses that have in common a special relationship with their green surroundings.

The Power of a Soak

Christie Pearson’s The Architecture of Bathing: Body, Landscape, Art (MIT Press), which ponders “the bath’s utopian and dystopian aspects,” was one of the New York Times’  “5 Books to Take a Deep Dive Into Design.” In her October 1, 2020 review, Eve Kahn (no relation to Louis) notes that Pearson “has peered into Indian stepwells shaped like upside-down ziggurats and wandered mazes of domed masonry bathhouses in Budapest, illuminated only by ‘rays coming through tiny stars of glass, articulating mathematical symmetries.’” While she “does not shy away from the dark side of underwater realms,” Pearson “still conveys the transformative power of a soak.”

“Fairy Tale Architecture”

Notable among the other books in Kahn’s “deep dive” is brother and sister team Andrew and Kate Bernheimer’s collection of 19 case studies, Fairy Tale Architecture (Oro Editions), wherein Jack’s beanstalk as designed by the firm Levenbetts looks like, in the reviewer’s words, “a terrifying amusement park ride snarled in garden hoses. Little Red Riding Hood, according to the architects Mary English and Xavier Vendrell, was swallowed by the wolf at Robert Venturi’s famed 1960s gabled house designed for his mother, Vanna Venturi. The engineering firm Guy Nordenson and Associates proposed a concrete and timber tower for Rapunzel, reinforced by ‘intermittent outrigger beams.’ Just below its conical roof, her blonde braid cascades from a narrow opening and is kept clear of eye-gouging thorn bushes even while princes are climbing. ‘Strength of locks shall satisfy live load requirements,’ the rendering’s notations caution, in a welcome dose of deadpan escapism for a year otherwise so drained of joy.”

102 Stories

Architecture begins at home. In this room, in fact. A day ago, it was a hodgepodge ghetto of books, leaning towers, and ramshackle tenements about to topple until I put them right, not so much rebuilding as redistributing. The magic password is “stories,” the Open Sesame to a childhood fantasy of Art Deco New York, where each tower, from the RCA Building to the Empire State, could be imagined housing floor after floor of narratives, essays, adventures. Yes, I was once so naively new-to-the-world that I thought the 102 stories of the Empire State Building were somehow magically equivalent to the stories in books.