Slowly (improving) Vision

We wrote this essay as a continuation to Slowness in 1999 for the publication 2G.


During a recent telephone interview, a student asked me to describe “our architectural vision.” The question, asked by a person still in high school was so naïve as to be easily dismissed, yet so profound that I realized it was deserved a thoughtful and considered response.

As architects committed to resolving problems of human habitation through built form, most of our thoughts of peering into the future are restricted to such questions as, “How will potential users need their space to function when they move in, or, several years hence, what issues of growth and change might there be? What kind of expansion and use might be expected? Will there be more children? Guests? How much storage in the future? What kind of maintenance will be required? How long will the roof last?”

These concerns for a project’s future are similar for practicing colleagues all over the world. They are issues that carry such important implications that they occupy much of our creative thought. We believe that creative resolutions to such questions are often precisely the ingredients of our creative search. The sporadic moments when the answers manage to transcend the questions are the foundation of what we imagine to be our vision. The constructed result of answering these questions is Architecture.

But this answer, as understandable as it might be for most practicing professionals, provides little inspiration for a thoughtful and concerned high school student.

So I thought about the work of the visionary architects—Boullée, Ledoux, Sant’Elia—and came across Twelve Lines, a poem by Louis Kahn:

Spirit in will to express
can make the great sun seem small.
The sun is
Thus the Universe.
Did we need Bach
Bach is
Thus Music is.
Did we need Boullée
Did we need Ledoux
Boullée is
Ledoux is
Thus Architecture is.

The power of the drawn idea can be almost as irresistible as the sun, and as Bach. Piranesi’s dark, layered, mysterious drawings, Sant’Elia’s bold studies for the Citta Nuova, the Mile-High tower of Frank Lloyd Wright, have all reverberated in our collective architectural imaginations. Today, cyber-architecture occupies many students’ imaginations.

Étienne-Louis Boullée, 1784

Visionary architecture achieves its greatest power as unbuilt work.
What is lost in the actual realization of the work? Is the thought more powerful when it is expressed without dilution than the ambiguity that results from responding to a complex series of factors so common and necessary as client, cost, code, and use?

Antoni Gaudí is one architect whose work has retained its vision in built form. He is one of the most extraordinary, elusive, and intriguing of the visionary architects. Yet upon examining the Colònia Güell models, one is struck by the absolute logic that informed the fantastic. A series of strings with small, weighted sandbags were used to determine the curves created by gravity. Gaudí’s work is so based on the physical observation that it seems very much in the spirit of observations made centuries earlier by Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci is a prime example of an artist, an architect, an inventor, whose visionary ideas may be best appreciated in hindsight. As much as he was appreciated during his lifetime, he was also very much criticized. Today, however, virtually all of his work is regarded as ‘visionary,’ even though it was originally generated by very practical applications, and was part of a larger society. It is the product of practicality and devotion to problem-solving. The techniques he and Gaudí used were very much a product of their time and place. Gaudí’s work, principally executed in the  ‘20s, when most of the great architectural minds were looking to the machine for inspiration, hardly foreshadowed the future. Rather, it was an observation and rumination on the present. He, as Leonardo, was trying to solve a problem set before him at that moment. 

So how does one address the question of ‘vision’ in built work?
Perhaps we are looking for a clear vision rather than looking to be visionary.
Vision can be attained after a long period of building. To be visionary is exclusive of building.

We believe clear vision is slow in evolving, as is ‘good work.’

We are not visionary architects, but we are beginning to see more clearly.
We have chosen to work in a particular way; it is a way at once ordinary and connected to the world around us. But it is precisely in the ways it is ordinary and connective that it produces extraordinary results. In this way, it may (eventually) be considered to have vision.

Relationship to the Earth

Architecture is connected to the Earth. Too many buildings have an ambiguous relationship to the land. As long as we live on Earth, we will be dealing with principles of gravity, atmosphere, and the very richness of Earth’s surface.

Virtually all adults, standing, are connected to the ground with their feet, their line of vision a mere four to six feet above it. This is the point of origin of our waking perception. Architecture must first be concerned with this zone: our feet in contact with the ground. The surface of the Earth is the canvas of the architect. The precise detail of this zone is ours to affect. If we give away responsibility for these crucial areas of concern (to the landscape architect, to the interior designer), we then reduce and weaken our ability to be effective within our most intimate environment.

Location on the Earth

We need shelter from the brilliant sun in a desert site in Phoenix, but within an infill house condition in New York, we need as much light as possible. The construction methodology in Phoenix will necessarily be different from that of New York, because of codes, labor, material availability, site accessibility, and a host of other reasons, all of which could be conquered, if one wished. And people do wish! Whether by purchasing a Big Mac or hiring an important ‘signature’ architect or artist, there are people who choose to ignore or erase the differences of locale. The exploration of ideas (which are universal) and locations (which are singular) should give rise to an unlimited series of connective responses. It is easy to step up and order the known; more difficult, risky and slower to search for the original.

“Le notti di Cabiria,” Federico Fellini, 1957

Care for Our Vision

As we become older, it is a little discouraging to discover our eyesight is less clear, particularly when near- and far-sightedness occur at the same time. Fortunately, this is a problem which is easily solved. A more difficult one is realizing that in this section of our lives we have more demands than ever, and with so much on our minds we find ourselves walking without seeing. But early this summer we attended a screening of Federico Fellini’s film, “The Nights of Cabiria.” Twenty-five years had passed since we had seen it first, and here we were astonished. A story was revealed to us in ways we never could have appreciated when we were young. Was it that the film’s vintage had come into its own, or had our ability to see the work improved over the years? Our understanding and compassion for the human condition does improve with time. We have more to bring to our work as we grow older. Even as we may lose our ability to see distance, the accumulation of life as experience enables us to see depth. Over time our vision is (slowly) improving.