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The Essence of Architecture

Jun 01, 2017 02:27PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

I often get calls from homeowners in need of an architect to inspect a wall in their house, to determine if it is load bearing and what measures must be taken to remove it. This begs the question, does the average homeowner know what differentiates an architect from a structural engineer?

With over two decades of practice in residential design, one thing that I have learned for certain is that most homeowners do not know what value an architect can offer in the homebuilding process. However, it is no surprise, since historically the vast majority of homes are constructed without one. So, what is the need for an architect today?

In recent years, more and more homeowners are interested in green building practices and energy efficiencies. Yet homeowners often look toward tech devices, such as smart thermostats or smart surge protectors to monitor and improve their green habits, rather than turning to an architect on such matters.

And in the realm of aesthetics, such as a home makeover to revitalize a dated interior or to add more curb appeal to an exterior, these services are typically perceived as the expertise of a designer, not an architect. Architects are thought to deal with the mechanics of building, their visual contributions are less appreciated.

Over the last couple of months, I have made the case that advancements of technology in the design and construction process of homebuilding by automating routine mechanical tasks is reducing the need for architects. To determine what role architects will have in the future, it might be best to first ask, what is architecture?

This is a question that is often asked of first year students studying architecture. As expected, their answers vary widely. It is no surprise, since centuries of discourse by historians, critics and architects themselves have been unable to reach a consensus on the nature of architecture.

At the turn of last century, sparking the start of a modern movement in architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright touched on the issue when he stated the usefulness of a house is in the room where life might be lived, not in the form of the house or the material of which it was made—make space for living.

This, I believe, is at the heart of architecture. Many consider architecture a form of art, yet it is more than art as it houses living, too, prompting some to call it functional art. Le Corbusier, the pinnacle architect of modern times, differentiated the functional from art as a matter of timelessness. Certain things serve forever, they are art.

So maybe it is the art of function, the way a space is resolved, the relationship of its parts creating a particular flow. A well-designed house feels better to live in, much like how a tailored suit fitted to your measure can lift spirits and boost self-confidence—the translation of physical characteristics into a metaphysical sensation. 

This would explain the contemporary vernacular use of the word architecture as it is applied to things outside of the building trade to describe a system or process. Likewise, the term architect is commonly used outside building, to define the originator or creator of an idea or movement. If an architect creates, then what specifically is this thing called architecture that they create?

Lately, I have been taking portraits of my clients before and after I work with them on the creation (or re-creation) of their home. I do this because I believe the intangible nature of architecture, the influence it has on one's life, is captured best by the changes reflected in the face than on the walls. Architecture reveals the essence of the individual; the individual reveals the essence of architecture.

Maybe this is at the root of so much confusion and misunderstanding over the role of an architect or more importantly, their value to a homeowner. Architecture is not the structure of a building, the visual style, nor the functional use. Yes, it resides in these things and is bound by them, but it is a quality in its own right. This is why it has its own name:  architecture.

And the architect, the one who creates it, must attend to this thing called architecture above all else. In the case of a house, an architect can determine if a wall is load bearing, which insulation is more sustainable, or what countertop material holds up best to spills, but the greatest value of an architect is their craft at combining the diverse set of variables that go into a home in such a way that responds to and enhances the lives of its occupants. 

It could be said that art does this, a beautiful melody or poetic work can inspire. More practically, is the sense of security and comfort provided by a sheltering house any better than savings in a bank account? Further, if architecture is tied to the experiential nature of habitation, would unoccupied buildings, architectural ruins or unbuilt designs be considered architecture?

This last point may be the key to it all—without physically occupying a space, the mind can still wonder and soar through imagination or memory. These things we call architecture exist in our heads, not in the buildings themselves. A mouse that takes refuge in the walls of a house has a very different appreciation for its architectural significance. It is the homeowner (and occasional pet) that the architect designs for.

Most importantly, the designing that an architect does is not in the material transitions and details of the building—these are his toolset. The medium in which an architect designs is the experience a person has with the building. The true creation of an architect is this living that goes on within a building, the life of a building that is the architecture of a building. A synthesis of all things concrete and cerebral, culminating in the senses and handled by the architect in a measured way to resonate with the human condition. 

In the case of a home, to dwell. And in the dwelling, architecture changes daily life by layering meaning in each experience. This is the nature of architecture and the architect that creates it.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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