Monday, March 28, 2011


Architecture becomes interesting when it explores the idea of putting two or more things together, and experiencing the result. It can be the creative spark that happens with the juxtaposition of elements to create a new understanding, new meaning, and new vision.

When we hold two opposing or conflicting thoughts in our heads at the same time, our thoughts have more depth and complexity than if one simple thought resides. Pairing two complementary or different elements can create something entirely new. For example, when we pair a good wine with food, what we enjoy is a complexity of flavor that brings out something new in the wine. Often the profundity in design is similarly the result of a merging or collaboration of elements that encourages us to see anew.

In the design of architecture, we can put two materials together that we might not ordinarily see. Merging the two, juxtaposing them, allows each one to comment on the other. For example, stainless steel next to smooth stucco—each one can be a beautiful finish, each one feels smooth, but the coolness of the steel emphasizes the warmth and tactility of the pottery-like stucco.

So let’s take this a step or two further…

How do we pair things in our homes in order to create something new? And how do we pair things in our lives in hopes of obtaining an even more interesting result?
Combining several different textures in your home can be an easy solution to inviting that complexity in. For example, smooth varnished wood shelves against a rough stone wall. Or, satin and silk throw pillows upon a textured couch…a thick wool rug lying on a smooth polished concrete floor. Merging the two, and highlighting the contrast, makes each one individually more interesting.

Now for the more difficult question…How do we bring that depth and complexity to our lives? When we get accustomed to doing the same thing day in and day out…we begin to blur our vision. We become less and less observant and less present. If we were to inject something new and complementary to our routine, perhaps we would begin to take notice of that, and everything it contrasted. Perhaps the pairing would bring renewed awareness. For example, if you spend a lot of time talking on the phone, socializing at work or conversing with your kids and family once you get home, try to carve out a time for true silence. Whether it is a walk on the beach, a meditative pause, or a time to read or reflect, you will sense the profound quiet and stillness. The contrast of this tranquility to the typical mundane routine and chaos of your life will bring a new awareness you did not know.

For some of us, watching television every evening becomes habitual, and while we are tuning in to our favorite show, we are all too often, tuning out. Maybe try sitting on the porch or in the backyard with a glass of wine whether alone or with your partner. Or choose eating dinner outside on the patio by candlelight. This can add the depth and complexity that is lacking by contrasting that which has become all too familiar and ordinary.

"Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience -- to appreciate the fact that life is complex."
— M. Scott Peck

Friday, March 11, 2011


"It is good to have an end to journey towards,
but it is the journey that matters in the end."

~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Life can be a rat race.
However having an alarming aversion to rats, I prefer to call it a hamster race. We can feel like that little hamster that is running in circles on that wheel. We run, we run faster, we get out of breath, we get off for a little while…but eventually we are back on, running in circles once again.

We want so badly to get that promotion, that degree, or that quaint house on Wisteria lane that we focus so intently on reaching that goal, we can lose sight of our journey. Frequently plagued by the stress and anxiety intrinsic to the hamster race, we often wish to accelerate our life just to get there, whatever there might be.

But, wise philosophers, therapists, Zen masters, and every self help book on the shelf, tell us that we need to slow down and be in the moment to enjoy the present. In other words, life is not simply a means to an end….the journey matters.

In architecture, a staircase is all about journey. It is an architectural element enabling us to get from one level to another. While it serves this purpose, it can also be a rich opportunity to offer us volume, dimension, and an entirely new vantage point. Rather than solely providing a utilitarian and practical function, a staircase can be aesthetically transformed into an interactive sculpture that encourages a dynamic change in perspective.

A staircase embodies dramatic architectural possibility.

The first step is to make the steps comfortable. When stairs are too steep (high riser) or the tread too short (where you can barely place your foot on it without feeling clumsy), there is an awkwardness, and we feel out of breath as we climb our way to the top. Stairs can also feel confining and claustrophobic, making us feel uneasy and unsettled. The other day, I was in a medical building, and rather than take the elevator to the second level, I decided to take the stairs. It turns out that the staircase was actually a stairwell. I opened the door and stepped in, and instantly got this nervous go-as-fast-as-you-can feeling, and hurry-and-get-the-heck-out-of-here vibe. Checking over my shoulder certain that there would be a creepy stalker, I took the stairs two at a time…Clearly I was not enjoying the journey!

The second step is to bring sculptural form that is not only striking to look at, but beautiful to experience. As we ascend the stairs, do we get the sense that we are perched above, hovering between floors? Does the shape of the staircase feel dynamic and energetic? Is there a gracefulness reminiscent of flight?

The aesthetic power of a staircase can be captivating. With its quiet drama, it can profoundly elevate our experience, making our journey matter.