Surprise and Nature

[This is an excerpt from my book Tradition & Discovery.]



What is it that makes architecture, or is architecture? Is it the form—structure, material, texture? Or is it the space contained within?

Which should be our focus for evaluating good architecture?

As architects, we create the form, and the form creates the space—so which is it that we’re really after when we create? Is there a hierarchy between the two? Is one primary and the other secondary?

To be quite clear, as an architect, I am interested in building things. In fact, I don’t quite understand architects that claim to be uninterested in this, as if the ancient term master-builder would be condescending or inappropriate. The point of architecture is to build things. At some time in the last hundred years, the definition of architecture has changed from being focused upon the art of building to being centered upon the art of space-creating.

These are two sides of the same coin.

The art and technique of building are important; and yet are left by the wayside of some of the most renowned architects of the past 100 years. This is, of course, a matter of opinion, but I find that the architecture that demonstrates its craft of construction and thoughtful care in the design of its form to be highly inspiring. However, if that were all that a building was—a beautiful form—the cup would still only be half full and thus also half empty. It would still be devoid of that which makes the use of the building a delight—a high quality space contained within.

By all this, I mean to say that I don’t believe either form or space to have a priority over the other, but that each is important as a complement to the other. Architecture claims them both as equals. The form creates the space within and can be beautiful in its own right; the form is both a cause and an effect. However, as people, we experience the space and observe the form.

I spent a winter in Buenos Aires and its surroundings, and while I was exploring this concept of what I value in architecture, I pinpointed the six things that I value most. The evidence of these six things elevates a building from being just an exercise in construction or structure, to being architecture. The first one I’ll speak of has to do with how a sequence of spaces is designed: a poly-experiential space instead of a mono-experiential one. The next three deal with construction and materials. My second subject is an evidence of craftsmanship: a demonstration of the history of a building and the care in its construction. A third is a tactile experience, usually featuring natural materials or materials with a history of being hand-made. A fourth is a graceful form, simple and not overly complicated, not strictly orthogonal, to the detriment of everything else. The fifth is that the building be unexpected but not unsettling. The sixth is the relationship of building to context giving a sense of inevitability. Finally, I think great architecture is a bit unexpected, but not unsettling.

In the spirit of full discourse, I should mention that my personal interest lies in smaller, single-program projects and that I have very little interest in large-scale urban or multi-program projects. From this standpoint, it will be easier to understand the nature of some of my stated values, because not all of them are very scalable. For instance, evidence of craftsmanship can exist only until a certain size limit. At the skyscraper or urban planning level, it would probably be infeasible and inappropriate. On the other hand, values such as poly-experiential space is more applicable to mid- to large-sized projects, since small-projects might not have the physical space for diversity—although Eladio Dieste accomplished this in a single room church.

My case studies range from common-place buildings to famous buildings by renowned architects. Some are historic, and some are modern. The case studies include: a restaurant inserted under a railroad; the Zanjon Museum on Avenida Defensa; the Museum of Light on Avenida de Peru; the Planetarium; Casa Curutchet by Le Corbusier; and the church of Atlántida and a gymnasium in Durazno, both by Eladio Dieste.

The notion of unexpectedness is the only value that is present in all of the buildings I chose as case studies in South America. It is the most important quality because it encompasses all of the other qualities as well. Poly-experiential spaces are different at every turn, and so hopefully they present unexpected views in each room. Evidence of craft and nature, and beautiful lines are a means to an end of creating delight. While surprise is important, ideally, whatever I design would touch each of these six points.



Monotony is boring. It’s unimaginative and un-stimulating. Change adds richness to our lives. Change keeps our interest.

Experience is best when it develops and progresses. As much as we may profess to hate change, we actually thrive on it. When on a road trip, it’s best when the scenery changes. Drives are better when they alternate closed forest views with open ones over lake or field. Walks through the city park are better when alternating between sun and shade.

So what does this mean for buildings? It means that buildings are more interesting when you have spaces that create different types of experience throughout. Office buildings are horrible at this. Concert halls are much better. As you move through a building, the feeling of each space should change.

The experience of moving through a building or space should provide alternating sets of contrasting spatial experiences. Alternating light and dark, expansive and enclosed, rough and smooth, provide a richer experience. The opposites don’t even need to be presented equally, but having a contrast as a counterpoint helps. There were two buildings in Buenos Aires that did this really well, and enhanced their own qualities by introducing their counterpoints. These two buildings are a restaurant inserted beneath a railroad and the Zanjon Museum.

The Palermo restaurant was inserted into three spaces underneath a railroad that already existed in Buenos Aires, next to the large park system in Palermo. The raised railroad was set up on a series of bricked arches that had a lot of space underneath them. The restaurant enclosed these arches with glass to create a sealed interior space; the ordering counter, the dining room, and the coffee counter each had their own arched space. These three spaces are separated by thick brick walls where the arches touch the ground. To pass through these walls and get between each room, the architect punched holes in them to create barrel vaults, but set the floors below ground level. The effect of this is that to move from one spacious, light-filled room to another, you walk down 5-6 steps, through a short, narrow, dark vaulted hallway, to emerge again into the light when you walk up the stairs on the other side. The effect is quite fantastic. You move from counterpoint to counterpoint through the restaurant. In this way, each time you emerge from the tunnel, you feel the effect again in full force.

If these small sunken tunnels did not exist, and you simply moved from a tall, well-lit room to another, you would feel the effect of entering that room only the first time you enter it. Otherwise, you’re still in the same experience and it becomes dulled to your senses. By alternating it this way, the effect is renewed time and time again. I am only briefly mentioning the effect of walking into the tunnel since that was clearly not the main point of this design, but it was fun to walk into that tunnel too. It felt like a secret thing. Also, since you couldn’t see the room until you had already stepped into it—it was blocked even from within the tunnel—it felt mysterious and special.

The secret to this was that it was alternating between large, open space and tiny compressed, sunken tunnel—between light and dark, open and compressed, raised and sunken, and narrow and expansive. The tunnel provided a necessary counterpoint to the main spaces, the same way a little salt can enhance the flavor of something sweet.

The Zanjon Museum alternated between interior and exterior with its three courtyards. They simultaneously contrasted light/dark, tall/short as you moved through. The transition through a counterpoint space makes the large space more impactful. Instead of a monotonous experience and generating a fatigue of the qualities, the counterpoint acts as a cleanser and helps renew the experience each time. At the Zanjon Museum, you enter from the street into a long, dark hallway. After the hallway, you step into a large, double-height, glass-roofed courtyard. To proceed to the next, mostly identical courtyard, you once again are enclosed in a darker brick hallway. The sequence repeats once more to enter the final courtyard. The effect was wonderful, you were dazzled by light each time you entered the courtyard, and each time it felt like renewed relief to step outside.

This approach is absolutely necessary in larger projects, with various rooms. In ultra-large projects like skyscrapers and urban planning, the size of the differential spatial zones grow. The spatial zones may expand to include an entire floor, programmatic groups, or city blocks. In medium-sized buildings, which are what I’m naturally more drawn to, the spatial zones shrink down to room-size.

The Planetarium is an interesting example of how in a small space, you can create very different spaces. The first three floors are all vertically continuous, and yet they all feel really different. The first floor is central to the others, and it feels like a small, cohesive room. The second level exists around the perimeter of the lower floor and feels like a donut instead of a circle. It exists to look outward. The third floor is a circular hallway acting as the perimeter entrance to the planetarium inside the large dome.

The difficulty can come when you are dealing with single-room or single-space projects. There is opportunity in these instances to deal with change in perspective or even the change of light throughout the times of day.

I am especially interested in how light and shadow can be manipulated in architecture—shadow being just as important, although not necessarily equally represented.

Part of why I’m so interested in light is because of my background as a painter. When I paint, I don’t actually think about the objects with I’m painting. I switch that recognition off because what I paint is really the light reflected off what I see. That light embodies the value and the color of the surface, and those shadows define the texture and shape of the object. Based on those qualities alone—for that is really all that our eyes see—we understand the reality of what we’re looking at.  In a similar sense, I’m really interested in using light and shadow to “paint” architecture. I find places that are over-flooded with natural light to be incredibly enticing and satisfying. At the same time, I love really dark places that are punctuated carefully but small amounts of light. A space needs to be clearly dominated by one aspect or the other. It should be a light-dominated space with small shadows to act as counterpoint, or be a dark space with small points to act as the lit counterpoint. Two perfect examples of the shadow-dominated space that are compelling are Eladio Dieste’s Iglesia del Cristo Obrero in Atlántida, Uruguay. It is a very dark space inside with almost no exterior windows. The only natural light comes from small stained glass window panels set up very high that allow colored light to fall across the altar in the mornings from the east and the afternoons from the west. It’s impressive to me because it makes light special. It gives the light itself importance. But it also creates a separation from outside because your eyes have to adjust. This obviously isn’t ideal for every program, but for churches it feels special and appropriate.

I believe that light is one of the primary tools with which we should design architecture. Light and shadow contrasted and alternated are what make space interesting. Light is how we see and understand space, so it’s pointless to ignore it. It’s wise to employ it. The light falling off of shape and texture is almost more important than the shape itself, simply because that is how we physically read the shape. While I don’t generally like Steven Holl’s large-scale urban work, I am intrigued by his smaller scale work, like the Chapel of St Ignatius in Seattle, and its play of reflected light and texture. Holl’s section on a symphony of light in Parallax was something I hadn’t encountered before (Holl 114–131). What a wonderful idea and what a great example of mastery. The ability to understand precisely how light and shadow fall, knowing how to manipulate solid and void to create the precise shape one wants, and then to create a circulation that moves through these different notes demonstrates a skill and an insight I hope to acquire and demonstrate throughout my own work some day.

Another thing I have found myself drawn to unexpectedly is when horizontal space expands vertically. I love when you are walking through a building, and all of a sudden your feeling of compression changes into vertical expansion. Space flows out and then up. The sense of release is also a relief. It’s easy to test that this exists in buildings as well, because it would show itself easily in any section drawing.

Le Corbusier employed this technique in the living room of his Casa Curutchet in La Plata, Argentina. As you step off the stairs and enter the living room, it’s a single-height room with the ceiling only 8 or 9 feet above your head. As you walk towards through and towards the patio, the ceiling ends and the space is double-height, looking up towards the bedrooms on the second level.

Poly-experiential systems can also be delineated through structural and textural differences as well as spatial dimension. Moving from a soft, plush, textured room into a stark, smooth, glossy room can induce a similar sense of renewal as moving from dark to light.



Trailing my hand as I walk into the Museum of Light in San Telmo, I start to imagine the history of the building, the masons whose hands were where my hand is now. I imagine them laying the bricks to establish the groin vaults and the arches that form the perimeter of the courtyard. The building becomes vibrant. It becomes warm in character, if not temperature, on this winter day and in this exterior courtyard.

The craftsmanship here is clear.

There’s a skill that’s required to set bricks level, and much more so for setting the vaults that create both the structure and the beauty of this place. I value the evidence of hand-craftsmanship very highly.

Architecture is more than just design; it is about the execution and outcome of that design. If it were not so, then blueprints and renderings would be sufficient to determine the quality of buildings, but they are not. Architects design, for the most part, in isolation using paper or computers or modeling—they don’t design on-site or with the real materials. Architects are dependent upon builders to make reality live up to the original vision. When we value that connection and interdependency, it amplifies our work and dignifies it.

Seeing clear, high-quality craftsmanship speaks to me of the presence of humanity within the walls and not just the space in between. The life that is present in a building and that we innately read from a building is a direct reflection of the life and soul that was put into its construction. This can’t be measured in labor-hours. It is unquantifiable, as so many of life’s important things are. It is the concentration and pride put in by a worker, and it remains a presence and warmth that lasts long after the ribbon is cut. In this way, buildings take on their own life, the ability to speak to us, and become a recognizable character in the life of those who use it. Wood, brick, even concrete, all tell the story of how they were made. They feel natural to us in a way that cold steel and glass don’t. As Sullivan states, “Every building you see is an image of a man you do not see.  The man is the reality, the building is the offspring. The bricks, stones, steel, and what-not came into place in response to an impulse; and the cause at work behind the impulse was mental, not physical” (Sullivan 24).

Le Corbusier believes, “The house is a machine for living in” (Corbusier 4). This is the opposite of what I believe. Machines have no soul, no warmth. When architecture is used as machinery or as a metaphor for automated life, it loses its vitality. Not to say that there can’t be any sort of artistry or skill in assembling complicated steel and glass forms and screens—there definitely is. However, this work is done mostly by machines that calculate the joints and pieces, and then fabricate them to fit together. The workers in this case are just another part of the assembly line and are not doing any substantial creative work of their own.

This marriage of knowledge—how materials work structurally and aesthetically—is the realm of the architect. The structural engineer knows and understands the forces, but isn’t tasked with using that to create beauty or meaning. The craftsman knows how to build or lay the timber and bricks, but isn’t necessarily concerned with how the design translates through every detail or answers the programmatic question. The architect is the one that ties this knowledge together and imbues it with an intelligent and coherent statement. Zumthor says it well in Thinking Architecture:

Construction is the art of making a meaningful whole out of many parts. Buildings are witnesses to the human ability to construct concrete things. I believe that the real core of all architectural work lies in the act of construction. At the point in time when concrete materials are assembled and erected, the architecture we have been looking for becomes part of the real world. I feel respect for the art of joining, the ability of craftsmen and engineers. I am impressed by the knowledge of how to make things, which lies at the bottom of human skill. I try to design buildings that are worthy of this knowledge and merit the challenge to this skill. (Zumthor 11)

On the other side of the fence is Le Corbusier, who writes in Towards a New Architecture, “Industry on the grand scale must occupy itself with building and establish the elements of the house on a mass-production basis” (Corbusier 6) and “The house is a machine for living in” (Corbusier 4). How horribly depressing it would be to live within a machine. How cold and lonely without any touch of life to surround you. While I admire, from a point of environmental salvation, Corbusier’s desire to make building more efficient and ecologically-friendly, I fear that he would be working the architect out of a job; and following that line of thought, if the architect is that person who intelligently and creatively designs a home and imbues it with a sense of art and comfort, then the absence of that guiding hand would necessarily also mean the absence of those qualities that make a home wonderful.

Eladio Dieste was trained as an engineer but he expanded his realm of expertise to fulfill an architect’s role with his buildings. He figured out how to make structurally efficient curves with bricks and concrete, so much so that they could be built thinner than before. The roof of his gymnasium in Durazno, Uruguay is impactful not just because of the light it lets in or the graceful curves, but because you find yourself staring at it, wondering how someone built it with brick! The same thing holds true for his sinuous walls at the Iglesia del Cristo Obrero in Atlántida, Uruguay. Local masons using traditional techniques constructed the Iglesia in Atlántida. Dieste was able to design a curving, graceful masonry structure, showing not only how well he knew the craft, but also how much he valued that ability to create something of beauty. He respected masonry and lifted it higher at the same time. He could have easily designed the same form to be built out of another material, but that wouldn’t celebrate bricks, his primary material.

Finally, the Palermo restaurant also celebrates craft by inserting itself into existing structure—it glorifies the original construction of the railroad. Since the original structure has arches running perpendicular to the direction of the railroad, the designers used the same language to create connections between the chambers. Smaller barrel vaults allow circulation between the rooms. By inserting itself into existing infrastructure, it glorifies the railroad-ness of the structure instead of creating a restaurant-y space. In this way, it rebels against Sullivan’s indictment that form should strictly follow function and that the function of an ideally designed building would inevitably shine through. On the one level, its function as a railroad is clear as day, but the structure now shares function but does not announce it the way Sullivan believes it should be.



Trailing my hand along the bricks in the Museum of Lights in Buenos Aires, I feel connected to the building. The texture of the brick is familiar. The curves of the arches welcome me in and shelter me before stepping into the courtyard. The bricks are worn down, the edges have crumbled a bit, or perhaps they were never sharp to begin with, it’s hard to tell in such an old building. I find myself doing this in every building I like—laying my palms flat against the wall, trailing my fingers as I walk. I suppose you could say I pet the building to introduce myself to it and discover its character in the same way I reach out and pet a dog or a horse when I first meet it. I start to establish a connection.

This connection between building and occupant is what every architect strives for. Without a connection, there can be no transference of meaning. I like natural materials so much partly for the texture—I love to touch walls and feel the difference. I feel connected to buildings when I touch them—almost like they’re more real or that I take part in their history. However, I also like natural or hand-made materials because they bring their own sense of history and continuity to the place—bricks were once clay that was gathered and formed (before, by people, now by machines) and then laid one by one by masons. There’s a sense of craft and story there. Before becoming lumber, trees had full lives. Metal and glass components are solely machine made with no sense of history. They’re cold to the touch, unnaturally smooth, and they have no real warmth to them. Obviously they’re useful, but I don’t believe they should be the only materials for a building, but only used as counterpoints for the embodied warmth and history of more natural materials.

Natural materials are also important because, biologically, that is our primal environment. As a species, we evolved for hundreds of thousands of years without structure, and continued building only with mud, brick, wood, and stone until about 200 years ago when we started working with metal. Our most primal sense of space is nature and its shelter. I think about this connection often.

Zumthor says it well:

To me, there is something revealing about the work of Joseph Beuys and some of the artists of the Arte Povera group. What impresses me is the precise and sensuous way they use materials. It seems anchored in an ancient, elemental knowledge about man’s use of materials, and at the same time to expose the very essence of these materials, which is beyond all culturally conveyed meaning.
I try to use materials like this in my work. I believe that they can assume a poetic quality in the context of an architectural object, although only if the architect is able to generate a meaningful situation for them, since materials in themselves are not poetic.
The sense that I try to instill into materials is beyond all rules of composition, and their tangibility, smell, and acoustic qualities are merely elements of the language that we are obliged to use. Sense emerges when I succeed in bringing out the specific meanings of certain materials in my buildings, meanings that can only be perceived in just this way in this one building.
If we work towards this goal, we must constantly ask ourselves what the use of a particular material could mean in a specific architectural context. Good answers to these questions can throw new light on both the way in which the material is generally used and its own inherent sensuous qualities.
If we succeed in this, materials in architecture can be made to shine and vibrate. (Zumthor 19–20)

I find few things more inspiring than spending a day in the woods, away from built-up human existence. Perhaps this is a surprising statement coming from one who wants to add to that built experience. However, I’ve found that Nature always gets it right. Want to see a beautiful curve? Look at a leaf, a bud, a fish. Brilliant color? Flowers, water, sunsets. Texture? Rocks, fields, bark. Light? Head into the woods at noon, or find a lake and watch it change for a day. Nature has been perfecting its system of construction and beauty since the dawn of time. There are lessons to be learned in almost any architectural subject.

Sometimes I question what business I have going into the business of buildings when I feel so complete when I am far away from them. I am resolved to chase down that feeling that nature gives me and imbue my buildings with it.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Sullivan on how far to take the axiom “Form follows Function,” I do identify wholly with his views on nature. In Kindergarten Chats, he says, “The faculties always cleanse and brighten and glow in Nature’s bath…There is something about Nature that gets into you pretty deep and stirs you all up and brings all sorts of strange emotions to the surface” (89).

Koolhaas, on the other hand, was categorically against modeling architecture after Nature’s designs. He praises New York City’s ability to completely tame and annihilate nature (Koolhaas 15). He speaks of an entire city “becoming a factory of man-made experience, where the real and the natural cease to exist” (6).  I disagree with Koolhaas on many things and this is one of many examples. We developed as humans for hundreds of thousands of years; how could there be anything beneficial about denying and subjugating that long history?

Kengo Kuma and Peter Zumthor both have a strong presence of natural materials and clear structure in their works. That is why I identify with them so much. They both rely more upon traditional structure rather than radically redefining them. They do this with natural materials and consciously shaping even the minutiae of the experience.

Phenomenology is a relatively new sector of architectural interest, and Zumthor and Holl are its two loudest proponents. While reading Steven Holl’s Parallax and Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture, I find myself agreeing with what he says about the nature of sound, light, overlapping space, color, etc. However, when I step back and look at his built works, I don’t always like what I see. In his large-scale, urban buildings, I don’t see where Holl accomplishes the small moments that he writes so extensively about. In his smaller projects, however, as with Chapel of St. Ignatius, I understand where he’s coming from. His manipulation of light through reflection and texture is inspired.



I accept Nature as a high authority on beauty of form, meaning the purity of form and the presence of some curves constitute a high level of beauty.

I like forms to be simplified but not overly so. I don’t fall into line with the early Modernists that everything should be so orthogonal. The sterile white boxes of Modernism bore me. They look so unnatural; where’s the grace? I like simplicity, but it should be rich simplicity.

Corbusier, Mies, and Gropius proposed to make manufacture and construction very efficient, so that all buildings could induce an entire industry of pre-fabrication parts. The idea was that the entire system from start to finish would work economically. In this way, standardization is a major component of their proposition. This emphasis on standard components led towards repetitious design. The emphasis on pre-fabricated elements led towards orthogonal, flat walls, and structure that could ship and slip together easily. This led to monotonous white boxes.

What’s interesting is that Corbusier did build a number of custom projects. One of these projects is La Casa Curutchet in La Plata, Argentina. Corbusier was commissioned to build a house and an office for a doctor on a narrow plot in La Plata between some traditionally-ornamented buildings. We visited this house, and it was a pleasant surprise. I had previously visited the Carpenter Center, also by Corbusier, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and disliked it. La Casa Curutchet was different. Whereas I had found the Carpenter Center to be mostly impractical, La Casa Curutchet was very practical.

The front part of the complex held the doctor’s office facing the street, with the residential patio on its roof. The back half of the lot holds the residence. The entire complex envelops a large tree on the site. The living room opens up to the patio and the park in front. The patio was much more spacious than it appeared from the outside. It was surprisingly intimate and private. Having the tree sprout through the middle made it feel like a ground-level patio, when in fact, it was on about the third level. Overall, I was still unimpressed by the stark whiteness of the entire complex. I also didn’t like the access to the house. It is fairly coherent once you get to the main living level on the second floor; however, there’s a large glass-surrounded room on the ground level before you ascend. It’s unclear what you could or would use this room for. It seems superfluous, an unnecessarily celebrated foyer.

Two weeks after visiting Corbusier’s project in La Plata, our group travelled to Uruguay for a two-day tour of Eladio Dieste’s work.

Uruguay was a happy surprise. Gentle farms, kind people, and some of the most graceful architecture I’ve seen—and built out of brick, nonetheless. Sinuous curves and undulating waves compose Dieste’s portfolio of churches, gymnasiums, and warehouses. He does a great job of epitomizing what I like in graceful form. It doesn’t have to harken back to the Art Nouveau tradition of all curved lines and no corners; but it does need to include an element of grace, and this usually comes in the form of a curve or an arc.

Dieste’s gymnasium had all of the standard orthogonality throughout 90% of the structure, but then abandoned it completely for the roof structure. The roof is a series of curved folds. As you enter, you enter off-center and close to the roof itself. From this vantage point, you see down length of one of the folds, but you can also look to your right and see the folds fan out, even though they’re actually parallel. The clerestory windows that are tucked in are visible from this view and add to the ethereal quality of the roof, as if the bricks are cloth draped in strips across the width of the building.

The Atlántida church, la Parroquia del Cristo Obrero, by Dieste also had a very graceful form. He paired a rectangular plan that fans out as it moves toward the ceiling.

The effect of these curves is that they are very calming. Which is how it should be. I take great exception to Koolhaas’ assertion in the Paranoid Critical Method that architecture should be unnerving. He states:

Paranoid-Critical Method is a sequence of two consecutive but discrete operations: (a) the synthetic reproduction of the paranoiac’s way of seeing the world in a new light—with its rich harvest of unsuspected correspondences, analogies and patterns; and (b) the compression of these gaseous speculations to a critical point where they can achieve the density of fact: the critical part of the method consists of the fabrication of objectifying “souvenirs” of the paranoid tourism, of concrete evidence that brings the “discoveries” back to the rest of mankind. (202)

Architecture should not be unnerving or unsettling! It should be calming. It should facilitate its programs. It should allow the execution of its programs to be efficient. Architecture should not be changing the nature of reality. Obviously, by the fact of its creation, it adds to reality, but it should serve only to enhance and complement the nature of reality as oppose to derail it.

One way to deal with adding complexity to simplicity is to use layered simplicity. One method of doing this is layering simplicity. Foundations of geometry can facilitate this. The Planetarium does this quite well. The plans are based upon an expanding layer of triangles and circles.

Also, ornamentation is not the enemy! Ornamentation can be good. It can be small and subtle; it can be elaborate and beautifully crafted. It would be small-minded to categorically abolish them. Ornamentation, when well-used, can add delight to a building by dressing up the details. It seals the final details. I could not disagree more with the first part of Corbusier’s declaration, “Decoration is of a sensorial and elementary order, as is color, and is suited to simple races, peasants and savages.  Harmony and proportion incite the intellectual faculties and arrest the man of culture” (143). I do concur with his assessment of harmony and proportion. That is where layered geometries can be so useful during the design stage. However, color and decoration is not just for “simple races, peasants and savages.” Decoration isn’t always necessary, but it can definitely add significantly to a design.



What makes an experience unforgettable? What makes a joke hilarious? What makes a building design great? When it’s unexpected; when it catches you by surprise.

I agree somewhat with Sullivan that form follows function, but I break with him where he insists on rigidity to the rule. He says in Kindergarten Chats,

There should be a function, a purpose, a reason for each building, a definite explainable relation between the form, the development of each building, and the causes that bring it into that particular shape; and the building, to be good architecture, must, first of all, clearly correspond with its function, must be its image…If a building is properly designed, one should be able with little attention, to read through that building to the reason for that building. (46)

 Later, he says, “So remember, and bear ever in mind in your thinking and in your doings, that FORM EVER FOLLOWS FUNCTION, that this is the law–a universal truth.  That the main function, so far as you will be concerned, will focus on the specific needs of those who wish to build, and that such needs are quite apt to be emotional as well as what is so generally called practical” (170).

I quite agree that function is the first problem to be solved and that every ethically designed building bears a highly functioning programmatic organization. However, I depart from Sullivan when he believes that this function must be clearly read from every standpoint and through the skin. This categorically excludes what I argue is necessary to create great architecture that surprises and delights. If you understand exactly what is transpiring inside, how much room is left for surprise? There can still be structural surprise or a surprising amount of light, but why take away this great opportunity by following the rigidity of the rule, needing to explain a building’s purpose through its skin?

The Atlántida church was very unexpected. The undulating walls make you wonder, how does it stand up? In fact, how were the masons even able to lay the bricks in such a way? The roof is folded as well, which you can’t even see until you’re all the way inside. From the outside, the small stained glass windows seem insignificant, but they provide the majority of the light for the interior. The colors wash the inside and make it look magical. It’s really quite beautiful with the purples and yellows splashing across the altar. Since the walls are folded, the windows are able to be along both the western and eastern sides of the building, facing north. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, this means that light continually enters through these windows. As the day progresses, the light moves across and through the church but continually falls along the altar. Also, since there are no clear windows, only the colored ones on the sides and small translucent ones at the front, it’s dark inside, meaning the colored light carries even more emphasis. It’s a beautiful surprise when you enter. That’s precisely my point: the surprise upon entering is a feeling of wonderment and fascination, not bewilderment or confusion.

Dieste’s gymnasium was also a pleasant surprise. It’s unusual to enter a gymnasium at the ceiling level instead of the court level. However, that’s just the first part of the surprise. The next thing you notice is that it is definitely not your typical gymnasium ceiling. This one is curved and folded, made of brick, with clerestory windows running the majority of the width of the building. They are visible from one end, but hidden from the other. The next thing you notice is just how very bright it is from natural daylight. We didn’t have any artificial lights on while we were there and it was as bright as being outside. It’s uncommon and the unanticipated nature of it is part of what brings delight. If you entered and everything you saw was familiar, you wouldn’t think twice about the building.

The Palermo restaurant was also a delightful surprise. It was a surprise when you walk up to it for the first time, because it is the only structure or program inserted underneath the railroad. I don’t know if anything else is planned to be inserted in the future or not. It is a rather inspired bit of reuse. Then, you enter one of the front doors and you are welcomed to another unanticipated pleasure that the spaces were left in the same arch form as the railroad. The main change was to just enclose the spaces in glass. The dining room had two other volumes inserted for the bathrooms, but they were kept separate from the brick arches themselves to keep the purity of the structure. The light was very bright, much brighter than I would have thought for being encased mostly in brick. The final surprise was the circulation between spaces: the tunnels I spoke of earlier. The tunnels are sunken, it’s certainly unexpected. They’re very narrow.

Let me reiterate that architecture shouldn’t be unnerving. None of these three buildings were disorienting, they all invoked a sense of wonder.



In my future work, I’m interested in exploring architecture’s relationship to its immediate context. With architecture, the first question about context is “does it need to belong?”  For the most part, I think that buildings should look inevitable in their surroundings. That doesn’t mean that they need to blend in so much so that they are camouflaged, but it means that they work in harmony with its context. This context may be nature, it may be urban, or something in between. Context includes cultural and environmental concerns.

Buildings are created and built at a certain point in time, but they have to last indefinitely past that. We should resist the pull of trendiness, and try to imbue projects in a sense of timelessness so that the feeling of sympathy with its context doesn’t change or deteriorate. It should be more connected to its place and program than to the time in which it was created.

It’s hard to argue the extent of this in an urban situation because there is really very little context that needs responding to. In this case, it tends to be a question of relation to street and similar ornamentation, rather than having a sense of presence. Casa Curutchet does just that. Le Corbusier tried to tie it into its context by continuing lines of ornamentation from neighboring buildings onto the façade of the doctor’s office on the front. This gesture is small and too insignificant to really bring it into complete harmony with its surroundings. It still looks markedly different from its context.

Zumthor addresses this all quite beautifully:

To me, the presence of certain buildings has something secret about it. They seem simply to be there. We do not pay any special attention to them. And yet it is virtually impossible to imagine the place where they stand without them. These buildings appear to be anchored firmly in the ground. They give the impression of being a self-evident part of their surroundings and they seem to be saying: “I am as you see me and I belong here.”
I have a passionate desire to design such buildings, buildings that, in time, grow naturally into being a part of the form and history of their place. Every new work of architecture intervenes in a specific historical situation. It is essential to the quality of the intervention that the new building should embrace qualities that can enter into a meaningful dialogue with the existing situation. For if the intervention is to find its place, it must make us see what already exists in a new light. We throw a stone into the water. Sand swirls up and settles again. The stir was necessary. The stone has found its place. But the pond is no longer the same. I believe those buildings only be accepted by their surroundings if they have the ability to appeal to our emotions and minds in various ways. Since our feelings and understanding are rooted in the past, our sensuous connections with a building must respect the process of remembering. (17–18)

On the other hand, a few projects don’t need to sit easily into their context. The Planetarium is a perfect example: The Planetarium is supposed to appear otherworldly, and so it sits uneasily in its context. It looks faux-futuristic, which makes it completely at odds with the park in which it sits.

There is always a choice involved in terms of which type of context is most significant, and how to address it. With Casa Curutchet, Corbusier was concerned with fitting in with the urban fabric. With the Planetarium, the intention was to have a structure at odds with its park context.



It is important to keep in mind that I am still at the very beginning of my development. These views represent a snapshot of my views. I expect that these ideas will develop and change over time. Some might stay in place while others may be discarded entirely. Many of the architects whose works I’ve read for this study published multiple volumes of their theories. While this short paper shouldn’t be considered at the same level or caliber as those tracts, I do intend to continue exploring and writing about my development throughout my career. Some day I hope to develop and express a level of insight as high as some of the architects I’ve studied throughout this project, and even more, I hope to create designs that prove what I propose.

Having the time and the space to explore my hypotheses on what I find in good architecture has been invaluable. These six points of mine: poly-experiential spaces, evidence of hand-craftsmanship, the presence of natural objects and forms, graceful form, an experience that is unexpected but not unsettling, and a relationship to context are what I have found compelling in architecture that I’ve visited. They are what I hope to infuse within my own designs as I move forward in my education, and later in my practice.



Le Corbusier. Towards A New Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.

Holl, Steven. Parallax. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

Koolhaas, Remment. Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli Press, 1994.

Sullivan, Louis. Kindergarten Chats. New York: Dover Publications, 2012.

Zumthor, Peter. Thinking Architecture. 3rd ed. Basel: Birkhauser, 2010.