I believe in buildings which enrich the experience of the moment, or at least fail to detract from that experience. They are commodious, adaptable, facilitate hospitality, and easy to maintain. Each is a container that mitigates the natural elements for human activity.
Some good buildings intentionally blend the line between nature and culture. Those buildings are difficult to photograph. Most easily-photographed buildings are sculptures in space - attempting to stand forward from nature or local context, often to the point of contrasting - and tend to disappoint when experienced in person. They are akin to the fashion expert who brings no books to the book club. Like us, building design is a balance between the contemporary and the timeless. My goal for buildings is to tilt the scales towards a timeless quality.
This modest goal requires buildings express little “meaning"; unlike artistic artifacts that often rely on dualistic expression to convey “meaning" about something other than what is at hand. Modest buildings, like other artifacts of craft, express the process of their creation and persistence. While the details delight, the overall design helps the user engage with the environment and neighbors, not estrange them.
Persistence is critical because the most sustainable building is the one that is maintained. Neglected, buildings will return to the Earth. We can buffer buildings from this fate by making them important to people who have stories involving that building. Buildings are performance stages where we set the plays of our lives. Once we stop setting our stories in a building, it is truly doomed. The long-lived building is kept healthy by human hands. We adore that which helps us see beyond our day-to-day shuffle. That which orients us to an expansive view points out a way towards broader perspectives.
In addition to hosting good stories, good company, and insight a building needs to be efficient and flexible. A wasteful or constrained building is like a beautiful hat that is too small and constantly needs gold threads replaced. You will eventually discard it for a floppy sun-hat that is less attractive but more practical. In buildings, this is accomplished by designing for a “loose fit" that we can renovate later; by directing resources towards a stronger structure and greater utility-capacity rather than towards fancy finishes.
Esthetically, an abstract design built without regard to the subtle differences in land, light, breeze, and views is like an android. An android looks a lot like a human, but its designed-perfection lacks the common thread of humanity: time and our adaptations in the form of foibles, neurosis, humor, and wisdom. The building acquires character by adapting to circumstances. Nature becomes the esthetic through careful incorporation of site characteristics like views and seasonality -- these can be a part of the building’s creation. Characteristics like patina are acquired over time, and cannot be designed but they can be planned for. We can plan for the wear of use and seasons, to celebrate the wrinkles as they manifest.
Most, if not all, of us harbor a love of antiquity and respect for elders. Such antique culture is the backdrop for our own stories. Old buildings’ stories lend orientation and depth to our stories by being tangible links to our history. When people see the utility or function of a building as still valid to them in their day-to-day lives they will make the time to affect any required repairs. Veneration for the elder is normal as it reminds us that there is continuity in the human realm.
Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a desire for a simpler existence. The ironic truth is that we look favorably upon the past but with the full insight that only hindsight grants. We were all just as confused in the past as we are now, but we now understand that earlier territory and would like to go live there. Obviously, this is not possible. We each are facing new challenges as we age, our children age, and the wheel of life spins on. Nostalgia is a kind of mourning for the past, and we need each other’s help to stay focused on the opportunities before us right now. Buildings designed in a historical mode cannot deliver us from the present; rather they lead into the uncanny valley of theme-park design.
Even without a design theme, a home is highly suggestible. It is filled with our belongings. Our homes tend to become an extension of our state of mind. We decorate with reflections of our mind, creating a personal model of our neurosis and aspirations. Thus the power of geomantic arts like Feng Shui are not limited to working with Kami, Drala, and faerie folk, but an actual input channel to working with our minds. Architects can facilitate such personal work, but your inhabitation needs to be intentional. My role as architect ends when you take possession of your home, but my aspiration is your home helps you achieve your aspirations.
We use buildings both as vessels for our neuroses and containers for realization. They are an expression of our desires and aspirations. They are on display for all to see. They are artificial constructs of culture and our personal desires, aversions, and inattentions. Done well they are commodious, flexible, efficient, locally adapted, and adaptable to future generations’ needs.
Simple environmental sun room, Darchen, Tibet. 2016 Gregory "Duke" Carlson
Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech is beautiful in photos, but chalky in person. 2009 Jason Winn
Civilian Conservation Corps look-out tower at Bastrop State Park, Texas. Beautifully crafted details, built to last. 2014 Angela Hartsell
Simple, functional retreat cabin, Thule, Greenland. 2010 Jason Winn
Adapted barn at the Windhorse Retreat Center, Wisconsin, 2013 Jason Winn
Timeless courtyard homes of Rhodes, Greece. 2014 Jason Winn
Horai tea room by Sen-no-Rikyu at Daitokuji, Kyoto, hospitality without pretension. 2016 Jason Winn
- Jason Winn is a registered architect with the State of Texas, certified planner with the American Institute of Certified Planners, and certified energy manager with the Association of Energy Engineers. He has practiced architecture and urban planning in San Antonio and Chicago for 13 years and is currently teaching design at the Eastern Mediterranean University. Read his research on storytelling and persistence in the built environment at Space Poetics