Architecture

Beauty in Architecture for Public Places

 

By 1964, as Tokyo prepared for that summer’s Olympic Games, I had been in Japan for five years. Our family lived not far from the stunning Olympic Pool building designed and being built by the Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange. I remember seeing it on our Sunday train journeys to church. Some 60 years after construction on it began, the lyrical design of this timelessly modern building continues to awe visitors. No longer housing swimming and diving pools, the building has been designated for use as a gymnasium during the (now postponed) 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Tange’s Olympic Pool has long been one of my favorite works of architecture. Walking or driving around its perimeter provides an experience akin to walking around a large Alexander Calder stabile or one of Henry Moore’s more abstract sculptures. I think it is due to the building’s long arcing lines, made possible by structural cables employing catenary curves. These elements continue to give the 1964 Olympic Pool building a very contemporary appearance. More subtle are the distinctively Japanese features of the building, which are less obvious to western observers. The protruding portion of the two principal vertical columns, the horizontal panels between them mimicking a formal roof cap, as well as the upward curve of the outward edge of the roofline, bear an affinity with aspects of the nearby Meiji Shrine. Note the small but significant wing-like flares adjacent to the twin upward columns in Tange’s design.

I reflect on this building when I think of what might best be called public architecture. By this, I mean public buildings such as airport concourses, courthouses and even hospitals. The debate on federal architecture generated by the recently-leaked draft executive order has had at least one benefit. The evolving discussion has raised the profile of our consideration of beauty in relation to buildings intended to serve, and perhaps also to enhance, our common life as fellow citizens. Whatever one may think of that draft executive order’s commendation of classicism as a design criteria for high costing federal buildings (those over $50 million), we can surely agree that striving for beauty is of significant value within our communities, however that quality may be defined.

Think of the last time that you felt your soul uplifted and your view of the world enlarged by your engagement with a building’s facade, and your movement through its interior space. By this, I am referring to an experience that transcends one of marveling at the scale and complexity of some architectural achievement, and the intellectual pleasure such an encounter might provide. Instead, I am pointing to the way that works of architecture can enhance our sense of community, as well as our regard for the pursuit of beauty, goodness, truth, and other recognized virtues. We might expect these qualities to be evident in buildings designed for public worship. But do we also expect them to be features of our encounter with a government or publicly-funded new courthouse, airport terminal or sports arena? I think it is right that we should.

 

The photos featured here are creative commons licensed photos of Kenzo Tange’s beautiful building designed and built for the swimming and diving pool events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

The Beauty of ‘Wright’

Exterior and plan of the Lykes house in Phoenix

Before my conversion to following a greater ‘master,’ I have been devoted since at least 8th grade to the alluring architectural vision expressed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Wright’s buildings, drawings, and writings, I have found a compelling, nature-shaped understanding of how we might best engage the challenge of inhabiting this world. As expressed by Wright, flourishing as a human being means consciously living in accord with the order and beauty of what believers refer to as Creation. In connection with this vision, FLW may have been the first to use the phrase, ‘an organic architecture.’

Exterior and interior of David Wright house, also in Phoenix

An old adage reminds us that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and imitate Wright I did. In my desire to become an architect through the traditional route of apprenticeship leading to licensing, I began developing basic drafting skills in junior high and designing house after house. All the while, Wright’s life and work became my principal reference point. Just as many of my schoolmates memorized the career statistics of favorite baseball or football players, I could quote a parallel set of statistics related to Wright’s major projects, such as the height, diameter and weight-bearing capacity of the columns in his internationally recognized Johnson Wax building in Racine. Perhaps it was the influence of having visited his Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while growing up in Japan, as well as having a compatible aesthetic temperament. Yet, whatever the source, from my earliest appreciation for Wright’s buildings to this day, I have simply loved his architectural work. To me, Wright’s vision almost always seems ‘right.’

I state this fully aware of the perceived and actual shortcomings of many of ‘the master’s’ most well-known buildings. A favorite story is attributed to Mr. S.C. Johnson, owner of the company building mentioned above as well as of a stunning large estate home designed for him by Wright, “Wingspread.” Apparently, at a dinner hosted by Johnson for several distinguished guests, the roof over the dining room began to leak (a notorious feature of some of Wright’s structures), causing a drip onto the host’s head. Johnson is remembered for having telephoned the architect at that moment, complaining about the leak. Wright responded by saying, “well, Sam, move your chair!”

The realization of Wright’s stunning architectural vision, expressed in such things as curved walls, daring roof lines, and dramatically extended cantilevered terraces, often relied upon the patronage and funding provided by wealthy clients. Throughout history, great artists have depended upon the same. But we should not overlook Wright’s committed pursuit of the opportunity to design and build beautiful-yet-affordable homes for clients with ‘ordinary’ incomes (e.g., the “Usonian” houses). Not only do we find many of these homes preserved and valued in our communities, but the design principles evident within them have influenced countless examples of contractor-designed homes of lesser architectural interest.

The pursuit of human flourishing within the beauty and order of God’s Creation is a wonderful thing to behold. As Irenaeus put it centuries ago, ‘the glory of God is the human person fully alive.’ And the human person is most fully alive when flourishing within the beauty of God’s handiwork, and within our creative tributes to it.