When I think about modern buildings or structures that I admire, certain ones always come into my mind: the Leicester Engineering Building (Stirling), Salk Institute (Kahn), Inland Steel Building (SOM), Vietnam Memorial (Maya Lin), the Ruck-a-Chucky Bridge (Myron Goldsmith with SOM)—I could go on. These projects tend to be somewhat aggressive in how they assert themselves and are sort of revolutionary, with both extraordinary logic and spirit. How do we attain spirited value in design? I believe it is not without taking risks, and mining the depths of logic is risky business. In my dual roles as a design partner at Miller Hull and a professor in the UW Department of Architecture teaching design studios, I have come to recognize the importance in taking calculated and strategic risks to achieve art in architecture.
Great risk-taking architecture is often generated out of competitions. Many winning schemes selected by competition juries do not follow the rules, but instead reinterpret the project’s program and make an alternate proposal. In his talk “Architecture: The Incredible,” Louis Kahn said, “One of the great lacks of architecture today is that institutions are not being defined, that they are being taken as given by the programmer, and made into a building.” Programs are important, but they are beginning points. In presenting her winning scheme for the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen at the UW’s spring Scan Design lecture, Lene Tranberg described the way her office dissected the presented program and then proposed a radically different project on a new site. The proposal was a floating ramp in a grove of trees and had such conviction, logic and as she said “magic” – and I would say, spirit – that it was the unanimous choice.
But designers should not just look to competitions as license to take risks. What is an appropriate risk strategy for everyday architecture? How can designers elevate proposals for office buildings, institutional structures and community housing projects to true art? The process begins by actively critiquing the idea of program and by investigating the possibilities, the logic, in the essence of place (not just the “site”). Collaborative teamwork engaging an open-ended thought process can lead to unpremeditated solutions and hopefully something poetic. However, an open and probing design approach necessitates being brave, and this is not easy today. Too many factors conspire against us: budgets (always the justification for lack of invention), poorly conceived and dogmatic design guidelines, LEED checklists, etc. Maybe designers should think of every project as a competition, wear their competition hats when they do a bus barn or a public school, push the limits, jump off the edge, à la Ruck-a-Chucky Bridge. As I tell students when I lecture at schools of architecture—be brave!