Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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1453 words
SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

Green Roofs and Goats: Architecture

by Skip Eisiminger

Less is not more; less is poor.
The Wordspinner

I understand what Mies van der Rohe meant by “Less is more,” for I love the clean lines of the Seagram’s Building and the Lever House, both built in Manhattan in the heyday of the International Style: the 1950s. But for small-scale, residential purposes, give me an open, exposed-beam, cluttered look any day. My father, a wannabe architect, used to subscribe to Architectural Forum, and I often enjoyed thumbing through its colorful pages, but the photographs of kitchens and bathrooms without a potholder or toothbrush in sight was clearly “fake news” even to an adolescent. Constantin Brâncuşi claimed that great architecture is “inhabited sculpture,” but no one has inhabited a house for long without a potholder or toothbrush in view of visitors.

Most of the dozen homes I grew up in were chopped into smallish rooms with vents and doors that allowed the forced-air heat to be concentrated in one place or another. Even the one home my father designed, and my uncle built for us, had a separate “museum”—a living room/mausoleum that no one entered much less used even though it was the largest room in the house with the most comfortable furniture.

When my wife and I were able to afford a home, we contacted a builder who showed us several floor plans he could build for about $60,000 in 1980. After we’d agreed on a split-level plan, the first thing I asked was, “If these living-room walls are not load-bearing, may we dispense with them?” When he answered in the affirmative, the result was a “great room” that included the foyer, kitchen, living room, sunroom, and dining room. What this means is that if I’m “cooking,” I can carry on a conversation with my wife who’s “relaxing in the sunroom.” We’ve been married for fifty-five years now, and the open, three-level design of our home, which fits us like an acorn to its cup, is one of the reasons for our success.

When privacy is desired, my study is but a short climb away, and my wife’s computer is in the basement den. Indeed, the arrangement we chose offers us at least five climate-controlled nooks to retreat to, and I’m not counting the bathrooms. Winston Churchill famously observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” You won’t find a better illustration of that truism than at 209 Blue Ridge Drive.

The sources of knowledge lie under a roof.
Add lights, desk, chair, and wisdom is foolproof.
The Wordspinner

Churchill never visited the campus of Clemson University, but if he had, he would have said, “I told you so.” For forty-one years, my office was in a nine-story office building, and I met my students on most days in the adjoining four-story classroom building. The tower arrangement saved money on roofing, but it ruthlessly carved up a department of seventy the way medical researchers shave a brain with a microtome. Separating the offices from the classrooms also meant that very few teacher-student conversations continued across the breezeway to the tower. To enhance student-teacher dialogue thirty years ago, I proposed an outdoor café between the two buildings, but the campus planner lost my proposal and the plans an Asian architecture student had sketched for me. When I told the student what had happened, he said he was afraid the café was doomed from the start: “Bad feng shui,” he said.

Originally, the office tower had two spacious lounges on the first and second floor, but soon after the building’s completion, the dean confiscated the larger of the two for his metastasizing administrative empire. The second effectively died when the coffee urn broke, and the dean said he had no funds to repair or replace it. Without any comfortable space to socialize in between classes and the introduction of email, the department drifted apart. Today, the emeriti aren’t asked to the Christmas party if the department even throws one for those who remain on the payroll.

It’s all about the look.
Anonymous architecture student

When someone complained about a wall with an obtuse sense of perpendicularity, the famed architect Zaha Hadid said, ninety degrees is but one option; there are 359 others.

And when a client complained to Frank Lloyd Wright that the roof was leaking on him, Wright suggested he move his chair.

A local professor of architecture told an audience I was part of that an important measure of a building’s design is “how it meets the sky.” The more I think about that, the more I think that’s a shortsighted architectural criterion, for if one of my major concerns is the roof’s shape, I may overlook the comfort and efficiency of the interior. The people inside a building or even walking past it have no idea how any building meets the sky, nor are they likely to care. Obviously, some attention should be paid to that shape (imagine the new World Trade Center topped by a cupola), but it belongs well down the list of concerns.

As a teacher of interdisciplinary humanities, which included architectural history, I was occasionally asked by the School of Architecture to serve on a panel to evaluate a student’s designs. One master’s student remains fixed in my memory. He introduced himself by saying, “Hello, I’m a Virgo, and my moon is in Leo.” As he broke down the design of an abortion and euthanasia clinic in the shadow of the Twin Towers, he pointed to the site’s “spiritual center.” I asked him how he’d determined this location, and he said, “With a dowsing rod.” He then showed a video and read a poem integrating images of fire, water, air, and earth which he said had been inspired by Pseudo-Dionysus. There’s no telling what the god of wine and fertility might have inspired.

I mention these professionals in hopes that their stories might shed some light on what to this non-professional seems like architectural folly like that first pyramid that collapsed. It often appears to me that architects are designing not for the owners but for other architects to admire. How else can I explain a German home that resembles one dog humping another, a church in Taiwan that resembles a glittering high-heel shoe, a spine-facing-down bookshelf, or the California home of architect Frank Gehry whose exterior is a mix of corrugated steel, chain-link fencing, and pink stucco. Alas, all four structures are a thumb in the eye of the gods.

Then there are architectural structures that are attractive enough but which, nevertheless, defy logic. One is the new Abu Dhabi Louvre that is built right on the Persian Gulf whose waters are expected to rise four feet or more by century’s end. Another is the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub off the 9-11 Memorial Plaza. Appropriately, it does resemble two hands releasing a dove, but at a cost of $4 billion, it only serves about 50,000 subway riders a day. Finally, there’s Clemson’s handsome new architecture building which opened in 2012 to rave reviews in part because of its 30,000 square-foot sedum roof garden. When I read the reviews, I thought, “Great—that’s the wave of the future,” but shortly thereafter, the university announced the construction of eight new dormitories and a new student center, not one of which has a green roof or solar panels. To salt the wound, seven of those new dorms mentioned above and the student center lie on the far side of a busy, four-lane highway with no tunnels or bridges providing safe access to the core of the campus. One student has already been killed there, and the complex isn’t even open.

The job of buildings is to improve human relations....
Ralph Erskine

Lest you think I like nothing new, let me dwell briefly in closing on the gem of a chapel designed by the American architect, Fay Jones. Like his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, Jones feels that a structure should not be “on a hill but of the hill.” Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas fulfills that mandate perfectly: its flooring was quarried locally, the lumber (mostly 2x4s) was cut from the surrounding forest, and admission is free. Commissioned by a retired school teacher, the chapel came in under budget at $152,000, and the roof does not leak. It has also created “street life,” for since it opened in 1980, it has hosted over six million visitors.

Whether architecture is the “ornament of a country” (Christopher Wren), “the will of an epoch” (Mies van der Rohe), or “frozen music” (Johann von Goethe), if you build it, I will watch to be sure the windows can be opened.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury