The Well-Springs of Modernism

Ideas, Values and Principles

Unbounded by the dictates of classical or traditional precedents, modern thinking springs from many and varied sources. Whether expressed in art, architecture, theater, music or literature, the products of the modern method take on many forms as they embrace and express a boundless spectrum of philosophical ideas, moral and ethical values, and germane design principles. Despite their radically different architectural character, I consider my designs of The Boulders, The Scottsdale Princess, and the Cochise/Geronimo clubhouse all to be “modern” because each of them is the product of the modern method. I would like to dispel the common perception of ‘modern’ as an aesthetic or a style, or a palette of materials, because this misconception does modernism a disservice.

Applying Principles in Lieu of Style

Rather than choosing an established style to guide my design of Cochise/Geronimo, the appearance and feel of the clubhouse and other original infrastructure was the result of overlaying my own sets of guiding principles and values upon the modern framework of ‘organic’ architectural design (in the ‘form follows function’ sense of the term). Three of the fifteen principles I’ve adopted to guide my work served as the primary form givers of Desert Mountain: 1) climatically responsive, 2) culturally relevant, and 3) contextually sensitive; while a fourth principle, an abiding respect for humanism, was the primary influence that guided the more detailed composition each building’s design. Every planning and design decision in my work at Desert Mountain and elsewhere gets tested against these, and other, principles and values the priorities of which are determined by the circumstances of each individual project.

Mine is a Problem-Solving Approach to Design

Testing numerous alternative solutions to many explicit program objectives, against a large number of guiding principles demands a highly rational process. In this process, all decisions become rigorously objective. When vetted against principles, both the early fundamental decisions such as plan arrangement, spatial geometry, and material selections, as well as the later decisions regarding the details of composition, such as color, texture, and pattern, all become decidedly less subjective and more purposeful. This process of artful-but-rational problem-solving differs greatly from the commonly subjective, casually clever, and fashionable motives of style-driven design. The Cochise/Geronimo Clubhouse, like The Boulders before it, demonstrates my belief that in many situations, ‘style’ should be the result of principled design – and not a design objective.

The Trajectory of Modernism

The modern era emerged near the turn of the 20th Century when artists, composers, architects, and designers rejected the classical orders and traditional constraints of their disciplines in favor of a new humanism that embraced expanded freedom and innovation. Before the arrival of the International Style from Northern Europe, the first two decades of American architectural modernism retained important traces of the sensual humanism that had matured globally in the Romantic period of the Nineteenth Century. Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Robie House, circa 1909, is a stunning example of this humanistic modernism before the qualities of tactile richness and human scale faded from the palette of architectural fashion.

The advent of modernism introduced various forms of abstraction in the fine arts and music, while in architecture longstanding classical orders and motifs were discarded by designers who turned instead to the functional requirements, the physical environment, and the honest expression of building materials as the inspirations and form-givers of their work. In this new ‘modern’ approach, for the first time, an object’s form would follow its function rather than dictate it. Aesthetically, this new approach would strip away the pervasive ornamentation and embellishments of the Classical, Victorian and Romantic periods to reveal the essence of the building’s underlying materials, structure, form, and geometry. These would be the qualities that defined the modern aesthetic. The scenic and symbolic frescoes, murals, and bas relief of the 19th Century, gave way in the modern movement to the textures, patterns, and colors of the exposed building materials themselves; thus, ushering in a new authenticity and a fresh honesty or ‘truth’ in materials. To the artful modernist, the building’s surfaces became much more than a mere substrate for the ‘applied’ arts – their materials became the art itself.

The aesthetic qualities of early modernism proved to have an enduring and timeless appeal, but as mass production and mechanized building technologies progressed throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, the textures, patterns and colors of early modernism were progressively discarded by the fashions of a newer aesthetic that favored an ever-simpler, monolithic and monochromatic character.
I’ve long admired the material honesty, openness, horizontality, rich textures, and elegant rhythms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Prairie School. Perhaps because this approach expressed a reverence for human proportion and spatial innovation not commonly seen before. Looking back across seven decades of my own designs I’ve come to see the humanism of the early modern era as a recurring thread in my work despite the wide variety of building types, materials, and styles that have comprised it.

In partnership with Jim Ikard, I decided last year to pay homage to Wright’s early modernism with my design of, The Bacon House at Desert Mountain, a spec project where I would showcase the principles of early modernism that so deeply moved me early in life. With this design, I’ve been able to thoroughly expresses my reverence for the value of a more sensual humanism and a warmer modernism.

The Elements of Ambiance

Ambiance is an atmosphere, an aggregate of elements both tangible and intangible, that results in a general feeling in an individual, or engenders a shared mood among a group. Individually, ambiance is highly subjective and is greatly influenced by past experiences. Because the attributes of ambiance and feelings are largely immeasurable, describing their attributes, both good and bad, is heavily dependent upon the use of metaphor. Metaphors are indispensable to efficient and fluent conversation, but their inherent ambiguity is entirely inadequate if one is interested in deriving or conveying useful knowledge or wishes to participate with clarity in a meaningful exchange of ideas or information. We can only guess at what someone means by terms such as “large, small, warm, cozy, inviting, wow-factor, curb-appeal, etc.” If we wish to effectively communicate with each other about subjective matters, it’s imperative that as designers and consumers, we seek a deeper understanding of these common expressions by exploring their underlying or causal attributes.

I’ve found it most effective (and consider it essential) to establish at the outset of each project a meaningful, unambiguous and common vocabulary among all the project participants. I’ve found it immensely helpful to use the lexicon of visual composition to describe shared images and/or real spaces with each of our clients or colleagues. Before jumping into a design project, we must understand each other. Regarding the visual environment, a few of the most common elements of composition are: form, shape, balance, symmetry, color, rhythm, texture, pattern, shape, orientation, proportion, direction, transparency, reflectivity, and sheen. There are an extraordinary number of these unambiguous descriptors available, but for any of them to be truly meaningful each should be qualified, quantified, or modified by locating it somewhere along a continuum of the attribute with its spectrum bounded by agreement to its extremes. If the attribute is measurable, its metrics should be used. For example, transparency varies from clear to opaque; light reflectivity from zero (black) to 100% (white); texture from smooth to jagged; sheen from flat to high-gloss; etc. These serve as the ‘extremes’ of these measurable attributes. If sharing spatial experiences with the client or project team isn’t possible, photographs are very useful for establishing the extremes or boundaries of immeasurable attributes such as ‘ambiance,’ ‘character,’ ‘style’, etc.

A Phenomenal Correlation

If you make a chart of each of these continua stacking one above the other, with the low extreme to the left and the high extreme to the right, you’ll notice that characteristics such as complexity, processing steps, machine usage, embedded energy, skill and cost, all rise from left to right. Indigenous buildings and technologies reside at the far left and high-tech modern buildings are at the far right. Vernacular styles occupy the middle ground and early modern buildings fall just to the right of center. You can fine tune the ambiance and character by charting in this way all the subjective traits and qualities germane to your design.

A Tactile Environment

We discussed earlier the oft overlooked intangibles that comprise our environment and our feelings about it, but this emphasis is not intended to diminish the importance of the physically tactile stimuli of our environment and our sensory perceptions of them. Visually, we perceive light levels in terms of brightness (lumens), diffusion (shadow-less or high-contrast glare), color (frequency spectrum, Kelvin temperature); sound in terms of frequency (Hz) and power (decibels); smell or aroma (woody, non-citrus fruit, sharp/pungent, chemical, minty, sweet, and popcorn); tactile touch (polished, abrasive, sharp). As with intangible qualities, each of these tactile qualities can also be made more relevant and meaningful by referencing them in a continuum or within a spectrum of extremes.

A ‘Warm’ Environment

It is the frequency with which I hear this term as a modifier of the term “modern” that lead to choosing the topics of this talk. I often hear terms like “clean” used to modify vernacular styles like “ranch,” and “warm” used to modify the term “modern.” I usually advise my clients that “Modern” isn’t a style, per se, but a non-traditional approach that commonly refers to open, non-compartmentalized, multi-use spaces such as great rooms (which, by the way, for the realtors in the audience, is not a “concept,” but an arrangement of functions). ‘Modern’ also connotes, lots of light and transparency, little applied ornament, simple profiles, and clarity in the expression of structure and its components. This combination of modern attributes doesn’t necessarily result in an ambiance that’s “cold,” but a less than warm and cozy ambiance can result if more attention is given to form rather than surface.

Once the structure’s size, form, and spatial volumes are established and each space has been proportioned appropriately to the size and number of their human occupants, the surfaces of the structure can then be rendered to create the desired ambiance. If the objective is, as is so often the case today, to create a warm, inviting, cozy, and intimate ambiance in a modern light-filled, open, and transparent structure, very careful attention must be paid to the selection of the opaque materials along with the specification of their colors, textures, patterns and sheen.

It’s also important to remember that, when in use, these spaces will contain furniture, accessories, and art, as well as the other accouterments, miscellany, and detritus of human activity. If our buildings, and especially our homes, don’t account for the storage or display of these chattels, we are inviting clutter, disarray, and disorganization; each of which diminishes the comfort and well-being of the users (not to mention making an unphotographable mess of our otherwise perfectly conceived design).