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I have written this letter not because I think that the views expressed are the only way to view the making of buildings but because it is a way; one that is rich in design opportunities, that is applicable to most of our building types and locations, and that the architects doing the everyday buildings of this world should know, if not embrace. I learned this view of the world from my teacher, Louis Kahn, and feel obligated to pass on what, to me, is still a rich and varied path.

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The Case for Tangible Reality

Sitting on the upper deck of the ferry that travels from my island home to Seattle, I am pondering the future of my profession and wondering if we have overlooked or even lost some of our core values.

It's an unusually sunny day in late December. A fiddler plays in the corner of the sheltered area. High-pitched children's voices mingle with the lower pitch of adults in quiet conversation. The ferry engine hums steadily in the background and the hull pushes aside the water with a gentle sound. The low winter sun sparkles silver off the water, and the dark north face of Mount Rainier, 60 miles away, looms over this picture, reminding us of our position in the landscape. What does this delightful scene have to do with architecture? In my world, everything. For I feel that architects can capture these moments of visual and acoustic pleasure that elicit emotional and memorable responses.

I often find myself surprised and then moved by the photographer's ability to capture moments of beauty in objects or events that, at first glance, appear mundane or go unnoticed: a stick on the beach, a pattern of stones, a person sitting on a porch, another person at work; ordinary sights, but somehow transformed by the way in which they capture our attention and reveal the inner truth of the subject. This visual revealing of the subject's essence, connects us to it and evokes our emotions. Can we, as architects, do likewise? I feel that we can, when we viscerally realize that every combination of moment and circumstance in this world is unique. Every place in which we create architecture has unique characteristics and history that we can respect, reveal and reflect. Each material has its own characteristics that—if we are listening—tells us how it wants to be used.

The work of reflecting and revealing the uniqueness of each element in a particular circumstance can be a poignant and powerful, although difficult, approach to designing and constructing buildings. One could begin this exploration by first assuming that all people, institutions, places, objects, materials, and even events, have unique sets of characteristics that we can call their "nature." For purposes of communication we describe and define these characteristics with single words or names: Bruce, the school, the valley, the table, the war—shorthand for much larger and complex definitions. If one decides to work within the boundaries of something's nature, then we can ascribe to that "something" a will. There are certain things it is capable of doing and many things it will be unwilling to do while still falling within the definition of the word which defines it. For example: if we build a table that has a lumpy surface and is tilted in compound directions, it would clearly fall outside the definition of a table. It may be art but it's not a table. The table, therefore, has a "will" to have a physical presence that falls within its own definition. As do people, places and materials. If something has a "will", then we might extrapolate that it has a spirit.

Design, therefore, could be inspired by studying, understanding and then revealing that spirit so that it can not only be comprehended but also felt by the viewer in the same way that one feels this pleasant scene of sun, sound, water, and people.

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Posted 05/24/02