Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Architecture & Psychology: Nesting and Perching

It is an unfortunate but true fact that the act of experiencing architecture is often pretty melodramatic.  Sometimes the experience can be downright dull.  Fortunately, however, the experience can also be extremely gratifying.  Why is that?  I think it can be safely said that different spaces elicit different emotions.  This connection between architecture and psychology is one worth exploration.

The architect and academic Grant Hildebrand conducted extensive research on this topic.  He identified a handful of qualities that are evident in successful works of architecture. In my view the two most significant qualities he identified are prospect and refuge. Our desire for these qualities is embedded in our DNA and dates back to mankind's beginnings. Hildebrand uses the noun tense of these words.  Prospect refers to an extended or expansive view.  As a counterpoint, Refuge refers to a small, intimate space.  Frank Lloyd Wright was aware of these qualities as well.  He referred to refuge as nesting and to prospect as perching.

A successful work of architecture will inevitably contain both of the qualities.  The ideal ratio of one to the other is elusive.  It varies depending on pragmatic parameters, such as the location of the building site, and individual characteristics, such as one's gender and personality traits.  Generally women tend to favor more  nesting (refuge) while men tend to prefer more perching (prospect).  Spaces within the work of architecture normally contain a balance of both qualities.  Let's explore how these qualities are used in the hands of a Master.

Florence Alabama boasts the only Frank Lloyd designed house in the southeastern United States that is open to the public - the Rosenbaum House.  It is the second in his series of Usonian Houses (for the common man) and was completed in 1939.  I take my students on a pilgrimage to this house every year and have "experienced" it dozens of times.  It still impresses me!  The qualities of nesting and perching are used throughout, in a variety of ways and in various combinations.

Stanley Rosenbaum's Study

Stanley Rosenbaum's Study exemplifies the quality of nesting. The Study is right off of the Living Room.  It is is tucked (not buried) into the ground, giving it a feeling of separation.  The low ceiling and small size make the space feel cozy.  The wood walls and the small fireplace (out of view) add warmth to the mix.  The upholstered chair tucked into the corner surrounded by books provide creature comfort.  The desk provides a space for study and reflection.

Rear of House
Wright provided both interior and exterior spaces which allow for perching.  The rear of the house (which Wright called the front) unfolds to the exterior and directs the occupant's view to the meadow and, before adjacent development, the Tennessee River beyond.  Full glass doors provide views from both the public and private areas.  Screen doors allow for breezes.  A small perch  is placed off the Master Bedroom (see right side of photo above) where the occupants can stand outside, drink their coffee, and enjoy the view.

Living Room
The late architect Paul Rudolph once called the Rosenbaum's Living Room "one of the most sublime spaces in American architecture."  With a raised ceiling over clerestories, full glass doors, and concrete floors that extend to the exterior, this room is definitely a perching space.  Note that the Study, a nesting area, is only loosely separated from the Living Room.  No door here.  The floor pattern, light fixtures, and bookshelves link these two very different spaces.  An understanding of the link between psychology and architecture allows the skillful designer to create, differentiate, and link spaces, thereby creating successful works of architecture.

Next time we'll look at the connection of man to nature, and the subsequent connection of nature to architecture.  It all begins......In the Beginning.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Architecture & Everything: Eventually Everything Connects

This, my first blog post, is inspired by a quote form Charles Eames, a mid-century designer who, along with his wife Ray, changed the face of American culture.  He is credited with stating that "eventually everything connects". This is something that he firmly believed and practiced.  He was trained as an architect but gained notice as a furniture designer, industrial designer, then as a film producer.

"Eventually everything connects..."  As an architect, it has taken me many years to become enlightened to this truth. The purpose of this blog is to explore architectural connections.....to everything.

Eames cards, each with six slots, illustrate the connection between color
and form, and pattern, and  product, and fashion, and the list goes on.

I long subscribed to a common definition of architecture, such as what you get if you google "definition of architecture".


  1. The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.

Notice that architecture is defined as the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings. I contend that most of what pervades our physical environment is derived from the "practice of designing and constructing buildings". We've become quite comfortable with concept.  Architecture is the shell, what's inside is interior design, and what's outside is landscape architecture.  By logical extension, the architect's role is to deal with the shell, the interior designer's role is to deal with whatever is inside and the landscape architect's role is to deal with whatever is outside.  Distinction between the roles is evident.  The outcome is usually less than desirable. 
Conversely, a regrettably small portion of what permeates our physical environment results from the "art of designing and constructing buildings".  This small portion is where we usually find truly inspiring works of architecture. In recent years I have begun to notice that these inspiring works of architecture by architects are also considered successful works of interior design and successful works of landscape architecture by other design professions.  In the creation of these works, the architects were either unaware of the distinctions between roles or just didn't care.  These works are not about distinctions, they are about connections.

Consider the example of Richard Neutra's Kaufman Desert House. The stepping of horizontal planes mimic the surrounding landscape. The planes hover above the landscape on sheets of glass, or are supported by native stone which seems to grow out of the site. The strong horizontal composition is accentuated by the verticality of natural plants and man-made architectural elements such as columns, doors and sunscreens.  The floors seem to extend beyond the wall in the form of lush sod.

From the interior one can appreciate the seamless transition to the exterior.  Where one ends and the other begins is hard to discern.  Natural materials from the exterior are pulled inside and man-made materials from the interior extend outside. The furniture (much of it by Eames) is simple, planar, and warm.  Views to the surrounding environment are carefully considered and framed.

What can we take away from this example?  I am convinced that this work is so satisfying because the architect takes advantage of a myriad of architectural connections, not limiting his role to the design of the shell. In doing so, he creates a work that is satisfying on a variety of levels.

In the next few months I will explore the connections between architecture and the environment, the garden, the neighborhood, interior design, furniture design, product design, fashion, art, sociology, psychology, and more.

Join me next month as we look at the really big picture, the connection between our inner and outer worlds, in my blog post......Nesting and Perching.