Sunday, July 21, 2013

Architecture & Genius: We've Been Waiting for You

One of my favorite movies is the 1984 historical drama Amadeus. It is the story of an undisputed musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his interactions with Antonio Saliari, the King's court composer. Saliari, as an old man reflecting on his life, is the movie's narrator. In this scene he is recalling an encouter with Mozart's wife. Hoping to get her husband a position on the the court, she has handed over some of Mozart's original manuscripts to Saliari. Watch.


Okay. This is all interesting, but isn't this blog supposed to be about architecture? How does this clip relate to architecture? While I believe there is a definite connection between architecture and music, that connection is not the subject of this post (but perhaps a future post). What is of immediate interest to me are the shared underpinnings, and one in particular, of geniuses across virtually all creative disciplines.  From the first time I saw this scene in Amadeus, I was reminded of a famous story involving Frank Lloyd Wright. Rather than recounting it myself, I will let Edgar Tafel, one of Wright's apprentices, do so. The following clip is from the Ken Burns' documentary Frank Lloyd Wright. Enjoy.

There are many parallels but one in particular jumped out at me. Did you notice that both Mozart and Wright created masterworks, fully developed, in their heads? I cannot tell you how astounding I find that fact! Design and Composition are both highly complex endeavors. While I know little about musical composition, I do know a thing or two about architectural design. 

Wright and his Apprentices
I definitely know this. Going directly from one's head to paper is not the way the design process is supposed to work. Before we "mortal" architects advance a design to a state of development that includes well executed plans and elevations, we take several necessary steps.  We begin by getting a schematic design concept, called a parti diagram, down on paper. We then go through dozens, sometimes hundreds, of refinements. We sketch variations on top of variations, discarding those that do not work and keeping and refining those that do. We may build physical or computer generated models to help us envision and understand the three-dimensional characteristics of the project. All of this takes a great deal of time. Eventually we arrive at a design solution we think is good enough to show the client. Even then, however, our design is destined to fall well short of the mastery displayed in the first drawings of a genius such as Wright.

So, although we have long known that geniuses share many common traits: self-assuredness, intelligence, drive, and perhaps social awkwardness, it is their ability to formulate magnificent creations in their heads, that really separates them from the rest of us. Perhaps Wright's statement "Welcome E.J., we've been waiting for you," was not so disingenuous after all. It was not that he had not started, he had just not finished!

Another point I might make. A musical composition or an architectural design that is only in one's head is of no benefit to anyone else.  It must end up in some tangible form. That involves tools. For Saliari that meant ordering notes and measures on paper with pen and ink. For Wright that meant composing shapes and spaces on paper using pencils and drafting instruments. Those of us practicing architecture today have an unprecedented array of tools at our disposal. Not being geniuses, we need all of them! I contend that some of these tools not only help us to illustrate our design solutions graphically, but may actually help shape them. Please join me for my next post, Construction and Deconstruction.