How an Architect Builds: The Art of Combining All Arts

An interview with architect extraordinaire, Stephen Howard.

Stephen, what’s your story? How did you get into architecture?

Throughout childhood beaming grownups prophesied to my parents, “He’s going to grow up to be an architect.” I only knew that I liked building blocks, drawing houses and castles, tinkering with Legos, and perusing the housing catalogues you can still pick up at the Home Depot.

Mine was not a composed childhood such as that of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His mother determined early in his life that her son should be an architect and provided him with Froebel blocks. The geometrical simplicity of what are now culturally ubiquitous to us all as simply “building blocks” came to permeate Wright’s designs and leant clarity to his otherwise complex compositions.

Childhood shapes our lives in powerful ways. I will focus on the singular fact that throughout my youth my parents had seasonal tickets to the local symphony orchestra.

Most concerts by the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes were held at the vaudevillian-era Clemens Center in Elmira, NY. Named after Mark Twain, who wrote many of his novels while summering outside the city, the concert hall remains imprinted on my memory as a cavernous room lined with Classical columns, ornament, and moldings. Lit with ornate stained glass fixtures, its infinite rows of heavy red velvet seats faced a yawning proscenium draped with a doubly heavy fringed curtain. During intermission my mother let me roam the carpeted corridors.

I began by climbing the stairs, running my hand along the brass railings enjoying their sweeping curve as they ascended to upper gallery where hung a large pastoral painting. A low, dim hallway quickly deposited me in the middle of the steep balcony. Teetering with vertigo, I descended to the railing’s edge, leaning over to survey the hundreds of people milling about below. Returning to my seat I’d pass through the main lobby, dramatically – in my adolescent mind – descending the grand staircase which wound round an immense, mid-century modern tubular glass chandelier to the marble floor below. Once a month, eight times a year for much of my youth I repeated this ritual. That building transformed me.

Architecture can be the stage for something so great as Gershwin or Handel or something so humble as a family gathered round the kitchen table at dinner. And within that spectrum are those chance occasions where architecture itself can make an impression. Surely creating these sorts of experiences for so many people, perhaps, even, for another impressionable boy, would be a profession worth pursuing.

Why do you work in this field now? What do you believe architecture can give to the world, and to the individuals who live in it?

It’s a historical temptation for architects to say that what they do will save the world. Let it suffice to say that architecture can make a difference.

I currently work at Hartman-Cox Architects in Washington, D.C., which specializes in civic architecture and historic preservation. While our work is heavily Classical, we believe that it should also be contextual: a well-designed building is informed by and respectful to its surroundings.

While I fall short of believing Classical architecture is always the answer, I believe it is a very potent one for the reason that it arises from the aesthetic and cultural tradition of Western society. While some may bore of tradition of whatever sort, its enduring quality speaks to a well-reasoned conception derived from experience. Vernacular architecture is as tradition born of a usually pre-Industrial people group responding to their climatic and geographical situation. Crafting with locally sourced materials births a unique architectural vocabulary whose forms directly react to climate conditions.

Traditional architecture’s enduring quality speaks to a well-reasoned conception derived from experience.

Vernacular architecture calls to mind such forms as the igloo, wigwam, or stilt huts. But more elaborate, dare I say, developed styles of vernacular architecture also include British, French, and Spanish colonial architecture, log cabins, half-timbered houses of Great Britain, the shotgun houses of New Orleans, and so many others.

I won’t go so far as to categorize Classical architecture as vernacular, that is not my point. Rather, it has origins very much part of the vernacular; its later formalization and universal adoption throughout ancient Greece and Rome transformed it into the powerful manner of design it has continued to be for millennia.

Those styles born of a vernacular, Classicism included, inherently possess those aforementioned qualities: efficiency, endurance, and beauty. The ancient Vitruvius called these virtues utilitas, firmitas, and venustas, commodity, strength, and delight. The past decade saw the heightened preeminence of “sustainable” architecture. Its motivation – to build using methods and materials that promote good stewardship of natural resources – closely relates to the qualities of vernacular architecture.

These issues we will eventually solve or circumvent. But we can lessen the burden now by considering vernacular building techniques which already account for climate conditions, good ventilation, natural daylighting, and healthy living in passive, energy conserving manners. Throughout construction and occupation, buildings are the single greatest source of greenhouse gas production.

A December 2012 New York Times article reported that recent analysis of New York’s buildings found that older buildings routinely outperformed modern, even sustainably celebrated buildings in energy efficiency and consumption. The article highlights the many qualities inherent in traditional, historic, vernacular architecture that make it such a reasonable solution in an increasingly concerned global society.

Architects possess great responsibility to protect and respect the environment. Fostering the ancient relationship between designer, the designed, and nature lends to the creation of beautiful, enduring architecture.

What does a normal day look like for you? Can you tell us about your creative process?

Film and television tend to mistakenly portray architects as somewhat eccentric romantics whose mad scribbles translate overnight into fantastic buildings, bringing instant fame and comfortable fortune. Perhaps for a single percent of architects this is close to true. For most the daily routine is far from glamorous.

Composing a facade seems artistically liberating, but there are practical considerations: zoning code compliant building heights and setbacks, window lines of surrounding buildings, maintaining good proportions, preventing excessive heat gains through logical wall-to-glazing ratio, sun exposure, cast shadows, material limitations, uses of interior spaces, neighborhood aesthetic.

That’s not to say one and not the other requires creativity or provides satisfaction. Every hour of artistic effort takes a hundred supporting hours of practical concerns. A day spent designing iron railings for a grand staircase may precede a week involving specifying outlet locations, drawing roof waterproofing details, or answering inquiries from lighting and structural consultants.

The creative process can vary depending on what and for whom it is being designed. Regardless, I take three steps to get a design underway:

1. Establish parameters. What must this object absolutely do/not do, be/not be? How do building and zoning codes affect it? How large is my budget? What architectural style, or styles, is, or are, more appropriate, if any?

2. Collect precedent. A good architect does not needlessly reinvent the wheel. If tradition fails to readily prescribe a solution, it’s likely that another architect, historic or contemporary, has had a similar design problem and found a way to solve it. By exposing myself to a variety of possible solutions I build my architectural vocabulary and am able to approach the matter from different directions.

3. Constant iteration. Ideas jostling for realization in my head are best developed by being put down on paper. At this stage I like to avoid using the computer. Hand drawing affords me not only speed but allows me to easily suggest details or relationships without having to fully develop them. Iteration never really ceases even as the design becomes further developed and closer to becoming a reality.

When precision or a measured, finished drawing is needed, either for greater scrutiny or communication with consultants, then I’ll draw it up in the computer and continue developing it there. An architect often feels that something more can be done, one more thing finessed, one more aspect tweaked, even as the design becomes realized, constructed, and the building occupied. At some reasonable point we simply let go and let it be.

Which architects do you admire or find yourself influenced by? Are there any whose work you wish you had come up with first?

Architects from the mid-Nineteenth Century on, trained for the past century under the rigorous and Classical teachings of the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts, grappled with reconciling traditional building techniques and forms with the new technology of steel frame construction. Their investigations with a radically new material after centuries of primarily masonry and timber structures yielded fascinating forms and new architectural theories. The best of these not only challenged the long-established design methods but continued to hold them with the healthiest regard. Literally volumes have been written about these men, but for brevity their names will suffice: Englishmen John Soane and Edwin Lutyens; Viennese architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos; the ever-controversial German Albert Speer; Americans Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, John Russell Pope, and French-American Paul Philippe Cret.

Contemporary architects of note who have continued exploring applications of Classicism’s timelessness in their own age include Demetri Porphyrios, Robert A. M. Stern, urbanism duo Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Quinlan Terry, Allan Greenberg, Michael Graves, and Michael G. Imber.

As for your second question, the history of architecture is not a single linear thread but an intricate tapestry wherein not only may ideas of great contrast coexist but those of great similarity can be simultaneously spun and spun anew. To wish to have “done it first” places value in what is solely new and begs removal from this multiplicitous linearity. Understanding that knowledge, like a fabric, becomes stronger with a greater number of threads yields a richer and more storied tapestry.

Do you ever encounter “architect’s block,” and if you do, how do you solve it? Where do you go for inspiration?

What you might call “architect’s block” certainly happens, as is imaginable any creative profession. Here are four ways I employ when stuck:

1. Precedent: Chances are, some architect, either historic or current, has come across the problem already and solved it with some degree of success. Perusing architectural drawings and photographs with regularity builds a personal architectural design arsenal. But when unprepared, doing so with a specific problem in mind usually yields or at least guides toward a solution.

2. Peers: A new perspective is always beneficial. Sometimes an opinion may not be needed; the mere act of talking out a problem can be enough to lend clarity to any conundrum.

3. Production: When there are either too many ideas or too few, madly and rapidly scrawling down as many options as possible, however outlandish, can yield surprising results. It not only clears your mind of all the rubbish but, in putting down possible solutions in such a cursory manner, highlights any major flaws or potential these ideas may have. It used to seem ludicrous in school for a professor to demand 40 sketches of an elevation; sometimes 60 are required to eke out a good option.

4. Pause: Should all this fail, taking a break to put the mind on other things often helps. Go for a walk. Read a book. Cook dinner. Do some housework. Take a nap. It really does help to return to the drafting table with fresh eyes.

Do you find that other art mediums such as painting, sculpture, or even music, influence your work?

There are architects throughout history who do not strictly divorce these artistic mediums. They believed the arts should be unified and, in some cases, the work of a single hand. The German word for this philosophy is Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” The ancient Vitruvius wrote,

“An architect should be a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies.”

Long before its christening, the great Renaissance architect, artist, sculptor, and painter Michelangelo subscribed to this philosophy. Those proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement as well as Art Nouveau also believed this, though they were also responding to their era’s newfound capabilities of industrialized mass production.

Frank Lloyd Wright practiced the universal art, often designing every aspect of his clients’ homes including furnishings and artwork, even prescribing how they should live. Gesamtkunstwerk was a founding principle of the Bauhuas, the great Modern German architecture school founded by Walter Gropius. Contemporarily, the Swedish company IKEA not only strives to furnish every room of your home but is developing an entire community, “Strand East,” in London, becoming architect and urban planner in addition to gardener, artist, and craftsman.

Though I do not profess myself to simultaneously wear all these hat with equal success, I have worn some of them at different points in my life.

Music, especially, helped shape me as young man and remains a prominent pursuit. Being a musician taught me patience, balance, order, harmony, improvisation, observation, and composition. Art classes throughout my youth and later in my university’s pre-professional program refined these same principles in a different medium. Architecture continues this same teaching but again translates it into a new medium. The study and practice of any and all the creative arts lends to a greater appreciation of of an age.

Finally, if you could collaborate with any architect, living or dead, on a project, who would it be, and what would you build?

I would have loved to work with Paul Philippe Cret (pronounced Cray) during his firm’s heydey in the 1920s and collaborated on his architectural explorations of the early 1940s shortly before his sudden death. He was at the forefront of those architects probing the relationship between Classical architecture and modern building technologies. His peers and students esteemed him as one of the greatest architecture educators of the time.

Should Cret be miraculously transported to our time, it would be a particular delight to collaborate with him on an urban plan, the centerpiece of which would be a concert hall with a grand domed lobby, or hopefully a dome somewhere.

He never built a domed building and I haven’t a clue why. It drives me mad.


You can see more of Hartman-Cox Architects’ work here. Image courtesy of Hartman-Cox Architects.

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