The case for a disprovable architecture.

There are many ways in which architecture can be important to a community. Public buildings and spaces not only fulfill their daily practical functions but also reflect who we are and who we wish to be. They remind us of the values of our forefathers and tell our great grandchildren something about us. From a functional point of view, city hall is often a very simple office building. But it is also the ongoing physical representation, the front door or the face, of its community. Architects with exceptional skills in the appearance of buildings should be hired for this type of project. This is a modern day version of monumental architecture and it still has its place in our world.

(All but the most adventurous of communities are going to hire a predictable architect, an architect with a recognizable style, so the community has a fairly clear idea in advance of what it will be getting. If there is a good place for the star architects of our media saturated world, this is it. Ironically, these are not the most exciting architects of our day. They offer us predictability, but it is precisely that predictability that limits their ability to give us the very best design for our specific needs.

It is a sadness of our time that local architects do not dominate this field. Local architects have the opportunity to be brilliant about their own locales, to know them the best. Local architects have a much better chance of creating a design that tells a richly true story about its community. This is only true if the local architects have prepared themselves. Not many have, but more have than get this opportunity. Instead of documenting and celebrating our specificity and diversity, we bring in the famous architect who makes our architecture just like someone else’s.)

Houses are at the other end of the architectural spectrum.
Houses must first of all be tools for living.

(There are, of course, those houses that are just for show, or primarily for show – by definition, they are not houses. Rather, they represent a private highjacking of architecture’s appropriate public representational role described in the first paragraph above. Depending on the astuteness of the observer, these houses tell much more than the owner ever intended.)

Individuation is the house architect’s most important task. A house must accomplish the very best fit between the needs of its occupants and the opportunities and requirements of its site. In the hands of a skilled architect, this fit will produce a design that also reflects the values of the site and the occupant. Skilled house architects must have an eye (and ear and nose and skin) for composition, for color, proportion and texture. But first they must know how to read sites and read clients. They must be students of how we live and how we interact with the physicality of construction. For the most part, this knowledge is not opinion based. It is scientific, objective, repeatable fact. House architects operating on opinion are charlatans. House architects who don’t have an exceptional understanding of all the humdrum details of daily life cannot possibly provide the value their clients deserve.

I start with a generic concept of house. I’ve done the “perfect house”. What do I do with the rest of my life? Happily, the perfect house is only perfect once, and in fact, probably not even once. So, I modify the generic concept in response to the forces presented by the site, the prospective occupants, and my own architectural education. House design is an exhaustive process of moving the specific design further and further away from the generic concept – but always with legitimate, genuine, reason.

Art? I think I must do everything for a reason (elegance is a measure of how many different reasons inspire one move), but I must do everything artfully.

What makes me think my reasons are legitimate and genuine? My own test is whether my client understands.

Architectural education? After thirty years, I do think I understand most of the forces. Many of the fits I have found are less than perfect and every project is an opportunity to improve the fit. These can be technical – avoiding the damaging effects of rain, and functional – how best to light a dining room.

(Clients who have their homes designed by architects with a recognizable style are subverting their own identity to that architect. Certainly, an individual has the right to do that. These architects have chosen a role similar to that of writer or painter. I can understand the desire to have your portrait painted by Picasso, but I would think you would want to have Wayne Thiebaud do a portrait, too. I can’t imagine that you would want Nabokov to write your biography. Picasso’s portrait and Nabokov’s biography are going to be more about them than you. These products will be judged on the artist’s execution of their personal goals. That’s not what a house should be about. A house is a tool for living, a specific tool for a specific environment. The owner and the architect should be clear that the fitness of that tool is the goal. All other things are secondary.)

The possibility of a scientific architecture has been a revelation to me. Conversations about architecture within the profession are generally of two types. Most are about business, about how to make money. The others are about design. What I have come to understand is that aesthetic ideologues dominate this conversation. They set the agenda. We talk about the relative merits of critical regionalism and classic modernism and so on. I am glad I live in a world where these kinds of things are discussed. I like to read the New Yorker and I like to debate the merits of this or that style. I do not believe that either is very important.

Improving the relationship between mankind and the built environment is, on the other hand, very important, as important as any task facing humanity. Aesthetes can have their esoteric world and I will enjoy it as a form of entertainment. When I am working, though, I want to do important architecture and I want my profession to get back to where it concerns itself primarily with important issues.

I do not believe that all buildings are equal. I do not believe that the only differences in architecture are a matter of aesthetic judgment. HOUSE SCIENCE can show you how a house can be truly, objectively, better. Architects who make houses that are truly, objectively, better will increase the stature of architecture and architects in our culture.



This is a manifesto for radical functionalism. AIA COD is, arguably, after the schools, and possibly the press, the most important forum for the discussion of architecture in the United States. So, it seems appropriate, here a mile from one of Lou Kahn’s masterpieces, to open the fight for the heart of the profession. For too long we have sought our meaning from academic wordsmiths. Architecture is not about art or politics. Architecture is about buildings. Buildings are tools. Architecture, therefore, is about maximizing the fitness of buildings. I am not the only one who has been troubled by the intellectual shallowness of the theoretical discourse in the 20th century. Architecture or revolution, give me a break. It is time to take back and put back the majesty of architecture. If you listen carefully enough to the programmatic requirements, the building will tell you what it wants to be. You don’t need a style or an ideology based in art or literature. You just need to tailor the building exceptionally well to the program. All architecture must spring from radical functionalism. Great architecture happens when we achieve a sublime functionalism. Of course, form follows function. Form is not architecture. We need to close the gap. Architecture follows program. That is all we need to make a great architecture. Architects and the public will recognize it as such.

Originally presented to the American Institute of Architects Committee on Design in May of 2004 in La Jolla California.



In design, all rules must be broken occasionally. The important part is to know when you are breaking a rule.

When you go to buy a house – see if these aspects are present.


Extend the house east to west instead of north to south so as to maximize south walls. When we need the sun the most, it is only in the south.

Create high space and high walls on the south – this allows low angle sun to penetrate deeply into the building.

Provide open spaces on the south, enclosed spaces on the north – this allows the sun to penetrate more thoroughly into the building.

Provide sit down spaces on the south, stand up spaces on the north – don’t want the standers to shade the sitters.

Provide decks with sun doubling – places where the sun hits you and also bounces off the wall behind you and hits you again.

Know when you want to be outside and where the sun is at that time and put the decks there.

Make sure breakfast spaces and bathrooms face east and have east facing windows – good morning sunshine.

Locate houses on the north side of the lot so you can be outside south of your building.

Make sure that the windows provided are not required to be covered because of privacy concerns. A curtained window is often worse than no window at all.


Know that gutters do not work. Gutters require serious maintenance and even then rarely work in winter. They fill with ice and then the glaciers and icicles flow right over the gutter.

Never slope the roof so that it drains above the front door (or the back door either)!

Never slope the roof so that it drains above the garage door!

Never use a hipped roof – hipped roofs drain to all four sides – that is never the right answer.

Never create a roof with a valley! Valleys are impossible to adequately ventilate and they concentrate drainage. That means they generate glaciers and icicles. Not good for the roof, not good for anything beneath the icicle.

Never use a skylight. Our sun angles are low so south windows are better than skylights. Skylights melt water on the roof that becomes an icicle below.

Given the difficulty of plowing and shoveling, make walkways and driveways as short as possible.

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t have the energy for the debate about what is beautiful or ugly. I care about the appearance of my buildings. I must satisfy my clients that they will be pleased with the appearance of their building. After that, well, everybody else can have their opinion. Everybody involved with the design of our city, at every scale, has much more important tasks than appearances. If the building drips on you or is dark or puts you in the shade, my guess is, you will think it is ugly. There are many examples around town of prettification. These are attempts to directly beautify the city. They mostly fall on blind eyes. Think about the circles incised in concrete on Northern Lights or the Concrete Blobs on 15th or even the various pieces of sculpture along C Street. Some of these are nice and all, but I can’t imagine that anyone really believes they are going to turn the tide on our ugly city. The wide sidewalks on 4th Avenue downtown on the other hand have allowed the street vendors to flourish and its fun to be there. The speculative house builders are always struggling to make a more attractive house – they seem to add another roof to their compositions every year – do any of us think they are succeeding? But if we could buy a house that doesn’t have ice on the front walk and where the sun shines in the family room – now, that might be a beautiful house.

I think my first task is to convince people that things can be better. My impression is that most people think all houses, all buildings, all cities are more or less the same so don’t worry about it. Buy something stupid, like everybody else, and then make do as best you can. Its not true. Houses, buildings and cities can be better! If we think of them as tools to support our lives and demand that they be designed and judged as tools, instead of debating about their ugliness, well, I bet we will end up with a beautiful city.

Seattle Public Library

It has always been Venturi’s role. He shows the way. He does it first, maybe not so well, but then others follow. In Seattle it has happened again. At the Seattle Art Museum, Venturi attempted to integrate the hillside topography into the form and function of the building. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson learned that lesson and improved upon it in the new Seattle City Hall. Now, Rem Koolhaas has brought this idea to its apex in the new Seattle Central Library. It is hard to imagine a building more thoroughly infused with its topography. One could start another way. The Seattle Central Library succeeds where Wright’s Guggenheim fails. The sloped and spiraling stacks are a master stroke. It is almost like being in a Jorge Louis Borge novel. How can one possibly be in the same room at the same time with so many books? Sometimes the views are disturbing – have we had an earthquake?, is the structure sagging under the weight of the books?, but mostly the spiral is just a joy.

Architectural moves, if they are to be valued, must have multiple reasons. The form of the Library qualifies. The spiral floor might have led to the exterior appearance of an overdressed parking garage. The form and the skin release the floors from the look of the place. In often dark and gloomy Seattle, the undulations of the skin serve to cut back the corners of the building. This increases the open space at the street intersections, opens up views of Elliot Bay below and allows much greater sun to the maturely tree canopied foreground of the Courthouse to the east. There is also the much deeper question about the walls of a street. This building would not work nearly so well if it did not cover an entire block. Gaudi’s row buildings in Barcelona often read as overbearing boors next to their buttoned-down neighbors. Because the library occupies an entire block, the unhappy, seemingly anti-urban, juxtapositions in Gaudi’s work do not occur. This building opens up a new way of doing the walls of the street. In the context of the otherwise unremitting verticality, Koolhaas’ walls are a breath of fresh air – at the same time, presumably, not nearly the wind generators of their neighbors either. In the early twentieth century, architects eroded the four walls and introduced interconnected, flowing interior space. With this building, Koolhaas suggests that we here in the twenty-first century have the opportunity to do something similar with our cities, with our outdoor urban spaces.

We don’t seem to be ready for a library as a tall building – think Phoenix or Chicago. This is a tall building but it does not give that impression – except at the back of the elevator tower in the central space. At first, the grid of the skin seems a waste. It seems the architect is wasting public resources in a self-indulgent extravaganza. But on further reflection, maybe this is not the case. Compared to a tall building with all of its columns and spandrels and mullions? The blurring of the differences between wall and roof, and the rigorous separation between skin and partition has profoundly simplified the skin and the labor necessary to complete it.

The entrances are curious, unmarked penetrations of the otherwise in many ways undifferentiated skin. The doors are unmarked. In some sense, there are no doors. What is this about? Once again, this opens up new possibilities for the character of the space we call the street. There is a strong technical boundary between the interior and exterior space. But the lack of a ceremonial entrance, the lack of arches or columns or even significant signage tends to soften the psychological boundary between the street and the library. The low psychological impact of the entrances avoids creating a strong boundary between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Combined with the relatively extravagant volume of the interior space and the tall, vertical building constrained outdoor street space, one feels very strongly that the library is as much a public space as the street itself.

One might make a few small complaints. The building is a bit of a secret. There is little indication on the outside of the richness of life inside. One might suggest that the stunning exterior demands a walk inside. No, I’ve been disappointed by that assumption too many times. The floor finishes are consistently demanding of ones attention in ways that are inappropriately distracting. Don’t miss the view of the carpet from above, though maybe it go a little out of hand where it attempts to mimic the real landscaping outside. The wood block floors are noisy and feel as if they are not quite securely fastened to the structure. The floors in the spiral ramps look like they will be the first thing in this building to be replaced. And the big steel stairs, in a library? Huh?

The city and the architects seem unquestionably to deserve high praise, but I must admit, it might be too early to tell. I haven’t seen it in the rain and in the dark. This is a building that will change under those conditions. That’s a good thing. Let’s hope it’s a good thing, inside and out, in this specific case.

While you are there, don’t miss the following items in the neighborhood. On a medium sunny day in the afternoon, have a seat facing south at the sidewalk tables at Tulio. Enjoy the reflections in the glazing on the black glass skyscraper two blocks south of the Library.
Then, walk south a block and look up and back at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. At this distance and in a certain light, this building is a gloriously soft pastel drawing. At the street and close up, the exposed aggregate and reflective glass panes are harsh and heavy, but from a distance they are a joy to behold. Finally, don’t miss the Plymouth Congregational Church – a Noah’s Ark of divinity fudge that suggests how far Edward Durrell Stone and others might have, but did not, go.

Originally written in September of 2004.



As designers, we try to make something new and unique. Sometimes breaking a rule is the way to do that. It’s ok to break a rule, but you must know that you are doing so and you should know why.

Architects are profoundly different from all other artists and creators. We can’t pick what parts of the scene we want to detail. A novelist almost never mentions the bathroom and that’s ok. Painters can gloss over the window trim. Architects cannot leave anything out. If we leave anything out, the contractor and reality fill it in for us, often with disastrous results. And we can’t cheat reality. Creativity and persuasion don’t compel reality. Reality has its rules and those rules are inviolable. The successful practice of architecture involves respecting reality's rules.

Never try to do two things at the same time.
This is actually two rules in one so maybe it’s a violation of itself.

First of all, this is an acknowledgment of one of reality’s fundamental rules. If you try to do certain things at the same time, lines converge and the dimension becomes zero. But architectural elements always have thickness. The solution is often to separate transitions. Make sure the roof valley does not happen at the same place that the eave becomes a gable end. At handrails and guardrails, separate the transition from diagonal to horizontal from the change in plan direction.

The second part of this rule has to do with architecture as tool. It is almost never a good idea to ask people to do two things at once. If there must be a step between the interior and the exterior, move it away from the door. Do not ask people to open a door and climb a step at the same time.

Once I submitted one of my favorite projects for an AIA design award. We did not receive the award. I was told that the reason was that my project lacked a discernible theme. That has lead me to try to understand why a theme might matter. An important characteristic of architecture is that it is recognizably a product of human endeavor. Ruskin believed in the importance of the presence of handicraft in architecture. I believe that doing things more than once in a building is like winking at the occupants. Seeing repeated details tells you that the building was consciously designed.

On the other hand, we never want to do the same thing twice. Partly it's just boring to do so, partly it's because we believe that it's our responsibility to enrich the world with as much genuine diversity as possible, and partly it's that each condition is slightly different. If we listen carefully enough, we can discover the specifics of the condition and modify the design to suit those specifics. So, we never do the same building twice, and we never do the same detail again in quite the same way.

This too relates to the way in which a building betrays its human creators. Finishes must either match or clearly be different. Lines and shapes must clearly align or be positively misaligned. When things are almost, but not quite, the same, the condition reads in one of two ways. Either no consciousness was involved in the selection and the building or space, as a result, lacks that reflection of human creation that I think is essential to architecture, or; it is disappointing architecture. The person who made the selections tried to match or align and failed.

If one thing would do, use one thing. Fine architecture is always elegantly economic. I think this is because, deep in our genes, we know that waste damages our possibility of survival. If the situation requires more than one thing, make sure the sensual messages are clearly different. We seek clarity. We don't enjoy being confused, except maybe at an amusement park. If things are different, but don’t read (through whatever sense is operating) as different, the architecture is sending a mixed message. There are certainly times when you might want to send a mixed message, but you must positively decide to do so – for a reason. Otherwise, one of the sheltering aspects of architecture can and should be the clarity of its sensual messages.