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Choice and Cultivation
The task of our time is to combine vitality with calm
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." ~ Henry David Thoreau

To function, even at the most basic level, we must be selective in our interaction with our environment. We must filter the majority of the flood of potential information around us to perform any task - indeed, to complete any rational thought. To be selective about what we attend to is a fundamental reality of the human condition, occurring from our most incidental and fleeting moments to the most meaningful and far-reaching; the latter leads to cultivation, "a psychic activity that is only possible because humans are able to focus their attention selectively in the pursuit of goals". [1]

To pursue any ambition, no matter how large or small or how trivial or profound, one must attend to it, forestalling or forsaking countless other possibilities. Who we are, as individuals and as a culture, is invariably defined by what we prioritize, what we value, what we privilege: what we choose. At the beginning of an architectural project, I usually spend time with a client writing a brief - we call it a program - that documents what it is that our design work will be focusing on; although it is in part a list of objective requirements, constraints, etc., it is above all an effort to clarify the underlying seed crystal - the systemic motivation, the fundamental 'mission statement' - for what we will together be endeavoring to create. For me, this first step is crucial.

A particularly interesting design program arose out of a project I was commissioned to do for a writer who wanted to build a compact, off-grid retreat on an isolated and private 48 acre site. This modest human intervention in a grand unspoiled location (shown in these images) was an architectural commission founded on a deliberate decision to craft a dwelling to filter out the phenomenological equivalent of 'junk food' and make space for introspection, creativity, and calm. The idea was to design a minimal dwelling compatible with the cultivation of an enhanced life experience and state of mind. The 'mission statement' we eventually distilled was:
Create a materially restrained but architecturally distinct 'retreat' to nurture a creative and reflective lifestyle, sheltered from both the feral landscape it will be built to inhabit and the diminishing influences of contemporary culture it will be built to resist.

The overall goal expressed in this statement consists of several discreet goals, each of which suggests significant implications for design. The idea of architecturally distinct material restraint opens opportunities for architectural expression. The project was to be pared down to minimums quantitatively (spatially) in order to privilege a higher level of emphasis qualitatively (tectonically) within given cost constraints. In other words, build less, better. Quantitative restraint suggests thoughtful choices about what materials are selected as well as what quantities are used, intrinsically heightening their architectural significance. This client revealed ideals of 'nurturing a creative and reflective lifestyle' and of 'resisting contemporary cultural babble' - separate but related goals. The first has to do with reinforcing her creativity and productivity, providing a positive work atmosphere and a calm environment conducive to reflection, thought, and writing. The second is about distancing her as far as possible from the superficial nature of contemporary culture.

Industrial and commercial influences in construction have advanced both standardization and modularity of building components and systems. The economic, social, and cultural ramifications of the 'standard of living' afforded by mass production are a hallmark of our time. The industrial revolution transformed mainstream culture into a culture of production - and ultimately to a culture of consumption. It is this very culture that the project at hand was intended to distance its owner from, suggesting we needed to re-think how we would build. The research into how to respond to this challenge ultimately led me to SIREWALL - solid walls of insulated stone, hand crafted on site.

Mainstream construction practices reflect a cultural bias for the expedient over the substantial. In "For an Architecture of Reality" Michael Benedict argues for architectural materials and methods chosen and assembled in a manner that celebrates the act of building and the craft of the builder rather than following the prevailing norms of construction " indifferent men with indifferent plans, using remotely made and generic parts." [2]

This trend toward building with prefabricated materials and components has increased simplicity and speed of assembly on construction sites, transferring labor costs to off-site enterprises. Combined with increasingly specialized and narrow contractual responsibility of subcontractors, this aspect of 'Fordism' in the construction industry has resulted in decreased levels of engagement with the overall project and a steady de-skilling of labor on-site. Indifference has displaced craftsmanship, and generic, prefabricated materials and components have displaced regionally founded, hand crafted, or tectonically expressive choices. Moreover, conventions of expedience also generate generic standards of assembly such as those found in panelized, modularized, prefabricated, or milled materials, and a prevalence of building materials and systems that dematerialize buildings such as drywall and faux veneers. [3]

The industrial and technological realities of our age are not inherently negative or positive; it is our use of them that determines such outcomes. This is not a quixotic argument to reject technology, but rather to critically consider how it is employed in design. A design strategy of resisting mainstream design and building practices opens the potential to filter out simulation and atectonic, superficial symbolism in exchange for a tectonically expressive architecture of authenticity, substance and silence.

Peter Zumthor speaks of just such qualities in Thinking Architecture: "To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being". [4]

The Retreat for a Writer was was born of a commitment to build a dwelling to foster introspection, creativity, and calm - for me, calling to mind the words of Kenneth Frampton: "Inasmuch as its continuity transcends mortality, building provides the basis for life and culture. In this sense, it is neither high art nor high technology. To the extent that it defies time, it is anachronistic by definition. Duration and durability are its ultimate values. In the last analysis it has nothing to do with immediacy and everything to do with the unsayable. What was it Luis Barragan said? "All architecture which does not express serenity fails in its spiritual mission. The task of our time is to combine vitality with calm." [5]

[1] M. Csikszenthmihalyi, The Meaning of Things, Cambridge 1981
[2] Michael Benedikt, For An Architecture of Reality Lumen Books 1987
[3] David Harley, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell 1990
[4] Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhauser 2006
[5] Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture MIT Press 1995

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.