Architectural Spirit

An article I wrote for the Eiger Gallery website … 

‘My main purpose, and feeling really, since I’m involved with man made environments, is to create the most desirable environment to improve human life … It’s not esigning to suit bankers, or building codes or contractors, it’s designing for people.’

These droplets of wisdom are some of the words of the, sadly now no longer with us, John Lautner. They came from a documentary about the renowned architect entitled ‘The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner’. Lautner is a figure who, after only an hour and half of sitting in a stylish screening room in the Royal Institute of British Architects, I gained a rapid appreciation of, and respect for his ideals and place in the history of design.

I suppose when the majority of people think of housing they think of functionality. About the size of the bedrooms, or the position of the windows, and a place to call ‘home’, without maybe fully knowing what that means. However, timeless enduring space is a term Lautner uses to describe what he saw as one of the most important aspects of all architecture, and an idea which permeates through his designs.

Aside from endeavouring to create a space which does more than just keep your head dry and your stuff safe, what was strongly impressed upon me was another more broader idea of Lautner’s, which is the concept of knowing everything about what you are designing. This involves not just concerning yourself with the end product, but knowing how that end product is constructed and the methods required for that construction, with a specific focus on how this process effects all else that follows.

In one sequence of the documentary, Lautner brightly recalls his time studying architecture as a young man under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright. Lautner tells of how he and the others under the great master’s wing not only learnt how to draft and design structures, but they learnt how to build, on frequent occasions wielding hammer and nail, something Lautner laments is not within the skillset of the average architectural graduate among the youth of today.

The thoughts these ideas provoked within me were simple, and they revolved around the same concepts about design and designing which Lautner spoke of. The first of these was do to with the improvement of life. The concept left me wondering – Is it really possible for design to have an impact on this? Can a pretty building make you feel better?

The second was to do with his words about knowing all about what you do. As you think about it, his mantra makes perfect sense. Does the designer of the latest model of MacBook know how to construct one with his or her bare hands? Are the truly gifted designers the ones who know about the practicalities of their craft? Are experts in the materials used and how to use them? ‘Improving life and suiting the situation …’

Lautner echos his key beliefs on design and architecture throughout the film, and one is left with a resonating calmness when watching pictures, moving and otherwise, of his creations. At the end of the documentary, I was left with more questions, but full of answers. What does design really mean to any of us? Does it make our lives better to live? Or is it just there, noticed sometimes, but ultimately ineffectual against what we really care about? Like most things in life, for me, design plays as large a role in our day to day existence as we allow it to. But when something is touched by a designer such as Lautner, one can not help but sit up and take relevant notice. The elements of the design in these cases will not allow you to do anything less. SH

(article written for

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