May 2007

Architecture rises above abstractions. In case you have been seduced into thinking that our obligations to clients end when we hand over the keys to a project, or that all architecture inhabits a theoretical netherworld, think again. A building can engage an architect for a lifetime.

Photo © André Souroujon

I was reminded in a most personal way last week, when a trip to my hometown took an unexpected turn. Stopping off to visit an old client and friend on a brilliant spring day, we revisited his home on a hilltop, out near the Natchez Trace Parkway. Prior to becoming the editor of this publication, my architectural firm had designed his family’s house. Little did I realize that visiting the lawyer and his wife again would be like entering a time warp, or that it would teach me in an unforeseen way.

As fate would have it, the original contractor was at work on a modification to the house and was present that day. Fifteen years ago, I had suggested to Mike and Margaret that they hire the builder and his firm, a decision that proved right. Dick Featheringill had proved himself a skilled, intelligent, and ethical contractor—a combination of virtues that warranted immediate hiring, even at a slight premium over the field of his peers. Slim, clear-eyed, after all this time, there was Dick, figuring things out.

After lunch at the same kitchen table where we had sketched out our ideas together, we talked about craftsmen who had helped make the house a success, men like Jim McClellan, who was engaged again, 15 years later, to provide custom woodwork for the entertainment center. Then we toured a house that had seen two children grow to adulthood. We puzzled over suggested improvements. Dick reminded me that in adding on to the original structure, a simple, single-level ranch, we had created a cobweb of dual trusses, which would make any alterations to the roof complicated, particularly a new skylight. We scratched our heads, hemmed and hawed over how to get light into a family entertainment room.

Mike, who had been an enthusiastic partner in obtaining unique materials from salvage sites and had been a stickler for quality, pointed out much that had worked out well, such as the broad front porch overlooking the hillside filled with hardwoods. I realized that Margaret had sat out there birdwatching and gathering her thoughts for her column on gardening for the regional newspaper and a book on wildflowers she had authored. Mike had sweated out tough law cases on the tennis court he added.

It was rewarding to see that the main decisions still held. The proportions we had arrived at for the living and dining additions still lent a sense of importance to the human body. The sun streamed in through shaded south lights; the north elevation grabbed every scrap of ambient light and filtered it into an axial hallway. Not bad.

Time had passed. Shrubs that had been mere pips had filled out and blossomed, and trees now overhung the garden. But I could see that some decisions had gone wrong, such as the unprotected north windows, where rain splashing on a brick terrace had caused ponding and moss to grow. Unknown to this editor working in New York, Featheringill had been called in to the rescue and devised copper caps to shield the windows from winter rains. Architects, in spite of our best intentions and ideas, fail to account for all eventualities.

My own hometown called me onward, but not without ruminations on the life of an architect. How ironic, and how wonderful, that real people live in the designs that we labor over. Mike and Margaret illustrated for me, in a way that no textbook or continuing education class ever could, that lives are lived in the places and spaces we create, that families are sheltered and grow, that people’s hopes are cradled there and can evolve and mature, sometimes with wonderful results. Architecture remains a social art, affecting real people at the moment of its making, but more important, for the days and years that follow. We never work in the abstract, despite our fascination with ideas, but for people who live, love, and grow up in our buildings. Even when we have moved on, our work remains and lives a life of its own: Architects create a framework for living.

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