Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Downeast Architect

When we 'downeasters' think of architecture we usually think of different styles such as “shingle style”, or “50’s modern”. Artists are often taught that in order to reach their ultimate potential, they must find their muse leading he or she to develop their own voice, or style, and fame and fortune will soon follow. But ‘style’ denotes a method and look which must suppress the individuality of the client and the particular circumstances.

As a Maine architect I have come to discover that notions of style can limit our buildings to functioning as misplaced postcards instead of celebrations of family and community.

We may create great buildings without catering to our preconceptions. These buildings may involve linking the various client needs in ways particular to them. I see architecture as a vehicle for the client to reach their ultimate potential and inner peace. And in Maine, that means my self-actualization may not be part of the puzzle. Nor will it be necessarily true that a client will make requests based on their need to achieve their ultimate potential.

In the harsh climate and harsh economy of our state we quickly develop interpersonal relationships that work to sustain our lives. Inner peace in Maine comes from a warm fire and good conversation. A Yankee mentality delves into areas where the 20th century notion of, “avant-garde”, has limited use and conversely, notions of historical style can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. Our serenity is more complex and psychologically based than a goal such as, “always new”, or, “always old”, can resolve.

When I played basketball at Orono High School in Maine every player had different strengths and weaknesses. And these changed during the course of even one game. As coaches we use the phrase, “smart choice”, when talking to our players about the hundreds of decisions they make every game. The same holds true in architecture.

Every client is different. Here are some examples of buildings for folks here in Maine, many within a few blocks of each other, who’s needs turn out to be more than just the image of Yankee regionalism we picture in our minds:

Kids Hugging Mom Addition/Renovation:
The Willard Beach area of South Portland consists of small houses on small lots on small streets. One couple came to me requesting an addition to their hip roofed, vinyl sided 2-story cube of a house. The sunny side of the house was in back so we oriented all our new work to capture this sun. Included in this was renovating the existing house to replace an almost non-existent kitchen with a sun filled useful one. Thus, pieces were added to the back and sides, some on piers to save a gorgeous willow tree. These new pieces took the form of simple gabled forms in the New England tradition. The idea of the addition acting like children hugging their mother who was holding up the fort, so to speak, would make a happy place. These angled forms and spaces solved the psychological need for more relaxing places to balance out the overall house. There is no style to the house, only the realization of practical needs such as light and space as well as psychological needs such as, ‘friendly’.

Maison Haus:
Another couple with 2 young children had relocated from NYC and bought a lot close to Willard Beach. After investigating the possibility of saving any part of the small, dilapidated cottage on the lot, we decided it would be more economical to tear it down and build a new house. The owners, who were European, wanted a clean open modern home but to have a gable-roofed exterior, double hung windows and faded wood siding to evoke barn qualities. The result is simple, minimalist, within budget, and without any identifiable ‘style’.

D.I.Y. House:
This next project was also located in the Willard Beach area and involves a young couple building the house themselves. After analyzing their site, I made study models to determine the best use of the lot. The result is a series of boxes, two of which are mostly built now, which create and focus views on 3 very different outdoor spaces. The front yard is spatially connected to the living room; the courtyard is spatially connected to the dining table; and the woods out back are practically part of the kitchen. Their desire for an environmentally friendly home resulted in our use of non-toxic materials, super insulation, a wood stove, and a full roof deck designed to handle planting vegetables and lounging. As one of them felt symptoms of SAD, we used large picture windows to fill each space with natural light. The siding is hand-troweled stucco, an affordable sustainable material, and the details are boat-like as the client is a boat builder/ inventor. I was fortunate to actually build the house with the owners. Functional and psychological needs are met within very tight budget. The result is particular to the client and the site.

Shingle Style Garage:
In counterpoint to that project, I was commissioned to design a garage for a couple who needed to store their vehicles and boats as well as have a home office space and play room. Here there existing house was shingle style of sorts and they had a strong psychological need for a garage which would be visually compatible with the existing house. In this case I created a shingle style garage to meet their psychological needs and it blends in very nicely. So, I am not advocating a deliberate avoidance of any style, but merely that each project is unique and no formula should be used to obfuscate this uniqueness.

Airport Fire Station:
For instance, I designed a fire station while employed by Harriman Associates (Erik Greven, principal in charge) that could only fit on it’s site. That site was midpoint of the runway at Bangor International Airport. The most important requirement was a three-minute response time to either end of the runway. All requirements regarding number and type of particular fire trucks, sleeping, etc. guided all design decisions. However, the ‘look’ of the building is a reflection of the surrounding large airplanes. This fire station would not fit in a town center. And a village fire station would seem very out of place beside the runway.

In conclusion, in Maine we can build with our own Yankee sensibility as our guide. Each building decision can be about the link between the buildings and the town and the users and less about a particular style. This pragmatism along with our sometimes unexpressed psychological needs can help keep Maine, Maine.

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