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Simple Architecture: a place for the eye to rest?

May 10, 2017

Hi Hugh! This Hugh Newell Jacobsen.

 Hugh Newell Jacobsen

is a semi famous, and as it happens, local architect; the kind that mostly architecture students and the “arts and croissants” crowd know about.  As first year architecture students, way back in the 1990’s, we were once given the name of an important “architectural luminary” and told to copy his style.  I remember having thought that I lucked out because I got Frank Lloyd Wright.  My friend, on the other hand, got Hugh.  Now I think that he was the lucky one.

If you look up Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Wikipedia will tell you that his architecture is simple.  If you then decide to do a search on the term “simple architecture” you will find all manner of modern, very un-simple houses.    You may even ask yourself, “what is simple?  Is it definable?”

This is the house that Hugh built. Sorry you need to google him for images. I couldn’t find any that were labeled for reuse,  so a drew a picture.

Good Question

One I will explore a bit here.  The most important thing to know about simple architecture is that the architect is a decision maker, and I didn’t read this anywhere.  I just know it.  Architecture, like language is semiotic.  Think of it as “logo-centric,” meaning just about every person who has ever lived in a house has some notion of how one should/does look.  If there are 248 million adults living in the US, then it follows that an equal number of mirages make up the collective dictionary of residential architecture.  Likewise, if you think of them as words, then it is not too difficult to see that Jacobsen decided to use only vowels to write his.  He ended up with “Snoopy’s Dog House.”  Of course, the decision forced him to use every sophisticated architectural trick in the book, i.e. scale, proportion, repetition, texture…, to design an ethereal dog house, simple to recognize, not simple to achieve.

Common Simplicity

Is it possible to find simplicity in our real low budget, often crowded, every day world?  Is it possible to make these places ethereal?  Us everyday, “non luminary” architects ask ourselves these questions all the time.

Take a look at these houses.  What would it take to make them “ethereal?”  Can a 3′ ribbon of grass fit between the raw yard and the house?  Can the roof vents be moved to the back where they don’t show?  Can the window frame be made to disappear into the building?  Can the stair landing become a low deck extending the full width of the house?  Can the railing become a panel type element to match the house? Can the siding be made from something besides vinyl?

The answer of course is yes to all.  Do these changes make the places “ethereal?”  Probably not.   Maybe though, in today’s complex built environment, common simplicity is not a bad place for the eye to rest.

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