An Architect's Perspective on House or Home

This post is part of the ArchiTalks monthly blog series, hosted by Architect Bob Borson. This month’s topic is: “House or Home?” At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to some of the other ArchiTalk Bloggers. Make sure you visit them.

An Architect's Perspective on House or Home.jpg

House or Home?

When we’re in architecture school, we’re taught how to create space. When we’re in the office after school is over, we design space for real people who will make it their own.

There is a disconnect between the education we garner from institutions and the experience we gain from human interaction.

That’s not to say that one way of understanding the world is inherently better than another. They share a symbiotic relationship. You can’t design a home in a bubble and you can’t build a house without a working knowledge and a sense of how to do so.


Train for One

I remember the precedents that were drilled into me throughout my architectural history courses and studio research. Corbusier, Neutra, Eames, Wright, Rietveld, van der Rohe, Johnson. Each architect had a unique style that firmly established several of their houses as ‘masterpieces.’

The problem with any of their work, however, is that students often lose sight of the greater picture without direct context of the events that yielded such designs.

We weren’t there in the moment to moment collaborations and the design inception of their projects. We don’t know through direct contact what the families were like who commissioned them, what they talked about, what their personal aspirations were.

We miss the finer points altogether.


Darwin Martin

As a native of Buffalo, NY, and as an architect, I’ve visited the Darwin D. Martin Complex many times over the course of my life.

Known to many as one Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterworks, the Martin Complex has been reborn over the past several years to incorporate various restoration efforts and upgrades. The complex includes the Main House, the Barton House, the Gardner’s House and a few other buildings that connect everything together. Since 1997, the Complex has seen significant improvements moving it closer toward full restoration.

A contemporary pavilion was even commissioned on the grounds and designed by Toshiko Mori Architects as a way for visitors to reflect upon the remaining buildings on the parcel.

At the end of High School, I had already known for a few years that I wanted to be an architect. There were a few moments when I had briefly considered mechanical engineering, but don’t hold those against me. I read books about the only architect I really knew of at the time, Frank Lloyd Wright. Later, I would realize his impact upon the Buffalo region. But during that period, all I could see was Fallingwater in my mind and how revolutionary a building could be.

I remember specifically being so excited to go on a bus tour of Buffalo with my political science class that when we just happened to pass the Martin Complex, very much under heavy reconstruction, the teacher asked the class if we knew who had designed the home on our right.

Partially because I was infuriating know-it-all and partially because I couldn’t contain my excitement, I yelled out, “FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT!”

Yelled, mind you - not answered.

It wasn’t until several years later that I found myself at the Martin Complex again. This time, however, I was a bit wiser and more informed.

As I looked around the main house, the first thing I realized was simple - ’this house was NOT designed for Michael LaValley.’ I’m a 6’-4” man with no desire to duck while indoors. Each threshold you pass through though is designed at about a 6’-5” clear.

While I wouldn’t argue with FLW’s ability to create masterful works, I did wonder how such a miscalculation could be made. I never thought to ask myself if there was a larger idea that he was after in his design or if this approach had been requested in some way by the Martins.

Did the Martins let FLW do whatever he wanted? Was this some sort of cruel joke for tall people?

Or did FLW understand the balance that needed to be struck between artistic expression and the livability of its inhabitants?

Upon second glance, could tell that these thresholds do not actually go to the full height of the ceiling. They are not walls. Instead, they act as steady breaks in a much more expansive space. Each area is designated by a threshold of rich wood, a portal to pass between each part of one’s daily activities. Rooms are never completely broken from one another.

As an overly eager teenager on a bus tour, I would never have been able to understand the nuances of FLW’s design. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate the larger concept of how he envisioned the spaces could connect with each other and remain separated.

Learning of the precedent masterworks gave me focus. Training helped me understand the ‘house.’


Design for Another

As I get farther from my days in school, I realize how much older I am in my mind than I was when I first saw the Martin House. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am ‘old’ at a spry 32, but I know that the years of simply living my life have given me great perspective on what it means to design for others.

When you’re young, your parents are the ones who decide most things for you. As you reach your teenager years, you’re given more freedom to decide things for yourself. College is often times the culmination of this when you have the most freedom and the smallest proportion of responsibility.

After school, all of those responsibilities come crashing down on us. Those responsibilities shape, in part, who we will become.

We start working only to realize that the architecture studio projects are now gone along with our total control of how we design them. The control is in the hands of the more experienced project architects, managers, and ultimately principals of the firm.

There are absolute consequences to designing something that falls down. People can be injured or even die. Those experience professionals help guide the younger generation through the trials so that they can understand what it means to be an architect.


Like Driving for the First Time

I often think of the feeling I had when I first learned to drive.

When I was 17, I got my learner’s permit (I didn’t really rush to start driving). On my first outing with my Dad, I remember taking the wheel for the first time, turning on the car, and freezing.

I froze because of the overwhelming responsibility I felt with two tons of machinery at my fingertips. In that moment I felt extremely powerless and afraid. I didn’t want to mess up. I didn’t want to accidentally wreck the car, or worse, injure someone else.

The responsibility I feel as an architect is like driving for the first time.


Empathy for Others

It’s not just about the work though and the duty to safety. It’s about the people that you affect.

When you design someone’s house, you’re creating their home.

They will laugh there. They will cry there. They will find happiness there. They will argue there. They will tell stories there. They will have sex there. They will raise children there. They will shower there. They will eat there. They will sleep there. They will poop there. They will bring friends there. They will bring family there. They will record moments there. They will find peace there.

They will Iive there.

I think about the life I’ve lived till now.

My wife and I have dealt with student debt, health issues we’ve had to overcome, family loss. But we’ve also shared our lives with each other, our friends, our pets and our family.

We’ve moved around a lot.

I don’t consider any physical place my home. Rather, ‘home’ is a term I use in a collective sense to define the state I’m in when I’m with those I care about.

This isn’t necessarily something I always understood though. Just as with the changing moments in my understanding of architectural design, the way I now interface with my life is much more different than how I did so even 10 years ago.

Age gives me perspective.

My experiences, good and bad, give me the empathy to design spaces for others that will foster experiences of their own.


If I was asked as an Architect, “House or Home?,” I’d have to simply say ‘both.’


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CareerMichael LaValley