I quoted David Samela this Saturday and I’ve been thinking about his comment since then. Samela is of my role models – a midwestern architect who has done predominantly residential design and has managed to reconcile “design” with “the vernacular” in unexpected and beautiful ways.
I had the opportunity of hearing Salmela speak in 2005 in a classroom setting. He told my class of architecture students something of his life story and then gave us his take on the field of architecture as a whole.
He was raised on a farm – back when they were small – with 120 acres and 20 cows. A farmer, he told us, has to be well rounded, able to do any number of things; this is an excellent prerequisite for and architectural education because “an architect is supposed to know everything too.”
His farm upbringing as a detail oriented generalist “has a large bearing on how I see things today – an ethics thing.” It translates into designing a detail in a building. But its problematic, because the more you know the more miserable you get; you can see that its not perfect.
So how did he become an architect?
Well, according to him, the problem was that “I wasn’t a very good farmer.” Lacking the family inclination toward agriculture, he cast around for other inspiration. He read books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. After seeing an exhibit of Jackson Pollock’s work at the Walker Art Museum he came home and did his own spatter paint work on a spare quilt backer of his mother’s. He took it to the county fair where the conservative neighbors and Home-Ec.-Teacher-Judge were horrified.
His first design project was a cabin. He offered a free design of the building to the owners to prevent them from marring the beautiful lake with a trailer house. When the carpenters saw his design the immediately began to change it. The wall heights were adjusted to common stud lengths, the windows were rearranged. “I realized this was much tougher than I thought.
Sure, architecture is hard. “But yet, what else would you want to be?”
“You don’t have to shake people up by shaking the whole building – just shake part of it.”
The Real Challenge
“How do you design something that has a gable roof that architects will like?” And vice versa – how do you design something to appeal to architects that the public can accept. “Because if the public doesn’t like it, eventually they’re going to tear it down. And then you’ve got no legacy.”