Wednesday, April 24, 2013

About the Wonderful Letter H

Lindy's posting of "Alphabet City" gave me yet another reason to love my new house, which is my delight in the letter "H" in the Latin alphabet.

When I began programming Postscript in graduate school, one of the challenges was to learn to "see" letters of all scripts as mere combinations of simple shapes. We used a system that classifies letters based on specific attributes, like whether the letter is made up of lines or circles or a combination of those, whether the shape is symmetric horizontally or vertically, its degree of angle, etc. In some ways such a system is similar to how we classify intervals in music as "perfect," "major," "minor," etc. The term "perfect" in music refers to an element of symmetry, not unlike the symmetry we've given a few of our language symbols.

Most letters are a combination of lines and curves. O falls into the "perfect" and "circle" groups -- actually, O is the quintessential perfect letter, completely symmetrical, since it doesn't matter how you turn it or flip it, it is always the same. X is the "perfect line" letter for the same reason. Two letters, uppercase H and I, which fall into the "line" and "right-angle" groups, are also perfectly symmetrical -- right-to-left and up-and-down, flip the letter either direction and it appears the same. H also makes a bed to sleep in, or builds a ladder to climb. And I (in its serif form, anyway) is H's complement, since if you flip H 90 degrees, it becomes an I.

It seems somehow significant that the two perfect letters X and O in the Latin alphabet are our symbols for love, and the two perfect right-angle line letters H and I spell our symbol for communication and friendship.

So I am thrilled to discover that my house's symbol is one of my favorite letters! If you consider O a musical perfect prime, X the perfect octave, I the perfect fourth, then I'll be living in a perfect fifth!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alphabet City

Diagrams are effective pictorial tools used to describe many things. They are an abstract representation of information, and are depicted in simplified figures, intended to convey essential meaning, clarity, and simplicity.

When I taught architecture design studios at UC Berkeley and at CCA (California College of the Arts), I would always ask my students to draw a diagram to describe their project design. The only rules were that the diagram had to be drawn in 3 seconds or less, and be a clear indication of the form and/or organization of their design. If the student could not do a quick diagrammatic sketch, their building was either unclear or too complicated.

Designing a building is complex, as there are many systems that make up a functioning building: the physical design of the building, it’s form and the way it sits in and responds to the landscape; the structural design that keeps the building standing and secure; the civil, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems design which make a building comfortable to live in; and the sustainable design of solar energy and reclaimed/reused water, which make the building responsible. All these systems are diagrammed as a means of communication, and the simpler the diagram the more clarity of the design.
A diagram is typically not the staring point in architecture, but is something that emerges as a design develops. Both tangible and intangible factors contribute to this process. The tangible, or empirical factors include lot shape and size, solar and wind orientation, mandated planning and building codes, and budget. The more subjective and intangible factors include client/architect relationship, aesthetic values, the project program, and the opportunity to create a sustainable building.

The diagram for the PLUShouse developed in response to these factors, and emerged as a simple upper case letter ‘H’
The 3 lines composing the letter ‘H’ correspond to the project in the following way:

Imagine the letter ‘H’ where the bottom of the letter faces south: 
• the west (left) vertical line of the ‘H’ is the location of the open salon/ living/dining room (spaces listed north to south)

• the east vertical line of the ‘H’ is the location of the guest room, service areas (laundry/pantry/bath), and master bedroom suite (spaces listed north to south)

• the center horizontal bar of the ‘H’ is the kitchen and ramp (reference blog entry “The Ramp” for more information on the ramp).

These spaces are organized in a very lyrical and fluid manner, where only the east (right) vertical line of the ‘H’ has a certain density, with interior walls for privacy.

As the solid lines composing the ‘H’ have spacial assignations, so also do the voids, or negative spaces, created by these lines. This negative space surrounding the letter is equally as important as the physical letter itself.

Imagine the negative space around the ‘H’:

• the void directly below the center bar is the south courtyard, an outdoor room adjacent to the kitchen and protected from the westerly prevailing winds. A 16’ wide wall, represented by the horizontal bar of the ‘H’, can be completely opened to blend the kitchen with the courtyard.

• the void above the horizontal bar is the north, or ridgeline courtyard, a private outdoor space for the guest room. The west and south walls of this courtyard will be landscaped ‘living walls.’

• to the west, or left of the ‘H’ is an informal patio which we refer to as the west ridge. This area has views of the Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and will be landscaped in an intuitive and natual manner. A steel trellis will mitigate the direct western exposure.

• the east side of the ‘H’ has a landscape loop which provides access from street level to the front door of the PLUShouse. The first leg of the loop is composed of concrete pavers on grade. As the path turns and loops back towards the front door of the house, it transitions into a bridge above grade.

The letter ‘H’ is no longer a simple composition of 3 lines, but becomes a more complex diagram of solids and voids

Solids and voids are seen as equal wholes in many fields. When drawing, you consider the negative space equally to the positive space. If you are drawing a human figure and the model has her hand on her hip, you will look at the shape and size of the void created by the curve of the body, the arm and the hand, and consider this to be a positive shape. You draw this void, not the physical body.

Voids, or spaces, are also important in music. Consider, for example, a Mozart piano sonata. A pattern is set up of theme and variations, with slight pauses, or rests, between the repetition of theme and variation. These rests are equally as important as the combination of notes themselves, and help set up a rhythm and process. You can hum along with the music, even if you do not know the piece well. You anticipate the rests, or holds in the music, as a method of organization. 

Whether it is a constructed 3-dimensional form, a 2-dimensional drawing plane, or an audible piece of music, the void becomes emotional solid space, and is inherently a part of the diagram.
Back to the diagram. 
A diagram clearly expresses organization.The diagram for the PLUShouse is the letter 'H' - it can be drawn in less than 3 seconds, and clearly explains the organization of the building. A diagram need not be a letter, or even a representation of a thing. Just a reflection of the inner and outer landscape, conveying elegance and simplicity, and implying complexity.

Lindy Small Architecture