Architecture as the Frame not the Picture . . . Really

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housing, construction

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Architecture, including all its techniques and aesthetics, has been called a “social art,” which implies that it should not be solely the self expression of the architect. It is not an easel painting. It is a part of the life of the client and all those who use and look at it. A test of the true architect is whether he is serving the best interests of the client, and not imposing whims of his own. This frame for living which we call architecture is not life itself, but encourages freedom for the growth of the occupants.
     —William Wurster, “The Twentieth Century Architect” from Architecture: A Profession and a Career, AIA Press, 1945

Wurster’s sentiments encouraged a view of post-war, mid-century architecture away from being solely about abstract time and space, objects and monuments, to addressing concerns of place and occasion, locale and human experience. This was, after all, a time of renewed human values and the building visions that accompanied them. Just as notions of “social art,” democracy, and freedom are timelessly meaningful, so is the Wurster anthem, as memorialized through his legacy and the recent volume, The Houses of William Wurster, Frames for Living, by Richard Peters, FAIA, and Caitlin Lempres Brostrom, AIA. The challenge today may be how Wurster’s sensibility can be brought into practice beyond the realm of the single-family, detached dwelling.

What Wurster’s remark continues to inspire is a vision of architectural practice that values and reflects the lives and freedom of the people who ultimately inhabit, use, and experience the buildings and dwellings we make. This is a design intention that suggests an obligation to the inhabitants of a place and their freedom to affect their immediate environment, to make it theirs, as opposed to adapting to the totality of design.

As our profession works through our current economic fog, searching for a renewed vitality and societal relevancy, these notions ring less about theory, and more about a profession fostering life-sustaining practices (not “sustainability” checklists).

The “Open Building” movement, based on the work of N. John Habraken, fosters inquiry into an architectural practice of similar humanistic sensibility: “How do we design the built environment to support both stability – in respect to long term community interests—and change—in respect to individual preferences? How, in other words, do we plan and implement a regenerative built environment?”(

The emergence of organizations such as Public Architecture and Design Corps and conceptual models such as Spatial Agency propose further alternative modes and models of practice and environmental design intervention wedding good design to social relevance, inclusivity, and active participation.

Can architecture set the stage and “frame” the “difficult whole” (to use Robert Venturi’s term) to provide a more permanent organizing environmental structure while also welcoming incremental change and allowing opportunities for residents and home owners to form their own dwelling place around their needs and even tastes? Furthermore, can we explore this notion realistically in today’s devastated realm of unit-ownership, multi-family development?

One exemplar suggested here is the “Tila” housing block located in the Arabianranta district of Helsinki, Finland, by the architect Pia Ilonen and her architecture and design firm, Talli. The project is modeled after the partí of the unfinished loft warehouse type, along with an “Open Building” / DIY (do-it-yourself) organizational philosophy, allowing individual unit owners to build out the interior volume of their apartment on their own.

The five-story, concrete and steel frame project is comprised of 39 units ranging in base floor areas of 540 square feet (50 square meters) to 1080 square feet (100 square meters). The unit ceiling height of 16’-4” (5 meters) allows for the substantial increase of these base areas with the permitted building of loft/second floor levels within the unit. Upon purchase, the only permanent built-in room elements are the bathrooms. Every dwelling unit has a full height and width window wall, opening on to a private exterior terrace. The ground floor includes storage rooms for each unit, laundry, and trash. The top floor includes a community room, sauna suite, and terrace. The guardrail lighting along the exterior corridor was designed to follow the movement of people across the space.

Upon purchase, the apartment units, although bare, are considered permitted for occupancy by the authorities having jurisdiction, and interior alterations are the responsibility of the homeowner and the Homeowners’ Association. Second levels and resulting structural, plumbing, electrical work need to comply with all prevailing codes. However, each unit is accompanied with a detailed informational booklet of guidelines and requirements developed by the architect in close collaboration with the building and planning department to guide the homeowner through the process of build-out.

Since the completion of the shell building in 2009, owner-initiated construction was ongoing until early 2011, when the initial owners completed their build-out.

The floor plans illustrated here delineate, in red, the range of spatial interior arrangements undertaken by the inhabitants. In 2010, the project was visited by John Habraken, who considered it a successful example of his philosophy and a welcomed alternative to more prevalent prefab housing experiments, which leave inhabitants with a completed consumer product. According to the architect Ilonen, the affordability of the project combined with the unique nature of the units attracted a wait list of nearly 2,000 prospective owners for the project. The resulting building population, as described by the architect, is diverse, and noticeable are young families with children.

Ilonen concisely describes the understated architectural form as being ”distinguished by open-air access balconies, a rational and pointedly-visible structural frame, and exterior shafts for linking building services. The top floor terraces and redbrick facade keep the building in harmony with the neighborhood plan.” (Arkkitehti/Finnish Architectural Review, April 2011).

This is a nice little story, with some real life substance behind it. Where can we take it? Before we start computing our plan check comment list, dear regulators, let’s daydream a bit about those old-day now-day values. What if and why not? What can we put forward now for owner-occupied affordable housing? “Same-old” is not “penciling-out.” Prefab, the go-to modernist solution, still barely nascent, remains cloudy. Will we get a Volkswagen or Tesla from the factory, and to what extent can inhabitants make it their own?

So, when we dream about “machines for living” and our simplistic savior in the form of “building technology,” maybe we shouldn’t get so hung up on that sublimely seductive prefab “unit” that Le Corbusier is inserting into a crude preliminary model of the Marseille Block, but rather pay attention to what is all around it, the frame.

Maybe our “works of architecture” can be simply wonderfully beautiful frames for life.

housing, construction

Project: Tila Housing Company
Architect: Arkkitehtuuri-ja muotoilutoimisto Talli Oy / Talli Ltd
Photos: Kuvio, Stefan Bremer
Drawings: Courtesy of the Architect
Le Corbusier Graphic: Author
Thanks to Professor Peters for reminding us.


John Lucchesi, AIA

John Lucchesi, AIA, is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and son of a local contractor. After earning his M. Arch at UC Berkeley, he participated in Giancarlo Di Carlo’s ILAUD international studio program in Siena, followed by an internship in Finland at the office of Timo Penttila. A few years after becoming licensed John worked in private practice with architect-spouse Pirkko Rehfeld-Lucchesi for twelve years until joining the San Mateo firm of John Matthews Architects, where he is currently a project architect. Since 1986, John has served at the College of San Mateo as an adjunct professor in architecture. John & Pirkko remain together and continue learning about the experience of architecture.

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  1. avatar
    John Lucchesi AIA

    Hello John,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
    In the film “Citizen Architect”, I believe Samuel Mockbee referred to architecture as a “social art”…I’m pretty sure he didn’t say “social science”. His work was never timid. But it was surely inclusive and poetic. I think the same goes for the Tila Housing, from what I’ve witnessed.
    The last line of the essay was a polite reminder of our responsibility to that tough, lasting, “poetic” soul of architecture, that has so much to do with the beauty-sense of human experience.

  2. avatar
    John Marx AIA

    Dear John,
    I miss the lyrical poetry that was once part of architecture.
    Can we have both that and the thoughtful relationships with our clients and the public, you describe above?
    To bring the poetry back, it will take a bit of “self-expression”, but can we not learn to balance both the art and the “social science” in a way that reconnects emotionally with the public at large?

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