“Balance is one of the most fundamental and least understood aspects of the inner and outer world we live in. We are in a constant state of readjustment. Imagine, trying to make progress, high on a tightrope, blindfolded, navigating by a sense of smell, without being able to assume which direction is forward … in addition, there are winds coming from multiple directions, all trying to blow you off the wire. This can describe the life condition of any of us.”  – John Marx Founding Director at Form4 Architecture

The Visual Poem above was created to describe these sentiments and in particular the plight of the architect. The predicament of architecture is something we are particularly concerned with in this blog. For it is by looking honestly at the many recent challenges the profession faces that we are able to better find the right balance between what can be conflicting professional, artistic and commercial interests. For some, this may cause the frustration of forced compromise, and yet the architect is tasked with something very noble in this equation. And all the more so when many of our public institutions and services have been privatized leaving a vacancy for the guardianship of what constitutes “common good”.

When performing his or her duty, it has often become the architect’s responsibility to fill this vacancy. To ensure that despite the many constraints a building project may be faced with – whether economic or the result of a particular site or complex brief – architects rise to the occasion to ensure that what is built nurtures a sense of place and a respect for humanity.

What do these lofty aspirations mean? They are about commonsensical things like making sure that what businesses build also benefits the wider community and vice versa. Profit and money are not the enemy, as some may argue, although a lopsided belief in profit and money at the expense of the environment or civic engagement is highly problematic.  Of course, architects are not sociologists per se or civil servants, but they should strive to work ethically by supporting the public realm in a way conducive to a sense of belonging and solidarity. This in addition to working sustainably – something that is thankfully more readily understood these days.

This, then, is all about a balance between the program of accommodation required and how this program can be made to do more to serve beyond the immediate functions to make something that gives back to society and, ultimately, the planet.  On balance, isn’t that what a remarkable building should accomplish? It is, of course, often a fine line to get there. So much can go wrong, so much can be value engineered out and so many special interest groups can trip up an altruistic project.

So this balancing act is tough and the path is far from clear.  Everything is trying to get you, as architects, to waver, but like a tightrope walker, architects must make their way with resolve to achieve just the right balance.


Design in Balance

Speech for receiving the American Prize for Architecture 2017

We asked ourselves:

When did the world become so grey ……..?
When did the public fall out of love, with the built environment?
When did our profession polarize so deeply between the pragmatic and the self-indulgent?
When did we begin to neglect the people we pledged to care for?

We could
debate the causal merits of Modernism in this disconnection,
the difficulty in translating a minimalist approach
to a wider culture
have we exhausted the conceit yet
“that the public just needs to catch up ….”

Modernism, technology and science
have given us an abundance
of wondrous gifts
that have progressed humankind
to ever greater heights
with so much more
to yet discover in the future

we have seemed to have lost
the Human Spirit
the joy,
of simple poetry
the quirky, subjective arbitrariness
that gives life its meaning

Architecture has the power to inspire us
to celebrate the human condition
in imaginatively assertive ways.
When clarity of form
pairs with emotional meaning,
place-making follows,
communities form,
relationships deepen,
people become engaged with their environments.

Given this dynamic
of our current Zeitgeist,
one might ask,
how would our work react to this?

For me,
and, if you indulge me here a bit

I marvel at the range
of manifestations of Nature,
the possibilities of the organic

Drawn toward the curvilinear,
the serpentine,
the sinuous arc
that beckons
a vision
towards a future architectural fabric.

The curve embodies the flow of vitality
finding its way into the physical world.
Flow is the common denominator
in both the ease of use
and the lyricism of form.

people all flow.

A curve is not the only way
to express this dynamic,
but when expressed with clarity,
this formal relationship can create a cohesiveness
between a wide variety of uses and needs,
unattainable with the rigidity of the straight line.

This may all sound a bit dramatic,
seeming to lean towards a myopic formalism?

Let’s critically examine
“form for form’s sake”,
and as a result
perhaps we might favor
a thoughtful balance
of the rational
and the artistic

In the belief that navigating
the creative tension between these two dynamics
is where exceptional architecture is born.

For us …..

The Rational:
Is a mixture of Environmental Psychology,
technology in all its latest forms,
first principles in Sustainability,
an adapted Silicon Valley version of collaboration:
creative listening
to both the material aspects of the site
the aspiration of the social / client world
surrounding the architecture to be.

The Artistic:
Inner priorities for activism in design.
Architecture is a poetic act
impacting the spirit,
especially when coming from a point of view
with a narrative.
I defend the appropriateness of the sometimes arbitrary,
the subjective,
the self expressive vs. self indulgent
it distinguishes me from the machine I use to design

I want to reach deeply to the emotions of users through the lyricism of dynamic form,
to unleash their excitement about city living,
about participating in vibrant communities,
aspiring to create an architecture that straddles
the iconic
and the humane
in one design.

In closing,
I would like to advocate for
a greater sense of balance in the practice of architecture
a both/and approach
instead of

I would like to advocate for
a reintroduction of a sense of the poetic
in balance with the rational

with the hope that this
will invite the public
to fall in love
with architecture

once again.
Thank you

John Marx
Design Principal
Form4 Architecture

Shared Purpose

A whole placemaking movement has evolved to counteract a well-recognised phenomenon of towns and parts of cities that are a bit like a no man’s land.  Sometimes they come across like this because they are overdeveloped with little room for spontaneity or they are just bland and lack spark or soul.

Have architects forgotten how to design places that thrive and are full of life? When comparing how fondly many speak of historic building and settings in comparison to more recent additions in the built environment, you might well argue that too many architects no longer know how to connect with people through their buildings.

Yet something slightly magical happens when buildings become meaningful in the lives of people who see and occupy them. And particularly so, if they are public buildings because when successful they engender civic pride. This is something every citizen should be allowed to feel for free. For it can elevate us, make us feel a part of something greater than ourselves while engendering solidarity. Surely this is something we want more of and need particularly now in increasingly divisive era.

A common misconception is that civic pride is only engendered through important landmark buildings like town halls, museums or libraries.   However, buildings of all types in the public realm can achieve this. They can be residential or commercial or industrial.  They can be used for leisure or healthcare or entertainment. What matters is that they generate a sense of shared purpose and vibrancy.

Too often new developments treat their occupants in a singular fashion as either just consumers or producers.  This presumptive design sucks life out of places.  Architects need to work with their clients in a way that avoids excessively prescriptive uses.  This also applies to future uses of buildings. The strongest buildings are the ones that can be remodeled to perform completely new functions. For example, from private house to school to offices. A building or place that is able to transform itself also feels vibrant: an aspect of design that is critical to engagement.

Vibrancy also comes about through inclusiveness in the way a place is used and occupied.  This is a critical issue in our time when commercialization and gentrification are limiting the range of shared purpose possible within many new developments. Architects need to address this together with their clients. And architects need to come together more to address what the shared purpose of their profession is in creating buildings and towns and cities that people will take pleasure in for years to come.