Architects get clever in their many different projects
When architect Jen Bee looks at a building, she sees a person with weaknesses and strengths.
“There is a body with bones and limbs,” she says, talking about the construction, size and shape. “But then there are all the systems, the heating and electrical, that are like the nervous system, and you have to see how they all fit in.”
Bee, of Allison Park, is among architects and designers in the area who often raise eyebrows in their work. They can do the simple addition to a suburban house, but they also can create a structure that surprises. The latter often makes working with an architect seem dramatic and overwhelming.
But drama of design is not simply the product of a clever architect: it comes from the nature of the project itself, the location and, of course, the desires of the client.
“We don't design in a vacuum,” says Greensburg's Lee Calisti, whose work ranges from modern versions of farm houses to redone storefronts in Westmoreland County.
The South Side's Gerald Lee Morosco looks at the work as a healing service. He has done renovations on homes as dramatic as East End mansions to South Side row homes, including the one he lives in.
“Like going to a doctor, a person comes to us to solve a problem,” he says.
Making the patient happy with the solution is all-important, they say.
“You don't wave a wand and create a masterpiece,” say Shadyside's Eric Fisher, who has been acclaimed recently for his cantilevered home for the owners of Emerald Art Glass in the South Side. “You have to respond to the client, and that makes the approach to each job different.”
Ernie Sota, head of Bellevue's Sota Construction, is not an architect, but studied it and design at Penn State University. That blend of thought has led to urban renovations that range from Riverside Mews on the South Side to a sharply redone Lawrenceville home.
He says the jobs are collaborative efforts at seeing what the building presents with the possibilities around it. For instance, he now is working on lofts in Lawrenceville at an old factory site. A large space on the side of it immediately called for an extension. It wasn't a matter of architectural agenda; rather, it was prompted simply by going out and doing the work.
He gives historian Jacob Bronowski (1908-74), the author of “The Ascent of Man,” credit for this outlook.
“The hand works for the mind,” he says, paraphrasing Bronowski, who contended action was the key to developing ideas.
The client is the agenda
Even though these architects have distinct ideas on ways to go about construction, they also agree they tend not to take an agenda to a project.
“My agenda is finding out where my clients are,” Morosco says, “and making sure I understand them.”
Six years ago, he wrote a book, “How to Work With an Architect,” that tries to remove some of the daunting nature of the work. The client is not a patron for a work of art, he says, but rather is hiring a craftsmen to handle a project,
Bee says agendas often do not work because clients have ideas, even demands, on what they want. For instance, she is working on the renovation of a building across from Consol Energy Center in the Hill District. For the floors that will be apartments, she is able to design without demand. The task is creating workable, attractive residences.
But the bottom floor is going to be a restaurant and for that, she says, the client has specific requirements. So much for agenda.
Morosco says work on business sites often is focused on efficient use of space, which is far different from building a home such as one Fisher designed in Butler County. That home deals with space by having all the rooms visible from one central area. The open nature of the home, which is built into a hillside, creates a blend of “earth and air,” he says.
Working with an idea
The history of an architect's work naturally shows where a project could go, Calisti says, but other elements are and should be bigger issues.
The site of the project and the desires and budget of the client are all-important, he adds. But the architect's willingness to work on ideas and to keep exploring them rather than simply settling on one is vital, too.
“Ideas are almost a dime a dozen,” he says. “But you have to put them through the wringer and test them out.”
Those ideas can steer overall thinking, Sota says. He agrees his projects tend to be focused on modern design and energy efficiency whether they are new buildings such as his Windom Hill Place on the slopes below Mount Washington or a retirement home in Carnegie.
Like client's demands, the location of the building also creates a reality involved in design. Bee calls that a “neighborhood context, a regional context” that helps shape what the building would look like. Buildings can take on a shape based on the structures around as well as topography.
“Take a place like Fallingwater that people worship,” he says about the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Fayette County, “and put it in the middle of a field somewhere and it's crap.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.