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Dualities in Design
It's not always desirable to resolve differences
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM

Yang: The active, masculine cosmic principle in Chinese dualistic philosophy.

Yin: The passive, female cosmic principle in Chinese dualistic philosophy.

Differences may be experienced as complimentary attributes. It is not always necessary or desirable to resolve differences. It has often been the case, in my experience, that eliding them is likely to be a less potent or successful design strategy than celebrating them.

Life is an adventure that can draw us out, encourage us to explore. It can also draw us in, and encourage us to reflect. Socially, this duality is often expressed as extroversion vs. introversion; behavioral theory suggests that the underlying dynamic is similar, in that for some individuals what is energizing is draining for others, and vice verse.

Often, my clients are couples. I actually have three clients in these projects; each individual, and also the institution of the partnership they are co-creating together over time. Differences between the partners in this relationship are inevitable, but rather than assuming these tensions should manifest in conflict, I tend to discover opportunities. Contrast does not simply call for an argument; it also invites positive acknowledgements of distinctions and differences.

Aspects of what might be thought of as the dualistic yin/yang dynamic of architectural design was thoughtfully examined in an essay by Charles Moore, John Ruble, and Buzz Yudell. Selected excerpts are presented here: [1]

Just as our way of working is dependent on a balance or resolution of overlapping issues and ideas, so the themes of our work are often dependent on the resolution of opposing tensions or the synthesis of dualities.

Continuity / Change We see ourselves as deeply rooted and connected to culture, places, and people. Architecture is part of a continuum. The philosopher Karsten Harries has spoken of the 'ethical' meaning of architecture. His use of ethical comes from 'ethos' by which he means the spirit of the place. We feel that people and communities need and seek a sense of connection to their land, place, and culture. The yearnings they have are profound, should not be trivialized, and can contribute through their sense of their own needs and ideas to the architect's effort in place making. Historicism has become a bete noir because of the arbitrary adoption of historical forms or styles. For us the issue is not one of stylistic devices. We are not interested in historicism per se. We are concerned about connecting to the continuum of ways in which people have, over time, created their houses, markets, places of worship, places of study, and institutions.

Popular / Profound Connections to popular culture can complement and coexist with poetic and profound experiences. The gabled roof forms of 'house' and the central fireplace as 'hearth' are resonant of the experience of dwelling. They are popular signs and as such can open a path to interaction with the deeper experiences as architecture engages the senses, intellect, and spirit. Poetry is made of language that everyone knows, used in ways that challenge and refresh our understanding of the world. The common elements of architecture can be combined in space, light, time, culture, and the environment to pose new questions and new experiences. The popular and the profound can reinvigorate each other.

Familiar / Surprise These beliefs have often led us to mix familiar and surprise. The familiar forms make a connection to the place, its culture, and history and also create an environment in which the inhabitants can feel welcomed, engaged, and connected. The surprise elements can then begin to stimulate, challenge, and pose questions about the very place and culture in which we find ourselves.

Order / Chaos All of our buildings grow in some tension between a clear order and the inclination towards complexity, fragmentation, and chaos. Typically, individual elements such as the order of the plan or the order of the section are rather straightforward and clear. It is often the superimposition of multiple parts that generates complexity or apparent disorder. While we seek conceptual clarity, we are not often interested in those orders based on minimalism or reductionism in which the alignment of a minimal number of elements becomes a major compositional goal. We admire the inclusivist complexity of Aalto more than the reductionist clarity of Mies. The action involved in these pursuits is not unlike the art of Bonsai: a clear diagram is carefully "grown," that is, derived analytically from the site, program, and the pragmatics of construction. This pattern is then clipped, twisted, interrupted, and shaped. If a form is too solid it is carved, if too tall it is stepped back, if too long it is bent.

Inside / Outside One aspect of the concern with familiar and surprise is mirrored in the contrast between inside and out. It is often the case that the outsides of our buildings are more polite, more carefully fitted to their place, and more familiar than the inside.

Movement / Stillness Architecture is more than large-scale sculpture. At its essence, it involves the creation of places that support and celebrate dwelling and action in all their manifestations. How people fit in, move through, and kinesthetically understand their environments is essential to the experience of architecture. Movement and stillness are equally important. One suggests action; the other suggests thought or regeneration.

Space / Light Ultimately, architecture makes places for dwelling: whether for the individual, the family, or the whole community. Certain archetypal qualities of architecture such as proportions of space and qualities of light can and should be allies in the making of places for dwelling. In this area, as well, we often find ourselves manipulating contrasting elements. We enjoy the surprise of moving from tight quiet spaces to grandly energetic ones. The contrast and complexity of the range from bright through dappled light to dusk and darkness is one more realm in which life and thought can be enriched.

Ornament / Abstraction If there is one area with which we struggle as a group, it is the broad range of choices on the scale of the tough and abstract to the warmly elaborated. One is tempted to read the scale "modern vs. traditional", but we like to think that all our work incorporates tradition by reference. Conversely, we hope that our use of abstraction functions as it did in Wright's early career: recognizable forms and elements are put through extraordinary shifts in scale, proportion, and position. We tend to understand ornament as Kent Bloomer has long argued for it: the careful, detailed elaboration of a larger system or order adding layers of meaning. Ornament also serves to highlight a program of human activity - a kind of literary overlay as suggested by Charles Jencks.

Dwelling in the Land Perhaps the first and most critical decision for most buildings is their siting, placement, and fit within the land. Here again we don't see our buildings as machines or sculptures set on pristine lawns or plazas, but rather almost as trees rooted in their place and growing upwards and outwards in response to various environmental influences. In many of our houses this sequence of movement through courtyards to cultivated gardens and beyond to native landscape become as important as the sequences of movement and experience within the house.

Evolution It is within the realm of these many overlapping influences, stimulated by the tension of opposites, that we take pleasure in working. We seek ways of maintaining continuity and connection to places, culture, and inhabitants of our buildings. We simultaneously seek to challenge and surprise to explore new ways of making places. Our work is a partnership among ourselves, with and for people who will use and experience it. Our process is one of evolution: Guided by common understandings, commitments, and principles, but inflected and influenced by exploration, surprise, and chance.

These abridged reflections reflect the experiences of a truly distinguished architectural collaboration passionately engaged in the journey of discovery that is design. Their practice renders work that is as original and substantial as one might expect of such architects. What may, in other quarters, be cynically dismissed as 'Academically Privileged Discourse' is here undertaken with a sincere spirit founded in optimism about the potential of design to enrich life experience in meaningful ways.

[1] Guerra and Ojeda, Moore Ruble Yudell Houses & Housing, Rockport Publishers 1994

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.