Summer was officially over last week, although the weather didn’t agree.  I hope you got out to enjoy it!  My summer highlights were weddings on the west coast and a special college reunion in Santa Fe.  Nothing like celebrating with amazing friends in beautiful places, second only to a surreal family vacation in Gloucester.

Sara Hunter and I enjoyed a Taos, NM reunion with the family of Navajo Code Talker Carl Gorman, an inspirational figure for our picture book, “The Unbreakable Code.”His grandson Michael, quoted in the forward at age ten, curated an exhibit of art from Code Talkers and their descendants in his Taos gallery.  It brought me right back to my research in the ‘90’s, trying my best to immerse myself in Navajo culture.What do books have to do with buildings?  Read on…

Art Notes

Illustrations from “The Unbreakable Code” and “The Lighthouse Santa” are hanging at the Umbrella Community Arts Center, Concord, MA, until November 3.  I’m honored to be featured in a group of seven award winning local illustrators. We’ll be in especially high spirits at the reception, Thursday, October 3, 5:30-7:30, for the first show in The Umbrella’s dramatic new two-story gallery space.  Come join the celebration!

Charcoal drawings by Shawn Fields in the new gallery.

Architect Notes

Of Books and Buildings

At a book talk I gave in Santa Fe last month I mentioned, “I’m very much a practicing architect.”  Some people asked me about this afterwards.  It got me thinking about how, for me, making books is interwoven with designing places.  About a hundred design projects and four books later, the approach is still similar.  I’ve been asked which I like better.  This is like asking if I like sunlight better than air!

A Place with MeaningBOOKS:  The history and science in my illustrations have needed to be authentic, and that means a ton of research.  It’s essential to experience, photograph and sketch where the story takes place.  The visual atmosphere is one with the characters’ emotions, making them believable, whether it’s the sacred land of the Navajo or the lonely outpost on a stormy night in The Lighthouse Santa.  To keep the palette consistent for thirty-two pages, I gather colors from the surroundings.  The play of light creates realism and atmosphere.  All of this gets distilled down into a style and rhythm from page to page.BUILDINGS also require a lot of groundwork to make a beautiful place and express the building user’s hopes and dreams.  Architecture clients are the heroes in their own story, conveyed in their surroundings.  I experience the owners’ world in person, drawing out the narrative of their daily lives, and study the locality on foot, photographing and sketching.  Designing for climate and topography and reinterpreting the language of nearby historic structures enhance the sense of place.  Local materials feel in sync with the natural environment and are a sustainable choice.  Natural light needs to be handled according to the region; low-lying northern sun creates soft, welcome light, where the southern sun can create strong shadows and wash out the richest paint colors.Some RulesWith so much interest in local, historic language, what keeps buildings from being too Disney-literal?  Rules of design make architecture poetic and prevent that unfortunate result.  Book illustration can give us clues for some of these rules:“THINK IN SIMPLES” to quote Frank Lloyd Wright.No unnecessary ingredients.  In illustration I work from models and invent the characters’ clothing, which gets pared down, responding to the overall color palette. This lets gestures and expressions take center stage.  Simplicity also means creating empty space on the page.  In my latest book, Save Our Stream, I left a lot to the reader’s imagination to complete the drawings.It takes disciplined problem solving to keep architecture uncluttered and elegant, as practical requirements can complicate shapes. I’m excited about the quiet, barn-like forms for a project now on the boards in our office.  Reminiscent of early barns nearby, they’re modern in their stripped-down utility.

Concept sketch elevation

We mainly use 3D CAD software, but hand sketching slows thought down, helping to focus on the major goals.Sublime quietness and beauty create a place where people feel good about themselves, important and cared for.  A positive sense of openness or “ma” – the Japanese word for space left ordered between objects or structural elements – is a key ingredient.Formulas without being formulaic.The Unbreakable Code publisher already had a book design when they signed me on.  The size matched their other books and the pages and cover had great expanses of white.  At first this felt restrictive, but then I realized it was brilliant.  It kept everyone from re-inventing the wheel, and the basic white enhanced the artwork.  Books by different illustrators packed easily and looked wonderful together on a store shelf.Good architecture doesn’t reinvent the wheel each time, so how does it keep from being monotonous and “cookie cutter”?  As an example, hotels and senior living – hospitality design – have tried and true formulas to promote safety and wellbeing for guests or residents and convenience for staff.  However, finding the story – the sense of place – creates an atmosphere of belonging, uniqueness, and character.  Distilling that story into rhythmic, poetic design makes the facility transcend the ordinary.

The creators of the Sanya Hotel in China wanted a place charged with emotion and connected to the local people and place.

An Authentic, Compelling AtmosphereTo finish Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote on“Thinking in Simples:”“When we endeavor to make for ourselves an atmosphere in which to live and work according to our own faith and feeling for nature, we are performing a genuine service not only to our time, but especially to the future…”  Are you uplifted by National Geographic quality nature images from all over the world?  Why is that?  Because the images that excite us the most, aside from their artistic quality, tell a story about a beautiful or interesting locale. I’m also blown away by international online images of superb architecture, but too many have a sense of anywhere-ness, of global design trends.  We are so interconnected worldwide, and technology lets us create so quickly, that we can easily lose the rich personal and cultural narratives that make places unique.  The architecture I work to emulate and design illustrates the story of place and harmonizes with its surroundings, infusing emotion into our experience.