On Building

Rebels with a Cause:
Part 1 in the Outsiders Series

This article appeared in the December 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Imagine that you had a thriving architectural practice, complete with committed employees, media attention and prestigious awards. Imagine that you then walked away from this life to pursue an architectural approach reflecting your deepest principles. You would never again have steady work, and your family would sometimes subsist on beans. But you would make a name for yourself in this niche, and you would eventually inspire some people to build in another way. Most important, you would spend decades advocating a type of architecture you valued, rather than structures that filled you with guilt.

Now imagine that 20th-century architecture never appealed to you. Rather, from childhood onward, you felt a strong affinity for the Roman and Greek aesthetic. In architecture school, your designs referred back to those ancient times, prompting professors and classmates to sneer that only modernist, abstract architecture was acceptable. Nevertheless, you felt compelled to follow your own path. Although architects continued to deride your work, you found an appreciative lay audience.

Finally, imagine that when you attended architecture school in Denmark, you discovered wonderful communities that residents had built by consensus, matching the designs to their values. People in those intentional communities chose to share resources and live cooperatively (e.g., hosting joint dinners). After seeing how much the residents enjoyed such environments, you decided to introduce their lifestyle to the United States. You knew, though, that many Americans fear anything smacking of communalism. Careful not to threaten all norms at once, you designed communities with utterly conventional architecture.

Clearly, there are many ways of becoming an outsider in architecture, as well as abundant reasons for doing so. In some cases, architects move to the sidelines when profound beliefs compel them to change their ways. That was true for the architect in the first paragraph. He’s a real person: Malcolm Wells, the Massachusetts-based pioneer of underground architecture.

In other cases, outsider architects choose to march to the offbeat rhythms of their own aesthetic drummers. That’s the case for Oakland architect Kirk Peterson, the historicist in the second scenario.

The third description referred to Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who established the CoHousing Company in Berkeley, bringing cohousing to this country.

In coming months, I’ll focus on these and other outsider architects, exploring what a deliberate move to the fringes has meant for them and their practices. I hope to investigate the following issues:

• As an architect, what do you gain when you step to the margins? Buckminster Fuller said, “All true innovation takes place in the outlaw realm.” Once you shrug off norms that feel constricting, will you find the freedom you crave?

• What might you lose by going your own way? Will you risk your financial well-being and your reputation?

• If you accepted mainstream work, would it violate your principles? How rigidly will you define your niche?

• If you blaze your own trail, how will you know where to go? Architects initially learn through apprenticeship. What happens when you run out of role models?

• If you’ve started down a conventional path, how quickly should you make the change from mainstream to maverick?

• When you remove yourself from the flow of conventional architectural life, do you gain a clearer perspective on the ills of society and possible solutions? Or do you merely lose touch?

• If you’re angry at the establishment and take a devil-may-care attitude toward the world, will you be able to work in a client-centric way? Or when you hang out your shingle as someone with the answers, does client-centric behavior fall by the wayside?

• What if no one jumps on board with you? To what degree can you go it alone? According to one fortune cookie, “A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” But without an orchestra in his midst, a conductor is just waving a baton pointlessly. If you move away from the mainstream, can you still orient yourself toward the general population enough to communicate your ideas and find clients?

Every outsider architect responds to these issues differently. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be rugged individualists!) But a wide variety of iconoclastic architects have felt a passion so strong that they’ve veered off the main road, regardless of the consequences. One last question: How have they avoided landing in a ditch? Answers coming up soon!

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Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.
Go to Part 7 of this series.
Go to Part 8 of this series.
Go to Part 9 of this series.
Go to Part 10 of this series.

For my other writing about Malcolm Wells:

Oct. 2006: “Turning Frustrations into Creative Freedom” (Featuring Wells and others)

Dec. 2006: “Old and New Intertwined” (Only a brief mention of Wells)

Feb. 2007: “Tiny and Transparent” (Only a brief mention of Wells)

June 2007: “Creating from a Deeper Place” (A full article about Wells)