JAMES WALTER SCHILDROTH,
ORGANIC ARCHITECT of MAINE
Architecture inspired by my clients and the challenging sites on the coast of Maine since 1970.
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Mark Darralls Questions: Answered by James Walter Schildroth, Organic Architect
Mark: 1. Building, like life itself, is evolutionary and never stopping. How would you say this comes out in the " final product" --- the built structure?
James: First I would say that the creation of Organic Architecture is very different from the action of just designing a building. Since OA is not a style and is not copied intentionally, it is an expression of an individual mind. Who and what that individual is, has everything to do with what will be created. As the Individual matures and grows so will that individuals expression of Architecture. The more the individual understands himself and the physical environment he has been born into, the better he will be able to create architecture of and in harmony with this physical place we live.
The creation of Organic Architecture is the coming together of three major players; the Client, the Site and the Architect. All three must be present for the result to be Organic Architecture and the resulting creation springs from the interrelationship of all three. Now it is possible to adapt an original creation to a new site, but in my view it is not truly Organic, even though it may be done very well and fit in if done by a skillful architect. Mr. Wright often did this with his designs that were not built on the original site or even by the original client. In the strict use of the concept, architecture is not Organic unless created from the specific site. I find that even if I move a design even a few feet on the original site it begins to effect the design concept. So the place on the earth, or some other location in the universe, is very important to the creation of the design. The Site is much more then just topography or climate. To design truly Organic Architecture the site must be experienced by the architect and as many times as necessary until the conception is in mind. There is, I believe, more than just physical information to be received at the site. All the senses come into play including the sixth.
The Client is the second essential source of very important information. Without a client there is no Organic Architecture. The real needs and conditions of the client is what I look for and not what they tell me they want. This requires real understanding of the client and some of the needs will not be revealed until very late in construction. So the design is constantly changing from first meeting until construction is complete. This can go on for ever as in the case of Mr. Wright and both Taliesin and Taliesin West.
The Architect is the third part of the whole interrelationship. The Architect to me can only be a single individual mind, not a committee. Organic Architecture is a creative act of conception and that can only be done by an individual mind.
I think the question is more about how the final form comes into being. To me the creative process is more growth than evolutionary. It is in three steps that continuously expand as the design forms and moves from formless first contact to complete physical existence. The form is continually changing and growing all through the course of the creation and this is done completely in the mind of the individual designer, not on the drafting board or on the computer. The design should not be physically recorded until it can be seen completely enough for the designer to be able to walk through and around it in his minds eye. The mind of the individual is the source of original form. It is private solo work and must not be shared until it is drawn or recorded and fully developed by the individual. When the concept is complete and drawn to the designers individual satisfaction, then is the time to present your design to the client or review by others.
The three parts of the creative process are as follows:
As new conditions are presented and the design must be revised then just repeat the three part process. Changed conditions, bring new visions in part two. Trust this process it has worked for me for over 36 years. The individual human mind is the source of all creative ideas.
Mark: 2. Do you feel environmental concerns---such as energy conservation, material and process selection based on environmental performance, "sustainable" living, etc. are an integral part of Organic Design? Should they be of equal importance to expressive considerations?
James: I would say this. You will design what you believe in and from the maturity and understanding you posses. If Organic Architecture is what you believe in and want to do, then you will want to design in harmony with the conditions that are natural to that environment. The expression of the form will be the creative result of your understanding of the conditions and the needs.
Choice of materials, should be made before step two and are part of internalization of the problem and are the reasoning part of the creative process. The mind will solve all the conflicting conditions for you, just feed it the facts and do something else. Nature spelled with a capital "N" is the great teacher. The Nature of everything. The better you understand the Nature of this place you call home, the better Organic Architect you will become. Be a student of the Nature of Life.
One of the major conditions of part one is that architecture is for human beings and an understanding of yourself and what make us all human is an important part of making you an Organic Architect. Organic Architecture is design in harmony with Nature. We all have to live together on this earth and some believe for many life times, so the new buzz word of sustainability has always been important to the Organic Architect. It is the individuals choice by his point of view that makes the difference in what each designer brings to the creative table. Your design will reflect what and who you are, your philosophy, attitude and life experience are part of your expression in form.
Mark: 3. Could you summarize your personal design process? Is there a combination of intuition and ration, and could you say how much of your process is intuition and how much rational? How is the mental process of design ( thought-building, as FLW once said) coordinated with the physical process of drawing and model-making?
James: I have touched on this earlier here. The Individual mind is the source of all creativity. It is both reason and intuition that are necessary in the creation of Organic Architecture or any original idea. Our standard education teaches us to copy or manipulate information which is already known or to look to existing sources. This does not work when you are searching for original form and expression. Within the individual mind is where the creative action takes form.
THE CREATIVE MIND by James Walter Schildroth, Organic Architect January 1997
Taliesin Apprenticeship was the most important experience of my life. I was nineteen in September of 1959 when my father dropped me off at Tanyderi and drove off down the hill. The room assigned me, was on the top floor with an eastern view toward Taliesin in the distance. Each morning I would awake and look over toward the sun rising over Taliesin, I was in paradise. I had come to Taliesin with one intention, to see if in my own mind I thought I could be an architect. To me this meant design buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright. I thought that I would stay until I learned how these designs were created by Mr. Wright and other architects.
I was assigned my own drafting table in the great drafting room at Taliesin in Wisconsin and I started working on a design for a small structure to be used by the fellowship members as a place to have afternoon tea. This was a project that was being done by several apprentices under the guidance of Jack Howe. I soon had a design plan and section designed in the style of the buildings at Hillside. I then plotted a two point perspective and made my first color pencil rendering. It was not bad for my first design but as I looked around at the other designs I realized that I had a long way to go. How did the others come up with their forms and ideas? Where did they get the idea?
I had a copy of Mr. Wrights book " A Testament" given to me by my mother a few years before and had read every word and memorized every photo and drawing. The secret to original design was in that book but I did not understand it yet. I continued to design other projects, one after the other. I was not assigned to work in the drafting room during the regular work day until over a year later, but I had my drafting board and used all my spare time to work on my designs. I turned out about one a month while I was an apprentice, which amounted to over two dozen designs, mostly houses. Designing was what I lived for and why I was at Taliesin.
In May of 1960 there was a very important book published and I had a copy in my hands and was reading it that summer. The book, " Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings", selected by Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Raeburn. This book had the secret of creative ideas in Mr. Wrights own words. There on page 221 in my copy was and is the secret, under the heading " The Concept and the Plan", and I include the complete text here as follows.
The Concept and the Plan
" Conceive the buildings in imagination, not first on paper but in the mind, thoroughly, before touching paper. Let the building, living in imagination, develop gradually, taking more and more definite form before committing it to the drafting board. When the thing sufficiently lives for you then start to plan it with instruments, not before. To draw during the conception or sketch, as we say, experimenting with practical adjustments to scale, is well enough if the concept is clear enough to be firmly held meantime. But it is best always thus to cultivate the imagination from within. Construct and complete the building so far as you can before going to work on it with T square and triangle. Working with triangle and T square should be only to modify or extend or intensify or test the conception; finally to correlate the parts in detail.
If original concept is lost as the drawing proceeds, throw away all and begin afresh. To throw away a concept entirely to make way for a fresh one, that is a faculty of the mind not easily cultivated. Few architects have that capacity. It is perhaps a gift, but may be attained by practice. What I am trying to express is the fact that the plan is the gist of all truly creative matter and must gradually mature as such.
In the logic of the plan what we call standardization is seen to be fundamental groundwork in architecture. All things in nature exhibit this tendency to crystallize; to form mathematically and then to conform, as we may easily see. There is the fluid, elastic period of becoming, as in the plan, when possibilities are infinite. New effects may then originate form the idea or principle that conceives. Once form is achieved, however, that possibility is dead so far as it is a positive creative flux".
From The Architectural Record, January, February, 1928
So there you have it. The secret is to conceive the building in the mind not on paper until it is complete in the mind. How is this possible? How or where does the idea come from? Mr. Wright said, "You wont find me siting at a drawing board trying to design something". He called that rubbing the smudge and trying to see something in the mess. So if not at the drafting board then where? Mr. Wright said go and do some thing else. There was always something to do at Taliesin and it was always good to look busy or some one would put you to work. I had never been taught to use my mind in this way, until I read it in Mr. Wrights own words. Well if he said it, then it must be true. I believed that if I just under stood the problem of the needs for a design and experienced the site location first hand, that sooner or later the idea would come into my mind.
So I gave my self a project to design. The project was a one room shelter in the desert for me to sleep and spend some private time. There were many such shelters at that time because all the apprentices had individual tents or had built their own shelters. The program was simple : a place to sleep, a fire place, a table to work at and a few places to sit when I had visitors, inside and out on a terrace. I went out and found a site on the edge of one of the washes that had a view of the valley and distant mountains. I spent time sitting on the site to get the feel of everything in my mind. I then went and did other things, I dont remember how much time went by but I just kept the thought of the needs and the site in the back of my mind and from time to time revisited the site.
One day I was working in the kitchen and the idea came into my mind as I was drying some cake molds. The molds were sort of leaning together and I saw the idea for a roof and a great space under it, but not round like the cake forms. I did not copy the shape of the cake molds but they were sure the inspiration for the idea that was beginning to form in my mind. As Mr. Wright had written I resisted the temptation to start to sketch this idea. I kept it in my mind and tried to visualize it in more detail. This was done over a period of time where I would try and focus on the design and visualize it and then forget it and do other things. I found that often when I was just coming awake I would have a clearer or additional ideas about the design. I found that I could visualize and change the design in my mind and try things out and revise the visualization. I did not draw this design until I could see it in my mind in nearly complete detail just as Mr. Wright said he did it. Then and only then did I go to the drawing board and draft the visualization already there in my mind. I have used this way ever since that day in 1960. It is a very power full practice and very fast also. I later found that it did not matter what I was doing, the solution to the design would just come to my mind and then I could go on and continue to refine the conception in my mind as I just reviewed it only in my minds eye from time to time until I could see it completely. The real beauty of mind conception is that I can give my mind many projects to work on at any one time, there seems to be no limit to how many. The only limit is out put. The conscious mind can only think about one thing at a time. Our minds are aware of other things but we can focus only on one thought at a time. Now I have many ideas come to me in a short space of time, one after the other usually faster then I can record them. Sometimes I just make a note to my self so I remember to get back to that place and then go on with what I am doing. When I look at the note, it puts my mind right back where it was and I can focus on that idea. The best time for creative visualization of an idea is as I wake from a short nap, just as I come into consciousness, often the idea will be there as in the end of a dream. I find that I can go into a short nap with a specific need and the solution to that need will be there in my mind as I awake. Not some unrelated idea but a solution to the very need I had. The amazing thing is that a solution can be specifically requested and will be received by the mind. As you know how to receive and allow the solution to develop any problem can be solved.
I dont use models in my design process. I dont need them because I visualize the design in my mind and build it in my mind as Mr. Wright said. I find the mind is much faster then drawing and model building. Also your mind will work on many design jobs, all at the same time and not get them mixed up. The ideas will just pop out as needed or while your are doing something else with your intellect and concentration. Im sure Mr. Wright used his mind in just this way. It works for me.
I dont like the system of looking over the students work every few days while the design is being worked on. This is an impossible way to learn how to use the creative mind. Bruce Goff was once ask how all the students at Oklahoma got such original design ideas. BG said " We just give them the problem and leave them alone". This is the key, work out the best design you can and finish it. Then put the best effort up for review. You will never forget the lessons you will learn. If you let your professor help you design the building you will not take full responsibility for the results and you will not learn to use your creative mind. This is not a very popular concept at university design schools, but it is the way I work.
My design process:
Internalize the problem. Know your clients needs. This is much more then simply a list of rooms they want and the approximate size of the rooms. I do start this way just to get some idea of the scope of the project. Also most people are familiar with the rooms they live in now. In fact they will tend to just repeat what they have unless it is very poor. So I try and see past what they say they want into how they really would like to live. To do this I look at the way they live now, this tells you a lot about how they will want to live in a new home. I look for what they individually like to do and what they do with others in the family. If the design of the house is done Organically, it is organized by the life patterns of the people that will live in the house. I look for ways to allow each individual the full expression of who and what they are. I ask each person to make a list of only the things that are important to them. To put the things on the list in order of importance to them and to list only things that are important to them and not all things that may be needed in the house. I say if only one thing is important to you then thats all I want on your list. I make them write it down and not just tell me in a meeting.
This exercise gets the client thinking about needs and lets me do the design work. It also begins to design the building and starts setting up the relationships within the design. I do this with large public clients also. I make a plan of the way they are now, not just a floor plan but who sits where and as much information about them as I can. I also ask each person in the office or business what they want. Then start to work it out by letting my mind solve all the complex issues and relationships that result. The design process begins by definition of the problem and by working from generals to particulars.
One way I have used for years is to cut out the areas of the parts of the house, the room if you must, at the same scale as the topographical site plan. I cut them out in rectangles and just put them on the site plan. I can then just push them around and quickly find relationships that work or try areas in various ways. I dont try and draw a floor plan right away because this is not a design yet, it is just a schematic relationship at scale. This allows the mind to visualize the program at the same scale on the site plan and in relationship to all the features of the site. Many things about the design will be obvious and others will not seem to work at all. There are many things I do to get the building program to work within as well as with the site conditions but the important thing is to visualize the program at the same scale on the site plan. Why? Because you have just internalized the two in you mind and your mind will now conceive at the correct scale and in correct proportion to the actual site conditions. Without this the mind will still conceive but the conception will probably be out of scale with the site and the conditions of the site. The mind must have the correct information or will give solutions based on what it has.
Visualization and Visioning
Let me make a distinction between two words; Visualization and Visioning.
Visualization is the act of seeing known things in the minds eye so to speak. To make changes to these visualizations in the minds eye at will. This ability to visualize is a skill needed by an Organic Architect. I find that most architects can not visualize in three dimensions. I could always do it so dont know if it is a learned skill or a talent that some people learn to use and others do not.
Visioning is an act of creation. It is the use of the creative part of the mind. Visioning is a Metaphysical act. Visioning is not an intellectual act, it is the relaxation of the knowledge of the intellect, a sort of putting aside of the known. As I have said, the individual human mind is the source of creative ideas, not committees, not teams. Groups and teams can build energy and intensity but the idea always come through an individual mind. So look within your mind for the creative direction in the search for form.
Visions can come at any time but seldom come when concentrating on the need in a focused way. I would say they never come as an act of focused intellect. Visions or ideas seem to come when the intellect is doing something else.
The Creative Nap
I found one way to allow visions or ideas to come to my conscious mind, was the method I call the "creative nap". After I have the needs well understood and internalized in my mind, as completely, as intellectually possible, and nothing is coming in the way of an idea while Im doing other things, then I use the creative nap. I lie down for a nap and as I drift off to sleep I just review the needs and conditions of the problem for which I require ideas. After about twenty minutes I awake and often with a vision or the beginnings of the form of an idea. The idea is specific to the needs and most often a little surprising. The idea is seldom complete but it is a definite beginning of a form that relates to the need which I have. I work with what I get, using visualization, in my mind, not on paper. If the need is pressing I will get more of the vision on subsequent naps or as I awake in the morning after a nights sleep. This visioning seems to draw on both information known to me and unknown to me. I have read and studied how this may work but it is not important to really know the source, to use this source. Creative ideas seem to come to the human mind at the edge of consciousness. The idea or vision comes like a dream and must be remembered by the conscious mind before the idea is lost to conscious mental active thinking. The intellect does the remembering and the visualization work and the visioning supplies the creative information and ideas.
I learned to uses my mind in this way when I was twenty years old and an apprentice at Taliesin, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Mark: 4. Please forgive me if this is too personal, but do you subscribe to any particular religious beliefs, and do you feel this is important to your architecture? If you do not follow a particular faith, how would you describe your personal belief system?
James: This is very important to the individual that would be Organic, in harmony with the conditions of his being. I find that the philosophy of Organic Architecture as expressed by Mr. Wright has much in common with all the great philosophies and religions, once I put aside the dogma and foolishness. Mr. Wright took Nature as his guide and so do I. The Nature of Life.
I have much more to say on all these questions especially the last but this is it for now.
James Walter Schildroth
18 Lee Street Studio, P.O. Box 275
Wiscasset, Maine 04578-0275
email@example.com February 5, 1997