Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Columns Are Our Friends
by Daniel Frisch
Posted October 24th, 2018

In the mid-seventies, theorist and architect Peter Eisenman designed a modest modern house in Cornwall, CT.  The home had many peculiar elements – an upside down staircase on which no one could travel, a narrow floor to ceiling window dividing the headboard wall of the master bedroom inhibiting the installation of a queen or king bed, a ‘column’ that hovered over the kitchen island, but clearly had no structural purpose, and finally a structural column precisely situated where one of the chairs around a dining room table would normally reside. By all accounts, the owners who commissioned the home lived quite happily in the auteur Eisenman’s work of art, and enjoyed the daily confrontation of having the architect quite literally present at the dinner table during every meal. While I believe each of our former clients would welcome me as a dinner guest in their home, I cannot think of a single one who would accept the voluntary and precise location of a column in lieu of one of their dining room chairs.

At DFA, one of our key objectives in design is to never intentionally compromise the functionality of a home; we prefer form and function to reinforce one another.  Often, it is the nuanced resolution of conflict and the overcoming of limitations that makes our projects so successful. Working hard to satisfy complex and competing needs results in a depth and refinement that might be missed if we were given unlimited resources (space, time, and funds).  We contend that constricted budgets help, rather than hurt.  Demanding a space satisfy more than one programmatic function presents opportunities. In our experience, project success rarely, if ever, stems from what someone can afford to build, but rather, from what someone chooses to build.  I’ve often been asked to consider the concept of an ideal home design, and freely admit I am at somewhat of a loss.  Successful design solutions are the product of the nuanced resolution of complicated, challenging, and often conflicting considerations.

I found this to be especially true a few years ago when designing a home for my family. We were considering the purchase of a home in foreclosure; a home that had an eighteenth-century portion and a series of twentieth century additions. The house was in bad shape, and would require wholesale renovation and restoration. Nervous about the upcoming transaction, I brought a dear friend (and multi-time client) to visit the property. During our walk around the property, I lamented that I could not see a way forward with the building, and could only see insurmountable challenges.  His response was that he had never heard me admit I could not foresee an answer, and that I should overcome any hesitance and proceed with the purchase.  He went further and said he was certain I would have an “epiphanic” moment; a made-up use of the word epiphany I had not heard, nor expect to hear again.

Two or three nights later, as wisely predicted, that moment did indeed occur, and I could visualize the form the house would take.  The details have evolved, but the house in which we now live is very close in form and substance to the one I envisioned after having been so challenged at the onset.

In Manhattan, we often uncover surprises behind walls.  Ideally, we find them while surveying a space and creating the measured drawings upon which we base our designs.  Other times, the surprises are uncovered during demolition or later.  Such conditions necessitate urgent and impactful design adjustments.  Challenges are seldom embraced with enthusiasm, yet we have learned to take a deep breath and rigorously evaluate the situation. We have gained confidence from our experience reacting to surprises, and are able to reassure ourselves, and more importantly, our understandably panicked and wary clients that all will be ok – better than ok.

I gave this presentation one Monday morning, and that very afternoon, the exact situation arose.  We were reviewing an apartment post-demolition, and a large structural column had been uncovered that was not shown on our architectural plans.  Even though this column was hidden behind sheetrock, it should have appeared on our survey plans.  To make matters worse, the offending concrete column was in area outside the kitchen that was intended to be an open space.  Once we overcame our embarrassment and dismay at the discovery, we took stock and began sketching.  We came to the idea of adding a large semicircular dining alcove and banquet at one side of the columnar mass and utilizing the back side as additional pantry space.  Once constructed, the alcove became a beautiful feature of the home, and more importantly, one of the homeowner’s favorite and most utilized areas of the apartment.  Having made the presentation the morning of the discovery, the successful outcome made quite an impression on a previously skeptical young associate.

While we don’t go looking for surprises, we have found in most every case that we can find a solution that results in new ideas which are preferable to the original.  This “Yes, and…” approach is usually met at first with great skepticism – along the lines of “I don’t WANT a column in the middle of my (kitchen) island!!!,” and even worse angry criticism – “HOW did YOU miss this????”  And yet, when we are done, and the home is more beautiful than originally envisioned, we reach a consensus that, indeed, “Columns are our Friends.”

DF, 12-19-2016