Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration

Not to give away too much, but The Satellite Collective is beginning to wiggle its fingers again. A new piece is in the works. To get the juices flowing, Kevin Draper sent out an email to the core creative team with initial ideas. The theme would be “Time Machine,” and all sorts of media would be represented as Satellite Collective always does. After a few glowing responses, I decided to chime in. Here’s what I wrote:

Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration
Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 6:03 PM

I want to put in my two cents:

One of the most difficult things to get right in a performance of this kind is striking the right balance between all the different media. Spoken word, dance, opera, music, moving images… these all have their own strengths and limitations. How to have them co-exist in a performance piece without overcrowding?
Most of Satellite Collective’s works have deliberately separated different pieces in different media into a kind of medley, which are presented in sequence. This is a distinctly different approach than trying to create a fully immersive multimedia thing. Opera is closer to the latter, but for the fact that it’s bogged down by the proscenium. You could make an argument for both with the Time Machine theme: it supports the deliberate sequence because that’s how we experience events in time (which you can reshuffle to some cool effect), but it also supports multimedia because a Time Machine is a fascinating, fantastical, complex piece of machinery, with millions of parts working simultaneously in order to transport someone to a different place. Whichever direction it ends up taking, I think it’s best to be deliberately one or the other. A performance that lands in neither/nor might sacrifice pacing or fail to hold the audience’s attention or fail to carry a single idea throughout– ie the intangible stuff that is the true magic of performance.
I hope this makes sense.
BTW, walking back my own words somewhat, I like the idea that our image of what a Time Machine is has itself changed over time. It has gone quite a way from HG Wells to the Twin Paradox. I remember I saw William Kentridge’s Refuse The Hour at BAM a couple of years ago, and he has a monologue where he explains that if a single photon can be considered a snapshot of the thing that emitted it, then we have been broadcasting snapshots of ourselves out into space since the dawn of time. If you could go out and catch each of those photons discretely, you could piece together the film of humankind.
Whether or not that makes sense to anyone, I highly recommend watching this video of highlights from the show. A lot of Satellite parallels.
whew.
-Ivan Himanen, RA
No one has responded to the thread since.

The Noble Shed

Transportation Centre, Incheon Airport, Korea by Terry Farrell
‘Tropical Islands’, Berlin, Germany
Will Pryce’s large photographs, his large subjects, and the title of his book all point to a purer kind of architecture. An architecture unburdened by program. It may be difficult to imagine such an existence, but there indeed was a time when the builder was not concerned with shaping a building precisely to fit the needs of its future inhabitants. As a matter of fact, in that time the boundaries between architect, builder, and client were quite blurred themselves. The dwellers built the dwelling. With such a setup, it’s easier to see how rigid expectations of ‘occupancy’ and ‘program’ were not even part of the picture. But even though times have changed, I believe there is still a chance to return to that. The sheds photographed by Will Pryce are evidence that it still happens, given the right circumstances.
I recently read an article in Science magazine about how humans are coping with urbanism and congestion. It says that our Paleolithic brains are unaccustomed to living in huge clusters with other strangers, that the human brain is only capable of maintaining about 150 meaningful relationships at a time (this is the famous Dunbar Number). So to cope with this, we developed things like fashion and dialects and architecture — in order to help sort strangers into known categories, and make life comfortably predictable. From my point of view it is an intriguing theory because it liberates architecture from prescriptions of program by pointing to a rather arbitrary heritage. If “facades” and “bedrooms” and “bathrooms” developed mainly for that reason, then there is absolutely no reason to hang on to it. Architectural program is not as hard-wired as it may seem. If humans could be nudged into this new state of freedom, we could start making buildings more like Hundertwasser imagined, or the rest of the 20th century for that matter: where the architect designs the “shell,” and the inhabitants come in and fill in the details themselves. Not only does it remove an unnecessary step from the making of solid buildings, but it gives everyday people the opportunity to participate in the making of their own dwellings. Then, the architectural shell itself would be liberated, free to explore form and materials that before weren’t practical because of use restrictions. It might not be so bad to live in a city composed only of noble sheds.
Laban Centre, London, UK by Herzog de Meuron

Architects – the backup band

This will be both an album review of Vulfpeck’s The Beautiful Game and a general thought on architectural practice.

In general, Vulpeck, the four-or-five-or-six-or-more-piece band from Michigan, has been solidly my favorite band for the past couple of years. Their music infuses funk, R&B, rock, jazz, and you never know what else (Klezmer? Bach? Swing?)– they back it up with undeniable chops, too– and they just seem like they’re having a good time making music.

Take a listen to their latest release and try to give me a definite answer on what genre it could fall into. Hard to do, right? As evidence, Vulfpeck’s music has appeared in as broad a range of music Top Ten charts as German Pop:

2016-10-26-itopchart-german-pop-vulfpeck
Wait. What?

….. and R&B!

2016-10-26-billboard-rb-hip-hop-albums-vulfpeck-the-beautiful-game
WAIT. WHAAAAAT?!

Part of the band’s essence is versatility. And it’s useful here to think of it not in terms of genres, but more in terms of the kind of music they want to play. Sometimes a musical mind thinks of a tune, and the art is in figuring out how to physically create that sound. Or, say a band starts jamming, and something that just sounds good emerges from that session. If it’s improvised, that good sound may have emerged from a specific hook or beat that the guitarist or drummer heard. This deft skill allows a band freedom to create a palette of sound that transcends categories. Listen to Animal Spirits, the opening track. You hear all kinds of genres in there. The tight drums sound funky for sure, the piano vamps are poppy, the vocals R&B, but then the syncopated claps and the jingly keys make it sound like a theme song from a kid’s TV show. But for a band that sees itself first as a rhythm section, that’s par for the course. Like The Wrecking Crew, The JB’s, or The Muscle Shoals house band, you’re supposed to be able to perform for anyone at anytime. It’s how you 1) sell your services, and 2) make pure music come first. I remember Genres are just gloss anyway, right?

NOW. In architecture, the challenge is the same. You spend your years in school learning Greek column orders, Roman concrete vaults, and cruciform churches from the Middle Ages, you mimic Le Corbusier with cube-houses Mies van der Rohe with kissing planes, you master the art of the airbrushed axonometric like Peter Eisenman, the glossy disjunction of Tschumi or Stirling… then you spend much of your career as a member of the backup band for a famous frontman like Bjarke Ingels, Michael Maltzan, Tom Kundig, Cecil Balmond, or Patrik Schumacher, adapting to their style. If you have foresight you get licensed behind the scenes, studying on the tour bus. Then after a couple of decades, the moment of truth arrives and you start your own firm, the first step of which is having a conscious direction of your own. By now you have absorbed enough variety for something personal to emerge. You have acquired an ability to work with a range of building types, clients, budgets, and styles, depending on the demands of the project.

A purist would say that by definition, this ability transcends style because it runs deep. Everything you design yourself from then on has the weight of all your training behind it, and therefore is coming not from mimicry, but from a palette of experiences.

I’ve spent years as a drummer, a bassist, a backing vocalist, an audio engineer, a marketer, even a groupie, and hopefully in the next few years I will start my own band. A band that can top the high-end residential, performing arts, and research Hot 100 Charts.

McWhorter’s Similes

When Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield said they would be abandoning Lexicon Valley, my beloved linguistics podcast, for other projects, I was crestfallen. Not even withstanding the fascinating content of the show, half of the reason I listen is for that comic pairing. Who could justifiably replace them?

Though the name John McWhorter didn’t mean anything at the time, the Columbia Professor has acquitted himself as the solo host well, and uniquely so. The best moments of these episodes is when his speech breaks out into a sort of trot: fast enough that it stops sounding like a monologue and starts sounding like a manic brainiac talking to himself. In these moments, he fires off similes that make you stop what you’re doing and rewind… just to make sure you heard him right. Here’s a sampling.

Feb-RU-ary sounds like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Why does English put “is” in simple sentences like “she is my sister?” Other languages don’t do it. Little things get stuck into sentences, like food getting caught in your teeth.

English kept becoming easier. Things just started blowing away as if English was a sick tree and the leaves were falling off.

But of course “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” are things that we giggle at. If you’re synaestheitc, you think of “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” as smelling like a sandwich full of cured meats with various sauces. It’s somehow not something that you bring out for formal occasions.

“He” probably did not become “she” because “h” gradually came to be pronounced “sh.” There was some support for the case but it was always thin. It was like a fence blowing in a tornado.

Languages don’t borrow pronouns much [from each other]. it’s kind of like people don’t use each other’s toothbrushes very much.

If I say “tell each student that they can hand in their paper tomorrow,” is that wrong because “they” is plural when we all understand that in that particular usage “they” is singular? Of course, some of us like to keep our food apart on the plate. I am one of those people, actually….

When you have an “r” at the end of a syllable, it’s kind of like fingernails, they get worn down. Because sounds are always changing like clouds are always blowing away in the sky.

So, “he,” “she,” “it:” it used to be “he,” “heo,” and then, was it “it”? No, it was tidy. They all began with “h.” They were ducks in a row. Quack. It was “he” “heo”… “hit.”

26057828-john-mcwhorter-yall

Keep it up, McWhorter.

On Standing

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects On Slowness.

070601-artscenter-twbt
Billlllllllie Tsiennnnnnn and Todddddd Willlllllllliams

Using Tod Williams & Billie Tsien’s outlook on architectural practice as an opening chapter, you could write a whole book about the importance of treating yourself right physically, being present in the world around you, in order to improve your work. Architects always wax philosophic about “the body in space,” and yet we spend 90% of our time sitting in chairs. Unless we can consciously treat our bodies well (and connect that to the way we run our offices), our license to discuss others’ should be revoked.

The thesis of the book would be that the best experiences of architecture by architects take place during times of physical activity. Times like:

  • Jogging through the park at dawn.
  • Site walk-throughs.
  • Taking the stairs to your walk-up apartment.
  • Going to the dog run and conversing with fellow local dog owners.
  • Bicycle-commuting over a bridge.
  • Traveling to a foreign city, walking around for 6 hours.
  • Standing while drawing.

You can imagine the body as a largely unused vehicle. A deep-sea vessel that only gets used for snorkeling. A turbocharged V8 engine that never goes above 40mph. At the very least, you should try to keep the joints well-greased. The more moments of physical activity you can insert into your working day at the architecture office, the better. At the Bauhaus, students dedicated time before class to stretch and meditate. I imagine these warm-ups were quite tai-chi or yoga-esque: not strenuous, but using minute shifts to invigorate the muscles. The practice was closely tied to the school’s love of dance.

A stretching session before Johannes Itten's class. Weimar. Image via kaufmann-mercantile.com
A stretching session before Johannes Itten’s class. Weimar. Image via kaufmann-mercantile.com
Bauhaus Gesture Dance, feat. Oskar Schlemmer, Werner Siedhoff, Walter Kaminskii. c. 1925. Image via thecharnelhouse.com

Frank Whitford’s book Bauhaus (Thames & Hudson, 1984) mentions Johannes Itten’s forcing students to stand in order to loosen their bodies.

Two of Itten’s exercises were especially important. The first required students to play with various textures, forms, colors, and tones in both two and three dimensions. The second demanded the analysis of works of art in terms of rhythmic lines which were meant to capture the spirit, the expressive content of the original. Before attempting such exercises the students were asked to limber up their bodies and minds by physical jerks, controlled breathing and meditation.

Alfred Arndt remembered attending Itten’s Vorkurs on his first day at the school. Itten made the students repeat their ‘Good morning’ to him but ‘thought that we were still sleepy, cramped. “Please stand up. You must loosen up, get really loose, otherwise you can’t work! Turn your head! So! Still further! Your neck’s still asleep…”‘

Going deeper, I realize that our whole paradigm for architectural representation is linked to standing. Plans, sections, and elevations are artificial views of buildings which are never actually experienced but which are 100% better at carrying information about how to build. They are orthogonal projections, that is they collapse all of the points, lines, and surfaces of a building onto a flat plane: e.g. a piece of paper or a computer screen. And ideally, to preserve that flatness, I have to position my eye perpendicular to, and centered on, the surface. But if you consider the way we sometimes work– seated at a desk, with the drawing facing up to the ceiling– that perfect position is impossible. KM_C654e-20161109132532

In a way, working like this is an ineffective hybrid of old-school ergonomics and new-school drawing techniques. Look at the way old-school architects draft: on a vertical or slightly inclined table, standing or sitting on a tall stool.

The COVER IMAGE of Wikipedia’s page on “Architect”.

Then look at how new-school architects draft: seated in an office chair, 3 feet in front of a computer screen. Both of these satisfy the perpendicular-viewing rule that preserves the accuracy of our drawings. But if we want to keep blood flowing as Johannes Itten demanded, slow down as Tod Williams and Billie Tsien demand, we have to stand up again. Hoorah for standing desks.

I experienced the same today while sketching a markup of an elevation. What I thought were beautiful receding lines suddenly became parallel!!

img_20161108_133558

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img_20161108_133621

 

Architecture or Rap Lyrics

Entering the 11th hour, the ground beneath the brain thins out. What in daylight was a pleasant stroll along a train of thought now becomes a tightrope walk. All it takes is one slip for focus to collapse completely. Architecture is full of these triggers: double entendres that turn work flow to turn into uncontrollable giggling. I’ve started calling it Architecture or Rap Lyrics.

If stone facing is deemed the most appropriate method, proper detailing of joints is critical.”

“Because long span members are usually large, correspondingly large erection stresses can be developed.

For small jobs, hand compaction can be used. More typically, it is done with vibrators.

“When it is away from the joint, the member is in tension.”

“For proper bearing in wood members, nuts should be tightened using the turn-of-nut method and in uniform contact with the wood surface.” 

“The standard approach of nesting, sometimes called Butt And Run, combined with the Six-Course, Six-Inch, Stepped-Off Diagonal Method…”

50_cent_in_concert - Butt and Run

DMX in concert - Stone Facing

This Will Kill That

Once a year or so, which is as frequently as my pride will concede, an old lesson from a professor pops out of my memory and hits me with a that’s-what-they-were-talking-about! moment.
The most recent one came while walking around Paris, the professor was Anthony Vidler, and the lesson was a pantomime of Claude Frollo’s “THIS WILL KILL THAT” line, from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, on a dull evening in his Modern Architectural Concepts seminar.
Poster from 250List, illustrating Aaron Sorkin’s “What Victor Hugo really meant by this will kill that.”
hunchback-of-the-notre-dame-disneyscreencaps.com-2292-claude frollo
The gist of this moment in the book is the declaration that the printed word will usurp architecture as the prime conveyor of information to the masses. Up to that point, buildings were designed always with the illiterate inhabitant in mind. Through their placement in the city, their facilitation of public assembly, their material connection to the earth, and their ornamentation (gargoyles, friezes, mosaics, stained glass windows), they told a story about themselves and their world. These stories were told in pictures, sculpture, sound, and more. We believe that people were likewise more attuned to these messages when words and written language was not front and center. But then it did become front and center, and architecture lost its need to tell stories in pictures– why bother meticulously crafting a work of art through the collaboration of a stonemason and a painter when you can more easily etch words onto a blank wall? Even further– why bother carving words when you can print them and hand them out as pamphlets at the building entrance?
A time when architecture and pictorial storytelling were still intertwined. The life of Joseph, depicted in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. Image via wikipedia.
How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in literature is set in Paris?

Paris is very well-decorated. It is ingrained in the spirit of the city. “How do I make it beautiful?” is a separate but equal question with “How do I build it?” They don’t call it the City of Lights for nothing. But there came a time, in the 20th century, when Paris became so saturated with historic architecture that it became like a huge museum. I imagine myself as a Paris city planner. For fear of destroying its history, I avoided new additions to the urban fabric. I forgot that the very history I was preserving was founded on baroque sensibilities– whimsy, emotion, sparkle, darkness– that prefer volatility over permanence. Worse, I no longer spoke the language of pictorial architecture, so I couldn’t see this plain fact literally carved into the city around me. When I looked up, I saw beautiful containers worth preserving when I should’ve seen living, breathing artworks that are unafraid of death.

If I look at it the way Victor Hugo did– that books have killed buildings by sapping them of their beauty– modernism was not a great revolution in architecture, but more like designers grasping for straws, realizing that austere aesthetics are inevitably becoming the status quo, and reactively finding justification for it. But it is harder that it seems to eliminate ornament entirely.

I took a morning to visit the Centre Georges Pompidou. The museum was described in the guidebook thus: “by exposing the plumbing, HVAC, and other systems that run the building, the architects put form before function and found the ultimate expression of modern architecture.”
I thought wait wait wait. No one required Piano & Rogers to paint the pipes different colors. Au contraire, the systems were exposed in order to become decorative!  The reason Pompidou is a great building is that it goes against the form-before-function tenet of modernism. It recognizes that each building contains thousands of opportunities to add a little humor, whimsy, or emotion to our environment. Like all multilingual buildings it speaks through light, sculpture, painting, ceramics, metalsmithing, botany, weaving, plumbing, all the details of craftsmen, rather than just architectonics (the English of built languages). Richness of ornament is tied to richness of spirit. Pompidou helps revive the baroque qualities of Paris that once made it playful and alive.
This may be the best lesson of post-modernism.

How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in architecture is set in Paris?

View of Paris from Centre Pompidou.

Why do we gamble for human architecture?

How do you win a design competition? Stand out, right? Present ideas and illuminate things unique to your proposal, right? Don’t trod the beaten path?
What do most of us think of when we think “architectural competition proposal”? We think of a single building, viewed from about one hundred feet, with a clear sense of massing, materiality, and light. Just look at 95% of the submissions for Guggenheim Helsinki, for example. Whenever we design a building, it would make sense for us to design only a building, right?
Not necessarily. Not when you remember that the deeper reason for building a museum or a theater is to benefit the city at large– it needs to draw people inward, and strengthen the sense of place outward. However, that part is always really hard to design, so architects just dabble in it. Using their usual tools, they suggest the potential ways the building at hand will serve the community. This is where the cognitive break happens. There is no way a single architect can know in advance how a civic building will affect its city, especially not with simply arranging walls or choosing materials or even controlling pedestrian flow. Greater forces are at play here, and there is no shame in admitting that we cannot know it all in advance. Architects should see their schematic designs and competition proposals as mere catalysts for further discussion with the operators of the institution, those who make a civic building the living entity it should be after its construction. I’m talking about curators, donors, superintendents, administrators, performers, artists, security guards… the lot.
In order to approach a building design like this, obviously one has to do more than draw. One has to gather, question, talk, and listen.
H3 took this very approach in a recent competition for the University of Auburn, and sadly it backfired. In short, the university was seeking a design architect to lead the construction of a new Performing Arts Center. Each of the shortlisted firms were to fly to Auburn, set up shop in a private room for 4 days, come up with a proposal, then present it to the board and donors. During those 4 days, members of the public were allowed to drop in and interact with the architects, in what was intended to be a very transparent and engaging competition. This charrette-y approach was the idea of university architect Jim Carroll.
Auburn University master plan.
H3’s team, upon arriving at the university, were on the lookout for opportunities and needs on the school-wide scale. Their proposal focused as much on master planning and event programming as it did on the new PAC itself. To convey these big, long-term ideas, they used a mix of site plans, rendered perspectives, physical models, flow charts, diagrams, and even video interviews.
Wilson Butler, the eventual winners, focused fully on designing a building and drawing the audience in with specific architectural details like a large operable door, wood balconies, and a ceiling with a specific lighting scheme. Their deliverables consisted mainly of smaller-scale 3D models, plans, and hand-drawn perspectives.

H3HC’s proposal looked something like this….:

National University of Singapore. Sasaki Associates.

…while Wilson Butler’s proposal looked something like this:

PGI, University of Illinois. CUH2A Architects.
H3’s proposal stood out among the four submissions, without a doubt. They were the unofficial crowd favorite by a large margin. And yet, they didn’t win. Which personally hits a funny bone– on the one hand, they did absolutely the right thing, by focusing on how the building would improve campus life on many fronts; but on the other, by having a less concrete one building in their proposal, they were making a gamble. How can a proposal that gets at the heart of the matter be the odd one out? Shouldn’t all the proposals have considered the big picture?
My recent post about the conversations we have with our surroundings is about the crux of this very matter: the need to balance large-scale, community-based, long-term planning with more human-scale, short-term phenomena that are relatable to each individual in a community.
Humans are each capable of perceiving patterns, forces, systems, and physical qualities of the world that affect us daily but are hidden in plain sight. Mostly, though, we do not seek them out because we are busy with our personal affairs. Further, even if we did seek them out, we would not know where to look. Visions of these patterns must be coaxed out.
The strength of design lies with revealing and ameliorating the issues that we experience every day but may feel powerless to change. But for the same reason that it pervades everyday life so thoroughly, the methods for illuminating it need to be kind of amorphous. A designer needs to use many different media in order to properly link the issue at hand and the people it affects. This is all to say that sometimes (more often than you might think), taking the default path to a design solution is lazy. That laziness is exactly the same criticism usually leveled at architects.
Coming to the first round-table discussion with a design already set is a dick move– it says to the client “you don’t know what’s good for you. I know what kind of building you need here.” Is that the right way to design? But, if we as architects acknowledge how little we actually know in the grand scheme of things, we might then find peace with our drawings. Our raison d’etre then becomes simply space making, which is a deliciously vague idea, but is still mostly understood and allowed by non-architects. But is space making enough? Isn’t space just the white noise on the radio of everyday life?
I’m beginning to generalize, but the frustration was palpable in the conference room when the partners recapped the ordeal. Fortunately, the takeaway is twofold: 1) that H3 will continue to stick to its guns, and 2) those guns are standard issue that for some reason almost no one else wields.
“Architecture is not about a building. Architecture is about people inhabiting a building.”

 

Frank Gehry on Artsy

Some of the best websites out there are the ones that provide a seamless, legible overview and archive of works by artists and designers. It’s a step above a plain Google image search, but not as painstaking or as limited as the archives of a modern art museum. The need for these accessible compendium-type sites is even more essential for architecture and design, given its range of scales and media. Last week I learned of one such website that does a commendable job with the work of Frank Gehry. It’s called Artsy. While its focus is in fine art, there is an effort to include designers and architects who have crossed the borderline between buildings and objects, between architecture and sculpture, between floor plans and sketches. It is a great networking site for collectors, galleries, and curious types. They are also working on an ‘art genome,’ which attempts to sort all fine art with specific characteristics. Each work has its own identity based on its unique combination. Users can also follow the site like other social media. For anyone writing about art online, Artsy is a neat source for images.
In addition to a gallery of images, there are also in-house editorials to provide context, current shows where one can go out and see their work, and short bios. The site is also building pages on Henri Labrouste, Louis Sullivan, Zaha Hadid, and others. Check it out.
Thanks to Dmitry for reaching out.

Euclidian, yet mysterious…

There was a time in when the nowiest way to make buildings was with as uniform and white a surface as possible– usually stucco, hand-troweled over metal lath over sheathing, or the like. That modernist style has roots in the Enlightenment, with the sweeping yet abstract paper-projects of architects like Etienne-Louis Boullee, and became the distinguishing feature of many an International Style ahderent in the early 20th century.
From Boulee’s Cenotaph a Newton, 1784…
…to Adolf Loos’ Villa Moller, 1930.

Unabated, this style continues to trickle into the 21st century as well, where if you stare at it long enough it ceases to be a style and more of an embodied identity of Europe… perhaps clinging to the old, perhaps a little technocratic (Embodied identity… isn’t that one way to define style?) But as easy as it is to dismiss this style as the attempt to impose a white supreme order on the world, under scrutiny it becomes clear that there is actually a lot of nuance and sensibility behind this construction technique.

The lath-and-plaster method of wall building is centuries old. Before wall boards made of hardened gypsum, like Drywall, exploded onto the market, this was the most popular way to construct walls. Set up a layer of imperfect strips of wood or metal mesh, intentionally with gaps in it, then trowel your plaster over it and let it cure. Depending on the number of coats, kinds of admixtures, troweling techniques, etc, you could attain an enormous range of finishes. For example, what we fetishize nowadays as Venetian Plaster is just such a version– using multiple coats, applied with a special steel trowel, and sealed with wax, the result is a slightly variegated, antiqued, finely textured surface. From afar it may look uniform, but up close it has character.
Image via Bob Vila.
Image by JLCS Luxury Interiors, New York.

Have I convinced you? Have we zoomed in enough on the actual construction technique to realize that what once appeared as an abstract mass is actually a piece of craftsmanship? This is a switch in the brain which architecture sometimes helps illuminate– when forms are Euclidian from afar (deceptively simple in geometry), yet mysterious up close (retaining the trace of the human hand).

This balance is hard to strike in many contexts. When I taught The Saturday Program architecture class, it was hard because you want to strike the perfect middle between the seduction of fundamental geometry and the exploration of materiality.
Here is the lesson: build a 6″ cube. Using whatever material you want. Each student works diligently on their own version, paying little attention to their neighbors. When everyone’s done, we go over the models, and discuss how even though each cube is made of different materials, and held together differently, they all still enclose the same volume of air: 216 square inches. This means that “space” as we think of it, and as we toss it around probably more than any other word in our profession, is a concept borne of symbiosis: the air being enclosed, and the materials doing the enclosing. Euclidian, yet mysterious.
But in real life things rarely turn out as perfect cubes and spheres. Why? I like to imagine that while you start with Euclidian geometry, Boullee in your mind, you have to create disturbances, wrinkles, imperfections, exceptions, limitations, aberrations… and impress them upon this perfect shape. Like the way the planets are. Each is 99% a perfect sphere, with its own unique characteristics that were imposed upon it in response to its surroundings. If you engineer the best combination of transformations on your Euclidian solid, attuning it best to its surroundings, you will be superimposing two layers of perfection over each other.
There are a number of works of architecture that carry this quality quite nakedly.
OOPEAA, Kärsämäki Shingle Church, 2004.
Pantheon rotunda & oculus. Image via engineeringrome.wikispaces.com.
The Pyramids at Giza, 26th Century BC. Image via Wikipedia.
Gottfried Böhm, Neviges Pilgrimage Church, 1968. Image via Dezeen.
Louis Kahn, Bangladesh National Assembly Building, 1982. Image via ArchDaily.