The Elegant Plan

I have the misfortune of having to work this weekend.  For three days (all hail Patriot’s Day) it is just me and my computer, the tunes from my boom box and the terrific view from my desk overlooking the world of movement around the Convention Center.  I could feel cheated, stuck at my desk instead of mingling with the world beyond; I could feel indigent that no one else is around; I could feel angry at life’s unfairness.  But I don’t.  I accept life’s integral unfairness and realize that in the broad scheme many more things have fallen my way than not.  I hum the old song, “It’s a lovely day, for whatever you’ve got to do” and get down to work.

My task over these three days is to develop the plan for the Veteran’s Administration project inCanandaigua,New York; 200,000 square feet of new construction and renovation on a Gothic Revival1930’s era campus.  The project has been in our office for two years now.  First there was the year of contract negotiation, then preliminary meetings with the client during which VA Washington made a wholesale changes to project scope, followed by complicated spreadsheets juggling numbers of rooms, costs, and building allocations within the jigsaw campus, meetings with clinicians and administrators where everyone postured for more space, evaluating mechanical systems and outlining sustainability targets.  Two years of debate, number crunching and diagramming later, I am ready to draw.

I attended architecture school in the 1970’s, during the apex of the search for rational design.  Modernism had created a brave new world of elegant towers, but they proved ill suited to human needs.  We sought the moral rectitude of Modernism, but in forms that bent to the idiosyncrasies of life. Our bible was Alexander Calder’s A Pattern Language, which raised the virtue of the front porch, the bay window, and the protected entrance to the status of universal truths.  Simply string together the hundred plus patterns outlined in the bible and you would create a good building.

Problem was, not one piece of distinguished architecture ever bloomed from A Pattern Language. Just as buildings are an aggregate of individual components that create a whole, architecture is more than just a kit of parts.  People want buildings that function well, but they also want buildings that speak in deeper ways. Our buildings must accommodate the needs of the present while simultaneously link us to our past and ennoble our future.  It is no surprise that when Modernism finally ran out of gas – all that future with so little acknowledgement of our past – Postmodernism took over with a vengeance.  In the 1980’s there was no limits to pasting Chippendale tops or a gothic spires on skyscrapers whose means of construction as unachievable in the historical periods they referenced.  Post modernism was less ‘pure’ than its predecessor, but then, humans are less pure than we might like to believe.

Which brings me back to my plan.  I have my two years of work to reference; 68 pages of program courtesy of the VA, edited extensively with the Department Heads because, being  based on complicated computer program that spits out stuff, much of the program is garbage.  I understand the operational model of the clinics.  I know which historic campus buildings are worth saving and which pieces we want to edit away.  I understand the mechanical needs of the buildings, where the main entrance should be, the primary circulation routes, and where the service docks need to be.  Now all I have to do is, do it.

I no longer reference A Pattern Language.  After thirty years of being an architect I rely on the most trusted of axioms, Vitruvius’ ‘Firmness Commodity and Delight’.  I begin with firmness.  I test out structural grids that will work well with dimensions of the dominant spaces in the project.  I overlay options in the area between two existing buildings where our new ‘Infill’ is going to go.  I massage it to align with important axes, to allow the new construction to be prominent at its entrance, recessive at its service area, respectful of the old in all conditions.  It can take a few hours to get the grid right.  A good grid is regular, unobtrusive in the space, and allows for flexibility over time. After some time I have a satisfying grid, one well suited to clinic layouts, all regular except for one bay which aligns with main axis of the principal building, which we will treat as a double story, sky lit space.  I have yet to draw a wall or a door, yet I know that the plan will fit well within this grid.

Once the firmness of structure is established I incorporate the commodity.  I identify main vertical elements, stairs, elevators and mechanical shafts.  I outline principle corridors, entries to departments, reception / waiting areas.  Sometimes the space lays out fast, and rows of exam rooms display in a single click on the computer. Other times I struggle to make sense of an oddly proportioned space that needs its own identity yet must be integrated into the whole.  And even after all these years, I spend inordinate amounts of time laying out bathrooms.  They are quirky spaces with oodles of dimensional requirements, thanks to the ADA.  I can lose a half an hour getting a bathroom to fit ‘just so’ in a suite.

I am not very strong at designing the exterior of buildings. I don’t have a feel for materials or volumes, but I am a very good planner.  I love to massage each element of the program into a logical order.  Funny thing is, I don’t do it was often as I would like.  Although I am very good at it, others in my firm are also good at it.  I am less valued as a planner than as a clinical expert and client facilitator, because I am singularly good in those arenas.  Problem is, I did not become an architect to facilitate meetings. I became an architect do this, to conceive buildings, and even after thirty years, I relish every opportunity.

Delight is like a garnish on a soup or a stew.  It appears to be added at last moment, yet when you stir it into the mix you realize it is integral to the taste.  You can’t start a design by applying the delight, yet it is embedded in all good designs.  Delight is emerging in the VA plan.  The way the veterans’ will pass along the courtyards we’re creating in the old buildings, the light filled waiting space that acknowledges the symmetry of the main building, the concourse that incorporates the tall gothic wall of the original building into the architecture.

VA Canandaigua has an elegant plan.  It has logic and order; the crisp new balances the crenulated old, the asymmetries are purposeful points of exclamation. Like so much gratifying art, it looks simple, as if it could not have fallen into any other configuration.  It looks inevitable; the labor required to make it appear so effortless will never be acknowledged.  Over the next year or two, before construction starts, the plan will be attacked by all sorts of interests who want a bump-out here and a bump-out there, and my job will be to preserve as much of the integrity as I can; to help people understand that the unifying principles of this organization need to be protected against arbitrary events.  It will not be very pleasant, but I will have the energy that I generated this weekend, in creating this elegant plan, to see me through the battles.

It has been a shame to miss out on this lovely spring weekend to create this plan.  But it has also been very rewarding.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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