What Inspires You?

Inspiration found in youth still inspires.

I have seen the question asked by more than one architect on social media: “what inspires you?”  The elegant? The inspiring? The “accidental”? Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradictions?

Things that got to me as a kid….I think back and they usually are still “getting to me”.  So I want to write a little bit about things that inspired me then that are still inspiring me today.


Cars.  Period.  Anything General Motors.  (and MOPAR recently thanks to the Velocity channel.)

It was everything at one point.  Looking forward each fall to see the new line of General Motors designs (Chrysler and Ford less so) was at the top of my list.  My parents had an Oldsmobile.  We traveled the country each summer in it; I had been in 48 states by the time I was 12. But always my attraction was to how the car looked.  Its design. To someday be a designer of automobiles in Detroit was a dream.


Another inspiration, the obvious contrast…was seeing for the first time Manhattan from the air in the opening scene of West Side Story, and then seeing a scene from Giant: with its lonely stand alone mansion sitting on the west Texas plain.


As I mentioned above these are a few things that inspired me when I was young, along with attending Cleveland Browns games with my Dad and uncle. There was architecture, too.  The earliest architectural inspiration that I remember is the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami and Brasilia. The new capital of Brazil that was just being constructed in the Amazon jungle.  That whole idea of building a city from scratch and making it look the way you want was almost space age science fiction to me.  The Fountainbleu, what can I say…it was just class. What a simple move, a simple curve did everything.  I begged my Dad to drive across the country to see it.  (Even though later in architecture school curving your building was considered passe.  I don’t care, I loved it.)

Brasilia (left) and the Fountainbleu when new (center) and today (right).

These kind of things, along with the architects Oscar Niemeyer and Morris Lapidus respectively, were the impetus to investigate further.  About this time I must mention a couple of buildings that I also begged my dad to drive across the country to look at: The Capitol Records Building in L.A. and the plastic demonstration house at Disneyland: neither of which are what we consider great architecture, but both were iconic to me:

Capitol Records building (left) and Disneyland's the plastic demonstration house (right).

The next thing I remember is probably a drawing in a 1950’s plan book of what was termed a “modern house” plan.  The beautiful pencil rendering had a brand new Corvette in the driveway.  I was sold.  I have looked and looked online for that sketch but have never been able to find it.  The closest thing to it I have found in terms of similar inspiration is a fully restored 1960’s Pierre Koening design in Carmel Valley (below, left) and, as an example of the famous Los Angeles Case Study Houses of the ‘60’s, is one of Ralph Rapson’s unbuilt designs (below, right):

Around this time my dad had an occasion to fly out of the original Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania airport, a couple of hours from where I grew up.  It thrilled me as a kid, and really the only architectural reason that interested me at the time, was that the plan view was shaped like an airplane, wings and all: this was exciting of course to a little kid.  It no longer exists unfortunately, but this is an early photograph, taken before the port wing was constructed:

The original Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania airport.

Also around this time was visits to the Cleveland Arcade. Simply breathtaking.  Built in 1888, it is timeless and a American predecessor (with a nod to the Milan Galleria and to the 1828 Providence Arcade)of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles as well as every axial view of interior space everywhere (more on that later):

The Cleveland Arcade in all of its glory.

OK, that was pretty dramatic.  The aforementioned Bradbury Building needs some love as well:

The Bradbury Building
Fallingwater (left) and Robie House (right).

And then as I got older there was of course Frank.  I grew up only 3 hours from Fallingwater and got to visit it as a teenager.  Later, when I was a VISTA volunteer in Chicago I got to see the Robie House. Hard to believe it was done in 1905.  (Interiors at that time had been “remodeled” into an office for some local government agency, and they had hung a T-bar acoustical tile ceiling in the main room.)  Even though there are many examples, to me and to a lot of people, these are his two best set pieces.  One more Wright inspiration though, San Francisco 1948. The Circle Gallery on Maiden Lane:

The Circle Gallery

I have to give a mention in this time period following World War II to the Eames Residence and the John Lautner House in Los Angeles.   Each help set an American aesthetic of what to do with steel and what to do with concrete (just like Wright at Fallingwater):

The Eames Residence, exterior (1947).

While on the subject of steel framed single family houses (a whole topic in and of itself, starting in 1947 with Lustron Homes in the Midwest) a mention and salutation to Corbu’s Villa Savoye from the 1930’s and how it set a standard in Europe for the modern movement.  AND how Wright reacted to it in the sense of not being left out.  So… BOOM, he does Fallingwater and this is what Wright thought, rightly so, of how it should be done.  But in any case, much respect and inspiration goes to Villa Savoye as inspiration to Wright:

Villa Savoye (left) and Fallingwater (right).

What is also interesting about each of these pieces of architecture is how they are famously married to their site, but both in completely different ways: Corbu set his building on a grassy plain and Wright nestled his into the landscape.  Both brilliantly.

Speaking of Europe and modernity, in Sitges Spain up the hill from the beach quite a ways is a multifamily project by Ricardo Bofill (photo on left below).  I did not know that when I was there at the time, but found out and have been following his inspirational work ever since, including the project shown below, La Muralla Roja:

Ricardo Bofill's multifamily housing in Sitges, Spain, (upper left) and La Muralla Roja (center, lower left). It would seem that Bofill's inspiration is the negative geometry of the Indian Step Wells of Northern India (right).

Can’t leave Spain without mentioning Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona:

When younger, I did climb to the top of one of the spires.  Yes, there is an internal stair.

Axial Symmetry

A word now about axial symmetry.  I realize I have spoken above about the Cleveland Arcade and the Bradbury building, but I have to add The Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix to the list of my favorite axial one point perspective views that encompass the whole. I realize it is not the way most buildings are experienced, there is more movement from different perspectives, but this type of view is what is inspiring to me and to a lot of architects, so here goes:

In addition, in regard to axiality, the same inspirational qualities one finds in the great cathedrals of Europe, I find in the Metro subway stations by Harry Weese in Washington D.C., which are some my favorite all time greatest hits pieces of architecture in the U.S., along with one of the great chapels in the world, the Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas:

Clockwise, from left: Westminster Abbey (1090), Chartes Cathedral (1220), Thorncrown Chapel (1980) and the Washington D.C. Metro Subway (1972).

Speaking of axial, I might throw in an axial streetscape view in Amsterdam as well:

An axial streetscape view in Amsterdam.

And now a short word about stadiums, one of my favorite building typologies, but it is a whole subject in and of itself, so I will just include a couple of images to hopefully demonstrate the disparate geometries found outside of the United States.  Photo at the left is in Braga, Portugal and on the right is in Rio.  I wish I could be inspired by some stadiums in this country, but I am not. (Maybe with the exception of the stadium at the University of South Carolina)

During this time in the late‘70’s and 80’s there were several set pieces that became embedded: in no particular order there was most of Arquitectonica’s work observed from afar and up close to the work of Wes Jones of Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones here in San Francisco.  Wes won the competition at the Kennedy Space Center to memorialize astronauts who have given their lives in the effort to explore space through the NASA program. His unique entry is a mechanical sculpture that rotates with the sun to capture solar light to reflect it through and backlight the engraved names on the surface of the black granite face. The only kinetic memorial I know of is shown below the Arquitectonica photos.

Arquitectonica, Miami, FLA.

Astronaut's Memorial, Kennedy Space Center, Miami, FLA.

Skipping into the present I am still enamored and inspired by Tadao Ando and Louis Kahn and will be forever, even though there were many inspirational pieces of architecture in the ‘90’s and early 21st century to learn from and admire.  But Ando and Kahn, stars of the 20thcentury, live on in their work however. (Ando is still alive and practicing.)

Ando’s horse ranch for Tom Ford is a lesson in geometry used in a totally different way as far as ranches go.  The shapes, sizes, position, attitude, and interval of the pieces on the New Mexico high desert plain is almost ancient.  An ancient ruin if you will, which is something used to describe Kahn’s work sometimes, although the work is of the most cutting edge of anyone’s 20th century modern architecture.

Tom Ford, Ando’s client, is also someone in the design world that I have always admired.  He is mostly known as a men’s clothing designer, but his roots are in the Andy Warhol ‘60’s club and music scene, from which HIS inspiration derives.  Hence, his interest in Ando’s cutting edge work. First the ranch:

Tadao Ando's and Tom Ford's Cerropelon Horse Ranch, New Mexico.

And then Kahn’s Salk Institute and his Dacca Bangladesh Parliament building below.  Full disclosure, I was in Lou Kahn’s Studio at Penn for a year in the early ‘70’s.  I knew him quite well;  obviously he has been an inspiration all these years.  I thought I would end with his work, both masterpieces of the 20thCentury:

Article Written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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