The Architect’s Eye

June 6th, 2013

The worth of something all depends on how you look at it.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, June 7, 2013, and in The Memphis News, June 8-15, 2013

(photo: The Markell residence, Francis Mah, AIA, from “A Survey of Modern Houses in Memphis, Tennessee from 1940-1980”)



It’s not about money. Especially brand-new money.

You can spend a ton of money on a building or a house and it can still be as ugly as original sin or as overdone as Donald Trump’s hair.

I sometimes drive by a house out east covered in random-sized pieces of orangey-pink stone better suited for a patio, held together by wide alleys of grayish grout and stacked all the way to the top of the eave some 40 feet up. It looks less like a house and more like a giant giraffe, a giraffe that makes less of a statement and more of a scream, “Look how much I cost.” The house going up around the corner from me has so many roof lines, stone walls and attached, semi-attached and detached structures here, there and everywhere it looks like one of those ersatz villages in Disney World, maybe, Loadedland.

It’s not about size. No, really.

Most of those tall, tall piles rising on the graves of teardowns allover town and popping up in the clear-cut acres of new development aren’t the symbols of French country homes in Provence or chateaus in the Loire valley they purport to be, they’re phallic soldiers in the ancient conflict of mine is bigger than yours – the last 20 or 30 feet beneath those pointy, soaring rooflines as empty as their purpose.

It’s about how you see it.

My friend Keith Kays was recently recognized by his peers with the Francis Gassner Award for contributions to architecture in Memphis. While he’s done plenty of good work over a long career, I submit that the recognition is not just for what he’s done but also for what he sees.

Keith Kays has the eye of an architect. Seeing at once space and form and function, seeing relationships between light and dark, purpose and people, pragmatism and preservation, nothing and everything. And he spearheaded a project that asks us all to look closer at the examples of all of that all around us in two comprehensive surveys of Memphis architecture from 1940 to 1980, one of modern houses and the other of modern public buildings, corresponding, give or take a decade, to a period known as Mid-Century Modern.

Keith wants us to see real substance behind the style, real jewels behind the flash – good things to look for no matter the object. Whether it’s old or new, traditional or contemporary, good design raises our consciousness and our expectations of ourselves. Bad design just raises rooflines and house notes.

I spent my teenage years in a wonderful Mid-Century Modern house. Outside it was cypress folded into a landscaped acre split by a creek. Inside it was a polished brick floor in an open floor plan full of furniture designed for the space looking out on a green world through a wall of glass.

And it was torn down to make way for one of those Franco-stein monsters.

I’m a Memphian, and we need to watch what we’re doing.


Pete: Dan, Can you get the plans for that house? It was very special. All the best, Pete

Leave a comment