For architects inspiration comes in many forms. For Jon Dick of Archaeo Architects in Santa Fe, New Mexico, finding inspiration requires a simple look back to early architecture from around the world. Massive stone walls stand in ruin and endure throughout the ages.
"In ancient vernacular architecture," explains Jon Dick, "very often the structure was wall dominated and by that I mean the windows and doors were very modest in size and few in number. Early habitation was primarily a way to keep the natural elements and unkindly neighbors out. Early vernacular architecture tended to be dark, closed in and fortress-like. But there's an appeal to that appearance, whether it's in a castle in Europe, Mediterranean architecture, much of which has stone and/or earthen walls or traditional adobe architecture here in the southwest. That massive character is appealing."
Jon Dick grew up in rural Nevada and recalls the discovery of a ruined homestead that sparked his interest and remained in his memory. "When I was quite young, in high school I think, we went out hunting. We were out in a very remote area and a homesteader had built a house that was standing in ruin next to a spring, and it was built entirely of stone, except for the roof which had been made of lumber and was long gone. The only thing remaining was the stone and he or she had built it with such a high level of craftsmanship, the corners were perfectly square. They clearly collected rocks from the immediate area and then chipped them away to fit really nicely, almost to the level of Chichen Itza. It was a beautiful rectangular structure with a couple of windows and a door - a very simple cabin really, but all made of stone, and I'm sure it's still standing there today."
Louis Kahn is also cited as an inspiration. He was a world renowned architect who was influenced by ancient ruins and whose style incorporated the monumental and monolithic. "I've thought of what Kahn said, that a ruin reveals more than the whole and I think Kahn also said to be aware of what your building will look like as a ruin. And in a way, that's a nice way to design in that you must use materials of real integrity, quality and solidity."
"It's a basic building principle - simple construction made from materials of integrity. It is always in the back of my mind, but of course I can't always do it in a simple fashion like that homesteader did in the 1800's. We get materials from all over the country, if not the world, and there's a certain level of sophistication and complexity to the architecture we create but very often, simpler is better."
The design philosophy of Archaeo Architects can be summed up in three words: light, site and space. "It's really a combination of the site, the owner's program which we're calling space, and then light. When you combine those three together, you end up with a project where all three are essentially in sync with each other and hopefully the house then says more about who the owners are because they're the ones who are living in it and have adapted to the site and to the natural light. We help them from the standpoint of using light as a form defining element on the site. We don't prescribe to any one particular style, but rather work thematically to establish a theme of the house based on light, site and space."
According to Jon Dick, not only is bringing light into a home essential to the harmony created within the space, but it is also important to address the unique ways in which light can be filtered from the outside in.
"It's a balance between having generous openings to views and bringing light into the building in unique ways, while also holding onto that exterior appearance of wall dominated architecture. It's a selective and careful study of how light penetrates the building and how you frame views. It's somewhat counterintuitive that if you have a large panorama, which many of our custom homes do here in New Mexico and elsewhere, the initial thought is how can I create architecture that's going to be worthy of such a panorama, but in fact by the very nature of creating the architecture and framing views out of that panorama makes it more special. There was that period of time in the 1960's and 1970's with the popularity of the picture window - vast expanses of glass that looked out to a full panorama, but in fact that counterintuitive aspect comes into play. The panorama after a while almost becomes unnoticed. You need to frame it and set it on axis with a hallway or some other architectural feature, or place it in such a way that it's a nice surprise. A small event, rather than this wide expanse of glass that after a while becomes almost boring. So, with that in mind, we try to create these little events of opening up the house to those views or to an axial relationship that draws your eye to another architectural detail."
"In the southwest there is a predominance of flat roof structures that is a holdover from the early vernacular architecture of building out of adobe. With flat roofs we have more of an opportunity to bring in skylights and use them in atypical ways. In lieu of just having a skylight in the middle of a room, we found that if you place a skylight up against a wall and create a long, linear skylight instead, the quality and play of light will differ throughout the day because that light will wash the wall directly and be quite dramatic, or more subtle when the sun arcs further across the sky. You get a more subtle variation of light, whereas with the skylight in the middle of the room, you don't. You just get an increase or decrease in the amount of ambient light in the space. So any time we can draw the light to an architectural feature in the house, be it a plaster or stone wall, or wrap it around a fireplace, then one will be cognizant of the play of light throughout the day."
In one of Archaeo's projects, The Seade Residence, the master bathroom is a perfect example of how light can be drawn into a room in an extraordinarily inventive fashion, where a large skylight was cleverly concealed by wood beams and willow branches. "You step into the space and look up and see these willows, and beyond the willows you see sky, and you don't necessarily pick up on the fact that there is a skylight up there so you almost have the sense that you're outside. That is an example of how we try to blur the distinction between interior and exterior. Here in the southwest where the weather is quite pleasant and the quality of light is wonderful, we make an effort to open the house to the exterior. We've done dining rooms where we've had French doors on three sides of the room and you open them up in nice weather and get a nice breeze coming through carrying the scent of pinon trees. So by judiciously eroding away the exterior walls or the ceiling, it is a way to not only bring light in, but actually give a sense you're outside."
In another project, The Burnside Residence, a courtyard served as the focal point of the house. "That was one project that was completed in a very satisfactory way. We used four inch veneer stone over a two foot thick concrete wall and created an outdoor courtyard. Then the house sort of gathered around it, but we pulled away the architecture so it's as if the square stone wall was the original ruin and we just happened to build around it. I delicately attached to the stone wall an 18 inch wide skylight that wrapped around all four sides of the stone wall, so the stone wall stands out nicely as a central feature of the house and you see it and the courtyard from almost every room in the house. It's a way to ground and orient yourself in the architecture."
One of the firm's primary objectives is to create homes that are one with the landscape, which at times has meant incorporating the actual land into the structure of the building. "There have been a few occasions where we've been able to take advantage of the actual stones or boulders that are on the site. One example is the Ettinger residence where there was a large existing boulder that we left in place. A main feature of the house is a long curving stone clad wall. It starts at that boulder, so as you drive up in a car, to your left you see the boulder and you see this wall sliding out from it. It's a way to anchor the house and gesture to the natural character of the site, indicating that we respect the land and try to delicately put the house on the property with as little interruption to the natural character of the site as possible."
"In many of our projects here in this region of the west, we deal with topography. Very few of our sites are flat, so we've got interesting contours to work with and we study very closely the nature of the topography and how best to settle the house into the landscape. At the end of the day, if it appears as if the house is ascending up out of the landscape as opposed to coming down on to it, we feel that we've succeeded. Microclimates, sun angles, views and particularly the topography - those are all very important elements that determine the overall massing and character of the house."
Jon Dick says that working on a landscape that is not flat does present a bit of a challenge, however, he explains, "but I think there's the opportunity for more interesting architecture because you have to respond to the topography. So in a way, the more restrictive the topography, the more of a challenge it is and it sometimes results in better architecture."