Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: “A” is for Architecture

Posted inArchitecture

Is architecture the apex of design? Ask any architect and the answer is a resounding YES!

It’s hard to argue with this claim, as this discipline shapes civilization, boasts of godlike practitioners throughout history, creates timeless monuments, fuses art and engineering, and impacts much of humanity. At its best, it’s a superb balance of the practical and the poetic.

Furthermore, architecture is the only design profession that requires a license to practice. Curiously, you need a license to drive a car, but not to design one.

In the past, most graphic designers built careers by creatively exploiting two dimensions. The dawn of digital design in the early 1990s expanded opportunities that offer exciting audiovisual, motion, and screen-based experiences that, thanks to AI, now seem limitless. However, in most cases, the result remains two-dimensional. Graphic designers who work in the three-dimensional realm of exhibitions, retail environments, signage, and grand architectural projects enjoy an enduring physical product of their labor.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with renowned architects such as Renzo Piano, Philip Johnson, and Kevin Roche on projects for The High Museum, MoMA, and the Jewish Museum. In this regard, my “tutors” in architecture have been the best.

From 1986 to 1989, I led a team that collaborated with the late I.M. Pei on the renovation and expansion of the Louvre Museum. That project was undoubtedly a career highlight and connected me with architecture on a massive scale. On a recent visit to Paris, I saw that much of the signage we designed for that project remains in use nearly 35 years later.

Current stars such as Jeanne Gang and Bjarke Ingles continue to design ambitious projects that defy the limits of form, materials, and construction. As a dedicated swimmer, one of my all-time favorites is the “Water Cube” aquatics center at the Beijing Olympics, designed by Chris Bosse and Rob Leslie-Carter. It’s a remarkable design that brilliantly marries rigor and theatricality.

Today’s architects deserve our respect, but they are not without sin. A concrete example is the recent damage to Manhattan’s skyline. In mid-town, a canyon of greed and power is emerging where spindly towers of increasingly soaring heights cast hubristic shadows on Central Park. Many of these properties are tax shelters for the super-rich and remain woefully empty. The result is a gap-toothed appearance when viewed from afar, with each new building trying to outdo the others in a macho slugfest that serves the few at the expense of the many.

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting on the 60th floor of a building across the street from one of these new “needle towers.” As I looked at the grid of windows opposite me, I saw a bedroom in disarray, an empty room, a makeshift office full of boxes with the balance of the floor, the raw shell of construction. It looked like the perfect movie set for a hostage thriller!

In contrast, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I am particularly fond of architects who design houses. Today, Tom Kundig of Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects has been celebrated for his work in this realm. He understands that a house is also a home and he never loses a sense of domesticity in scale, siting, use of light, and material finishes. His work can be summed up in three words: ingenuity, precision, and elegance. I became a fan when I first saw his design for The Brain.

I like to visit historic houses when I travel and have documented a few in my journals like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre, and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Luis Barragan’s home in Mexico City is like a shrine, a church, a village with visual delight at every turn. This sensually warm, materially rich, serene house is the perfect example of “humble” modernism. I took a guided tour of this residence in 2018, but photography was prohibido, so I did some line sketches in ink and eventually painted them in Barragan’s colors.

Several years ago, I considered purchasing land in the high desert of Nevada near Lake Tahoe. The parcel was flat and scrubby, but with a majestic view of the Sierra Nevada mountains: a perfect sanctuary. I played architect and imagined what type of house and studio I might build there, sketching a cross-shaped, shed-style structure that combined living and working spaces, a library, a central skylit gallery, and a lap pool. Any architect would probably look at my plan and say, “nice try for a graphic designer,” before providing a professional critique with countless conditions and considerations I had overlooked.

Regretfully, my “wild west” dream remains unrealized, but with the friendships I have built with many architects over decades, a future collaboration is only a phone call away.

Next month: “Design and 52 Assistants.”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.

Louvre signage photo by Philippe de Potesdad. Manhattan skyline photo by Rita Jacobs.