Design Distillation

Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Sean Thomas Photography

Architect Stephen Blatt & the Elemental Sense of Clarity

Design and its practitioners go through phases. Some phases are short-lived and others are more substantive, more impactful, perhaps more “important” in the grand scheme of designed things. Designers, certainly architects, have weathered tenuous phases (postmodernism, deconstructivism) and have benefited from other far more substantive ones (1950s modernism and its current iterations). In the designer’s search for the holy grail of a “timeless” design, it is tempting to emulate already-established icons or to preclude any distinctive, original, or eclectic elements in one’s work. As Stephen Blatt’s architectural practice and its portfolio of projects evolve, he continuously visits and reads about both old and new buildings, and he has gleaned a few “precepts” that he believes are essential to the design of wonderful buildings, which serve as formwork for their designs. “The most prevalent,” Blatt says, “in both our buildings and in those designed by others that I most admire is the elemental sense of clarity.” MH+D asked him to explain.

Q: What do you mean by clarity in architecture?

A: The element of clarity is expressed in the way the building works (its plan), the way it looks (its form), and its response to its context (its appropriateness). Clarity should not be confused with simplicity, although many sophisticated and well-executed designs can seem simple. Conversely, overly simple buildings can fall short by not truly fulfilling the needs of the user, missing the opportunity for design excellence, or mistaking repetition for enhancement of the building’s context. Really good buildings exhibit an essence of “complex order,” as expressed by Louis Kahn’s Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire.

Q: How is the element of clarity expressed in your work? 

A: Our firm’s work ranges from residential renovations to public schools, some larger than 100,000 square feet. While there certainly are many inherent differences between residences and school buildings, there are indeed some similarities. Perceptible clarity is a crucial ingredient in the successful design of both. The plan of a large school building must be clear and legible for a great number of users, many of them unfamiliar with the building. We configure our buildings to be so easily navigated that there is little need for signage. To accomplish this, we use lighting (both natural and artificial), color and pattern, scale (e.g., corridor width, ceiling height), and geometry (e.g., obtuse rather than acute angles). In our school buildings, the floor plan and the exterior form are interrelated; the form expresses what goes on inside. With scale, geometry, materials, and sometimes even pattern, we try to clarify the mission of the building by its exterior appearance, not only what it is used for but how to use it. In forming the building, clarity does not always equate with symmetry. More important to us is a sense of balance in the facade and the massing. This sense of balance doesn’t preclude the use of tension in elements of the facade. A cantilevered element is not forbidden as long as its role in both the function and composition of the building is clear rather than merely bravado, and it is balanced by some element of its context. Both the form and the site design amplify the processional toward the main entrance, and the entrance portal itself. Even though the front door may not be immediately visible, the path toward it should, I feel, be expressed with subtle clarity. Our residential work espouses a similar dedication to clarity. Smaller residences demand a rigorous attention to spatial economy (multiuse but not compromised places), sensitivity to scale and proportion (subtle contrasts in height and width), and clear expression of both refuge (cozy, protective) and prospect (long views, memorable scenes). These projects undergo a process of distillation of ideas, images, and spaces that is very challenging but most rewarding. Subtle changes in fenestration, lighting, materials, etc., along with small additions or modifications, can gently impose that clarity which, we feel, makes these places more able to accommodate the clients’ particular needs and desires.

Q: How do you bring clarity to a complex project with many design elements? 

A: Larger houses are frequently more difficult to imbue with this sense of clarity. Perhaps it is their size and scale that invites the inclusion of too many elements both in plan and form—the temptation not to edit (quite difficult) but to incorporate (not so difficult) that leads to what we see as a lack of clarity. The skilled designer can mold a very complex program of required/desired spaces into a unified, fluid whole, both functionally and aesthetically. While that design may fulfill the owner’s stated objectives with elegance, purpose, and clarity, it may not, as an image, satisfy the owner’s aspirations. While we as designers may appreciate that “less is more,” at least sometimes, this aesthetic is not to everyone’s liking; it’s not so easy to appreciate “complex order.” Yet clarity is not at all synonymous with stark minimalism; rather, it is the distillation of the many elements and objectives of a building, or any design, to its functional and aesthetic essence, still comfortable to the user and yet a clear expression of the designer’s artfulness. 

American Institute of Architects
Maine AIA: 207-885-8888, 
Stephen Blatt Architects: 

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