Building on Beauty

Architect David Duncan Morris of Caleb Johnson Studio on beauty

“As an architect, I’ve often, if not too often, used the word ‘beautiful’ to describe buildings, spaces, and materials that I have found to be appealing. In truth, it’s because I want things to be beautiful.”


Q. Why has your opinion on beauty shifted? Was there a catalyst?

A. As I come to the close of the second decade of my career, and as one does when looking forward to the coming decades, I have begun to contemplate where I am, where I’ve been, and where I want to go—the whole process of which I’m nowhere near completing and, while scary, is very empowering. I’m attempting to reconcile all that I’ve been told, taught, learned, and experienced with what I feel and believe, in my bones, to be true.

This process started some number of years ago (perhaps before I even realized what was happening), and as commonly happens to someone settling into the midpoint of a career, I’m starting to formulate a clearer picture of what I hold to be true and of what I love. This would have been an impossible task ten years ago. I needed the time to develop the confidence built through those years of experiences, explorations, successes, and failures. I rarely explored what I considered the nature and meaning of “beauty.” It is an act of revolution to speak out about your beliefs and values; to potentially contradict the flow of tradition, education, trends, and fads; to alienate colleagues and potential clients; and to even expose your own reluctance to look deeper into your own fears and insecurities. Comfort is a warm blanket and an eager inhibitor.

Q. Your designs edge on the side of modern/contemporary. Do you find the truest beauty within unadorned forms that are functional and minimalist?

A. Architects, in the modern era, have been taught and often indoctrinated into the belief that beauty solely belongs in the realm of how something functions. We have been taught to strip buildings down to their very essential being in the name of “less is more” or the words “simple and clean.” Now, I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that I’m more enlightened than the master architects that have changed our world, especially those from the last century whose work I greatly respect, but I have started to reject the thought that beauty solely lies in function.

A wood post does a job, and in that performance one could claim there is beauty. While I would agree with that, I assert that while there is beauty in the function and in the material itself, the artful hand acting upon that material could enrich and elevate that material, its function, and, indeed, its beauty.

To sculpt a material is to enliven its nature and unleash its soul. By doing so, I believe you expose the intangible richness that comes through the act of working a piece of material. We see this all the time in the natural world. Mother Nature alters and forms a piece of wood drifting in the ocean and she sculpts the face of a piece of rock on the windward side of a hill. Through her efforts, she enhances the beauty of already beautiful materials; she brings out their versatility and resiliency; they are now specific and poetic. Just as the earth is shaped by forces acting upon it, so too can our imaginations and hands shape the materials we hold into something more meaningful and responsive.

Let’s look back at the same wood post from above. It’s doing its job, it’s helping to hold up the building, but what if we ask how should that post feel when we touch it? How do we want to move around that post? How would water shape it if it were a tree in a stream? How does that post relate to the landscape sitting outside? Suddenly we have the freedom and, I might say, the obligation to shape that post to answer these questions. In doing so we may also improve a whole host of functional opportunities. These questions may change the size, position, configuration of the post; it may even change the material selection altogether. But most importantly, it might make you want to reach out and touch it.

When I think about beauty and things that I find beautiful, they are almost always things I want to feel and touch. I want to explore them with my hands. My eyes might lead me to something beautiful, but it is almost always my hands that imprint that beauty into my mind and soul. It’s what I remember. Through time and use, we continue to connect and manipulate that material into a form and feel that could not have been envisioned or artificially created.

Q. How do you feel about ornamentation’s place in design?

A. I guess what it all boils down to is the question of ornamentation versus purity. The word “ornament” has almost become a pejorative in our era of design. But as I’ve become more confident in who I am as an architect, I find myself longing for ornament. I’ve asked myself, what is the nature of ornament, and how does it enhance a thing’s beauty? What I’ve found is deeply rooted in beliefs and principles that I have been formulating over the past 20 years: that through purposeful and intentional ornamentation, we can more meaningfully design and build pieces of architecture that are thoughtfully tied to the landscape in which they live. This ornamentation is more respectfully responsive to the materials from which it is created, and dramatically elevates the joy of the people who experience it. It takes heart and soul to find and to create. It takes the infusion of the designer’s imagination and the makers’ hands. This ornamentation, so purposefully imagined and so thoughtfully made, is anything but gratuitous; it is essential. It is beauty, and I’ve decided I can’t live without it.


Share The Inspiration