Intelligent Reads

August 15, 2003 · by Lisa Ashmore

In his new book, The Creative Community, DFC member Vernon Swaback brings an almost religious zeal to explaining the influence of architecture upon the human spirit.

In his new book, The Creative Community, DFC member Vernon Swaback brings an almost religious zeal to explaining the influence of architecture upon the human spirit.

At 17, Swaback became Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice and dwelled happily at Taliesen and Taliesen West for more than two decades. “For 22 years, they served as my live/work laboratory,” he recalls. “During which I never had need to own a car and probably consumed less energy in a year than the urban or suburban dweller uses in a month.”

Writing vividly and convincingly on the side of art, Swaback also underpins his arguments with a broad knowledge of societal currents and studies. These include population shifts, changes in the definition of the family, the reign of sprawl and the contradictory desires of Americans who say they want human scale for their home and work environments, yet still buy SUVs and shop at Wal-Mart.

Undoubtedly, designers have a responsibility to create safe and healthy structures. But Swaback decries the flattening of daily, working architecture through code, covenants, restrictions, naysayers&#151aided by their ugly byproduct, sameness.

“Since we can’t make everyone equally great we choose to make everything equally mediocre,” Swaback writes. The price we pay for this leveling is extraordinary, but no one is held accountable for the loss.”

In 272 pages, Swaback leapfrogs the world for examples of enduring, inspiring and eccentric architecture. Predictable examples include Florence, Charleston, and Sam Mockbee’s “warm, dry and noble” work in Alabama&#151but he also praises the virtues of Disney’s created hometown, Celebration.

While he tends toward organic and place-inspired architecture, Swaback also lauds a landscape art form that many environmentalists like to use as a whipping boy: the golf course. In the hands of an artist, Swaback says, a bulldozer is as creative as a paintbrush or a sculptor’s chisel. He examines Whistling Straits, chosen for the 2004 PGA Championship&#151a protected inner course with shadowed hollows and follies giving way to cliffs overlooking two miles of temperamental Lake Michigan.

The book suffers in a few respects, failing to always live up to its passionate and persuasive text. Font use is bland and sometimes jarring, and even a casual reader would expect better captioning to correspond with the abundant photographs used throughout. Although there are end credits, most images have little or no explanation. Still, it’s an important read for anyone who sees architects as stewards of the environment.

—Lisa Ashmore

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