Architects: Creating Natural Space

Cities, generally characterized by massive buildings and busy streets, are often conceived of as the antithesis of nature. But when I first began reading about architects and their work, I was struck by how frequently the theme of harmony with nature arose. Many if not all of the titles below describe how the featured architects drew inspiration from the natural world and sought to emulate it in their designs.

On reflection, it makes sense that artists whose work is built on the natural laws of physics would be firmly grounded in the study of nature. The Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) avowed, “Man does not create … he discovers.” He went on to say that creators “collaborate” with the Creator—the one who originated the laws of nature.

This recognition, combined with the fantastical nature of his designs, makes Gaudí one of my favorite architects. Seven of his constructions are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and many can be viewed online. All the artists highlighted here have created impressive works of art that reward further research.

Julia Morgan Built a Castle, by Celeste Davidson Mannis, ill. Miles Hyman (Viking, 2006, 40 pp, ages 6–10) Julia Morgan (1872–1957), the first licensed female architect in California, is one of the earliest architects represented here (after Gaudí and F.L. Wright). The most prominent of her many graceful projects is the famed estate of William Randolph Hearst, on which she worked throughout more than half of her career, spanning nearly fifty years.

Mannis highlights Morgan’s humility but also her initiative. As a young woman, Morgan embarked for Europe on the mere rumor that the School of Fine Arts in Paris was considering accepting women. She waited and studied for more than a year before being admitted as the first female student of architecture. Illustrator Hyman effectively adapts his distinctive style to suit the mid-century California setting.

Curve and Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams, Andrea J. Loney, ill. Keith Mallett (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022, 48 pp, age 5–10) Williams (1894–1980) spent most of his life in Southern California. The first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, he created private mansions as well as spectacular public buildings and received many prestigious awards and honors. Williams also opened an office in Bogotá, Colombia, was chief architect for the UN building in Paris, designed St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, and contracted with the U.S. government on multiple federally funded projects.

But even this accomplished architect was subject to the laws that limited housing options for non-whites. In 1947 Williams partnered in the founding of a savings and loan to facilitate home loans for African Americans. In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled against exclusionary laws, and Williams built his own dream home in an upscale neighborhood in 1952.

Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon, by Kelly Starling Lyons, ill. Laura Freeman (Lee & Low, 2020, 40 pp, ages 4–9) Lyons highlights multiple points of interest in Freelon’s life and career. One is his early struggle to read, despite his obvious artistic talent. Another is the history behind Freelon’s most visible accomplishment, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The institution was first conceived in 1915, a century before its completion in 2016. The book includes an afterword by Freelon, who passed away in 2019 at the age of sixty-six.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, by Jeane Walker Harvey, ill. Dow Phumiruk (Henry Holt, 2017, 32 pp, ages 4–8) In 1981 Yale graduate student Maya Lin (b. 1959) staggered judges by winning an anonymous contest for design of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C. Harvey’s lyrical text and Phumiruk’s luminous illustrations trace Lin’s influences and development. I especially appreciated the description of Lin’s thoughtful design, incorporating the many dimensions of experience that make the memorial meaningful.

I Am I.M. Pei, by Brad Meltzer, ill. Christopher Eliopoulos (Dial, 2021, 40 pp, ages 5–9) I tend (no doubt unjustly) to regard publishers’ series as formulaic, but Meltzer’s impressive collection (forty books at last count) may merely indicate that he has mastered his form. In this short volume, with the aid of Eliopoulos’s informative comic-style graphics, he incorporates recurring themes, biographical information, and insightful aphorisms into engaging text.

I was inspired by the frank admissions of Pei’s missteps and how he learned from them, as well as the reminder that artistic endeavor is a long, slow process frequently involving delays and redirections. The pictorial references to individuals instrumental in Pei’s success remind readers that we are all helped on our way by friends, family, mentors, and collaborators. Pei is the Chinese-born architect behind the Louvre’s controversial glass pyramid. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1935 and passed away in 2019 at the astonishing age of 102.

Building Zaha: The Story of Architect Zaha Hadid, Victoria Tentler-Krylov (Orchard, 2020, 48 pp, ages 4–8) I loved Hadid (1915–2016) and her concepts when I first discovered her in The World Is Not a Rectangle, by Jeanette Winter. Here Tentler-Krylov, herself a multinational architect, employs bold strokes and too-big-for-the-page images to convey Hadid’s daring vision. Born in Iraq, she studied math and architecture in Beirut and London.

Despite being widely known and admired, she was forty years old when her first successfully realized project commenced. Hadid eventually became the first woman to design a U.S. museum and the first to receive the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize (also the youngest, the first Muslim, and the first Iraqi). The accomplished designer’s determination to see her innovations come to life inspires both diligence and perseverance.

Gaudí: Architect of Imagination, by Susan B. Katz, ill. Linda Schwalbe (NothSouth Books, 2022, 40 pp, ages 3–8) I have never read that Zaha Hadid was inspired by the work of this Spanish architect. But it seems plausible that the Moorish-influenced Mudejar style reflected in Gaudí’s designs resonated with the Iraqi Arab Hadid. Born one hundred years before Hadid, Gaudí set a precedent for projects like Hadid’s, eschewing geometric precision in favor of the flowing lines of natural forms.

Katz highlights Gaudí’s friendship with Count Escubí Güell, who recognized Gaudí’s talent and helped clear the path for his success. Katz also describes how Gaudí began work on the visionary and still incomplete Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. Following a life-threatening illness, Gaudí determined to honor God with his work thenceforth. (Building on Nature, by Michael Rodriguez, provided the Mudejar information above, as well as my first introduction to Gaudí. Now out of print, it is worth tracking down for Julie Paschkis’s vibrant illustrations, which evoke the ethos of Gaudí’s architecture.)

Carmen and the House that Gaudí Built, by Susan Hughes, ill. Marianne Ferrer (Owl Kids, 2021, 32 pp, ages 4–8) As with illustrator Paschkis above, Ferrer harnesses Gaudi’s penchant for curved lines and fanciful imagery. Hughes offers the imagined perspective of Carmen Batlló, youngest child of the family for whom Gaudí redesigned and remodeled what is now the Casa Batlló in Barcelona. A lover of nature and the outdoors, Carmen detests the idea of moving into the city, until she sees the new home’s nooks and crannies, soaring arches, and general display of unbridled creativity.

Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece, Marc Harshman & Anna Egan Smucker, ill. LeUyen Pham(Roaring Brook, 2017, 40 pp, ages 7–10) Wright (1867–1969) was little more than a name to me until I ran across biographies like these and encountered some of his architecture on a trip to Chicago in 2018. Though enamored with his genius, further acquaintance with Wright’s personal life disillusioned me with the man. But his mastery still commands admiration. This title focuses on one of his later feats—a home built above a waterfall in Pennsylvania. Particularly striking is Pham’s painstaking representation of hidden elements of the home’s construction. I also appreciate her incorporation of the contributions of other experts involved, many of whom were outstanding in their own right.

The Shape of the World: A Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, K.L. Going, ill. Lauren Stringer (Beach Lane, 2017, 40 pp, ages 5–10) Mention of Wright’s work conjures up straight lines and clean geometric shapes—rather at odds with architects like Hadid and Gaudi, with their love of curves and asymmetry. Nevertheless, Going emphasizes that Wright, too, derived his love and eye for design from patterns he perceived in nature, beginning in childhood. Simple text and complex illustrations provide an informative representation of Wright’s vision and accomplishments. Stringer’s style reflects the detail and precision displayed in Wright’s impressive oeuvre—more than 1,000 designs and 500 completed works.

The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale, by Steven Guarnaccia (Abrams, 2010, 32 pp, ages 4–10) If the books above whet your appetite, you’ll want to wind up with this whimsical title. Of the designers mentioned here, architect-author Guarnaccia mentions only Wright. But the endpapers and the illustrations that accompany this imaginative retelling offer tribute to a host of international designers, providing ample scope for further research and reading.

Note: This article was originally posted on the Story Warren website on January 24, 2024.

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