A local architect's new book tells how to work with members of his profession. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A local architect's new book tells how to work with members of his profession.

Architects?! Who needs 'em!? At one end of the spectrum, you have Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, whose distant, swirling impossibilities often seem more fit for selling magazines and plane tickets than for changing how I personally might live. At the other end are the nameless, faceless McMansion designers, stamping plans for scores of bloated suburban lumps that devour the countryside, draining our souls as surely as our energy supplies. Could an architect really do you any good?

South Side-based Gerald Lee Morosco says yes. He pleads his case in the new book How to Work with an Architect, published by Gibbs-Smith and generously illustrated with photography by Ed Massery.

Morosco is a multi-faceted practitioner. His current position as chair of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, both prestigious and challenging, might raise the specter of the old master's reputation for imperiousness and self-indulgence. But such concerns are misplaced. As an apprentice at Wright's Taliesin Fellowship in the 1980s, Morosco took formative cues from the hands-on system on the way to a career as an established builder. While he has built numerous new residences in the master's mode, he now calls his practice "preservation-based" for the numerous renovations he has completed, among which his own South 15th Street house figures prominently. The works are artful, sensitive and well-published.

For Morosco, though, architecture is not an exercise in independent genius, but rather the product of a close relationship between client and architect. "[T]he profoundly personal nature of the association places both parties in a position to derive the greatest benefit, value and enjoyment from the process." And so while the book appears suitable for a coffee table, it is more like Dr. Spock's book for architects, with the added surprise that they are not all big babies.

It's all a very rational and measured explanation of what an architect might do for you, the potential homebuilder. The whole first part is "Do You Really Need an Architect?" Morosco patiently explains the value of architectural training, expertise and registration. After some amusing anecdotes about convincing potential clients not to build, he outlines issues involved with assessing existing structures and potential building sites on the way to possible construction. The book's second half addresses contractual agreements and the six phases of design and construction in working with an architect -- programming, schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding and construction administration.

It's not magic, but rather a methodical process in which a dialogue about client needs, technical realities and budgetary constraints work their way through a process of art, technical skill and material reality.

"Most clients approach an architect with no prior experience or understanding of the complex process involved in building or remodeling a home," Morosco states. Arming them with information leads to better clients and better projects.

Among Morosco's admirably forthcoming statements is his acknowledgement of debt to John Milnes Baker's out-of-print book How to Build a House with an Architect. That architect, also Wright-influenced, wrote in the 1970s. A comparison puts both the eras and the writers in perspective. Baker assumes that of course you're going to build, and he has a rapid-fire presentation on programmatic and technical issues, accompanied by an effusion of house designs. He's a shake-them-out-of-his-sleeve kind of guy.

Morosco is usually more conversational (though his section on architectural registration is on the dry side). His writing can range from the practical to the poetic. Like Baker, he uses his own designs almost exclusively. The emphasis on interiors and vignettes of space, including a number from Morosco's own home, make his presentation seem more domestic and enticing, compared to Baker's nerdy profusion of plans, sections and exteriors.

Moreover, in Morosco's book, Ed Massery's photos are especially wonderful for the technical skill of capturing light and space, as well as the ineffable sense of comfort that they convey.

On the other hand, one aspect of Baker's book that might benefit Morosco's is its more specific personal sense of the clients for whom the spaces were created.

In the end, though, Morosco does a valuable job of explaining the complexities and potential benefits of the architectural process to a marketplace that desperately needs the information. The book cultivates the sense that an architect doesn't have to be distant or anonymous -- that he can respond effectively to the client's needs, not simply his own.

click to enlarge Image courtesy Gibbs-Smith Publishers - PHOTO COURTESY OF ED MASSERY.
Photo courtesy of Ed Massery.
Image courtesy Gibbs-Smith Publishers

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