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Looking Beneath First Glances
What an image… The desert tones of the materials, the exotic cacti, the rich blue sky… The composition, with the depth of the different volumes, and low angle accentuating the roof which soars towards the photographer. Strong, sharp shadows highlight the texture of the finish and indicate the position of the merciless sun. What building is this? Surely an architectural masterpiece, a truly exemplary showcase of contemporary design…?

Well no actually… a complete disappointment.

The Levin Residence in Marana, Arizona, is a family home that is designed to be all on one level in response to a call for accessibility. Upon seeing the image above which was the thumbnail of the article, I was sure that it would be included in the week’s Architectural Trio. However, after further investigation a number of aspects of the design seem unconsidered and poorly detailed. Due to my genuine disappointment I felt compelled to write about this project, explaining what went wrong and reminding people of the importance of judging architecture at first glance.
In contrast to the cleanliness and careful composition of volumes, structure and materials displayed in the first image, this one shows the architecture to be messy and jumbled. The steel columns wrap around the bottom of the walkway in places, then penetrate through the blockwork in other instances. Also, there is no hierarchy to the arrangement, with the multitude of materials each competing for visual attention. The building aim is confused, with a thick, heavy roof and walls that punch into the ground, then light and slender steel columns which don’t even touch it.
Whereas the thumbnail image presented the building as a cluster of cute, isolated modules this photo shows a pair of dominating and insensitive cantilevers which smash through their environment. The roof of the walkway does not touch the volume, deliberately leaving a void, however the path beneath it is integrated with the mass. As a whole the junction is confused, as though the architect does not know the scheme’s concept. Also, the various glass doors and windows are unrelated in dimension and design, with a random thin window on the end facade and strange boxed off windows on the adjacent face.
Detailing makes all the difference in buildings, as it can provide joy to those who look at a little closer. It shows the consideration and care of the architect, whilst providing users of their building a reward for involving themselves in the architecture. Engineers can produce buildings that are functional, however architects, through detailing, make architecture that is intriguing, atmospheric, dramatic, emotive, and carefully tailored to the bespoke needs of each of its users, the site in which it sits, and the surrounding culture. The detail in this photo that really disappoints me is the roof intersection with the panelled wall. Everything about the composition is supposed to show symmetry, even the deliberate placement of the chairs, but the whole effect all falls down due to the asymmetric intersection. Surely it wasn’t too much trouble to resolve that detail and make everything line up?
The cluster aesthetic returns around the pool terrace, and another different window designs reveals itself. Although, the most infuriating part of this image for me is the cantilevered concrete deck. It looks as though it has been left there by accident, to be moved to its proper location at a later date. The steel is unrelated to the heavy mass of the rest of the building, and the concrete completely contrasts the idea that the deck is supposed to be a lightweight element floating above the ground.

I think The Levin Residence is trying to be everything, which has resulted in it loosing any kind of common strand to unify the scheme. It contains too many blatant contrasts, with light and heavy materials, strong ground footprints and floating floors, dense clusters and splaying cantilevers. I maintain that the thumbnail image is one of the most beautiful architectural photos I’ve ever seen, however it is important to distinguish between photographs of buildings and architecture itself. In our digital world, it is vital to remember that a brilliant photo of a building doesn’t make it a brilliant piece of architecture. This has been a public service announcement from Barney Sheppard.