It all began with Brad Pitt. As so many things do.
Oh, all right, so there are actually not that many things in my life that begin with Brad Pitt (sadly) – (I kid, I kid!) – but my love affair with Architectural Digest sure did.
I was in Costco a year and a half ago, passing by the magazine rack, when I saw a photo of Brad peering out from under a hat, on the cover of Architectural Digest. This was right in the middle of his having-babies-with-Angelina brouhaha, and what can I say – I was curious enough to pick it up. Unlike all the other publications whose covers he was gracing, this one resembled an art catalogue – pretty and thick, with glossy pages throughout. The Brad article, about his efforts to help re-build New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was not very in-depth or interesting, but the rest of the magazine consisted of page after shiny page full of photographs of enormous homes, professionally decorated. I am a voyeuristic sucker for beautiful homes. I bought the magazine.
Up until that point, architecture was a subject that had escaped my notice. I’m sure I had heard of Architectural Digest before, but the name makes it sound like it is full of blueprints and boring technical-speak. I discovered that nothing could be further from the truth. AD (as it refers to itself) is packed with article after article featuring beautiful custom homes. About half of the content covers architecture; the other half covers interior design and decoration (some of which is hideously over-the-top, which provides a whole other kind of enjoyment.)
For the next couple of months, I bought the magazine off the newsstands, which got a little expensive (remember – I have no income these days.) Then I discovered that my favorite used bookstore periodically gets up to a dozen back-issues of AD in at a time, and sells them for 25 cents each. This made me very happy. I started “dropping by” the store on my way to the park with the boys, a couple of times a week. Whenever I saw a new batch of AD’s on the rack, I grabbed them all and lugged them to the counter. By the second time I did this, the cashier was curious.
“Oh,” she said politely. “Are you an architect?”
“Oh, no, ha ha,” I said. No, I’m just a lunatic who gets obsessed with things. “I…uh…just…I’ve kind of gotten into the magazine. I like looking at the houses.”
I’m not overly eloquent in person.
Anyway, as the months passed and I kept reading the magazine, I started absorbing all sorts of interesting information. Having lived all my life in small, generic spec homes (which certainly have their place in the world), I never realized just how much thought great architects put into the buildings they design. The shapes they create are intended to serve functions but also to inspire emotional reactions. I cannot think of another medium in which art and technology meet in such a potent way.
For example: If architects place a small window at the end of a long hall, they do it to “draw the eye” down the hallway. They think about how the light will fall through each window, at every time of the day. They design entryways to serve as aesthetic “transitions” from the outside to the inside. When a house is built on an open plain, with mountains in the distance, they might create a curving roofline to rise up on one side, to serve as a “counterbalance” to the jagged mountain peaks in the background. Windows are placed to specifically frame views.
Through AD, I learned about brilliant, accomplished artists, people like Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi woman who, in 2004, became the first woman in history to receive the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. People like Norman Foster, a British architect and fellow Pritzker Prize-winner, who has designed a mind-bogglingly extensive and diverse array of structures: office buildings, domes, train stations, apartment buildings, campuses, Wembley Stadium, and, just for fun, the Millau Viaduct in France, the tallest bridge in the world. You can see photos of just some of his stunning work on his Wiki page.
As my awareness of architecture expanded, however minutely, so did my appreciation. I now “get” stark modernism. You know those boxy structures that seem to be all metal and concrete and glass and sharp angles? I used to think they were ugly. Now, although I still wouldn’t want to live in one, I find great beauty in their clean, even severe, lines.
During this time period, I also happened to read The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, a big, fat, incredibly detailed novel that describes the building of a cathedral in twelfth-century England. I must tell you, I visited several cathedrals in Europe when I was fourteen, and never once did I stop to think about how miraculous it was, that something so huge and heavy and complex could have been built with nothing but bare hands. No cranes to hoist heavy things a hundred feet in the air; no computers to give accurate measurements. Yet these buildings still stand, many hundreds of years later. It is extraordinary.
And so, my fascination grows.
For those who don’t know much about the subject of architecture, Architectural Digest provides a pain-free way to learn things while you’re looking at beautiful pictures – and who doesn’t love looking at gorgeous homes? Plus, you gain all sorts of fun new words that you can work into conversations, words like “clerestory” and “cantilevered” and “curvilinear.”
Okay, so I haven’t been able to use any of those words yet. But when the opportunity arises, and I’m confident that it will, Brad Pitt and I will be ready.
Sorry. I couldn’t resist.