Waffle Houses are more fascinating than you think
(If any of you are curious as my own thinking on the most important principle of architecture–a number I assume to be somewhere between 0 and Mom–this is likely as close as I’ll ever get. I don’t really have much interest in declaring the shoulds of aesthetics, as any aesthetic in the hands of an excellent architect will make a beautiful building.)
I began my career as an architectural intern working for a small firm in an attic in Roswell, Georgia in the early 90’s. Our firm was responsible for designing most of the Waffle Houses in America. No, I don’t claim it have been glamorous work, but Waffle Houses are much more fascinating than you think. They’re always open and serving an endless stream of customers during almost any weather. Some experts even gauge the severity of natural disasters by how many Waffle Houses shut down, and for how long. (Katrina destroyed 7, and shut down 100 for some time.*) Le Corbusier created beautiful but sometimes impractical “machines for living”, while my first boss, Clifford Nahser, built somewhat staid, yet incredibly functional machines for eating.
What’s even more fascinating is the simple way we were able to manage several prototypes with several options each, simply using mylar-printed drawings in series of coded flat files. With a few weeks training. One could read the order for five different Waffle houses with five different configurations, and assemble them as a complete set of constructions documents, with engineering drawings, in a matter of minutes. The drawings were also beautifully done and complete by an architect who really understood construction, could coordinate and communicate with the project team succinctly, and who with unusual dedication and meticulousness refined and revised a building designs over decades. Old Cliff put his stamp on well over a thousand of those restaurants, and I’m quite proud to say on his behalf that many have held up over several decades better than a lot more seemingly refined and well-built buildings. I’m even more pleased to see many taking on adaptive reuses for small businesses, the next generation of great capitalists.
I carried this fascination with me throughout my two courses of study at Georgia Tech (BSA with Honor ’97; MArch as Nix Mann Fellow ’01) When I started, deconstructivist architecture was hugely popular among academics and students alike, and I tried for a few years to mimic this style as best I could, while feining an understanding of anything Jacques Derrida ever wrote. (I ended that charade in the my late 20’s.) I found it fascinating to look at, but in the years before BIM, designing and drawing out randomly splayed beams and jumbled masses that few could build, and fewer would pay for, seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
Then, late in my Junior year, I had the honor of studying with an unusual professor by the name of Mark Cottle. He practiced a Mr. Miyagi-like meticulousness in training, giving us seemingly pointless and tedious tasks for weeks on end. Most of the class of late-teens-early-twenties from the microwave generation were impatient with this process, as Mark’s impossible fastidiousness, and strictness as a professor. Yet, during this time what we needed to learn was patience, to let go of the learned habits we’d formed for quick turnaround for fussy forms, and to really search our consciousnesses about the world, to create very simple, yet incredibly profound; to find ways ways to integrate forms into nature, and critically, into human nature.
What I gained from this experience was profound, and I still have a hard time believing that a 20 year-old smartass like myself was able to design like I did with this sort of guidance. I began to appreciate in space as a loose structure for life, kinda like a…Waffle House! No architect can or should even dare to try and control what goes on at a Waffle House at 3am on a Sunday morning. And that’s not simply to escape blame, but because there’s really a certain romance to it. People like the seethiness and unpredictability of the experience, the sorts of odd and sometimes desperate characters it brings out. The salt of the earth and the spice of life. The architect need only provide a good stage for this act, not the script. And that’s true of most buildings.
With some exceptions at the very extremes of human behavior, an architect who focuses on his craft, and has faith in humanity can make a beautiful building. Arrete (excellence) is the source of eudaemonia (joy). He can create a free and inviting place for life to play out in totally unexpected ways. He need not control; but merely sets an example by doing his work well, and in concert with the timeless virtues of architecture, Vitruvius’s commodity, firmness, and delight. There’s no formula for this. To some extent, one either gets it, and with time hones innate skills, or he simply doesn’t. It’s really up to every architect to figure out how to fulfill Vitruvius’s criteria on his own. I can honestly tell you nothing else definitive about the matter.
So, with these basic ideas in my head, I began to look at how to simplify my designs as much as possible. I was obsessed with my old ideas from Cliff about how to create my own code for design, how I could manage not just interrelated paper drawings, but how to manage the language of buildings. How well I could accommodate changes, and how to make the building’s expression organic, but decidedly conscious; and how much I could turn a space over to its inhabitants, to let them make it theirs. I really wanted the entire building to be structure, but really a loose, simple structure of spaces. I began to love simplicity in both method, and form, focusing more on the material than it’s shape. I sought a language that spoke through implication, the basic push and pull of life, and that element of mystery that animates everything. This is where my interest in prototyping really began to guide my own study and practice.
After graduation I began working as an intern in a big local office in Atlanta, (Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart & Stewart). The firm mostly worked with large commercial developments, offices buildings including highrises, and some civic and institutional work.