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A Round Table Discussion on Architecture in Idaho
This free-wheeling discussion occurred one summer evening in 2003, in the backyard of an Art Troutner designed house, with architects Rob Thornton and Sherry McKibben, designer Dwaine Carver, and U of Idaho professor Bill Bowler.

 

group of people talking

What is unique about architecture in Idaho?
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Rob Thornton: I think the thing you would find that is unique to Idaho is the quality of the light. It's unlike anywhere else, specifically in southern Idaho. In the wintertime it's like being above the Arctic Circle in Finland. Blue clear light. And in summer it's this gold light like you experience in places like Greece or Israel, very strong sunlight, very strong light and shadow, and that defines the architecture as much as anything.

Bill Bowler: The real question to me is, in Idaho, if there is something unique or particular. I don't know that there really is in terms of the cultural production of architecture. I think Art Troutner's work, of which we have an example behind us and several other buildings done in the 50's, is unique to the state of Idaho. and then he went on to change wood technology for the entire world which was an incredibly important idea and accomplishment.

bill bowler
"I think there's a real difficulty with Idaho not having enough confidence in itself."

Bill Bowler: What I talk to my students a great deal about, when we look at the production of architecture and relating it to popular music, what you see is that there are a few people who really innovate within that field and architects are essentially covering the masters. You can look at buildings and trace them back historically. This is how work is produced. And every once in a while there is someone who produces something that changes things and things start to move in a different manner.

I was raised in Idaho, and people went to San Francisco to buy their furniture, because there was never enough confidence to buy it here. We send people out of state for an education because we don't have enough confidence in the quality of education in the state... I think there's a real difficulty with Idaho not having enough confidence in itself.

dwaine carver
"One reason Idaho gets the Sun Valley lodge association and the single family home scenario is there is a lack of urban scenarios. Maybe architecture requires urbanity."

 

Dwaine Carver: It does seem that if culture is genuine, it is of its time, not nostalgic in nature. The modernism of a Hemingway is an important thing to bring to mind. Multiple kinds of production are happening.

I think Troutner's work is exemplary and qualifies as architecture. Those works are few and far between. A house being framed is always more beautiful than when it's completed. Why is that? I drive by in horror waiting for the veneer of styrofoam and stucco and veneer of brick to go on that beautiful frame.

Rob Thornton: Maybe it's pregnant with what is possible.

Dwaine Carver: That's part of it, but the other thing is the absolute denial that happens to that frame that is not expressed. Architecture is an incredibly conservative art, but I do insist on it being an art... Otherwise it's dead, it's formulaic.

What buildings do you particularly like or dislike?

Sherry McKibben: I like the Hoff building (in Boise).

Dwaine Carver: I think it's a beautiful building. It's too bad that lobby's not still there. That was an urban living room. It's a building of its time.

Bill Bowler: The capitol building. It was worth protecting from the terrorists!

Rob Thornton: It was architecture applied to this place taken from a previous place. It was put together with local materials by the people of this place.

Sherry McKibben: It is a beautiful building. The Idaho capitol gave authority to Boise as the state capitol.

Rob Thornton: My favorite downtown Boise building is the Fritchman building. It's very simple, crafted with native sandstone. Smooth, very taut. The doors and windows are just beautiful.

Dwaine Carver: The Grove Hotel breaks the rules, again, all the way to encroaching on sidewalk widths for crying out loud. The Hotel's basic problem is materiality and its lack of permeability.

rob thornton
"There was nothing there before but the land. And if you can't imagine it never having been built, that it belongs there, then it's an Idaho architecture."

Is there an Idaho architecture?
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Dwaine Carver: I think there would have to be like a northern Idaho architecture, a Snake River Plain architecture.

Rob Thornton: So if you were going to take that idea and put it in a specific place: it's a clear idea, and it's executed very well, and it belongs there. There was nothing there before but the land, and if you can't imagine it never having been built, that it belongs there, then it's an Idaho Architecture.

Dwaine Carver: Adolf Lowe said, why is it that the farmer who just builds his farm by the side of a lake can make this just beautiful thing; and along comes an architect and builds something across the lake and it's just screaming, it's horrifying.

That's architecture for you. It's a history, it's a philosophy, it's a thought, it's a culture. It spreads itself in insidious ways as well as very conventional, educational ways. It's a problem because culture is a problem.

Sherry McKibben: If you are talking about the urban fabric, it is a problem. I'm really hopeful. I'm hopeful that there still could be a place for an Idaho architecture. I don't know if it takes enough people in a place. Could this happen in a Wallace? Or does it have to happen in a place where there are enough people. How did Troutner do it?

Rob Thornton: It's not enough people, it's the right people. Look at Filo Farnsworth. Where did he come from, and what was his idea? There are brilliant people in small places.

Dwaine Carver: The capitol building was a transplant. That's a copy of a copy of a copy. That's what architecture is. Is there a kind of Idaho style? Definitely. Is there an Idaho architecture? I'm not sure.

Rob Thornton: Even as a cover of a cover of a cover, if it's an appropriate thing for that place, if you find it breathtakingly beautiful and appropriate, it's not a bad thing.

Dwaine Carver: It's not a bad thing, but is it architecture? That's the question that is being posed. Is there an Idaho architecture? Does it exist? It's a hard question.

Rob Thornton: It is a hard question. The general public thinks of architects as maybe akin to engineers, which is the technical side of what we are capable of. And really, an architect has a foot in two camps. One foot in the camp of the artists and the other foot in the camp of the artisans and the engineers. And we are frequently hired for our technical
prowess rather than our aesthetic abilities.

Bill Bowler: We are only hired because the law says you have to to get a permit. Otherwise just dispense with these morons.

dwaine carver
"I'm really hopeful. I'm hopeful that there still could be a place for an Idaho architecture. If we as a profession can start talking about those things... I think we could make some great places."

Are you optimistic about architecture in Idaho?
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Bill Bowler: I'm not optimistic at the present time about Idaho Architecture. I've moved from a period of being quite optimistic and making a conscious effort to return to Idaho and both teach here and participate in the state. I am particularly pessimistic at the moment about the future of the quality of architecture or design or the notion of a high culture of architecture in the state of Idaho.

Rob Thornton: I am optimistic for those very reasons you are pessimistic. Great art and great architecture can come out of incredible adversity, a great deal of suffering and pain and being outside of where the popular culture could be. It allows you to possibly gestate a while, perhaps even create an architectural style that could be of this place, of Idaho.

Sherry McKibben: I'm hopeful because nationwide there is a movement to move back into the cities. We have very small cities and they are eager for that energy. If we as a profession can start talking about those kinds of things -- and we do have enough of us to talk about them and talk to developers and city planners -- I think we could make some great places.

Rob Thornton: The generations coming after us are more visually sophisticated than we ever were. Access to world culture, high art, video culture, all of that visual sound bite information has had a profound effect on the way they see. And that may be a factor in an interest in modernism and the beauty of created goods.

Dwaine Carver: I do think that I am more optimistic than pessimistic in peoples' interest in design and architecture. I've never seen such interest in the twenty years I've been here. The fact that you are asking questions about it is unusual in my experience.