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John Marx is an architect, artist, and poet. As cofounding principal and chief artistic officer of the award-winning firm Form4 Architecture, he oversees projects of many types and sizes across the globe. In his writing, lectures, and exhibits, he advocates for a return of the humane to architecture in order to create emotionally meaningful, sustainable, and people-oriented buildings and public spaces. His 2018 monograph The Absurdity of Beauty: Rebalancing the Modernist Narrative is a collection of essays, visual poems, paintings, and featured projects centered on the question of how architecture can be a rich and shared expression of what it means to be human. He lives in San Francisco with his wife in a house he designed. He was interviewed by Bruce Buescher.


Image: You advocate for “emotional meaning” as an answer to the alienation caused by modern architecture. Can you elaborate on that idea and discuss its connection to architectural form?

John Marx: When we talk about returning architecture to lovable buildings, we must discuss emotional meaning. Every building has emotional meaning. Beauty is one aspect of that, but the term beauty has become fractured. In the last fifty years, architects have not been allowed to design beautiful buildings. A non-architect might say that’s absurd, because isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? You would think so, but the word beauty has become very problematic. Architects are not comfortable talking about the B-word, and this is where the title of my monograph The Absurdity of Beauty comes from. The subtitle is Rebalancing the Modernist Narrative, because I want to be clear that at my firm we embrace modernism (we are not interested in non-contextual nostalgia), but we want humane modernism. It would seem the notion of the humane has gone missing.

In architecture, modernism has been around for a little over a hundred years, and its underlying definitions have changed over that time. Early modernism did have an artistic sensibility, a desire to create beautiful buildings. Much of this came from an artistic tradition within the profession. Early modernism was also a social movement; it sought to strip away old conventions and to find the essence of humanity. In architecture, this meant removing history from our design toolkit and collective memory. We also stripped away ornament, delight, and a sense of human scale. Concept replaced delight in the hierarchy of design.

In the mid-fifties there was a shift in the vernacular toward pragmatic minimalism. Stylistically and culturally, the idea of emotional resonance (beauty) came to be seen as superficial or, even worse, arbitrary. Eventually, by the seventies, this led to our current legacy of endlessly banal buildings that do not add to the richness of the human experience and are clearly not designed from the heart.

First-century modernism (the modernism of the twentieth century) might be seen as an architecture of abstraction, of ideas. It’s not about emotions; it’s a reductivist approach. And through the reduction, the simplifying, layers of humanity are removed from the design. What I am hoping for is to help define what second-century modernism might look like. Specifically, can we craft our efforts toward an architecture of emotional abundance? This seems like a simple shift, but I believe it is a profoundly different approach. It might be illustrated this way: The most sustainable things in life are those things you won’t throw away because you love them too much.

The humanity is sometimes the quirky part. Where is the human touch? It might be in the hand-hewn stone, or the idiosyncrasy of the design, or the mural somebody paints. It makes sense that people can’t love modern architecture much: there’s nothing human about it.


Form4 Architecture/Downtown. Sanguine Lily, 2013. 1916 Centenary Chapel at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland.


Image: You write about the legacy of modernism: “We seem to have lost the human spirit, the joy of simple poetry, the quirky subjective arbitrariness that gives life its meaning.” I think most architects would shy away from the quirky and the arbitrary.

JM: Many architects consider arbitrariness the greatest sin!

My working definition of art is the act of sharing your humanity with others through an expressive medium. Architects are very shy about sharing their humanity. But arbitrariness is the sweet spot, if you know what you’re doing. It’s a balancing act between having rational basis for a design and letting it go, letting your heart and mind do their thing. It’s not one or the other; it’s both together.

Descartes’s notion “I think, therefore I am” contains a certain arrogance in its assertion that thinking is the highest order of human achievement. I offer an alternative: “I care, therefore I am.” There’s always a dynamic, a balance, between the heart and the mind. There’s a thought process that is linear, logical, verbal. But then there’s a creative process that is nonlinear, visual, intuitive. Together these often form a paradox, and the question becomes, do you try to resolve it or embrace it?

Especially in the West we tend to look at a paradox as something to resolve. That’s not an especially good way to navigate life. It’s more interesting if you don’t try to resolve differences but rather embrace the power of a diverse and inclusive range of qualities. In architecture this applies to one of the fundamental paradoxes, that of the pragmatic versus the emotional. There is a dynamic balance between the two, which in practice results in a seriousness that overwhelmingly favors the logical. Often I can get a client to agree that an element of a design is beautiful, but they won’t accept it unless I can find a functional rationale for its existence. They feel vulnerable without that validation.


Form4 Architecture. Falling Lotus Blossoms, 2014. EON IT Park, Pune, India.


Image: Many of your projects use natural forms as a beginning point. How is this connected to emotional meaning?

JM: I like to design what I call lyrically expressive buildings. Lyrical expressionism is the balance of a narrative with a dynamic form. Architects in the Bay Area talk about concepts and ideas. I talk about poetry. I look at a design project and ask, how can I make something emotionally meaningful? How can I make something poetic? I don’t mean the poetics of architecture. Rather, we’re creating a poetic environment. The idea is that it moves you, and you become emotionally engaged. There was a point at which in order to achieve this I started drawing curves and fluid forms. Curves have a softness, gentleness, and natural grace that resonates with humankind.

With our project Falling Lotus Blossoms, I had designed the whole thing before it was named. Because it was for a design competition, the local architect in India suggested we needed a big symbolic gesture, but it was already designed. I thought about it for two days and came back and said, “Let’s call it Falling Lotus Blossoms,” because the white lotus is the national flower of India. So this was an instance of post-rationalization, which in our rational world could be seen as embarrassing. But an artist will understand that the name was there all along. It was there, lurking, part of the thing. The energy was there; the spirit was there.

So I design backward. Most people have been trained to come up with a big idea first. But there’s no way I would’ve come up with Falling Lotus Blossoms if I was just channeling ideas.

Image: Sanguine Lily is another project inspired by a flower.

JM: Yes. The site is Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, which is the location of a mass grave where 232 people who died in the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule were buried. There are three symbols in the project. First, there’s baptism, water. Patrick H. Pearse, one of the leaders of the insurrection, gave a famous funeral oration about six months before it began, which acted as a clarion call. In this speech he talked about renewing the baptismal vows of his generation to fight the British. Thus, the building sits in a pool of water. The second symbol is the calla lily, which informed the overall shape of the building. The calla lily is a symbol of the Rising, which you can still see in Irish graffiti. The third and perhaps most poetic symbol is the 232 light fixtures suspended in the chapel. At night, glowing through a deep Irish mist, they represent those 232 souls ascending to heaven.

To enter the building, you cross the water on a flat little bridge, and as you proceed, a sense of decompression happens. You’re entering sacred ground. As you enter the chapel, you’re facing away from the cemetery, away from the past. The walls are transparent, because we wanted the architecture to be honest about the historical significance of the site. From the chapel you can look through the glass walls and see the mass grave. And inside the chapel, the past, the weight of history, is represented by big, heavy stone walls.

The materiality of the chapel expresses a paradoxical dialogue between lightness and heaviness, delicacy and weight. The darkness of the past and optimism for the future are both at play, which is where the name Sanguine Lily comes from. I wanted the visitor to feel some sense of sanguinity or hope for humanity in the face of horrible circumstances, but at the same time I wanted not to betray the conditions that the Irish were under but to take them seriously.

Image: Intertwined Eternities is your design for a columbarium for Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Aptos, California. Can you talk about this project?

JM: The existing church was designed by Charles Warren Callister, who I used to work for. It was the last building he designed before he died, and we inherited the project, which was an honor for me because I really benefited from working for him.

The church wanted a columbarium, and Warren had designed just a couple of simple flat walls in the back with decomposed granite ground cover and some spots where you could put plinths. Of course I wanted to misbehave a bit and do something exciting. We had a conversation with the client about how this project could be so much more than just a place to put urns. It could be a contemplative space, a gathering space, a place where you’re surrounded by questions of eternity and life and death and the souls of people are all around you. You can imagine the paradoxical dynamics that started to form in my heart.

As we were contemplating this space, we were also thinking about the Celtic knot, which can be a symbol of the endless number of different journeys taken through life by individuals who nevertheless belong to a connected humankind. The Celtic knot embodies the idea that life is a journey that may or may not have a destination, but there is a beginning and an end. And the journey has mystery. We’re not quite sure what’s around the corner.

When we presented all of this to the client—the contemplative garden, everything being intertwined, the metaphor of the journey—they brought up the idea of an Easter procession and the axial relationship between the columbarium and the church. Since the church opens toward the columbarium, they envisioned an Easter procession that could exit the church and process to the columbarium and gather in the center of the space. In this space we placed a firepit, which would act both as a contemplative object and something to gather around.

We went through many different versions, looking at angled and circular walls, but those weren’t very poetic. They had pragmatic rooms but no symbolism. You can invent symbolism, and I love doing that—“Here’s the form, let’s figure out what it means”—because a form can mean many things. In this case, we had a strong idea of interconnectedness. Finally we landed on gently curving walls, which both offered a perfect symbol—a serpentine path—and allowed us to weave around existing trees.

The first wall begins low, inviting you in, reaching out to you in the foggy, misty mystery of it all. And the variations in height allow the walls to sneak over and weave through each other, leading you through this sinuous path. Some of the urns are actually lights with glass faces, and some have metal faces. These different materials are organized in what appears to be a random pattern to emphasize the organic feeling of the project.


Form4 Architecture /Downtown. Intertwined Eternities, 2022. Columbarium at Episcopal Church of Saint John the Baptist, Aptos, California.


Image: You used very earthy, elemental materials: stone, bronze, and concrete, with these little points of light and fire.

JM: The client wanted it to have a visceral quality. We chose a rustic stone to play off the elegance of the concrete that caps the walls. This harkens back to the idea of embracing paradox. You’ve got smooth concrete and rough stone playing off each other. It’s not all pure.

Image: Can you talk about your own spirituality and how it informs your architecture?

JM: I say that I’m a spiritual person of the Christian variant. When I went to college, I studied Zen Buddhism, Daoism, Krishnamurti, and also Rousseau. These are very different from the religion I grew up with in the Lutheran church, but they connect to the notion of Christian compassion, of being of service, of the fundamental need for kindness.

You look at the world, and it is not a place of equality. It’s not a place where everyone and everything is treated fairly. That’s the human condition. In the Christian faith, we have the idea of leaving the garden of Eden and original sin. We live with a dynamic of abundance and scarcity. Scarcity says, “You don’t have enough resources.” This stems from a feeling that the world is a mean place and that hoarding can protect us. Alternatively, abundance says, “Yes, the world is a mean place, but I have enough of something—money, energy, excitement—that I can help make it better.”


Form4 Architecture/Downtown. Intertwined Eternities, 2022.


Image: What might an architecture of abundance look like?

JM: This goes back to my definition of art as the act of sharing your humanity with others. My firm wants to take ordinary projects and work a little magic with them. Who knew that this columbarium would turn out this way? It could have just been five flat walls with urns in them.

Back to my version of Descartes—“I care, therefore I am”—art and culture help us care, help us to be empathetic to feel the connection between things and each other, a shared response to the wonders of life. This, for me, is the idea of Christian charity. But I’m a midwesterner as well, so I don’t believe in just giving everything away. Kindness without effectiveness can be a form of vanity, or at least an unfortunate waste through ignorance. You need to have a place where you have abundance so that you can be of service. And for me, architecture is that art form.



Bruce Buescher is a designer and artist in San Antonio. He works at Tobin Smith Architect, where he is actively involved in the design and construction of custom residences.




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