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Home » Creativity Born from Constraints: Larry Speck (Full Transcript)

Creativity Born from Constraints: Larry Speck (Full Transcript)

Larry Speck

In this talk, Austin-based architect Larry Speck reveals how architectural creativity was oftentimes born from constraints. From wood scarcity, hot summers, and harsh winters blossomed the elegant, minimalistic themes of 18th century Japan. Hear about how the Japanese dealt with building regulations and adapted to the world around them to produce some of the world’s most cherished structures.


So I do believe that these periods in history that have been made the most fertile and where real fundamental advances occurred, not just — sometimes as a kind of fluffy creativity that’s kind of narcissistic, but this is real advances in culture and advances that make a difference in the world.

And often they come from a kind of real acknowledgement, and embracing of constraints. And in this period in Tokugawa, Japan, they’d had flat population, and suddenly, they got their political problems worked out. They stopped warring with each other, and there was a period of real peace and prosperity.

But with that peace and prosperity came growth. They had population growth, and they were more fluid, they started consuming more.

And scarcity began to be an issue. They were a closed society, they didn’t have import or export, so they were having to live within the constraints of their island culture there.

So in that period, amazing things happened. And they happened at an environmental and technological level of innovation, but also at a social and cultural level of innovation.

And all of those were stimulated by action and acknowledgement of constraints. In the beginning of that period, after they got peace and prosperity, they started building like crazy. They are a forested country, they had tons and tons of wood, and they didn’t really build any different than they had before.

They built these big, amazing castles, but they were very traditional. They just made them bigger and bigger and stouter, and they used these massive timbers to do that. They built temples, again, in a very traditional kind of way, but just bigger, just better.

And this is – Todaiji is a great temple in Nara, the largest wood building in the world. It’s impressive, not for its creativity, but more just for its scale and its massiveness and just more, more, more.

They were also building all new cities out of wood, and their towns. That was their major building resource, and they had reveled in it. Sometimes, of course, there might be a fire. That’s natural with wood. But that’s okay. They would just rebuild the city after the fire, and things were fine.

All of the islands in the archipelago in Japan were just covered with forest. And it seemed like there was an infinite supply of wood.

But then in 1657, there was the big Meireki fire in Tokyo. Edo was what it was called then. And in the Meireki fire half the city of Edo was burned.

Edo, by 1720, was the largest city in the world, so this was a massive city in a massive fire. And when they went back to try to rebuild Edo, they found out they were running out of timber – this enormous resource that had been so plentiful. They were running though their timber.

And so they began to address this, and they addressed it with some environmental and technological solutions. So, as you can see on the slide on the left, they preserved all the forest in the steeper slopes of the mountains.

And then where there was a little less slope, that was more ideal for agriculture, so they restricted those areas, the agricultural areas, to just those lower slopes to preserve the forest. And then they built their cities in very, very compact ways so they didn’t use any more land than possible.

And then they did a very thorough inventory of all their forest and what the resources were that were out there – and this timber could be used for building, this could be used for heating our homes, and this could be used for cooking our foods. In a very meticulous way, they inventoried everything.

And then they began a very elaborate process of silviculture, which is raising trees as crops. They figured out particular kinds of trees that would be better for this, and they farmed them, and they optimized the land’s ability to produce timber. So they used very solidly environmental and technological factors.

But then they also had to ration this wood, so they regulated it, and they told people, “You can only use X amount of wood for building your house.” And it challenged the cultural and social side of things.

“Wait, how can I make a house with much less wood?” And it challenged the architects and the builders to optimize that wood. They began to make these thin, light structures, not those heavy, kind of gross castles they were doing before, but now buildings that are much more delicate because they’re using that resource of wood in an optimal way.

Inside, they made less partitions, less rooms, more open space, and it began to affect the way they lived as families in these houses. They made the dividers out of shoji screens, which are actually wood, but made into paper in a very efficient use of that wood to make the articulation of the interior spaces.

Because the buildings were much lighter and airier, they opened them up to daylight much more than they had before, and they began to make things like porches and courtyards and extensions of the house into the outdoors, and began to occupy those spaces, so they were living indoors and outdoors in a relatively salubrious climate.

And then they began to say, “Wow, this outdoor space — we can make it much more beautiful. We can landscape it. We can make gardens. And we can make an extension of our house in the garden.”

And out of that thought, there was a big leap in the creativity and landscape architecture of the beautiful Japanese garden that became an extension of the house. And then they went even further than that — they began to affect, really, their everyday lives in those homes.

So as in the center here, rather than heating the whole house, which took a lot of wood to heat, instead, they would heat only local areas, and they would make these little pits, and they would put the fire in there, and they would gather around the fire, and they only heated the area where the family was occupying that room.

And then when they cooked, they would cook at the table, and the heat that was being used to boil the stew was also being used to warm the bodies of the people around the table there. They even altered their cuisine so that in the wintertime, that’s when you had stews. They virtually did away with grilling or baking, because that used too much wood.

But they would make these stews and then gather the family around in the wintertime, around the table and eat then.

And in the summertime, they didn’t have stew because that created too much heat, so they began to eat more raw vegetables and raw fruit, and they began to eat much more raw fish. And that began to alter their cuisine, and they invented new types of food and dishes that could be warm weather dishes when we wouldn’t want to use heat to produce that in the home.

So they completely altered the kind of cultural life that they had there. And out of that came many phenomenal innovations that we benefit from in an international way.

In architecture, it inspired Frank Lloyd Wright. He was very much a fan of these Japanese homes made out of light timber frames, and his Usonian houses, which we see on the slide at the top, were really born of his study of Japanese architecture. It began to have an influence all over the world.

Other architects, like Mies van der Rohe, could see that frame, that openness, that integration of indoors and outdoors, these light, thin barriers between nature and inhabitation. And it revolutionized modern architecture and began to give us possibilities in buildings that we didn’t have before.

This was fundamental creativity and innovation. The conversation earlier about one of the origins of tomorrow – this is really reinventing the way we live and the way we think and the way we eat and the way our whole lives are structured.

But it came of constraints. It came of scarcity. It came of rationing. It came of understanding the limitations of resources.

Now, I want to give an example of how this works at a much smaller scale.

In my own practice as an architect, we in my firm have done a project recently in Houston, in Buffalo Bayou Park. This is a place that is absolutely constrained. Buffalo Bayou is the floodway for a huge part of the central part of Houston, and for many, many decades, it just has been the way that water evacuates when there’s a hurricane or a big rain or a flood.

But the idea was to make this into a park. The 99 percent of the time when it’s not being used as a floodway, could it be a place for hike and bike trails and a place for dog parks and a place for skate parks and place for festivals that could be inhabited as a park space?

So the whole idea was to build in a constrained space that had been kind of given over to one function. But could we accept those constraints and actually make lemonade out of lemons, and take it and use it as a stimulus to make a wonderful new park in the center of Houston?

And that’s what sits there today, but as an example, you know, in a park, you want a place to eat, a cafe. You got to have park rangers, got to have some bathrooms. But we’re all in a flood prone area. In building this building and the park, we took the very highest point on the park in the left, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to enter the building there.”

And then the park ranger and the restrooms and the restaurant are all high on that level, and then tucked underneath are shady spaces to hang out, and storage for kayaks and canoes that you can run on the Bayou at different times. So everything was constrained.

Everything was limited by thinking of that moment when there will be a flood. But that took everything up high, so when you’re in that restaurant now – I mean, Houston is flat as a pancake, but there’s some elevation and you feel like you’ve got promontory and you’ve got vistas.

When you’re up in the Dunlavy restaurant, you’re in the treetops, and it’s like being in a tree house and you’re embraced by that landscape around.

These are wonderful amenities and opportunities that really came because of the constraints of having to stay up off the ground. And when that flood comes, the waters just wash through there. We had to make the building so stout that even when the rushing waters come and maybe there’s a log coming down the water, it can ram into that concrete pier of the building and do no damage whatsoever.

We even made the finish of the concrete a kind of a textured, board form concrete, so if it gets a little nick or a scratch in it, it’s just patina and it looks just fine. But everything in the building is understanding that there is going to be a flood, and it’s got to be able to withstand that.

And of course, shortly afterwards, there was a flood. There was hurricane Harvey that came. The rains came and the rains came and the rains came, and boy, were we all nervous.

And in fact, at a certain point, the water got up 32 feet above its normal level. And there it is, just below the level of the Dunlavy restaurant, but it didn’t get a drop of water inside, and then the water subsided, and they hosed the place down, and it was ready for business again.

This is how you can use constraints to actually inspire and make fantastic things, and rather than looking at it as something we’ll have to sacrifice, instead, it’s something that actually could stimulate us to think of new possibilities, to think of things we wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for those constraints.

I think from the biggest issues of global warming to the smallest issues of our own personal lives, we need to constantly be accepting constraints, accepting scarcity, accepting limitations, accepting rationing, accepting regulation, embracing those things and challenging ourselves to be up to solving those problems.

And that makes a kind of creativity that is not just kind of interesting or novel, but that really solves problems, that begins to really advance a culture and society.

And inspired by the way that Tokugawa, Japan, did that, I’m ready for us to take that kind of step into the future.

Thanks a lot.

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