When you step into a building Paul Hirzel has designed, chances are what you’ll notice is what’s outside. And that’s intentional.
Hirzel, an architect and instructor at Washington State University, was one of 15 American architects featured at the 2018 Venice Biennale, the most prestigious international architecture exhibition in the world, taking place May 26 through Nov. 25 in Venice, Italy. Hirzel’s work is recognized for its emphasis on structure, economy and the physical environment.
Hirzel grew up building forts into the hillside along the Snake River in Clarkston and playing on it’s sandy river banks near the family home on Beachview Boulevard. When he wasn’t there, he’d be among the toys and musical instruments at his parents’ store, Hirzel’s Music on Lewiston’s Main Street. During those years, he acquired a love for the local landscape. After spending time around the U.S., he returned to Pullman to teach and practice privately — 20 years to the month after he had left, swearing he would never come back.
Hirzel’s focus on the outdoor environment came to him at a particular moment in time. In graduate school, he had to write about two architects he was interested in: Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. He was slogging away at the assignment when he realized something.
“I came to this epiphany, which was that I really like being outside more than being inside,” Hirzel said.
He was more comfortable outside, he felt stronger, happier. He remembered that as a child, the most effective form of discipline was keeping him indoors. And yet, here he was about to graduate into a profession that “creates insides.”
He decided to take landscape architecture classes, graduating with a minor in the subject. Hirzel has since worked both as an architect and landscape architect, which together form the basis of his design theory.
“To say you’re designing a building, you’re already putting yourself into what I see as a narrow view. I design environments,” Hirzel said.
That means Hirzel advocates for the landscape being included in any kind of architectural solution. When he designs a site, he considers trees, land contours, rain, sun, astronomical conditions, wildlife and whatever other factors might make up an outdoor space.
“The building is part of the solution — not the whole solution,” Hirzel said.
A rural setting is where the theory seems to most naturally apply. Hirzel has designed homes that stretch over the Potlatch River, hug the hillside of the Clearwater River canyon and stand among the pine trees on Moscow Mountain.
“The outside can be part of whatever environment you’re in,” Hirzel said, but the theory works in urban and suburban settings too. His home in Pullman, set on an ordinary, quarter-acre suburban lot on the edge of town, is one example.
“I took a different approach on what a suburban tract home can be,” Hirzel said.
The strongly vertical home sits in an aspen grove, a species native to the Palouse. Unlike the typical suburban house set in the middle of the lot, the home is set more to one side, creating “better balance,” Hirzel said, and “a whole different feeling.”
Even in an urban setting, you can bring the outside inside. A couple years ago, Hirzel was asked to design a tasting room in Moscow for Colter’s Creek Winery. The brick Hattabaugh Building, built in the 1890’s, had a windowed storefront that became progressively darker as one moved deeper into the space.
People move toward the light, Hirzel said, which meant there would need to be something to draw them away from the front windows and into the tasting room. So a courtyard was created in the back half of the building that was open to the sky and surrounded with glass.
“It brings the sky and all of the wonders the sky brings us — rain, snow, moonlight, daylight — into that space,” Hirzel said.
As a result, people are drawn deeper into the building and “there’s not a bad seat in the tasting room,” he said.
Hirzel isn’t the only one that likes the outdoors. He regularly does an exercise with new students where he asks them to name the place where they feel most happy and strong. In a class of 30 students, Hirzel said, 100 percent of them come back with places that are outside.
And, with most Americans spending only 5 percent of their day outside, Hirzel said, this could potentially have an effect on our our health and happiness. Which means making our indoors more connected to the outdoors might be more more than a nice idea.
“It could be healthier for all of us,” Hirzel said.
View several of Hirzel’s projects in the region at his website, paulhirzel.com.