James Cutler, FAIA, recalls a well-known client who wanted to build a Spanish-style house in the woods overlooking Puget Sound. As they walked the property, Cutler asked the client why he felt Spanish architecture would be appropriate. The man replied that he simply liked the look, and that the way to do it right would be to clear the vegetation, because he didn't like trees. "His needs and tastes were totally inconsistent with the land," says Cutler, Cutler Anderson Architects, Bainbridge Island, Wash. "I advised him to move to Arizona."

The tunnel vision of such clients is at odds with the highest artistic goals of an increasing number of architects. Certainly there is a moral mandate to build in an environmentally sensitive vein. But using the land to its greatest advantage, when there are easier ways of doing architecture, also conveys an intellectual rigor. Throughout history, the best buildings have demonstrated not dominance, but a harmony with their surroundings. Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater comes to mind, as does Pritzker-winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt's work, which has been described as complex, yet as practical as a bushman's hut. For many architects, a close reading of the land is essential to creating something authentic, a house that seems to fit perfectly in its place.

Cutler's client may be an anomaly, at least among architects known for eclectic, landscape-specific design. Because to begin to understand the character of a place, many architects logically start with the owners, who usually have a strong feel for their land. If the man had taken Cutler's advice, he may well have run into Phoenix-based architect Will Bruder. "One of the first questions an architect should ask is what's important to the client about a site," says Bruder, AIA.

Take the Byrne resi-dence in north Scottsdale, Ariz. While the desert can seem featureless to some, owners Bill and Carol Byrne had already identified the best views for their future home. The concept of their house as part of a metaphorical canyon also caught their fancy. "The property was at the top of a gentle wash, and you could see a canyon in the distance," Bruder explains. "The idea was that the topological contour of the land, sun, views, and sharp summits of the distant horizon were something you could build architecture around, a positive energy." Rather than flattening the site, as some other architects had proposed, Bruder created canyonlike walls out of sandblasted concrete masonry that angle in and out with the shifting terrain, and a roof that follows the grade of the hill.

Cutler and Peter Bohlin, FAIA, of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., are two other architects who gauge the owners' loyalty to their land early on. "Initial understandings are very important," Bohlin says. "We try to document the site with the clients. They have their own strong views that may not be well founded, but often are." Adds Cutler: "The owners pick some place they think is perfect. Sixty percent of the time, they're right about where to place the building in the landscape and, more importantly, how to connect to the land in an emotional way."

character studies

Architects describe the process of gleaning design ideas from a particular setting as a combination of intuition and the gathering of layer upon layer of cold hard data. Rather than hiring a surveyor to develop the topographical map, Cutler and a member of his staff scramble over the land with a transit level to spot trees and shoot grade--what he calls apprenticing the landscape. On a two-acre project halfway up the rim of the Columbia Gorge near Portland, Ore., for example, Cutler recently spent three hours documenting the character of each contour line, writing down tree types, and taking 58 photographs that record the view from each measured elevation. "When you physically engage in tripping over trees, climbing over things with transits and rods, you find the exact angle of a view, an interesting tree, a particular angle that makes the whole piece of land look more dramatic," he says. "The land is telling you stuff, but not in a mystical way. You learn things by physically engaging."

Doing site-sensitive architecture is like choreographing a dance, making the landscape a part of the visual experience of moving through a house. And while some parcels of land are rather simple to understand, others are complex and more subtle. "Often what you find is that looking at the site, you have a strong impression, but then you will begin to understand there are interesting questions," says Bohlin. "Often the best views are away from the sun, and depending where you are in the U.S. or overseas, the sun can be a great ally. If you're simplistic about that, you may not do the right thing."

The renovation of his own house presented that sort of conflict. Wilkes-Barre's chilly winters dictated a south-facing orientation for warmth and energy efficiency, but Bohlin's master bedroom looks north. "In the morning, light comes across the field one way; in the evening, another," he says. "Facing south, you're often looking at a silhouetted landscape; facing north, you're looking at a lit landscape. You try to have your cake and eat it, too--often in the same space."

Of course, it's rarely just the clients' property and program that suggests what's to be done with a house. The neighbors, and sometimes the local wildlife, have a say as well. On the coast of northern California, at a spot where whales swim close to shore, Albuquerque, N.M., architect Bart Prince satisfied the coastal commission's concerns by specifying a dark, absorbent glass for the house, tilting it back slightly so that light wouldn't shine into the whales' eyes as they swam by. On occasion he has visited the human neighbors, too, eyeing the site to see what they see. One close-in neighbor, for example, liked to look at a rocky outcrop in the ocean from her bedroom window. "When I found out, I designed the house so she retained that view," Prince says. "I don't know that I mentioned it to the client."

Such foresight protects his clients' peace of mind. But Prince is also thorough about protecting their investment, by finding out whether there's any possibility an adjacent building will go up a story or be torn down. "Siting a house is an elaborate process that becomes automatic after a while," he says. "I like to start fresh, as though I've never done it before, but use the same process to find out anything I can about the land, above and below it."

nature vs. nurture

Though their work may have similar outcomes, not all environmentally minded architects share the same philosophical approach. Let the word "site" slip out in conversation, and Cutler's response borders on reproach. To him, the word suggests something blank that people believe they can manipulate at will. Land is a better term, he insists, because it suggests respect for a sacred, living thing.

"The land is the way God gave it to us; it's taken billions of years to evolve to its level of perfection," he says. "Architecture never makes the land better, ever. When you're in the process of killing part of the land to put the building in, you can honor the rest of the land by making the experience dramatic and powerful for the people entering."

Having grown up in Canada, a landmass the size of Russia--and much of it equally inhospitable-- architect Brian MacKay-Lyons, FRAIC, FAIA, takes a slightly different view. There, nature is considered big and scary, so the emphasis is on houses that make protective gestures. Thus, Lyons believes making a building is an act of cultivating the landscape rather than consuming it. Just as a farmer talks of improving the land, MacKay-Lyons speaks of improving the landscape through the creation of buildings as locally appropriate cultural artifacts.

"I treat all of the projects as one continuous line of research into landscaping, and particularly the cultural landscape as opposed to Mother Nature," says MacKay-Lyons, whose firm, Brian MacKay-Lyons Architect, is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "Most discussion about the environment in architecture revolves around the natural landscape, which is a slippery thing because most of what we regard as natural isn't, anyway. We may as well acknowledge that the landscape includes us as humans. In architecture we're in the culture business; it's an art form."

As such, MacKay-Lyons is an avid collector of ideas that spring from the landscape, natural or man-made. "It's what I think about all the time, even in the shower and in bed," he says. "When I get a chance to start a project, it's like I've been working on it for 25 years already. You're recognizing patterns you've trained yourself to see. And that method is transferable to any place."

That method, with a good dose of imagination thrown in, involves looking at the layers from the bottom up. MacKay-Lyons develops what he calls cognitive maps recording the natural history of geology, soils, and vegetation. Next he looks for agrarian clues, such as hedgerows and stone walls, that tell how the land has been cultivated. Then he takes stock of the movement of the sun and wind. Finally he turns to the architectural context--other buildings that affect the site or offer models of what the new project could be. And whether the house will stand in a meadow or in the middle of a city block, it's usually the cultural clues that his buildings obey.

"You'd never see me put a building on a diagonal in the middle of a field," MacKay-Lyons says. "I'd look for a stone wall on the edge of the field and build something parallel to it, so the landscape is doing a lot of the work for you. If the landscape is giving you cultural patterns, they're amplifying your project, so you don't have to make such a loud project. Its power comes from harnessing energy and forms already there."

telling stories

All these ideas make new and varied demands on buildings, inviting architects not only to interpret the life of the house's inhabitants, but also its surroundings. Before designing a Modernist, flat-roofed house in the mountains of north Georgia, Merrill Elam, of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Atlanta, spent a year studying the 22-acre property in different seasons. A jumble of vegetation in summer, the site became more transparent in fall and winter. "We began to understand how the land had been used before, terraced and farmed, accessed by a farm road, and where the flattest part of the site was, deep into the heart of the property," says Elam. "What we came to love and understand was that you can appreciate the mountains and the power of those forms not by trying to emulate them, but by striking some horizontal line, which you can then read these rounded, rolling mountain forms against."

Almost all of MacKay-Lyons' built projects are similar essays that attempt to make the structure of the land clearer to people, often in very expressive ways. A house on the Nova Scotia coast, for example, has been pulled apart on two hilltops to make bookends set 500 feet apart. The structures--main house and a guest house--are perfectly aligned in plan and section and bracket a wetland that's been cultivated as a wildlife corridor. The result, MacKay-Lyons says, is like looking in a mirror and seeing deer running through the house.

Materials provide other ways to express elements of nature, or to withstand them, as the case may be. Whereas the structure of a house is part of the formal landscape, MacKay-Lyons sees its skin as loose clothing that can be stretched or shifted around to respond to the sun and wind. He tries to spec sustainable, indigenous materials that are durable and that local tradesmen know how to use--an approach that gives clients a lot of house for their money.

Designing in the semi-arid climate of Colorado Springs, Colo., Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, FAIA, also looks for tough, low-maintenance, and energy-saving materials that are made locally. "Concrete out here is marvelous, and there are so many new types of glass that make it very attractive," she says. "It might be the material of the future. It just takes sand to make it, and we have plenty of that."

Sometimes, matching materials to site is important to a project's success. Colored concrete walls helped convey the idea underlying the Byrne residence in Scottsdale--that the house was part of a mythical canyon, with its walls magically pulled from the earth. Bruder scooped up dirt from the site and took it to the block yard, where it was matched tone for tone with samples of block. The exterior walls were aged with copper sprayed with ammonium sulfate, to match the color of the mountains.

While Thoreau might be a worthy guide, MacKay-Lyons suggests that one of the reasons architecture hasn't yet found its environmental voice is because architects tend to focus too narrowly on nature. No doubt Bohlin would agree. "You have to be alive to almost anything and begin to understand what might be important," he says. "In the end, one of the great pleasures of doing houses, and in particular doing them in a touching place, is to do something that is empathetic. It's one of our great motivations in continuing to want to do houses."

x-ray vision

To the untrained eye, nature looks random and chaotic. But as landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, will tell you, there's a method to the madness, and it's his job to catalog the land for architects and owners. Using surface geology maps that include the subregion, Hilderbrand, a principal of Reed Hilderbrand Associates, Watertown, Mass., studies the underlying materials that have shaped a site. Other tools include aerial photography, topological surveys in one-foot contours, maps showing a site's vegetative structure, and research into the past history of land uses.

A north-facing wooded slope in the Northeast, for example, will have a vegetative profile that offers clues to frost and drainage conditions and soil depth. Drainage patterns are critical. Does a site lie over bedrock or an aquifer? Is there underlying gravel or till? The materials beneath the surface help determine whether to move rock when it's cut, or whether fills will be stable.

"Those things often guide us because we are careful about what we call the character of a landscape," he says. "A site may have multiple characteristics. We don't shy away from transforming the character of a site. We just want to be secure that the intervention is rooted in a condition already there."

Although a one-acre site might not warrant this kind of research, Hilderbrand says such knowledge drives the owners' stake in their land a little deeper. The firm produces a thick description of how a site is formed and how it might be transformed over time. "We often will be able to present a way of thinking about the site that is unfamiliar to the owners," Hilderbrand says. "While much of design work is subjective, we feel we're able to give the client a great enfranchisement in their land, especially with larger land holdings."