During the Dec. 7 morning session of residential architect’s Reinvention Symposium, four practitioners known for combining adventure and functionality in their own work spoke on the importance of art in residential architecture. Judging by coffee-break conversation during the event, the subject was a timely one. With three hard years of recession under their belts, architects from around the country brought tales of cautious clients and constrained budgets. In such a climate, what role can art play?

An essential one, said Anne Fougeron, FAIA, principal at San Francisco–based Fougeron Architects, who backed up that assertion with examples from her firm’s portfolio. The Tehama Grasshopper project, which converted a concrete warehouse into a sophisticated urban residence, may have made the point most persuasively. Its glass-walled penthouse addition inhabits the neighborhood’s flat, industrial roofscape like a curious visitor from another planet, all the while feeding light to the living spaces below. The use of standard components made it deceptively inexpensive.

Partners Jeffrey L. Day, AIA, and E.B. Min, AIA, of Min|Day, a firm with offices in both San Francisco and Omaha, Neb., operate on the principle that there is no distinction between art and architecture. “It has to be integral,” Day said. Min added, “Our job is to be architects, not engineers.” Their L Residence, a penthouse apartment overlooking downtown Omaha, takes a clean-slate approach to geometry, materials, and color. Its wood-veneered walls incorporate panels CNC-milled in a prairie grass pattern, which serve as railings and light screens.

James Brown, AIA, principal at San Diego–based Public Architecture and Planning, spoke of how his firm’s artistic endeavors, both public and private, influence its architectural work. Often, he said, that influence takes the form of a piece of furniture, or an intricate detail, whose design informs that of the building around it. These not-quite-rational pieces relate to the larger design as a dream does to one’s waking life, he said. And if art is something like a dream made tangible, then architecture without it would be poorer indeed.