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Meaningful Architecture with Arthur Dyson

Nov 29, 2018 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Without Walls

December 2018
Story by Jordan Venema
Photos Courtesy of David Swann

IF YOU WERE TO LOOK at his resume, you might not guess that architect Arthur Dyson was based in Fresno. He studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, has won countless awards, and his designs are known around the world. And yet to speak to the man, you might not guess he were an architect at all. At least, he is hardly what you would call
a prefabrication.

“I’m an architect that does not want to build walls,” explains Dyson. “I want to tear down walls. I am interested in building bridges, and I think when you label something you build walls around it.”   

Dyson has been hesitant to label his style of architecture, but it’s clear his approach varies from the philosophical to the practical, rooted in his own studies of philosophy and psychology. A discussion might veer from neuroscience to psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the Divine Child, but ultimately, Dyson isn’t working from an ivory tower. He wants to build homes, but more specifically, for those who will live in them.

“I get to play detective and find out what appeals to people,” says Dyson, summing up his method.

That desire to build meaningful homes initially brought him to the Fresno area – that, and a lack of work. He and his wife were living in Carmel, “but there was hardly any work,” he says. Planning to move to Southern California, Dyson found some work in Fresno where eventually he and his wife started a family, and never left.

“I opened my first office in 1969, but I worked for another architect here first,” says Dyson. “I really wanted to do work for blue-collar workers, folks who couldn’t normally afford an architect.”

Almost 50 years later and Dyson’s work has grown beyond his initial aspirations, designing the Lapp River House on the Kings River as well as the Hilton Residence, also known as Hurricane House, in Florida. Many of his homes take on names of natural elements, like the Leaf House and Wave House, but his approach to every home fundamentally goes through those who will live in them. 

“I did not become an architect to design what somebody else designed,” Dyson says. He preferred to build homes with specific meaning to his clients, which means he focuses on knowing aspects of his clients that aren’t usually considered in the realm of architecture. 

In addition to the typical questions about the home itself, says Dyson, “I have a questionnaire that is about 40 pages long and it asks them what kind of music they like, their favorite space when they grew up, their favorite vacation spot and what writers they like.” 

“I can tell you with embarrassment that most architects don’t know whether their clients are right or left handed,” he continues, “but if they would just sit back and listen to clients’ stories, their work would certainly be much more relevant and meaningful.” 

Dyson is influenced by environmental psychology, which empirically has validated why certain textures and colors, or the overall environment, create certain results. A red room, he says, will heighten the respiratory system, but an individual that associates that color with fond memories might actually see the opposite result. So for Dyson, that individual knowledge informs his greater understanding of what is important to that individual. 

“It gives me a way to approach architecture in an honest way instead of copying forms that somebody else has already developed.” 

His approach had resulted in uniquely aesthetic homes, but he has also consulted and designed local businesses, such as the performing arts center and police station in Selma, a congregational church in Bakersfield, a remodel of a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Porterville, as well as plans for a library for the city of Clovis.

Even with more public buildings, Dyson still takes time to understand the purpose of the building. In the case of building churches, he says, he spends time learning about the particular faith. By the time he designs the building, he says, “I will know more about their particular religion than probably 99 percent of their parishioners.”

But for all his success, Dyson still has found the ability to work toward his goal of building for those who can’t afford an architect. Much of his work now, he says, is pro bono.

“One of the things that we’re doing is trying to come up with housing solutions for the homeless. We’ve designed sleeping units, and a prototype is being built by students right now at Fresno State, and we’ve got two others that we’ve done,” he says. “The Unitarian Church in Clovis gave us the seed money to build the prototype of one that we’ve just finished, and Temple Beth Israel gave us money to build a second one.”

And that effort, to design and build for those who need the space the most, might tap into what Dyson believes is essential for an architect: “Not to be different, but to be relevant.” 

For those who live in the spaces Dyson has designed, there is probably nothing so relevant to them as their home. •

Arthur Dyson, architect