A relatively recent field, at least as a Fine Art
Architecture is a funny thing. It is considered with many to be a fine art, much like painting or sculpting, yet unlike those fields, the product of an architect must be usable. This is not at all to disparage architecture or, conversely, any other art-form, but whereas most arts can be critiqued in any number of ways, most of them relatively equal in value, there are certain standards architecture must be held up to. For instance, a building must not fall down. Its success, or failure, as the space it was meant to be, both by those using it presently and by potential other users, have to be considered. Most traditional forms of art are, at the end of the day, essentially an abstract concept, a product not necessarily designed to be used but to be appreciated in an entirely different manner. It is for this reason that the traditional ways of critiquing fine art can be so problematic when applied to something as concrete as a building, leading not only to wildly differing conclusions, but, sometimes, buildings who designs are directly at odds with the people using them. This is essentially Pollan's critique of Modern Architecture magazine, why he can criticize it for applying "literary" thinking to structures rooted in everyday use.
Architecture was not always considered as such. Indeed, particularly in America, architecture as not only a fine art but as a profession separate from civil engineering, landscaping, and a whole host of other fields did not arise until the later half of the 19th Century. A generation or so of professionals, people like Charles McKim, Stanford White, Louis Sullivan, and many others, sought recognition and appreciation beyond that of a sewer designer or a creator of landscapes. This generally took two separate, yet related forms. First was the creation of professional accreditation, pushed for by the American Architects Association (itself only founded in the early 1850s). This was not only to ensure the quality of structures being built, it created a full-fleged profession that was separate and distinct from engineering. And while most states did implement some such accreditation program by the turn of the 20th Century, some others, notably New York, did not follow until the 1920's. Secondly, there was the appeal to the classical art institutions of the world to be taken seriously as a form of expression. In some ways this was easier in coming; in some contexts architecture, at least that of a particular and monumental kind, was considered directly related to the classical arts. At the same time, it was a leap of faith to lump the designer of the everyday structure, the everyday house builder, with a Palladio or an Inigo Jones, even if what they were doing was not entirely that different.
Much of the success of this movement came to a culmination as the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts movements where, for the first time, architecture as a profession was widely elevated as an art form. And while the style died, for the most part, with the architects who brought it to the fore, the groundwork of education and institutions paved the way for the professional architect. This is most noticeable in the history of housing: prior to the 1920's, it was rare for any house to be designed by an architect per se (with the exception of the occasional wealthy mansion or eclectic concern), it was usually the builder who acted as an all in one source of design and construction. With the rise of the professional architect came the separation of builder and designer. And, while most modern architects do continue the fine tradition of the civil engineer, some employ separate engineers to take care of work so trivial as meeting code or, more fundamentally, keeping the building standing. Partly this can be attributed to advances in building construction, which has allowed almost any design, even those as structurally outlandish as a Frank Gehry, to be designed and built. For these few, architecture has come fully around and separated from engineering, for in essence these individuals are sculptors of space, leaving the physics to another profession.
It is in the mindset that I find Pollan's decision to hire an architect at all to be slightly puzzling. It is clear he has a good relationship with Charlie, and wants professional insight into what he is building. On the other hand, he wants it to be his, down to the point of self construction, and thus to hire a professional, a thought that 100 years ago would've been odd for the house proper, to design a space such as this seems a tad odd. None of which is to denigrate the work Charlie and his staff created; in many ways, especially his focus on the site and on materials, his office is closer to the builders of old. Yet one has to wonder how comfortable Mr. Pollan can be calling the space his own when it has the mark of so many others on it. In certain ways, this is always true; no piece of literature, for example, stands without context, and no scientific discovery exists without standing on the shoulders of others. At the same time it is an odd turn for someone looking for something so intimate and personal.