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Chester County Press

The architecture of integrity

11/21/2016 01:13PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Many years ago, while he was still in school, Kennett Square architect Ed Rahme came across an ancient stone glyph called the Sun Dagger.
Built by the Anasazi Indians on the Fajada Butte in northwest New Mexico, it dated as far back as the 10th century, and became an inspiration for how he approaches his profession. Three large stone slabs lean against a cliff, channeling light and shadow onto two spiral petroglyphs etched into the cliff. Throughout the year, these ‘daggers’ of light served as a calendar for the Anasazi. They marked the winter solstice, the summer solstice and both equinoxes, charting the optimum times for planting and harvest.
It is both ingenious and simple, Rahme thought; a way to link the earth, sun, wind and the stars to create a powerful composition.
“The Sun Dagger shows a basic understanding of our place on earth,” he said. “Their culture understood the importance of the movement of the sun throughout the year. The changing light was integral to sustain their life.”
Rahme, a principal of THINK Architecture, incorporates the movement of the wind, sun and moon into the projects he designs. Specializing in modern architecture, Rahme creates places and spaces for universities, health care companies, businesses, hospitality services, museums, restaurants, faith-based organizations, as well as private residences. Several of his designs dot the local map: The Danjuma African Art Center at The Lincoln University; a chic cafe in Wilmington; and the proposed Biogen building – a teaching space for the Delaware County Community College.
“People talk about architecture as if they are building it in nature, but it should be considered as an extension of nature,” Rahme said. “What I do is take bits and pieces of nature and transform them into something else. As a beaver builds a dam by rearranging materials around him, I consider architecture in the same way, but a little more sophisticated.”
For any architect specializing in modern design in Chester County, his or her vision often smacks headlong into an area that maintains its history, where even the notion of going modern is considered an unwelcome shock to the system.
“The secret to melding modern design with history is to understand the principles of both,” Rahme said. “If you look at an old house with the intention to do a modern renovation, it can be gorgeous, but it has to be done with the right mindset. You can build a new, modern house with a respect for the principles of the past. I don’t believe that mimicking the past is a respectful solution. We have extraordinary new tools available to make exceptional new spaces that support the way we live and work in today’s world.
“When I begin designing a new project, I study beautiful proportions in architecture of all eras,” Rahme said. “There is an inherent beauty in proper proportions. Now, it's my job to discover how new proportions can lead to a new beauty. With every project, good design can tell an incredible story of the people involved in its making.”
When The Lincoln University chose to dedicate one of its original campus buildings to house its extensive African art collection a few years ago, Rahme's challenge as the project's architect was to combine history with a modern renovation.
He researched indigenous African architecture from the region where the majority of the collection originated, and saw that the transitions between spaces in these structures were elongated. These spaces within spaces suggested transitions along a journey. Rahme's final design gave the gallery a transformative look that was both modern and respectful of the tribal architectural influences.
Rahme, a LEED-accredited architect, worked with Delaware County Community College on an “ultra-green” building for their main campus. Proposing a variety of wood-framing techniques to help educate the carpentry students, he incorporated both passive and active environmentally conscious elements, including geothermal heating/cooling, solar power and an alignment with the North Star.
With his design for the Perch House in Maryland, Rahme was inspired by an early comment from one of the home's owners -- “One of the first things that the husband told me was that he wanted to wake up with the birds in the morning,” he said.
The narrow home was designed with large windows on all four sides, positioned strategically to allow for maximum views of nearby trees, while keeping the neighbors from having views into the house. 
“Architecture has great symbolic power,” Rahme said. “What you're building says something about who you are. If you're building with artificial materials and fake wood imprints, what does that say about you? If you're building something with real, natural materials, you're building something with integrity. Integrity is the one word that best describes something beautiful. It may not be your preference, but at least you have to acknowledge its power.”
At a time when modern architecture has begun to ignore the forces of nature, Rahme clings to them as if they were his toolbox to make beautiful buildings. He believes that in the last half-century, America has lost its lead as the world’s architectural innovator, while around the globe, advancements in design are not only ground-breaking, they are done with respect for history and the environment. “America has been functioning for too long on architectural hubris,” Rahme said.
“You can tell a lot about a country by its architecture, and in the United States, a lot of buildings are built for no other reason than profit. Relatively few are built with respect for the building,” he said. “America has been staring into the water of its architecture and loving its reflection for too long. When leaders begin to believe their own press, then leadership is usually taken by someone else.
“Many times, people build buildings as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves. When I see people building something as an end in itself, that's when I know they are trying to achieve something great. Good design requires a lot of interaction with the clients, but when you're done and you feel you have achieved something great together, there is a care and love for the process and the finished work, because it took so much personal effort to get there.”
Like most architects, Rahme carries a sketchbook wherever he goes. In between meetings, he doodles on restaurant napkins and placemats. Some of his sketches were featured earlier this year at an exhibit he curated along with fellow architects Wayne Simpson and Todd Tulley Danner entitled “Architectural Sketches: Building an Idea,” at the Oxford Arts Alliance.
Most of his sketches deal with solving the question that every architect fights with: “How do I create the best use of space?”
“The best architecture asks the greatest questions, and it's the work I go back to, time and time again,” he said. “How does this serve as a lesson for someone else?  How will it affect the world around it?
“We have the ability to make the world a better place, and I do think we can make a big dent in the problems we've caused,” Rahme said. “Some things are quantifiable and some things are qualifiable. Making great architecture is about understanding the qualities."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected]