Cook’s Island, Florida

The brilliant architect and artist Aleksis Lahti passed away on July 14. We asked his close friend Gary Murphy what Aleksis had taught him about design.

“Aleksis always said, ‘look at everything a lot.’ You may think you know what you’re looking at, but you don’t. Just keep looking at it until all of a sudden you start to see parts you didn’t see before. Don’t approach it as if you know what you’re looking at. Look at it until you can see that things that seemed simple aren’t simple at all. Things that seemed obvious are not obvious. You think you know the problem, but you don’t.

“And not only look at that, but look at lots of other things too, because what you need to see isn’t always right there. It could be in nature, it could be in a building, it could be in a car. What solves one problem will solve another problem sometimes. Once you look at everything a lot, you start seeing things, and seeing things is how you learn. And once you can learn, you can decide what to do.

Lahti family dock after a hurricane. Via Taru Lahti on Pintrest.

“Here’s an example. It was one of the things Aleksis was most proud of. He had a house on Cook’s Island in the Florida Keys, and about every five years, a hurricane flood swell would come in and wipe out all the docks. Rebuilding those docks was a huge pain in the neck. You could drill right down into the coral and sink the posts, you could build a large crib and put rocks on them — it doesn’t matter, when the next flood swell comes in, they’re gone. And one day Aleksis said, ‘I’m really tired of this. There’s got to be a way around it.’ He said, ‘What does the ocean do? The ocean gets underneath that dock, and lifts it up, pulls all the posts out, pulls all the cribbing out, and just takes it away. What does the ocean grab? It grabs the deck. Well,’ he said, ‘just give it the deck. It’s the easiest part of the goddamn dock to build.’ So instead of putting down two posts or three posts [in one place] or lots of structure, Aleksis put down one post, right down into the coral, and one cross-member, and he put the deck on top of it, but it was floating there. It was not attached. The swell came in, lifted the deck up, and washed it down the beach. All the posts, all the cross-members were still there because the waves had no surface to grab onto. The hardest part of building a dock stayed right there. And the easiest part of building a dock, it was just piled up somewhere down the beach. So he went and picked it up and put it back. He never had to rebuild a dock ever again. Everybody else did — it cost them tens of thousands of dollars, but it didn’t cost him anything, because he’d solved the problem. He said, ‘We’re fighting the ocean. Why would we fight the ocean? The ocean wants to lift that deck off — let it have it.’ It worked one hundred percent. I mean, every time. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll fix it in a half hour.’ And everyone else was, ‘It’s going to be $10,000 and we’ll have to get a crew out here’ and so on, but Aleksis was like, ‘that’s solved.’ Because what did he do? He looked at the problem. Everybody thought, ‘build a stronger deck,’ and Aleksis says, ‘No, build a weaker one. Because you can’t beat the ocean — that’s crazy.’ Quit fighting what you can’t fight. Give up. Give in. Go with that part of the flow, and work with the part you can keep. Now wasn’t that a brilliant idea?”