Saturday, April 1, 2017

ASU Student Days (1965-1967)

The reasons I transferred to ASU were that the architecture school had adopted an approach something like the old USC school (i.e. former USC professor Cal Straub had gone there to teach) and I wanted to better understand the desert.  Also, Taliesin West, Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti, and the Pauson House Ruins were nearby and could be learned from as well.  Although lacking the history, ambiance, and charisma of my former schools, at ASU I was able to work through a number of design projects and confront my strengths and weaknesses.  Fellow students like Art Truter and Bob Oshatz infused poetic qualities into their work that I found emotionally moving, if not quite appropriate for me and my mind set. Professors Jim Flynn and Jerry Diethelm were helpful to my development as well.
I was still very much searching for myself…basically a B student, but sensing I had insights of value to realize and express.  Design projects like this house, Canal Park, and my thesis, the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, were not brilliant solutions, but were reasonably successful.  I think they helped me see that while I had a good amount of skill it was going to require stepping up my efforts and working very hard to access the potential within me.

I also learned from measuring the Pauson house, working at Cosanti, doing sculptures, and spending time alone in the desert.  Communion with the desert is for me stronger and more heart-felt than I experience with our northern forests and I value this and many other aspects of my time in Arizona.

 In hindsight I feel that school may not have been the ideal path leading to my life as an architect, although I’m not sure what might have been a better track.  Interfacing with all my fellow students at a variety of schools was certainly the most valuable part of college…I think of it as preparation for moving forward and figuring out the larger world for oneself.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cal Student Days (1964-1965)

I had the good fortune to transfer to Cal when the architecture school was still functioning in the Arc – the famed old wood shingle building near Euclid Avenue.   We did a semester-long project designing the multi-use building shown here.  My brick and concrete structure is well grounded and even sunk into the site a bit – a precursor of my career-long love of strong partnerships with the land.  I took an advanced painting class as well.
The second semester of design was taught by Charles Moore in the new concrete Wurster Hall.  We spent the entire semester dealing with things like kinesthetics and trying to accommodate Santa Barbara’s Spanish stylization to evolving contemporary needs.  This was frustrating and I don’t recall a single outstanding building or idea resulting from the entire classes’ work.  I had to repeat planning and Professor Denise Scott Brown’s approach almost brought me to tears with the superficiality of it all.  Oscar Palacios and I presented Denise with a well thought out argument for why she should excuse us from the class work and do individual study, but she refused us.  Oscar dropped out of school rather than continue the misery.  I stuck with it, but with fourth year essentially being planning design and fifth year being a thesis I stood to only be designing one more building.  I needed more than this.

The biggest student influences on me at Cal were from my onetime roommate, Walter Thomason, and an upper classman I still have not met to this day, Craig Hodgetts.  Craig’s architecture and sculpture had a skill and integrity that resonated with me and is still apparent in his architecture today.

Although I saw myself as a Californian I had a strong desire to better understand the desert.  Arizona has plenty of desert, Taliesin West, and Arcosanti so I decided to transfer and complete my studies at Arizona State in Tempe.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

USC Student Days (1962-1964)

This post is the first of a three part series remembering the three architecture schools I attended in the 1960s.  There seem to be very few surviving records of these times and I would like to touch upon some highlights.

I was about to start my junior year of high school before the notion of going to college even occurred to me.  In the early 1960s there were only two accredited architecture schools in California, USC and Cal.  Almost every aspirant in Southern California went to USC, every aspirant in Northern California went to Cal, and there was an ingrained bias and prejudice between the two.  I applied only to USC, was accepted, and found myself in Emmet Wemple’s first year design class.  I remember him telling us to look at the students to our left and right, that one of us would not be going on to second year, and that we had better be serious and work hard.  Emmet was like a father figure for some of us and my first born son is named after him.

Two of the great things about the old school were that it was small and that it was physically interconnected with the school of fine arts.  The two story building had a double courtyard and a common library and the interchange between students could sometimes be quite enlightening. Exhibit cases located around the courtyards might have Bruce Goff collages and Rico Lebrun drawings on display simultaneously.  I remember Bill Tunberg tweaking a sculpture in the middle of the courtyard and asking me what I thought of the alarm clock he had incorporated into it.  All this was a strange new world for an eighteen year old from Reseda whose only aesthetic exposure had been seeing copies of Pinky and Blue Boy hanging in his parents’ bedroom.

The greatest value of all my student days was the inspiration and exchange that took place with other students.  John Aleksch and Jon Jerde were two years ahead of me, but both were to play important roles in my development.  I had always excelled at architectural drafting and John’s great drafting ability caught my eye immediately.  We became friends, later worked together, and John was best man at my wedding.  Jerde was well beyond other students (and faculty members) – he was both an outstanding artist and architect as well as very convincing verbally.  From Jerde I broadened my horizons and came to realize the notion of potential.  Although our thinking and careers took very different courses his influence was significant

In my second year I won the Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall Mentorship Award which was a full architectural scholarship, and I was really psyched going into third year design.  Unfortunately, the school administration and overall approach changed overnight and a rigid, narrow mind set was thrust upon the students – one which I was unwilling to accept.  I received a D in design, an F in planning, and my scholarship was placed on probation.  I opted to transfer to Cal.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Steve Martino Monograph

A monograph on the superb landscape architect, Steve Martino, will soon be published and I have the honor of writing the foreword.  Here is my tentative draft and a sampling of images for the book:


Steve Martino’s work is strikingly thoughtful with little need of explanation.  It is skillful without reliance on, or reference to, the latest imagery of the status quo. It is self-aware, but appropriately so – the result of careful, often intuitive consideration, free of inane archispeak, pettiness, and self-indulgence – wholesome responses to the present and contiguous to both past and future.  If they weren’t so well orchestrated one might imagine his landscapes having evolved naturally. And perhaps this is the essence of Steve and his work –direct, unaffected, and in keeping with natural forces.
I met Steve in a sculpture class at ASU in the late 1960s, and a bond soon formed between us which has endured to this day.  I suspect the spark that ties us together is not unlike the spark that ties so many of us to the greater landscape.  It is this special inherent sensibility that enables Steve’s greater vision to see through and beyond the obvious.
Steve’s interaction with the desert dates back to his troubled delinquent youth and life at the Arizona Boys Ranch where one of his duties was horse wrangling.  Lone rides into the desert made unique impressions that helped direct his course and life’s work.  Years later, after dropping out of architecture school, he began to question why Mediterranean landscapes were so ubiquitous when the existing desert plants seemed more interesting and didn’t require life support of water, fertilizers and insecticides.  This led to an early career of pioneering work with largely unsympathetic clients and almost no source for the native plants he sought. Backpacking trips around Northern Mexico to gather seeds in the wilderness was his solution and this “can do” attitude continues as the barometer of his life and work.  No cheap talk, no excuses, just doing what needs to be done.
This monograph documents the work of a truly engaged and committed designer.  Steve Martino is a landscape architect’s landscape architect.  His work has a depth that is rare to find in this day and age. It not only solves his clients’ immediate requirements, but does so with an awareness of the greater context – the landscape as far as the eye can see – the landscape in tune with the way the earth turns – the landscape as compassionate with fellow life forms inhabiting the region. This book not only documents a portfolio of wonderful work, it allows us a glimpse of how we might see ourselves as a species among species in gardens where man and nature can meet with compassion, if not as equals.
The work presented here is the heartfelt, intuitive effort of a man in sync with his time and place.  The result is an uncommonly high level of landscape architecture and art.  Louis Sullivan defined art as “doing things right” and above all else this book is a testament to “doing things right.”

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Irene Pleszczynski

Life can be challenging and I valued having Helena’s mother, “Mama,” as a model of focus and determination – qualities dear to my heart.

Irene Pleszczynski (neé Waleria Eisinger), a native of Lwow, Poland and a resident of Santa Barbara since 1948, died on November 21, three days after her 94th birthday. Surviving the horrors of World War II, she met her husband Andrew in a DP camp in Bremen, Germany, where they married on Aug. 1, 1945. The following year they came to America, settling in St. Louis, Mo., before moving to California and discovering the town that was to be their paradise. Andrew died in 1998, and she is survived by their two children, Helena Bowman (Obie) of Cloverdale, Ca., and Wladyslaw (Joanna) of Annandale, Va., six grandchildren (Antonia, Risa (Shawn), Emmet and Tyrone; Feliks (Ljubica) and Benedykt, two great-grandchildren, Scarlet and Sterling Gregorio, and nieces Marta Glodkowska of Canoga Park and Anna Bentkowska-Kafel of London. She was wonderful—full of goodness, directness, wisdom, and spunk. She loved music, bridge, and her friends from thirty plus years of noon swimming at Los Baños. She loved her adopted country.

In her honor please remember the Santa Barbara Symphony. On November 25 she was buried next to her husband at Calvary Cemetery.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016



This is the second half of Obie’s CRAN Symposium presentation.

          Oregon Coast House is on a heavily wind swept bluff with views both up and down the  coastline.  The desire for corresponding walls of glass led to the use of cedar log buttresses – which harken back to the driftwood logs found along the beaches.
          I particularly like the way this exoskeleton reaches out and grabs ahold of the site.
          Aesthetics are very important to me – so important that I need them to have purposeful  underpinnings. 
          I’m not a fan of Buckminster Fuller’s aesthetics, but I really like his statement: “When  I’m working on a problem I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if it is not beautiful, I know I did something wrong.”
          With economics limiting so much traditional detail and embellishment I tend to expose a   lot of the structural elements.        
          Speaking of functional expressions I have been fascinated by exposed framing for some  time and in this case the studs on the interior hypotenuse wall are exposed, there becoming a wall of shelves and niches.

          Looking straight out we see a view loft above a small piece of covered porch below.
          I seldom use conventional hallways to access the various rooms of the house.  Here the     bedrooms can open entirely onto the main space via a steel framed pocket door of stained         Hardibacker panels.

          This is the Johnson House in the Dry Creek Valley.  It’s in a forest setting, and is   elongated east-west to maximize light and views for each room, and included a program    requirement for covered porches.   
          To avoid blocking light the covered porches are placed at the ends of the house and light openings are incorporated. 
          Except for a patch of grass off the dining terrace and a few other exceptions, only native landscaping is used.  This helps preserve continuity with the larger landscape.
          The cantilevered roofs are made practical because the primary structure is steel – requested by the owners to protect against widow makers – and steel easily handles the outreach.
          The exterior is primarily metal (for fireproofing) and we wanted some contrast to help  identify the entry.  It is concrete and while one might yell “foul/inconsistent” I reply  “Get over it – the contrast is good.” 
          Our world is imperfect and inconsistent (at least by human standards) and there are  shortcomings everywhere we look – it’s just the way it is.  In the search for meaning every theory, criticism, and philosophy is incomplete but I tend to like Louis  Sullivan’s “Art is doing things right.”
          The interior has an asymmetrical gable ceiling and a continuous band clerestories along  the south wall. 
          By the way, this house is on today’s house tour.
          Sonoma Coast House is a whole house makeover.  It sits on the bluff at The Sea Ranch  and had been built with a number of sloping walls with conventional windows in them.          
          They leaked profusely and although we preserved the sloping walls the new house has very little similarity to the original.
          Working with the sloping walls was in some ways counter intuitive, yet for me intuition  played a significant role in the design process.  Intuition often gets a bad rap, but I think it can be a valuable design tool.
          Integrating an entry onto the sloping wall was very challenging.  By making the entry   element appear as a free-standing trellis I seemingly avoided the difficult aesthetic  juncture.
          As in all of these projects natural landscaping helps achieve continuity with the larger  landscape. 
          Upon approach one passes beneath a huge shore pine.  From the interior one looks back out onto the old tree.  This braced frame replaces a former shear wall.
          The interior is quite complicated so a very limited material pallet was used – in this case    all surfaces are Douglas fir – a very warm hued local species.
          I think I know that you should look to yourself for answers, but do not hesitate to borrow (I don’t consider it stealing) from anyone or  anything. I certainly was aware of other architects using log columns, profile doors, exposed framing and industrial lighting…
          This is Malcolm Wells’ work on the left.  Many people and things have influenced me, but one of the first nature oriented architectural philosophies to really catch my attention  was Malcolm Wells’ comparison of the natural to the man-made in “The Absolutely Constant Incontestably Stable Architectural Value Scale.”  Quite a mouthful.  In this system performance is rated based on its positive or negative affect on things like pure air, pure water, wildlife habitat, and so forth. 
          Bill Turnbull’s Zimmerman House is on the right.  Bill had a great   architectural sense of the landscape and, I believe, is very much under appreciated.
          In the 1980s all manner of solar heating and controls were being experimented with. By the 1990s awareness of environmental issues were beginning to reach the architectural profession at large and concern with style began to include concern for the environment.
          As human densities have increased so have our impacts on the environment – the   landscape – and so have the calls for more rules, codes, and oversights regarding every   aspect of construction:  water, sewage, materials, structure, …The best part of so called “green architecture” for me is that perhaps it will raise general awareness that Mother Earth is beginning to squirm a bit – perhaps quite a bit!
          Some say environmental consciousness has arrived – at least that’s the talk.  You would  think that we can’t help but create “green architecture” – practically every product we specify is touted as green or eco-friendly or sustainable.  Everyone claims to be part of the solution, but what solution?  We follow some agency’s guidelines, perhaps feel good about ourselves, and continue business as usual. 
          The continuing problem is that reductions in impact are soon offset by increases in  population.  Further regulations just continue a cycle of ever increasing depletion of  resources. This is not sustainability – it’s postponement!
          Here is a U.S. Population graph – world population graphs are similar. With birth rates  being higher than death rates the population obviously increases continuously.  And the  greater the number the greater the increase.
          Any thought of human sustainability has to be rooted in population stabilization and I  presume this means stabilization of the economy and as such is a topic that is taboo for politicians and just about everyone else (including you and me) –  no one ever mentions  the “P” word.  It’s common sense that we can achieve population stability more easily with 5 billion than 10 billion, more easily with 10 billion than 15 billion – what sense is  there in continuing to increase our numbers?
          Other than air this is my favorite resource. Numerous governing agencies regulate and  restrict water usage in the name of “green philosophy” but the next day these or other agencies approve the increase of more housing and/or greater densities
          More people need water so we make do with less water so we can accommodate more  people.  That may not sound like good news, but you haven’t heard the really bad  news…
          We are all so involved with our own lives and society that it is difficult to have a good   sense of how the total system works and our impact on the rest of our planet.  We require     massive supply and refuse systems to keep our society functioning.  According to National Geographic in an average lifetime each person’s impact (often called the human  footprint) will:
·         Use 1.8 million gallons of water
·         Burn 31,350 gallons of gasoline
·         Use 29,700 pounds of plastic
·         Use 43,371 aluminum cans
·         Discard 64 tons of garbage to landfills
·         Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera
          I see conserving water as actually detrimental to the environment because the more we  conserve – the more we sacrifice – the more people we can accommodate to ravage the  earth in a plethora of other ways.  It’s not just water that is the culprit, it’s everything that befriends population growth – seemingly good things like clean energy, disease control, increased food production, and on and on.
          As resources diminish our options are reduced and the quality of life is inevitably reduced. Many reductions occur slowly enough that we don’t necessarily even take      notice – perhaps things like the incremental replacement of the land with development. We don’t have very compassionate ethics for developing the natural landscape – most lots are essentially placemats for houses and offer the inhabitants little exchange with their surroundings.
          Other reductions can occur catastrophically – like the paving of the LA River or the  American Plains Indians’ horrific loss of land and entire way of life through non- indigenous hunting and targeted killing to eliminate their food and resource supply, the buffalo.  It is estimated that between 1868 and 1885 the buffalo population dropped from  31 million to 500 and the Native American population in the 19th century dropped from 1 million to 237 thousand.
          This is not my idea of minimalist architecture in the future – rather it’s a poignant reminder that while we may think of pure air and water as our most valuable resources – our freedom and quality of life are also being eroded away.
          Every year there are added restrictions…
          So now we’ve some full circle – my inherent sympathies are with preserving the natural landscape.  I think of us as a species among species where the golden rule might apply to all life – “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
          I hope I’ve given you food for thought and that something from this morning’s  presentation will prove helpful to your own work and practice.  Thank you.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Obie gave the following presentation at last month’s CRAN (Custom Residential Architects Network) Symposium.  The first half of the basic text and images is posted here and the second half will be posted next month.

          I’ve always had a strong affinity for the natural landscape and as a result have acquired a lot of insight – not the least of which is how little I really know – nevertheless I hope to  pass on some things I think I know.
          I’ve only got time to barely touch on a number of topics I feel are important but the  primary intent is to try to be helpful to you so if you want to ask questions at any time go right ahead.
          I feel fortunate to have had both the opportunity, and what I feel is the responsibility, to  work in partnership with the natural landscape.
          I don’t necessarily expect you to think I know the things I think I know - you have to find your own priorities and your own way – but I have been paying attention to the  world around me for quite a while now.
          I think you’re going to like this presentation.
          By way of introduction I think a good place to start is with people – design is for people, not publications or allegiance to a particular methodology – the whole purpose of architecture is to support our way of life.
          The earth is an extraordinary place – there are more resources, more love, and more wonderful creations than we can dreams of...
          What’s better than young lovers on top of Notre Dame Cathedral?
          And there are more wonderful little children than we can embrace…But all of us are not created equal – or given equal opportunity.
          And this raises the issue of  how we determine what is fair, right, or wrong – especiall  in a world as stressed and confused as ours?  What does it all mean?
          As a student and afterwards I long struggled with the search for meaning – in architecture and in life.  Eventually I came to see that there were so many things beyond my control that all I could really determine was how I respond to life’s actions upon me.
          Another thing that contributes to meaning for me is that I am grateful to have been born a  human rather than one of a myriad of other creatures and for not having life cut short in my youth – I think this has resulted in a strong personal work ethic.
          We architects are fortunate to have numerous sources to consider for guides to architectural meaning as well as a source of inspiration.  Our architectural history includes a tremendous heritage of nature conscious architects – HH Richardson, Sullivan, Wright, and others.  Sullivan more for his proselytizing and Wright more for his doing. 
          This drawing is titled Louis Sullivan Contemplating Coexistence with Nature.  Many  buildings are diminished by age, but many Wright houses only improve, like this, the Millard House in Pasadena.
          Other poignant sources of meaning and inspiration are the agricultural structures that dot the rural landscape.  These structures often have more meaning for me than most of  their design refined contemporaries.
          I suspect the strong, simple values of their builders had a lot to do with the strong, simple forms, and, sometimes, intense sense of belonging of these straight-forward buildings.
          I’m sure many of the most important values I bring to my work are the outgrowth of  experiences of my youth.
          I grew up in the San Fernando Valley at a time when it was predominantly agricultural -  alfalfa fields, orange and walnut groves – and the Los Angeles River was a wonderful  source of boyhood experience.  I became particularly interested in reptiles and amphibians.
          As I grew up other interests attracted my attention: things like girls, football, and cars – I went off to college – and at some point realized that the river’s wildness had been  replaced with a concrete channel and the land with a desolate suburbanization.
          This trauma created a paradox I have struggled with ever since – a love of architecture and a need to respect the natural landscape.
          After working a few years in Los Angeles I decided to leave the city, go out on my own, and have a small scale, lower impact practice in a rural setting. 
          This is The Sea Ranch here on the Sonoma County Coast where I had my first office for  over 25 years.  It is a development deeply conscious  of trying to work with and preserve the natural landscape.
          Although my first project received a lot of recognition it took many years (a decade)   before I felt like I had a handle on who I was and what I wanted to do as an architect.     would spend a lot of time at the site, do a site analysis, but it took a lot of experience to meld my feelings and intuition with cognitive analysis of the project
          Over years I eventually came to see that much of what I cared about – and was good at – had to do with siting buildings in the landscape.  I think this was because  it was something I truly cared about.  There are a few things I think I know that I would like to share with you so I’m going to include them in some projects I’m about to show.
          This is the Brunsell House which I think of as the first house where I pretty much got the entire  project under control – not perfect, but without many glaring deficiencies.
          Probably the most significant thing I can share is the idea – the value – of working with  the opportunities of the site – partnering with the landscape. 
          An open, flat site like this with very little to relate to is probably the most difficult siting challenge there is.  By using an earth covered roof the house repeats the slope of the  coastal hills and with a Zen yin and yang-like solution the house is not only a part of the     meadow, the meadow is also a part of the house.
          This is a passive solar house in a coastal meadow with northerly winds being deflected  up and over the southerly glazing and sunken deck.
          I obviously wanted to continue the native landscape onto the roof and this raised a number of concerns like “what about gophers?”
          Over the years I’ve come to believe that there is real value to the native species of plants and animals if we are able to retain continuity – not wall them off from the land that was once as much theirs as ours.
          On the left we see the southerly heat absorbing glass with an exhaust plenum above so unwanted heat can be bled off right at the source.
          This was the first time I used tree trunk columns, sloped glazing, and numerous other  nature inspired elements.
          Tom & Karin’s Place is set in a costal forest and seeks to preserve both the forest and the “feel” of being in the forest – as opposed to being inside looking out conventional windows at tree trunks. 
          When we were doing the program I told Karin I understood preserving the forest – that  we would preserve the trees and just clean up the duff and broken branches – and she said  “Why would we do that – they’re part of the forest, too” – Boy, she really means it!
          To achieve this we made a narrow house with high walls of glass on opposing sides. 
          The composition is a black shingle core with redwood and/or glass appendages.
          The feel of the forest extends to the exterior and like the black finish on the eyepiece of binoculars, here the black surround is used to increase the visual contrast and allow the forest to “read” right through the house.
          On the one hand this is a pretty simple box, but it has been pushed considerably – I’m  always pushing myself towards a little higher achievement level.
          One of the things that is accomplished the use of sloped glass is that it allows the space  to push beyond the perceived perimeter wall of the building – and you experience this much in the way you might experience a solarium.
          Sometimes I think of design as searching for a kind of least common denominator for the key components of the project – the strongest, simplest, most compelling I can find.  The  primary issues I think about are the program, circulation, space/form, and light – usually in relation to the larger context.
          This is Pins Sur Mer on the Mendocino coast and I would like to use as an example of  being inclusive versus exclusive.
            Exclusive might be a perfectly complete little jewel box like Philip Johnson’s Glass House or Mies’ Farnsworth House.  Inclusive might be a more eclectic collection of parts  like Richardson’s Glessner House or Charles Moore’s Condominium 1.
          The house is near Point Arena, one of the foggiest places on the coast so I was very  conscious of the need for good natural light. 
          About half way through the design the client said she wanted wrap around covered porches on at least two sides. 
          Of course I freaked out but eventually common sense prevailed and to solve the problem pulled the entry deep into the center where we skylit it, opened it up with clerestories to  all the surrounding rooms, and thereby more than made up for the light reduced by the covered porches.
          And the (4) log columns became the main structural elements of the house
          This is the living room on the left and the dining room on the right looking back towards  the entry.
          By going with the flow and accepting an inclusive mindset I ended up with a better result than I would have had without the inclusion!