Thursday, February 1, 2018

Less is More

This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in the architect’s Northern California studio.


I.          Try this one, Maestro.  What’s the bottom line, the real bottom line?  Is love all there is?
A.        Plato said something like love is an unfortunate disorder of the heart and brain.  I’m  not sure what part it will play for our continual survival in the far distant future.  Is that all you’ve got?  How about some hardball?

I.          Okay, any sage advice on women?

A.        Now, that’s hitting below the belt…reminds me of when I ask my wife what I can do  to make up for some despicable transgression I’ve committed.  She has these demonic, underhanded responses that only a woman would make like “smile more” or  “dance more” or “drink more water.”

I.          That’s what I mean.  What’s wrong with women anyway?

A.        It’s certainly a mystery, that’s for sure.

I.          Well, I was talking to your wife the other day and I think she is a really good partner for you.

A.        Okay, and why do I think this is not just a nice compliment?

I.          She said she feels badly that with your talent you aren’t doing more prestigious projects…that your decision to move to the country has limited your professional  growth.  Does that bother you?

A.        Oh, I’m sometimes envious when I see someone doing a project with more physical  and cultural presence, a multimillion dollar sculpture museum or the like.  But I made  the choice to live closer to nature and practice architecture with less physical impact on the landscape.  I have no regrets in this regard.

I.          Remodeling a vacation house isn’t as significant as designing a church or museum where large groups of people are affected.           

A.                Perhaps.  Out here our buildings interface with the natural landscape first hand, whether it’s dealing with muddy shoes, or carpenter bees, or leaf  build-up on roofs.  The church or museum can be fantastic – they can also be (as they sometimes are) a little like Disneyland for adults.  Our work here is rubbing   shoulders with something larger, and for me, more significant than the common narcissistic view of ourselves as the gatekeepers of the planet.

            You may have noticed that through architecture, little by little, we are constantly learning about ourselves and the world around us, and that we are doing this largely because of the projects we design and build.  There is a more personal connection with their small scale and our more fully engaged involvement with their creation and the setting they are part of.

I.          It sounds like you’re talking about some kind of regionalism, right?
A.        I’ve never been comfortable with “isms.” There are many architectural talents working today and  some of them talk about siting their buildings, others about listening to the sun and wind and the land whispering to them. Perhaps this is so, but much of what is printed in most popular magazines is little more than lip service.  Too many architects who espouse this stuff are blatantly disingenuous and the same is true for many landscape architects.  And no magazine ever seems to question any of this:  they just mindlessly print whatever is the talk of the day.  It's pretty superficial.
I.          You mean they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk?
A.        Something like that… politically correct, high fashion donor dinners are a long way from personal responsibility, laws of survival, and mid-western slaughter houses.

I.          So you want them to fight a bear with nothing but a Bowie knife?

A.        No, but I would sure like to see some appreciation and treatment of the landscape as more than a cosmetic backdrop.  I would like to see buildings placed into the landscape with a smidgen of empathy for the inhabitants that pre-existed construction.

I.          Do I sense an air of bitterness?

A.        Just a sense of disappointment.  But that’s why I’m Okay with our work and our lifestyle.  Cutting firewood, picking apples, and dealing with the heat and cold of the seasons helps me remember that I’m alive, at least for now.  And I don’t feel too sorry for those not motivated to try to figure how to get out of the city.

            You know, I think of successfully partnering with the landscape as one of my optimal  goals, but really, I almost never achieve this to the degree I’d like, and  that’s a little disheartening to me.  Life is a struggle, but I don’t know that I’d want it any other way.  This weekend they will be marching and protesting in the streets of San Francisco while I’ll be building memories catching bass on Lake Sonoma.   Sometimes less really is more.



Monday, January 1, 2018

Design Review

This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in the architect’s Northern California studio.

I.          Are you ready?

A.        Certainly.

I.          Okay.  Here it is:  Design Committees.  They seem to be part of the status quo and I wonder what you have to say about them.  I know we joke about them, but…

A.        They’re really not a joking matter. Another layer of filter fabric. When you mention design committees I also think of their first cousins planning departments and   CC&Rs.  The good news is that they have helped preserve some of the nostalgic qualities of our built environments – I’m thinking of places like Santa Barbara, Ferndale, and The Sea Ranch here in California.  Without governing oversight they all would be infused with McDonalds, Jiffy Lubes and  Tuscan spec houses.  Remember our chats about diversity?  Well, here is a case for unity and you may remember that one of the perils of too much unity can be an inability to adapt to change.  How do you like solar panels on those Santa Barbara moss and lichen covered Spanish roof tiles?  Perhaps a bit incongruous.
            We are trying to  make sense of things with words and numbers and limited  insight…but that’s another story.  I think the most unfortunate part of  governing design review and intervention is  that while  it may help upgrade projects near the bottom of the barrel, it invariably also downgrades the cream near the top.   Work with vision  beyond the status quo doesn’t fit neatly into approved sets of pre-established rules and regulations and are all too often castigated because  of their  lack of congruity with them.

            Where design review really fails is in its inability to grapple with the underlying  big   picture issues. We humans are primarily visually oriented and it’s no surprise that most design review focuses on evaluating facades and appeasing neighbors.  Of vastly greater significance are intentions, responding to the spirit of the place, and adapting to the physical reality of the land itself.

I.          How do you design review a project’s “Spirit of the Place”?           

A.        You want to play hardball now?  Okay. Two hundred years ago there was more similarity between places – take houses for the sake of argument – because most inhabitants, their material availability, and their construction technology had a similarity about them. That is just not the case with a culture as fast changing and diverse as ours is today. Peoples’ dreams, preferences, and ideas of home can and are spread all over the map – literally.

I.          So what do you think is an appropriate response to today’s potpourri of styles? In the same town, if not the same neighborhood?

A.        The issue is one of values.  Rather than an agreed upon visual similarity –  like wearing private school uniforms – I favor searching for ways to make buildings as thoughtfully and skillfully as we can.  Some of us may actually do that,  but there      are many  among us  who just don’t care about doing things better.  I might be  more sympathetic to design reviews that nurtured sincerity, purpose, and intent   rather   than aesthetic judgments about roof slope, window placement, and impact on pre-existing neighbors who didn’t think their  project through sufficiently to begin with.  Let’s say we have a project which genuinely tries to embrace all these things, but the building, even its visual qualities – is still awful.  I suppose we then have to live with the design review’s determination as to whether there should be more visual unity or diversity.  It’s a little like relying on one’s union to help determine whether we should vote more progressively or conservatively.

I.          You know what I’m thinking?

A.        No, what?

I.          Animal Farm. You’re saying that there were the simple straightforward houses of the past gathered  into neighborhoods that tended to have a consistency brought about by  consistency of their circumstances – similar culture, economy, material availability, and so forth.  I think of traditional Italian hillside towns.  And then today it is not uncommon to have neighborhoods with somewhat diverse cultures and economies.   And of course material availability is primarily an economic issue.

A.        Exactly.  Greater economic status combined with exposure to a plethora of stylistic possibilities leaves the door wide open. And because we are so easily satisfied with appearances, whether real or not, the integrity of making buildings has diminished accordingly. And very few of us really notice or care.  By the way, a beautifully presented mini treatise on this issue is included in The Place of Houses’ discussion on Edgartown in Massachusetts.

I.          I’ll check it out, but let’s say there is a Spanish Hacienda set well back off the street, a  Western Ranch House, a Neutra, and a handful of Tuscan knock-offs. The owners are all good, well-meaning citizens.  Is there a problem?

A.        There is only a problem when viewed through the lens of our most successful  achievements with the built environment. In your scenario the individual buildings don’t seem to be working either with the landscape or with each other to achieve a greater whole.  This falls short by most people’s standards for grouping buildings.   Because of unprecedented rate of change and progress we are experiencing for us to know. Eventually all this probably has nothing to do with us – it’s probably some unknowable sphere of energy and indiscriminant  elements.

I.          Let’s not go there. 

A.        I like to think that in the next 10 to 100 thousand years human population will have  reduced to a few billion or so with a truly stable population (although still for only an epoch or two).  Half the other species will probably be extinct, but the remaining half  might be left to live their lives free from our continuous meddling and management.

I.          Do I sense the sliding scale of diversity, unity, order and chaos coming back into play here?

A.        It’s a Catch 22.  Progressives may argue for more localized diversity of people, but    wonder how they square this with localized diversity of flora and fauna.  Are zebra  mussels in the Great Lakes, boas in the Everglades, Pampas Grass along the Pacific coast a  positive thing?  Ecologically speaking the bottom line is whatever is most  conducive for survival…and that’s a future our eyes cannot see.

I.          So what about Design Review?

A.        I suppose we have to eat crow or swallow a bitter pill for now and hope for the best in the future because the process is beautiful, destructive, confused, and contradictory.  And if that synopsis doesn’t quite make sense then we can at least take  some solace in the thought that the universe and everything in it are not under any obligation to make sense to us anyway.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Between Order and Chaos

I.          I  was  thinking  about  chocolate ice cream in my freezer last night and  how in our studio we  usually don’t champion any one way of doing things. We usually try to at least think about the merits of opposing ways of seeing the world…

A.      I used to  find it interesting that  a design  problem could so often be  solved  by approaching it from diametrically opposed positions.  For example, if a form works well elongated in the north south direction it can be eye opening to force oneself to consider the merits, the pros and cons, of elongating it in the east west direction.  I say “used to” because over the years I’ve come to try not to look at the world in such a segmented way – now things seem to be part of some amorphous smear on a continuous Cartesian grid with our conception of right and wrong,  order and chaos,  black and white –  in continuous motion –  moving, changing and evolving through time…countless variations affected by countless nuances.

I.         That’s pretty weird, pretty ethereal; what about the value of a clear crisp statement?  That would be nice for the builder to hear, wouldn’t it?  It wouldn’t be bad for me to hear either.

A.        Clear crisp statements are necessary for decisive actions, but inevitably ignore the nuances that provide much life and color. So anything too definitive may be ideal at the moment, but maybe not so ideal at the next moment.  Does the phrase “the slow ones now will later be fast” ring a bell?

I.         No, but I get defining ourselves and setting some markers or guide posts for the future so we can judge how we’re doing with life and work.

A.        A narrow mindset, viewing the world with blinders, may be good in some instances, but it is almost certainly not the end-all.  Those that would have you believe otherwise are probably short on vision and just don’t know any better.

I.         Do you think we’re even on the same page? How do you square all this with our need for cultural diversity? 

A.        I think you just skipped a few pages.  All what?

I.          Everything; art, architecture, life, culture…

A.        Well, in this century you could easily argue in favor of less diversity. I don’t think  we are short on diversity.  It’s popular today to advocate human diversity and the explanation goes something like diversity is good because that is what the U.S. population has been made up of for the last three hundred years. Then the narrative stops –  no real analysis, no depth, no  downside …so here are a couple things to consider:

            First, diversity without order or control can quickly devolve into chaos.   I’m not sure there was much less diversity back then than there is today, but it’s much easier to have a strong, unified society with less diversity.  Here also unity can devolve into rigidity and an inability to adapt to changing conditions.  Obviously there is a Goldilocks zone between unity and diversity that serves the greatest good at any one time.  In architecture I think of these polarized states as order and   chaos.

            Second, assume we champion even more diversity of humanity.  Why are we doing so?  Just to be doing it?  The good and the bad? Do we also champion and encourage diversity of life itself? Do we have empathy for the other inhabitants of the planet and champion diversity and sufficient habitat for all species? 

I.          Do you mean animals like birds and banana slugs?  What about plants?

A.        I’d say diversity of life is more important than diversity of culture and the total array of life seems to be on a downward path.  The human diversity I’m talking about is tied to immigration and the addition of more people adds to a population that is already overburdened.  Our resources are dwindling, our quality of life is diminishing, native species are being marginalized and pushed to the brink of extinction, pollution is everywhere – the list goes on and on. We are already sufficiently diverse to assure a good mix of our gene pool and more people mean \more problems. A doubling of the American population would result in a very different America.  The land would become one giant food processing system, cities merged together, regulations would greatly increase, and wildlife habitats would be reduced to a series of parks and preserves. 

I.      Back before we skipped pages – whatever happened to order and chaos in architecture?

A.        You’re the one who raised the issue, but it’s all pretty much the same thing.  It’s    finding that zone where neither more order nor more chaos improves things.  In architectural practice we’re usually lucky if we can find a solution  reasonably close to the zone and depending on the circumstances the zone may be anywhere   between these polar extremes.

I.          How do you form these thoughts?  Do you feel them intuitively or have you thought them through analytically?

A.        It’s pretty much a combination of both, but the passion comes from deep within and I sense that my insight comes from a pretty good place  – it’s a broad view from beyond the foibles of the human menagerie…insightful probably, but a fit for today’s reality probably not. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I Think…Group Think

This is part of an on-going series of  periodic posts written as short discussions between an architect and his intern dating back to the October 1, 2017 post and beyond.

I.          I was thinking about that anchor point you sometimes talk about and wondering… the way so many architects, and others, seem to think alike, do they have simpatico anchor points? 

A.        Perhaps, but just as plausible is that their thinking is influenced by people around them as well as by the rigors of life and the daily grind.

I.          In our studio it seems that much of the rigor is working to get through and around all the various agencies we have to deal with.  Why aren’t we working in the same direction? Why aren’t we all part of the same team and working towards the same goals...

A.         That would be ideal, but too often we don’t receive much empathy from the powers that be.  In these times when we are being inundated with countless new rules and regulations helping to maintain order as our population runs rampant it is important to me to preserve as many individual freedoms as possible.  My inherent DNA leans towards individualism and away from the many forms of  governing directives and group thinking. Somewhere between these two poles, the  individual and the public at large, lies the scrimmage line where constant give and take struggle to find an acceptable balance.

I.          It sounds like you are talking “fair and balanced” (tongue in cheek).

A.    The scrimmage line for us is obtaining permits via the governing agencies – building departments, planning departments, design committees – administering generalized design oversight which is often not particularly in the best interest of our specific project, and in my view, not even in the best interest of the overall community – unless you think the Guggenheim diminishes the border along Central Park or the Disney Concert Hall is an affront to the Los Angeles city fabric.

I.          I know governing agencies are generally not held in high esteem and disregard of codes and regulations is commonplace,  but what a shame – to have rules and then maneuver around or ignore them.  Are the rules inadequately drafted to begin with?  What gives?

A.        It reminds you a bit of the country at large, doesn’t it? I think the underlying problem is that generalized regulations inevitably intrude on and limit individual circumstances.  Envision a group of our contemporaries sitting around a table discussing ways to makes the general public safer, or perhaps more aesthetically coherent assuming things should be less diverse or more diverse.  Consider a simplistic example like flow restrictions on plumbing fixtures – they regulate  how much water you can use to take a shower or flush a toilet.  I see     this as an individual need or   preference, not some universal constant.  And in a lot cases the fixture just gets changed out in spite of the requirement.  The whole mindset is wrong. Perhaps many such requirements should be “suggestions” only.  Or maybe water should be controlled by raising the usage cost…

I.                  I know you’re big on water rights, but...

A.        Perhaps I should have used a different example.  How about lights, guardrails, door swings, grading, solar orientation, fireplaces...

I.          So what about diversity?  That’s a popular buzz word these days.

A.        Diversity and uniformity are areas near the ends of the same composition scale.  Depending on the circumstance sometimes you want more of one than the other.  Our perspective, however, is flexible and changing. It depends a lot on point of view, which reminds me of that anchor point. Where is it?  We may want    diversity, just not too much in our community. And perhaps rightly so.  Most of   us want a stable base of operation from which to run our daily lives.  When you come home after a day’s work you want to find your dog in the yard and your ice cream in the freezer.  After that you may be ready for some variety: perhaps a bar mitzvah, a piñata party, or a Chinese dinner.

I.          How about going to see a musical?

A.       We all have our limits. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.  Just kidding, I actually took my wife to see Hair 48 years ago and Hamilton this year.

I.          That’s quite impressive, Boss.

A.       Anyway, individual accomplishments are largely the result of driving forces within each person and can be very deep and complex.  It’s difficult to find a group, committee, or agency   with this kind of motivation.  That’s why everything generally narrows down to an individual:  principal architect, president, coach, general, etcetera. In architecture there are design teams, even great ones, but so far no match for Michelangelo, Wright, Gehry…It does seem, however, that as our culture becomes less personal and more mass and technically oriented there has been a shift away from individuality and the heartfelt.  Of necessity there is greater emphasis on solving problems beyond the realm of any one individual.  It’s the difference between Wright designing Fallingwater and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designing an Apple Store or between them and NASA designing our space program.  There’s not a lot of history and cultural nuance in the space program, but it works great for survival in a hostile environment. 

I.         So do you see the growing reach of government control as endangerment to individual rights and freedoms?

A.        Absolutely, and as I often say the quality of life is being eroded as well.

 I.        Well, not many people can expect to have the kind of existence you’ve made for yourself out here in the woods.

A.       It’s sometimes difficult, but I started out with practically nothing; it’s a matter of getting your priorities straight and tenaciously pursuing them.

I.          And now group thinking is out there rattling their sabers at our gates.

A.        The groupies do not see the shortsightedness of their ways.  They even think they are the glue that holds everything together.  They will serve us a little justice and a daily bucket of warm water for bathing. Voila! The spirit of the individual will always resist, but individual thinking needs to be more forcefully  reflected   in  new rules, laws,  and regulations, which should  be carefully crafted to preserve the maximum amount of individual  flexibility.  This was the way President Kennedy dealt with the Soviet Union  during the Cuban Missile Crisis, giving them as much flexibility as possible, but this is seldom the way our building, planning, and design review regulations are structured today.

 I.         Go get’em, boss.

 A.       I wish I could.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bigger Picture

The scene:  Beginning of the workweek at an architect’s studio  somewhere in  Northern  California.  The seasoned old architect/mentor is greeted by his protégé, a young intern not long removed from architecture school lingering at the architect’s drawing table:

I.                   Good Morning, Boss.

A.        How’s it going Michelangelo?

I.                   You really think I’m doing that well?  This is pretty flattering...

A.        Don’t let it go to your head…I’m not an infallible judge of character, let alone world-class artistic genius.

I.          Have you got a few minutes?   I’ve been  thinking  about something and  I’d like  to  run it by you.  Is this an OK time?

A.        It’s fine, what’s on your mind?

I.        I’ve  been  thinking  a  lot  lately about good  and  bad.  It  seems like everything,  every architect, and everyone else for that spite of their stature and    accomplishments always have their flaws and shortcomings…where are the great role models?  I was thinking about Louis Kahn with all his poetic insight into humanity and architecture and here he had two different families and was running two different households.  Our founding fathers, Washington,  Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin all had plenty to criticize.  What do you say about that?

A.        And you’re just now noticing that the world’s not perfect? Man is a complex  creature with a whole range of qualities and potentials, and they range from the saintly to the horrific.  And then there are women. 

I.          Dishonesty, infidelity, segregation…

A.        I think it’s presumptuous to think one can stand in another’s shoes, especially if he or she is from a different generation or culture.  Looking back on different   times and different places and making moral judgments is iffy at best.  We’re all very much influenced by our upbringing and the time surrounding us.  So what do  we do with the hand we are dealt?  In any event whatever criticism may be laid against us does not negate whatever positive achievements we’ve made.

            I suspect that 200 years from now many of our progeny will look back and wonder how we could have had some of the thoughts you and I accept today as perfectly normal.  Perhaps herding animals for slaughter, fighting wars in the  name of religion or philosophy…It’s pretty short sighted to judge the totality of someone’s life just because that life includes sins.  It’s probably important,  however, that the good of a life’s work outweighs the bad.

I.          And who is going make those decisions?   Good or bad…how good and how bad?   I suppose in a free society it’s up to individuals to figure that out on their own.  It  obviously makes sense that we would want our positive actions to outweigh the negative ones.

            Do we keep tally on a kind of life long score card?  We could give Jefferson a few pluses and minuses on his personal life and more pluses for his architectural and political accomplishments.

A.        When you’re talking far reaching affects on huge swaths of humanity I’d give  him more than a few pluses.  Maybe a few for architecture and a few more for the University of Virginia, but writing the Declaration of Independence would be far off the charts.  Judging his personal life is a shot in the dark.  Viewpoints and times are always changing – I believe Bob Dylan said that.  Life’s quality is  inversely proportional to human quantity – I said that!

I.          Quite poetic.  Who’d have thought.

A.        And to think I actually had to take dumbbell English.  In my world we need to  focus on the thought and skill which results in the positive and disregard labeling and name calling: brutalist, transcendentalist, racist, liberal, conservative…

            Another thought:  stick with what you know.  If you establish a point of  anchorage and move out from there you can occasionally look back and evaluate  the direction you are heading.

I.          That sounds good, but finding an anchor point is surely a lot easier said than done.

A.        Fair enough.  It might not be easy and it probably won’t just happen overnight.  You think and work and reflect and eventually something begins to merge out of  the ether.  

I.          Ohoooooo…

A.        It’s not ethereal, but it’s not simple, formulaic thinking either.  In fact it’s only partially thinking…and partially feeling and partially demanding…

I.          Demanding what?

A.        Demanding or insisting to be a step beyond the status quo.  This is Steve Martino, Mike Reynolds, Smiljan Radic - not the popular group think magazine serving of  the month.

I.          I’m losing track of what we’re even talking about.

A.        We’re talking about the ability to use peripheral vision.  To see beyond the short sighted narcissism that is commonplace, and grapple with the bigger picture. Too many of us view the world as little more than a snapshot of what is in it for us…for right now…with no sense of the past or future.

I.          I’m not sure I would recognize the bigger picture even if I saw it.

A.        Try harder.  Why don’t you start searching on your work station right about now?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Letters to a Young Architect: You Might Wonder

When you see references to the erosion of our freedom and quality of life, whether from me or others, you might wonder what the concern is all about.  After all, most of the referenced issues seem small and of little real consequence in light of the big picture of life,  and they arguably provide some benefits to society in any event:  for instance things like higher, more restrictive, and safer guardrails on houses, water and energy reductions for plumbing fixtures and appliances, solar orientation encouragement for new construction.  One concern is that the proliferation of new code requirements are seemingly unending.  The constant direction by those who think they know what is best for the rest of us spreads like the slow flow of molasses.  It’s like the parable of the frog placed in warm water that is very slowly heated with the end result that the unsuspecting frog never realizes that he has eventually been cooked to death.

California is presently striving to achieve net zero energy consumption for new houses.  Less use of our limited earthy energy sources (gas, electricity, wood) is apparently a good thing.  Right?  Absolutely, but think about the bottom line governing reason for transitioning to more plentiful energy sources. It’s pragmatic, shortsighted and self-serving:  to be able to squeeze in more people.  The nearby landscapes (and other species’ habitats) can be developed into more housing units and shopping centers and this is  where shortsightedness comes into play.  We may save some energy usage, but each additional person brings huge impacts on other freedoms and quality of life.  Not only does and will these new requirements  severely limit a plethora of choices from orientation of glass to selection and use of materials to the way houses are heated and cooled and water is used in every fixture, but it almost always implies that this is somehow good for one and all. Really?  Is the orientation of glass always best if it works well with solar gain?  What about privacy or views?  Does the State know what materials you should be surrounded by or how you should heat or cool your house?  Does the State really know how high your guardrails and handrails should be?  The growing number of regulations results in corresponding reductions  of both individual freedom and quality of life.

Rather than addressing the problems with more people controlled by less freedom and less quality of life why not strive for less people resulting in more freedom and more quality of life?