This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in his Northern California studio.
I.It’s interesting how we find our ways in life. I mean it’s hard for me to think of myself
being anything other than an architect…maybe an industrial designer or a plannerof some sort.And of all the places I could be working, here I am mentoring under you
and being truly exposed to the hand of Mother Nature.
A.Life is like that.There’s good and there’s bad coming at us, and all we can really do is choose
how we’re going to respond to it.
I.Truthfully, I often am not sure how to respond to many
of the surprises life seems to constantly throw at me.I try to be thoughtful and I think about so many
of our predecessors who have set examples for us.And somehow all of this helps to mold us into
who we are today. “L’Architecture aujourd’hui” the French might say.So what are some of the big influences that
have helped shape you as an architect?
A.Without my mother I wouldn‘t be here.
about your dad?
A.Not so much.My
mother, while very average in many ways, exemplified persistence and tenacity.I think I’ve used those characteristics to
help push myself and my work to a higher level than it might otherwise have
achieved.Bill Clark, the American
Cemetery at Verdun, the paving of the Los Angeles River, the children at Smile
Train and Shriners Hospitals come to mind.Architecturally, Jon Jerde had a significant influence on me.In Jon I saw the possibility of working at a
level way above the status quo …that was inspiring.
I.What other architects have inspired you?
A.Louis Kahn, Bill Turnbull, and Steve Martino come to
mind immediately, but every spark of brilliance is uplifting. And a couple of
artists: Rico Lebrun and Jerald Silva. There is something particularly poignant
about witnessing the genius of my contemporaries first hand.
I.And what about literature?
A.My Ántonia by Willa Cather, Design with
Nature by Jean Paul Grillo, Hermann Hesse novels, and Bob Dylan’s songs.As I go through life I pick up pieces here
and there hundreds of them – but I’m really not a disciple of any of them.I’ve been devoted enough to continue my own
search and I’ve pretty much managed to find my own way. I’ve made a lot of
mistakes and experienced my share of poor judgment and low self-esteem, but
now, in my later years I feel somewhat at peace with myself although I seem to have
more concern for nature and the landscape than for myself.
I.I’m not even sure exactly what I’m trying to get
at.I guess I’m trying to suck some insight,
some short cut answers out of you.
A.You’re more than welcome.I’m glad to help. That reminds me of Gene
Mackey telling me about his father, St. Louis Architect Gene Mackey Jr., and
his partner who were on their way to a design conference in Michigan and
stopped in to see Eero Saarinen.When they
told Eero the reason for their trip Eero puffed on his cigar and said something
like “You boys might as well just turn around and go home now.You’re not going to find any answers at a
conference here.All the answers you are
seeking are on your desks back in St. Louis.
I.You seem to always have a story.
A.I listen a lot. I listen for the occasional gem. These days I try hard to listen to Mother
Nature but it’s so very hard to hear her…it’s mostly a matter of noting what
works well and what doesn’t work so well.With that in mind I might add that I’ve learned a lot about the world
from fishing.Things like the difference
between what you think you know, what others say, the way you would like it to
be, and the way it really is.The way it
really is often evades comprehension - mostly we just catch glimpses of how it
I.This could get discouraging.
A.I know, but I think that with a positive attitude and
plenty of persistence you have a good chance of finding you own way…something
few attempt and even fewer still ever achieve.
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 thereis?
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
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 museumwhere large groups of people are
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 asthe gatekeepers of the planet.
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,
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 optimalgoals, 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.
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?
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 andCC&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.
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
interventionisthat whileit may help upgrade projects near
the bottom of the barrel, it
invariably also downgrades the cream near the top.Work
with visionbeyond 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.
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
A.You want to play hardball now?Okay. Two hundred years ago there was moresimilarity 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 anddiverse 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 thesame 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 thereare manyamong uswho 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 bemore
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?
I.Animal Farm. You’re saying that there were the
simple straightforward houses of the past
gatheredinto 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.
economic status combined with exposure to a plethora of stylisticpossibilities 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, aWestern
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 havereduced
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, butI 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.
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…
used tofind it interesting thata designproblem could so often besolvedby 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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
quite impressive, Boss.
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?
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
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 torun
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
matter...in 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, especiallyif 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.
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 asperfectly
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.
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
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 faroff 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!
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…
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
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.
A.It’s not ethereal, but it’s not simple, formulaic thinking
either.In fact it’s onlypartially thinking…and partially feeling
and partially demanding…
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
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 biggerpicture. 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
A.Try harder.Why don’t you
start searching on your work station right aboutnow?