Saturday, July 1, 2017



To be able to elevate our work and actions we need to know what we are doing and why:  Are we working for ourselves, our clients, mankind, God?  What is most important?  Along this line of inquiry I sometimes wonder which aspect of man’s legacy might be the most uniquely defining when viewed from a distant future.  Might it be our affinity for art like Beethoven’s Fifth?... or our technical acumen like the international space station?  both impressive to be sure.

But I think I would give serious consideration to man’s innate ability to show compassion.  The extent to which we are able to empathize must have evolved from initial compassion for other humans as a beneficial trait for our collective survival.  Today we can feel compassion both for one another and countless beasts as well, including those we do not actually know or see, but might only be aware of or might imagine.  As our numbers continue to overrun and displace so many of our fellow species they are now in ever growing need of our empathy and compassion.

An excerpt from a missive illustrating compassion:  “A female humpback whale had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines.  She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat.  She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, a line tugging in her mouth.  This is her story of giving gratitude.  A fisherman spotted her just east of the Faralon Islands (outside the Golden Gate) and radioed for help.  Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined she was so badly off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her...a very dangerous proposition.  One slap of the tail could kill a rescuer.  They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her.  When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles.  She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, nudged them, and pushed gently, thanking them.  Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives.  The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth says her eye was following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.”

Compassion may not be a common trait throughout the universe, and may not continue to be a trait of our species in the future, although I like to think of us that way.  Some religions claim that the other beings on earth are here to serve our wants and needs.  I see us simply as a species among species and it is only by the luck of the draw that you and I are we rather than them, that, or it.  Compassion takes on a little different meaning once the point of view is changed and the old Mosaic adage applies as much or more appropriate than ever:  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

And I, Their Sister, Once Was As They                              And I, Their Brother, Once Was As They

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Notes to a Young Architect: Humility

I have always been rather thoughtful but never particularly quick at processing information.  I am a slow reader and few things ever seem completely black or white to me.  I recall participating in college seminars where some of my contemporaries would give immediate, reasonably sounding responses to the discussion at hand, while I, who seemed to have more architectural insight, was uncertain as to how to respond to what I perceived as unclear and polarized issues.  I didn’t see how others could respond so quickly and sound so sure of themselves.  Years later I came to see that mostly their approach was to rally behind a main idea or two and ignore the numerous related implications and consequences.  In some cases these related considerations were likely just dismissed as inconsequential but in many others were not even perceived to exist.  Often times the overly self-confident among us actually don’t even know that they don’t know. 

It’s probably good strategy to assume that there are other points of view which are just as meritorious as yours, and quite possibly better (!).  If another point of view has been thoughtfully considered (sometimes this seems like an awfully big if) there is probably some merit to it that should be addressed.  Any one mindset is bound to have flaws, all the more so when you consider that our understanding and communication systems evolved to help achieve basic survival, not a comprehensive grasp of unbounded nature and 21st century civilization, both of which are always in a state of constant change.  Is it possible that the universe is a stranger place than we are even capable of imagining it to be? Will we ever understand quantum mechanics and dark energy or be able to describe the taste of chocolate and the smell of ocean spray?  Thinking seriously about all this can sober one up to the folly of presumptiveness and the value of having a little humility. 

One of the biggest obstacles to creative thinking is limiting your learning to information and creative sources you are already comfortable with.  In today’s complex and competitive world this is almost certainly a recipe for mediocrity.  To use a sports analogy it’s like reviewing games in which you were successful, but ignoring games in which you got beat.  Losses usually provide the more valuable lessons because they are the ones that expose weaknesses and inability to counter opposition.  Facing up to and accepting your shortcomings can be instrumental in focusing your perception of the world around you.  Many of us lack the humility to accept that we are not as insightful or gifted as we would like and opt for a lifetime of denial in the company of other like-minded folks.  As our former Secretary of State advised if you and your friends all agree with one another you probably need to get some new friends.

The more complete your input the broader your base and the more inclusive your thinking and decision making will be.  Even if the final output is necessarily brief or exclusive, at least it will have been built upon a well-considered and grounded foundation.  You would think more of us would possess a healthy amount of humility, but this doesn’t seem to be the case and too often the loudest, most confident sounding or most political among us garner the most attention.  I don’t see humility as thinking less of yourself, it is just thinking of yourself less.

Obie's portrait of Malcolm Wells and one of Malcolm's cartoons

Monday, May 1, 2017

Pencil Drawing

Echo Park drawn from studio window

As a young architecture student my older cousin and mentor architect Bill Clark introduced me to Theodore Kautzky’s Pencil Broadsides. This introduced me to drawing with a chisel point and was an interesting approach, but I was ore attracted to the fluidity of draftsman like Rico Lebrun and others.  These two drawings were done while at Cal in the mid-1960s using chisel points and the other by softening the edges with an eraser.

I seldom draw in pencil today seeming to prefer either rolling ball or technical type pens or traditional dip pens and ink.  This is probably because I can get blacker blacks with ink and I love pushing the value range from the whitest whites to the darkest blacks.  Nevertheless I sometimes do quick sketches using a thick pencil combined with color markers or watercolor washes.  Here the texture of the graphite can provide appealing contrast with the smooth color wash beneath as seen in these two flower studies.

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.”