Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Meaning of Meaning

As a young architecture student at the University of Southern California I began my life-long search for meaning in life, art, and architecture, but it wasn’t until after graduation and marriage to Helena that I realized the only thing I could really control in life was how I responded to the world’s actions upon me.  I am grateful to have been born a human rather than one of a myriad of earth’s other creatures and for not having life cut short in my youth.  I believe this helped me achieve a greater sense of self-responsibility as well as an anathema towards making excuses.  This was the beginning, but what about a greater meaning beyond oneself?  What about meaning in the complex worlds of art and architecture?
There is a plethora of writings, analysis, theories, and criticisms trying to explain art and architecture – Vitruvius, Gideon, Mumford, Grillo, Read, Rodman, Regionalism, Huxtable , Venturi, Wabi Sabi,….each insightful in its own right,  but none able to achieve an absolute, indisputably complete synopsis.  Each inevitably contains inherent shortcomings.  It seems that we must accept the premise that meaning depends on values limited by our impermanent human perceptions and that these are not the values of Mother Nature or the Milky Way or beyond.  Our understanding, methods, and expressions are not universally constant, change with time and circumstance, and are further restrained by the limitations of our ability to communicate.
Some works may be marvels of technical, mechanical, or structural efficiency.  Others may successfully respond to or even anticipate a multitude of social, political or environmental developments.  These are characteristics that can be understood and attributed meaning fairly easily.  Without them the artist/architect will surely have fallen short, but even though our works may attain a high level of accomplishment they will probably never escape justified criticism based on differing points of view.
And then there are those times when it seems to be difficult to describe the sense of meaning one is experiencing.  It may bring a tear to your eye, a lump to your throat, or cause the hair to tingle on the back of your neck.  And what does that mean?  I don’t really know, but those are some of the times when I think back to Louis Sullivan’s profound aphorism that Art is doing things right.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Passive Ventilation

Using the building form itself to achieve natural cooling has been an interest of mine since I first discovered Sonoma County hop kilns over 40 years ago.  Although many of our vernacular agricultural buildings have ventilation cupolas or similar hot air escape features, the hop kiln chimneys were like cupolas on steroids – and were sometimes built in groups of two, three, or four.  Cupolas often have a classic refinement about them and they harken back many hundreds of years.  Whatever the projecting rooftop feature is, the idea behind it is quite simple:  hot air rises so therefore, let’s take advantage of, and even encourage it (!).


We have two sets of ventilation louvers on our Dry Creek Valley studio and two sets on our house, both of which were hoisted into place earlier this week.  That’s Dan Zirbes and Brian Nelson accomplishing the challenge while out of sight Darin Luran is doing the heavy pulling (white rope) and I am maintaining overall alignment (yellow rope).

Friday, July 1, 2016

Does Size Matter?

Yes and No.  Are we talking weapons of war or love?  I’m talking art and architecture and although bigger almost always has more impact, it doesn’t necessarily have more quality, heart, or appropriateness, or a host of other attributes.  In fact smaller often equates to greater intensity in some ways and has certainly proved to be capable of holding its own impact-wise.  Consider a poem or short story versus an epic novel.  Consider a Goya print versus a large mural - even Guernica.
I am often approached by potential clients with an apology that their project is so small that I might not be truly interested in it.  My response is always the same:  I’m not nearly so concerned with the size of the project as I am with the size of the client’s personal interest and commitment in the project.
Speaking of small projects, I’m just now beginning conceptualizing the invigoration of an existing courtyard near Geyserville.  A house and a garage sandwich the open space between them and there are views out the two remaining sides, but as built there is just no “there there.”  The possible solution shown here envisions a pair of octagonal sitting areas: one completely open and shaded only with an umbrella and the other wind protected and partially enclosed with sectional glass doors and a Kalwall roof assembly.  On calm days the doors can roll up under the roof allowing the courtyard to be open from end to end.  With a little good fortune we may end up with two “theres there.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Quality of Life

So is our quality of life getting better or worse?  Such a complex question may be largely a matter of one’s point of view, but in any case there are almost certain to be two primary lines of thought.  First are the benefits reaped from improved technology and second are the reduced options resulting from decreased resources and increased demand – things like space, air quality, water, and forest depletion. Technological developments expand our range of communications, improve medical knowledge and procedures, lead to greater understanding of our planet and universe, and provide us with material products benefitting every aspect of our lives.  A downside of this is that we invariably spend less time interacting directly with one another and our families although this issue can probably be worked out in the coming decades.

Reduced options resulting from decreased resources may take place over a lifetime or over many lifetimes and may not be readily apparent (similar to the experiment where a frog is subjugated to incrementally rising water temperature and it slowly dies without realizing what is happening to it).  A blatant example of notable depletion is the American Plains Indians’ horrific loss of space and buffalo.  As the country expanded westward the tribes were strangled for space and the buffalo herds nearly exterminated in order to starve the remaining tribes into accepting  submissive lives on reservations.  The buffalo herds decreased from an estimated 40 million to near the brink of extinction.

Decreased quality is ubiquitous: the flavor of fruit bought at super markets almost certainly lacks the flavor remembered from decades ago, the water pressure in showers has been reduced to enable more people to partake of limited water supplies, wood burning fireplaces are now outlawed in most municipalities due to atmospheric deterioration, the cost of good quality lumber like redwood or Douglas fir is so expensive that few can afford them. Buying usable land and/or building one’s own home are no longer realistic options for most people. 
Not only is there a continuous depletion of material resources, but as population grows and we are forced closer together more and more regulations and restrictions are mandated by government.  The depletion of the most valuable resource of all is the freedom to decide and orchestrate one’s own life style.  Reducing quality of life, even incrementally, in order to support greater quantities of humanity surely is not a brilliant strategy for our future.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Where The Sidewalk Ends

This month I want to set down my thoughts regarding that twilight zone where man-made construction ends and nature’s work begins.  The meeting that takes place is comprised of two very different worlds:  man’s rational construction, value systems, and treatment of the land versus nature’s unemotional life struggle in light of the circumstances at hand.
Unilaterally there is an on-going struggle for real estate sandwiched between these two combatants.  Man controls the situation by engaging in constant maintenance to keep his vision intact and the uninvited at bay as long as he can, but nature is relentless and eternally persistent.  This nether world is inevitably a combination of give and take and of segregation and integration.  Even the most substantial walls cannot keep out the likes of birds, flying insects, and seeds blowing in the wind so there is always some kind of merger and the question is how much and what kind.  Because our cultural perspective is so divergent from the workings of nature we tend to see the inevitable clashes as problems (rather than just natural processes working themselves out).  My moral preference has me wanting to intrude only so much as is required to assure “a fair fight.”…and then let nature take its course.
There is deserved concern about the effects on native plant and animal species, as well as their often resulting extinction brought about by man’s introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of non-native life forms.  Man’s pet cats ravage a host of small animal species and nature’s rodents and insects ravage a host of cultivars and her predators stalk the cats and man “controls” the predators. Examples like this are endless and it seems irresponsible when man introduces incompatible elements into the larger ecosystem and then has to work continually to maintain a particular look.  Mother Nature does not think too much about looks. 
The metaphorical sidewalk almost never ends – it continues to spread into the natural landscape at an alarming rate with no end in sight.  If a landscape is not compatible with, or at least considerate towards, the ecosystem that preceded it, then I think we are not thinking and feeling deeply enough.  An outstanding principle regarding where the sidewalk ends is that of preserving continuity as much as we can.  Without continuity there is separation, isolation, and a questionable future.  If we want to allow English ivy and pussy cats to run loose in the wild then we should also accept visitors from the meadows and forests onto our property.  Allowing gophers and gopher snakes might be a good start  ̶   It’s only a matter of one’s point of view.  But no matter how you see it “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is not just for Sundays.

Friday, April 1, 2016

I'm Sitting Here Wondering

I’m sitting here wondering about this month’s journal entry.  Usually an idea strikes me and I write about whatever is on my mind at the time.  I think about a lot of things but one recurring theme is how ineffectual I am in expressing my awareness that we are overpopulating ourselves out of a quality share of earth’s bounty.  Perhaps worse, we are displacing the rest of earth’s life forms with more people and more tracts, suburbs, malls, and box stores.
I sense this; I feel it; I have no doubts; yet it seems hopeless to get others to even recognize that such a dilemma exists, let alone to actually do anything about it.  It’s not easy to do much about it… the key action points seem to be to 1) reduce family size, 2) reduce (practically stop) immigration, and 3) develop a mindset working towards an economy based on perpetual stability, not increased growth.  It has been said that we will have to double the productivity of present agricultural lands to feed the world population of 2050. The salmon fishing season is presently being shortened due to overharvesting.  The pressure of population is upon us everywhere – just look at your newspaper.  This kind of thinking seems backwards and just does not sit right with me.
My architecture (and art) is influenced by this dilemma, but alas, you would hardly know it. Population density and architectural quality have an adversarial relationship and don’t really speak to each other in the friendliest of terms.  I feel motivated to do the best I am capable of and am not inclined to dilute my work in order to accommodate more and more humanity.  It seems that the level of thought and skill I put into each project is becoming a vanishing standard, but I won’t give up…I keep on working and keep on wondering.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Right Stuff

What and where is the right stuff?  What matters in art?  What matters in life?  If our work can achieve real interest we have accomplished much, but a special few of us are at times able to achieve works that seem to approach the sublime…and perhaps even catch a glimpse of greatness.  A century ago P.D. Ouspensky wrote about “ In Search of the Miraculous” and his experiences with the Sphinx, the Buddha with Sapphire Eyes, Notre Dame, whirling dervishes…phenomena that transcended excellence and communicated a sense of something more.


The pursuit of this ethereal quality may be setting the bar awfully high, but is, I think, an amazing and worthwhile endeavor.  Although I am thinking art and architecture it’s just as real in marriage, politics, sports, and science.  It’s finding oneself in the zone where every decision is seemingly the right one.  It’s the Goldilocks zone.  It’s the start of the chain reaction in chemistry and the spark of attraction in physics.  Almost always it is the most skilled and gifted among us that are able to find the zone and elevate the composition, point of view, or circumstance to arrive at the doorstep of the sublime.


Anders Zorn’s portraits and H.H. Richardson’s Glessner House are extremely well done, Sargent’s portraits and the Greene Brothers’ Gamble House achieve a level of accomplishment that few can equal, and da Vinci’s best portraits and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water push against the ceiling of the extraordinary – sublime for sure, miraculous perhaps.

In my work I crave for that exceptional quality that resides between man’s rationality and nature’s randomness.  Here the struggle between order and chaos and between known and unknown lies a reality found only in the most distinguished works.  Many of us work long and hard in pursuit of creativity, but only a precious few are ever able to transcend competent workmanship and discover that magical “right stuff.”