Sunday, October 2, 2016


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

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


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.