Saturday, September 1, 2018

Aren't They?

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.

A.        You look and sound a little down today – are you OK? 

I.         I'm OK, but I am a little down. Sometimes I get a little depressed – I don’t know why.  You always seem pretty even keeled.  Does anything ever get you discouraged?

A.      I have the responsibility of steering the ship, but sure, I have my low moments,  sometimes entire periods.

I.         I’d like to hear what could get under your skin. After all, I took a psychology class in junior college so I could probably pretty much straighten out anything that might be disturbing you.

A.        I tend to see the big picture and I like to have a sense of what the end game will be like.  Whether it’s making a drawing, designing a building, concluding one’s own life, or achieving some version of earthly sustainability.

I.       Those last two words sound kind of serious and I know that you think about these things a lot.  So are you pessimistic about humanity’s future?

A.       Perhaps a little bit – I’m mostly disappointed in our collective inability to care about things beyond our immediate needs.  Very few of us are truly concerned about our affect on the world around us – and certainly not enough to consider to what end that affect might lead.  I’m thinking end game here.

When we are young and our hormones are at their maximum we are largely focused on our unfolding lives (and the opposite sex), but over time it becomes more apparent that ours is just one of countless lives striving to survive, human and non-human alike.  So it’s a little depressing to see us denigrate other species just because we are presently on top.  We are the lucky ones that evolved into this dominant state, but couldn’t we just as easily, or perhaps more easily, have been born Neanderthal, or porpoise, or reptile?

I.        Taking a step back in time I suspect that most of us were not well rewarded when we entertained thoughts much beyond our own immediate gratification.  Obviously, you are suggesting that things are different in the modern age, right?

A.     Yes, I am.  I don’t like our pervasive tendency to give no thought to tomorrow.  Perhaps that’s OK if you’re just a pawn in the game, but otherwise it’s irresponsible.  It’s like walking around with blinders on.

I.         We all vote for what improves our immediate circumstance.  Not what might or might not seem just or fair for the entire state or country. I don’t see that this is wrong.  Who would you vote for?

A.      I admire people with integrity and conviction, but I know of no politician that ever mentions the day after tomorrow.  I see us digging a deeper and deeper hole and I think “shouldn’t we stop digging and consider where we’re going?”  And I mean you consider because I already have a clear vision of where we’re going. We’re going towards less freedom and less resources for the masses, and if you’re not human you’re pretty much screwed.

I.          Well, a human life is certainly more important than a dog’s, or a reptile’s.

A.     When I was a boy my father told me about a worker who was part of his crew trimming trees for the city.  A curious cat wandered by and he picked the cat up and tossed it into the wood chipper to see what would happen.  It was over in a second.  In a separate incident I read of a man who poured lighter fluid on a cocker spaniel and lit the dog on fire to see what would happen.  I value these men’s lives somewhere south of zero.

I.        Many believe that all human life is important and that is why we have institutions to help heal the misguided.

A.       We do this at the expense of short-changing the innocent. Children afflicted with birth defects for example.  And for that matter assisting those impaired doing hazardous jobs in our collective interest – wounded veterans, for example.  I’m disappointed by our lack of thoughtfulness, personal responsibility, and compassion, and this makes me think back to all life and all resources on the planet.

I.         This sounds like territory we’ve been to before…

A.    That’s because all roads emanate from the core laws of Mother Nature and underscore how her bounty is divided up among the animals.  As you may know all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.  Aren’t they?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


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.

A.         Good morning. What’s up?  You look like something’s on your mind…

I.          You know, I get a lot out of our on-going chats, but I wonder – what do you think would be good for me, for us to talk about…and what about humor?  Architects don’t seem like the most light-hearted members of humanity.

A.         There is a lot of weight on the poor ol’ architect – and the bureaucracy today can be absolutely mind numbing.  Humor is a valuable and helpful asset for dealing with most aspects of life.  Dana Carvey is pretty funny – I don’t think he’s much of an architect though.  As for what I think would be good to discuss, how about your morphosis into an architect.  Speaking of which, do you know what a real architect is?

I.          Somehow, I have the sense you’re not really seeking my insight into what a real architect is. Perhaps not, but please enlighten me.

A.         A real architect is like a real man.  A good architect does good buildings, an exceptional architect does exceptional buildings.  Pretty complicated isn’t it?  A real man accepts responsibility and even champions it, and personal integrity is an important component of this.  Too many of us are living our lives through the thoughts of others.

Real men and women push themselves to discover the values and beliefs within themselves and possess the fortitude to shun the ever-present mindless drivel of the day.  He may not be a major figure, she may not be one of the elites of the profession, but almost certainly they will possess a discernable amount of integrity and personal responsibility.  These are rare qualities that distinguish the cream of the crop. What did Ayn Rand say?  Something like buildings can possess integrity...  just like men…and like men just about as often.

I.          How about getting back to morphosis.  It sounds organic and portends of evolution in the air.

A.         You seem to be starting to talk the talk.  Let’s see… the development from intern to architect –  well, the best architects I’ve actually seen develop have almost all had a substantial talent right from the beginning, and they drew well, wrote well, and were noticeably dedicated to their work. In many ways architecture was their life.  They thrived on being good.  I think they were responsible, didn’t make excuses, and exemplified some form of integrity, although each in their own way.

            Your development will be the absorption of many different inputs and experiences.  How you process and use them to your advantage will be key.
I.          You’re telling me you’ve either got it or you don’t… Can’t you just recommend an occult book of some sort?  Ouspensky?

A.         I’m telling you that is what I have seen.  I’d like to be more optimistic and more inclusive than that –  it sure sounds like a pretty narrow path, doesn’t it?  On the other hand I’d say a thirst for growth and enhancement can and does come to those who are immersed in their pursuit – pursuit of insight and not just quick allegiance to the group-think of the month.  

I.          You’re getting up there in years and I wonder if you’re metamorphizing into a philosopher. Should I be worried about you?  Just kidding, Boss. What you say is always interesting, but it never fully registers with me.

A.         If I had stayed in the city I might have never have come to sense the world at large.  Being in touch with nature has made a great difference in my life.  It has allowed me a glimpse of complexities difficult to put into words and difficult to make simple sense out of.  My eyes may be getting weak, but I now see the big picture more clearly than ever.  As for architecture don’t worry about magazines or awards or governing agencies.  The answers for you are within you, and you can find them.  Look deeper.  Look harder.  Morphosis will come if you pursue it. Don’t give up.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Getting Better or Getting Along

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.


Sitting at a redwood picnic table near the edge of a small meadow, having lunch, and reviewing the intern’s last six months’ progress, the architect continues with a surprisingly direct question:

A.         How successful do you want to be?

I.          I would like to do work that serves the client well and allows for the fulfillment of my  skill and aptitude.  I would consider that successful.
A.         And how do you think you are doing in regards to this quest?  I mean, do you think you are on track?

I.          I think I’m doing pretty well.  Many of my classmates are working in medium sized commercial and institutional offices and seemingly not getting much exposure to the   breadth of architecture I’ve been experiencing here.  I’m probably learning more here than I would have in graduate school.  To be truthful I feel like I haven’t fully absorbed the “Office Standards” and “Basic Design Thoughts” we’ve been discussing.  These are really pretty disarming – They appear simple enough yet somehow always elusive and it seems you are continually redirecting me…or pointing out exceptions… or critiquing my judgment.

A.         That’s what God put me here for.
I.          I guess I just need time to mature and develop.
A.         That’s true, but you can accelerate the process by proactively pursuing information and looking for answers – almost as a basic mindset.
I.          Most of the time I don’t quite know what to even ask…I see  your process here in the studio, but I don’t have a clue what in the world is truly driving it.  You or it.
A.         One of the great values of pursuing information and answers is that eventually you come   to realize that, perhaps unfortunately, no one has answers to give you.  They may be able to impart a little bit of wisdom here and there, but, alas, you’re going to  have to find things out for yourself.  I always used to pump strong designers for information which might reveal their secrets, but I never found them.  What I did find was insight into who, how, and why they were who they were.

I.          I can accept that, but, nevertheless, how do you go about thinking about things?
A.         These days I mostly just do, but I suppose I could generalize a little.  I mostly  consider things based on my own life’s perceptions and experiences.  Second, I think about how I would like to see things in an ideal world.  Third, I consider input     from others – outside sources, and fourth, I consider the governing laws and   regulations in effect at the time.  These are practical matters that (to quote Dylan) can come in with the tide and be gone with the wind.  Mostly  they just keep   coming. That’s pretty much my order of allegiance. Yours might well be different.  For some architects the plethora of directives from governing agencies is about all they think about.

            By far your own values and life experiences…goals and skills are what inform your thinking.  Look, this is not all that difficult, or perhaps it’s a level of difficulty that is off  the charts…the way to get better is to get better.  Just do it.

            Here’s a helpful tip though – be highly suspicious of sources that claim to know what others are thinking or why they are doing what they do.  I dismiss this drivel in favor   of what someone actually does…actions speak louder than words.  And one more thing,   responsibility is a basic goal to be pursued.  Without responsibility you’re very  likely to lose substance.

I.          Excellent.  I’m glad to know there is really nothing much to work on.  I was afraid I was going to have to work my brains out or something.
A.         And you may very well have to, but if this, in and of itself, is not a good and  rewarding experience then you probably won’t be very successful.  For me success is the gratification of achieving results well beyond the status quo and the thrill of searching for (and possibly even finding) that mythical goal of Sullivan’s “doing things right.”

I.          Talking too much aesthetics can be brain numbing, but now I’ve got one more thing: Sometimes I’m dismayed by how narrow sighted people are only thinking of themselves.  All of us.  And you say?

A.         At the dawn of time that was probably a perfectly good trait to have.  It’s dominant in virtually every other species on earth.  It’s just that now with our technical dominance other traits – like compassion and foresight – have come to have an important role in  our survival.  And probably for other species’ survival as well.  But don’t let that dash your hopes for humanity – there are numerous thoughtful, insightful folks around – they’re just not making a lot of noise about it.       

I.          I wonder how this movie ends.

A.         I think there are many different possible endings. Casablanca’s was pretty good…
I.          What do you think about my getting a raise?

Friday, June 1, 2018

Landscape Without Design


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.        On my way in this morning I noticed these large white flowers on large stalks along the freeway – do you know that those are?
A.        Matilija Poppies aka Fried Egg Plant.  Do they make you hungry?
I.         I don’t think about plants all that much but I notice that many of our studio’s project photos seem to have plants all over the place. I mean more than just fitting carefully into the landscape. It’s too frequent to be mere coincidence – Is this coming from you or the owners, or what?
A.        It staggers the imagination that so many architects envision their buildings as stand-alone objects rather than part of a larger context of flora and fauna.  You know, I think it was Sullivan who said that a building could only truly be evaluated after 50 years and I like to think that in large part that was to see how it accommodated itself to the natural forces acting upon it, including the landscape.  Plants are life and as such actively enliven the buildings with or without us.  Buildings that don’t engage the landscape are prone to losing their relevance as the trends of the day pass them by.  Once you’ve seen your umpteenth Frank Gehry knock-off you may start yearning for a nice orthogonal box with a gable roof…and some Matilija poppies partially encroaching on the entry.
           Speaking of Frank Gehry, when he was first practicing he did buildings with the intent that couldn’t immediately be perceived to be “highly designed” and that’s the way I would like to see landscape architects think and work.  Unfortunately they seem to think there is something valuable or meaningful in arranging exotic plants in geometric patterns around the perimeter of buildings.  High fashion foundation planting to me is offensive and, I think, puts the profession to shame.
I.         You sound a little bristly there, boss. 
A.        Kind of preachy, huh?
I.         Are there any landscape architects you like? 
A.       Within the excessive amount of humanity surrounding us there are many.  Steve Martino comes to mind right off.
I.         But, don’t you think some of the contemporary landscape design looks pretty cool… and even sets the building off for positive effect?
A.       Momentarily perhaps.  It’s usually more like affect – as in affected.  My friend Kreg Brawley says “looks only matter in one thing in life and even then only in the preliminaries.”  What matters most is what something does  – its look is just the resulting expression of its function.  And if the landscape is not interacting with and providing habitat for animals then in my book it’s not real landscape.  It’s more like stage set.
I.         OK, let me get on track… what about the landscapes around so many of our houses.  Weber, Howguinnland, Brunsell, Sonoma Coast House, Gualala House, our studio, and others…they look like they are being engulfed by plants.  Is this designed?
A.       Mostly you are seeing an evolving scenario, the result of a loose discussion between the owners and myself and landscape architects or other consultants. They are not instant, complete designs, but rather general concepts that continue to evolve over time. There is no right or wrong and no adherence to a particular school of thought, ist, ism, or ion.  I do have an affinity for native species, but continuity is the key word in all my thinking, including design.  I don’t want the landscape repairs around out buildings to now be out of bounds to the plants and animals that were there before us.
I.         I just don’t seem to have the same feel for plants the way you do.  Is it something I’ll acquire over time?
A.       Malcolm Wells said he thought architecture students should take classes in biology but I don’t see it as something you learn to care about academically.  I think it’s more heartfelt and comes from sensing one’s place in a world larger than television, fashion, and economics.  One way or another it comes from seeing beyond the surveyed lot lines and making a stand for or against old Mother Nature.