Sunday, December 1, 2013

Helen Frankenthaler

My drawing, Lorelei, and Helen painting
I first became aware of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) in the 1960s when I purchased the art book Nature in Abstraction which included her 1957 painting “Lorelei.”  Helen was a real beauty and many of her early paintings had an enchanting feminine lyricism about them.  I followed her career from then on and have admired her ambition, but as her work matured it lost its lyricism and no longer held much attraction for me (Reminds me of my following of Bob Dylan).  I fondly remember her as one of the first abstract painters to get me enthused about painting.  In the world of art history she is recognized for a variety of abstract painting approaches as well as color field painting.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Rico Lebrun

Preface:  I did a series of portrait drawings called Ten Architects of Consequence in 2011 and am presently working on a new series called Ten Artists of Consequence.    These are architects and artists that have had some unique affect on me over the years.  Although I may write about other people I plan to include at least some of these “mentors” in my monthly journal entries. Here I begin with Rico Lebrun.

Two of my portrait drawings bookending the yoythful Rico Lebrun

I first became aware of Rico Lebrun (1900-1964) during my first year of architecture school at USC.  The Art and Architecture schools shared a common courtyard with a gallery and a series of surrounding display cases.  About the only art I had previously seen were prints of Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and “Pinky” hanging in my parent’s bedroom and I had no idea what to think of these strange black and white images.  After plenty of exposure to life, art, and aesthetics I came to be a big fan of Lebrun’s drawings and he still serves as something of a mentor to me, as he did to the likes of Howard Warshaw and Leonard Baskin.  The power of his dark values and his mastery of suggestion are unparalleled. After the Master’s Artist Barry Simons and I went to Lebrun’s vacated studio in Brentwood to see if there were any scraps left behind.  All we found we’re telephone numbers and anatomical doodles on the wall where the telephone had once hung.

Some say his book Rico Lebrun Drawings is the best book on drawing ever written.  Vivid in my memory is this excerpt:  “My little line takes a walk,” said Klee.  “As if mine didn’t,” said Tintoretto.  And another:  Do not use calligraphic barrel rolls in combat.  They are not organic.  Do not gun the engine when you don’t know what else to do.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

One of the Other Things

One of the other things I like about government is the occasional “public servant” that senses the big picture and has a genuine commitment to being helpful to me as part of the general public.

One of the other things I don’t like about government is all too common the person at the help desk has little if any sense of the world beyond their desk and doesn’t really care much about me or my problems one way or  the other.  I can’t help but want my government to represent and perform at a higher moral and competency level than the average everyday citizen.  From childhood on I was taught to look up to and respect all manner of governmental authority and leadership.  And for much of my adult life I have wanted to believe in the basic goodness of our governing authorities. 

Unfortunately, this has only sometimes proven to be the case.  And in the worst circumstances I have encountered individuals who are actually a cut (or two) below average - dishonest, morally corrupt, and incompetent.  In these situations my realistic options are few to none.  Some people may have time to appeal up the chain of command, but it’s unlikely they will have both the time and resources to pursue legal solutions if not granted an immediate variance.  Government has seemingly unlimited time and resources and thereby giving credence to the saying “You can’t fight city hall.”

I’ve had enough dodgy experiences in my career that by default I now respond to virtually any government request, proposal, or regulations in the negative.  For me, the less government the better.  For me, this is a case where Mies was spot on:  “Less is more.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

One of the Things

One of the things I like about government is that it enables the accomplishment of things I could never accomplish on my own - things like building freeways, battleships, and space exploration programs.  Sure, private enterprise plays a big role, and could do more, but I’m OK with government doing and/or directing the heavy lifting.

One of the things I don’t like about government is that it never stabilizes and just doesn’t know when to quit.  In the area of building design I find it inhibits the accomplishment of many things I could do much better on my own - things like orienting a building, selecting a window, or designing a guardrail detail. Historically the rational for micromanaging my work as an architect was safety… public safety, private safety, safety whether you want it or not.  Safety regulations continually rain down on us with no end in sight.  And we do get safer and safer, but at a price:  we pay for it both with our wallet and our loss of freedom of choice.  In and of itself this may be something to be concerned about, but to me there is a much bigger issue.

The old “A” word, accountability.  The more we are looked after and taken care of, the more dependent we become on the care giver and the less responsibility we inevitably take for our own actions.  If something goes wrong, too many of us too often first look around to see who we can blame.  I am concerned that as this emerging mindset becomes the norm our persona may weaken and overly dependent individuals may result.  Maybe that’s the way it has to be…we’ll see.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Television Coverage

Four of our houses are being filmed this week by the well-respected British documentary production company, Pioneer Productions, and will be part of the Extreme Homes International TV program series for Home and Garden Television (HGTV).  We will announce the airing dates on Facebook.

The houses (shown here along with the film crew) are Oregon Coast House (Gold Beach), Tin Roof (The Sea Ranch), Sonoma Coast House (The Sea Ranch), and the Johnson Residence (Dry Creek Valley).

We have a little trouble thinking of these places as extreme – really, they are just quite thoughtful…trying to make the most out of their circumstance – and ever mindful of the larger world (landscape) around them.

 Publicity is always nice although it has never had much affect on either our approach to architecture or our ability to get new and appropriate clients.  Clients are, of course, the life blood of any viable practice and we are always particularly helpful and responsive to any publicity opportunities that come our way.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Study Models

Study models are great.  We build models from different materials, but I especially like simple, accurate cardboard study models.  We typically use only two materials:  corrugated cardboard (from packing boxes) to build the site and chipboard (of various thicknesses) to build the buildings. 


Our study models are focused on just two things: space/form and light.  I think of space and form as inseparable (except with the possible exception of extreme astrophysics they don’t really exist in isolation)…and lighting is huge.  Secondary aspects like material, color, interior features, etc. are usually just distractions at this point.  If the space/form and light are strong the project will almost certainly be strong and this is the armature the design will be built around. 
I like to build models in a project’s design stage to be used as a working tool – not as visual aid to a design that is already finalized – although sometimes this is what happens. Models that begin to look a bit realistic (but don’t actually get there) have an unsatisfactory feeling about them, and the same can be said about many computer animations.  Simple and abstract are my preferences.


It’s too bad so many of us are losing the skill to use a matt knife.  I’ve had a number of skilled model makers in the office over the years, but the best was Walter Meyer, now an LA architect with his own office.  I remember questioning the way Walter was building one of our models (it wasn’t the way I would have done it).  Pulling a chunk of two floor levels out from the shell he responded “so we can remove the core to get a better look at the inner workings.”  Those were the good old days and, although we don’t build as many models as we used to, I still highly value the insight study models bring to our projects.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Gophers and Gopher Snakes


The scene:  The beginning of the workday at an architect’s studio somewhere along the rural Pacific Coast. The seasoned old architect/mentor greets his protégé, a young intern not long removed from architecture school.


A:        Good morning, Pond Weed.


I:          Yeah, that’s me.  My middle name’s Elodea.


A:        I’m glad you’re continuing to get into the spirit of things…Any new thoughts

            over the holidays?  You look like something’s on your mind.


I:          Well, I’ve been reflecting about many of the things I’ve learned here and I guess

it’s affecting me more deeply than I might have thought because last night I had a pretty bizarre dream…


A:        Dreams can be pretty strange…


I:          I was coming up to this big multi-story modern metal and glass office building. 

It was in some kind of office park with nice, contemporary landscaping – not the kind of thing you would relate to – and I was coming for a job interview.  So I enter the building and inside it’s all a pine forest with needles covering the ground and a camp fire with a group of old guys gathered around like they’re on a camping trip or something. They’re wearing camping clothes and caps; it’s kinda crispy in there. One of them shouts out and waves to me and it’s Malcolm Wells. The next thing I know I’m standing around the fire talking with them– and it’s like this is actually part of my interview.  I’m somehow aware that the others are guys like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Joseph Esherick,…but then, if I thought of somebody else he would just merge with and become one of the campers – so really, I think I could have included just about anyone I wanted.


A:        I might have asked Christopher Wren about those two columns…


I:          What’s that?


A:        Oh, just a little sidebar.  So, – go on–  here you are standing around a campfire.


I:          Yes, and so Malcolm Wells looks me directly in the eye and snidely asks “Do you do green architecture?”  I didn’t know just what to say, but after a moment said “Of course.”  And he immediately asks, “Why didn’t you pick up the beer can on the walkway up to the entry?”  I got a lump in my throat and was feeling very uneasy because I had seen the can and had momentarily wondered if I should pick it up, but then I felt like I was here for an important meeting – not to be policing the grounds.  All I could think of was to say, “I’m sorry” and then Malcolm and the others all started laughing…Walt Whitman starts speaking prose to nobody in particular about how in his day people saw America as the great land of opportunity and accomplishment…but that no matter how you define or describe it culture is essentially just the pleasing of the senses.


A:        (after a thoughtful pause) Is that all?


I:          Well, the whole thing is just crazy.  At some point you merge into the group and with this Napoleonic gesture announce “LIFE, not LEED, is the most important resource.”


A:        I’m impressed that I made it into your dream – and that I had something insightful to say.  Or, I guess it’s just the obvious.  It seems a bit odd that we fret over physical resources with little thought or concern given to biological resources.  Suburban development and landscape design is little more than outdoor flower arranging: and there is an overwhelming lack of continuity. It’s mostly just visual gamesmanship.  Of course, the car and paved streets and highways are the biggest impediments to continuity and then there are the acres of lifelessness it creates.  By continuity I mean the ability of plant and animal populations to move freely about their home ranges. 


I:          You mean because they are liable to be run over?  Can’t all the paving be offset with green roofs?


A:        Run over, separated, isolated, …One of the things I like about  Cradle to Cradle is the statement that less bad is not good enough.  In other words smaller footprints are not going to solve the challenges we face.  What challenges? As for green roofs – I think it’s too bad they are usually discontinuous from the ground.  How will they get used by the native flora and fauna?  My rule of thumb is if it doesn’t accommodate gophers and gopher snakes something must be wrong.  Earth covered roofs are at their best when they are ADA compliant – that’s “Animals Deserve Access.”


I:          Are you kidding?


A:        A little bit.  Every year more and more people live with less and less resources – and less freedom.  That’s why we continually get  more and more controls – to protect the common good.  We can’t really see the future so it is impossible to anticipate what chain of events will occur and lead us in this or that direction and at some point I suppose we will move beyond our present material requirements.  I can imagine a time when there will be no computers, no television, no automobiles…but unless it’s the second coming almost all scenarios look pretty bleak to me – bleak at least for poor old Mother Earth.  The choice is more resources and freedoms for less people or less resources and freedoms for more people.


I:          Well, I think people are more important than animals. You can see from

the newspaper that habitats are shrinking and entire species are being wiped out… except for what’s left in zoos and animal parks. Natural selection I guess.


A:        So how many more people do you think we need?


I:          I’m sure we probably have enough, but if we don’t have more people won’t that

            hurt the economy?  You won’t get new buildings to design.


A:        I don’t see any easy answers.  Hell, I don’t even see any hard answers.  But you know it’s a really big step just to see that all the rhetoric around us does not address the future…unless you think the future is simply the day after tomorrow.


I:          My days are filled up just trying to catch up with what needs to get done in the

            Office before I go home.


A:        The answer you usually see is a side step.  Applaud an increase in efficiency or a reduction in waste – but in no case extrapolate towards anything resembling a conclusion. I expect the bottom line will be some kind of worldwide mandatory population control.  The first phase will eventually be widespread acceptance of the conundrum and then government will probably work towards stabilizing – and perhaps even reducing – population.  Simultaneously they will need to stabilize – and then reduce – economic growth. 


I:          And your point, I guess, is why not preserve as much of the planet as we can now, like a savings account – so we have something left for later?


A:        Right now we’re using up our savings while we proliferate more and more bodies, and....


I:          So, do you think I could get a raise?


A:        Maybe someday.  Right now I think the day is upon us – let’s get to work.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Kindergarten Chats Sequal : Pond Weed


Oh, so there you are young intern, and why such a concerned look? 

It's this gnawing inside me:  I've been reading Kindergarten Chats and studying Sullivan's ideas for some time now and believe I'm finally gaining a sense of the powers within myself and of nature as a source of inspiration, but now all I hear is that the four horsemen may be approaching from beyond the rise.

What riders are these?

Those not so fictitious riders, Famine, War, Pestilence and Death:  the four horsemen of the apocalypse!  A century has passed in the blink of an eye.  I am just beginning and now I fear the beginning of the end may be at hand.  At least that's the word on the street.

Only four, huh?  We ought to be able to handle them well enough – but what about the riders coming from behind the next rise, and the next?  What about Water Pollution, Toxic Waste, Acid Rain, Rampant Landfill, Energy Waste, Ozone Depletion, Disease Epidemic, Political Tension, Accelerated Extinction, Global Warming, et al?  This horde seems to grow larger every time we look.

That's more than enough to get anyone riled up.

Perhaps if they could see the change taking place and if they really cared.  I'm afraid most of us just don't contemplate the big picture.  When the limits of your reality are shaped by television, shopping malls, and a consistent 72 degrees, then salamander mating rituals, retreating glaciers, and denuding forests seem like a long ways away and more the concerns of eco-kooks with not enough responsibilities to keep them occupied.  Viewing an image of fish skimming a creek surface to escape the oozing mud caused by adjacent site excavation an architect announced that people were more important than mosquito fish.  That's hard to refute (being a person and all), though I wonder how many mosquito fish mother nature considers the equal of a human being.  Well, anyway, I think it's safe to say it's not our divine destiny to rape and plunder the planet!

You're starting to sound a little edgy there, Chief.

Bear with me a moment and consider this:  How many more buildings (and how much more infrastructure) will it take to get our neighborhoods, our towns, our cities developed to something approaching optimum build out?  What's the ideal?  Like a finished piece of accomplished artwork which can neither be added to nor subtracted from without diminishing the piece.
I don't think that is a proper comparison because unlike specific works of art, the built environment is an ever growing and adapting system with its own laws of existence. Cities are constantly being filled with incredible, soaring buildings and the intensity of life in the urban core is powerful.

And I expect you find this exhilarating?

Sure!  The hustle and bustle is amazing, although I suppose there may be more people and automobiles than I might like...

And what do you make of the vast tracks of development outside the city limit – what we call the suburbs?

It seems Okay.  I remember when some of these areas were places we would go for weekend drives and picnics.  This is no longer where man's spirit communes with the natural world, but these developments do provide for the needs of a lot of people…

These vast, vapid, and soulless areas are devoid of your urban core and, for that matter, of any buildings that might nourish the spirit.  People seem to like reproducing and the more people we have the more of these "quickie" buildings we will have as well.  More and more of less and less.

I understand your point of view, but with the use of green and sustainable building practices it appears we can now have a win-win situation for both mankind and the environment.

Those words are not exactly music to my ears.

What words?

Those eco-words.  Another architect recently proclaimed that future construction efforts should aspire not for just twenty-five years of sustainability, but for as much as one hundred years.  What the hell kind of sustainability is that?  What did you say about a century in the blink of an eye?  If, that's so then even a thousand years is just ten blinks of an eye! So much of this green-speak is no more than a marketing response by those ready to jump on any profitable band wagon.  Talk is cheap. These continuous eco-platitudes are too often insincere and to my ear even offensive.  Most people are perfectly happy to consume more of the environment with green devices rather than with the other colors… it placates the conscience and has a nicer sound about it.  Show me someone who abhors waste, picks trash up out of their path, and contemplates peace with gophers and pigeons, and that's somebody I might be able to place my trust in.

I guess there is an over abundance of rhetoric, but surely you applaud the numerous individuals and organizations that have worked to reduce our environmental impact, and furthermore, have made great strides in raising public awareness.  Many governing agencies are now beginning to require their new buildings to meet new standards of environmental responsiveness.

And is that enough?

Is what enough?

I mean is architecture that complies with a multitude of rules, codes, regulations, point systems, time lines, and schedules worthy of applause?  Are these to be among our finest accomplishments?  Isn't this just a kind of pragmatism?

I hope there can be a lot more to it than that.

I applaud sincerity, but you're going to have to do more than just hope.  If there is going to be more it will be because you will it to be…make it so Number One.

Too much TV?  We have a host of pragmatic problems to solve in our designs. What about the notion that spirit and emotion in architecture lie at its core? Do you think that these can contribute to planet well being?

The essence of sustainability is embraced by the profound sense (not understanding, sense!) of the rhythms of life.  It is the changing of the seasons and the changing of the generations; not just human life, but all life on the planet in concert.

The way you combine the irrational and rational can make for a pretty hazy landscape for some of us youngsters.  Maybe it's just my inexperience:  aren't you heartened that not just the profession, but laymen as well are now singing the praises of the environment, and ecology, and sustainability, and well…just this whole green movement thing?

When someone announces their use of low voc paints…a vision flashes through my mind…
When I read about the latest viral epidemic…a vision flashes through my mind…
When a building is proclaimed green and LEED certified…a vision flashes through my mind…
My vision is … THERE ARE TOO MANY OF US.

That may be, but to be fair, what about the reductions in energy use, the efficient use of materials, and healthier environments?  The way you talk sounds like our efforts to recycle, use more efficient materials, and reduce energy does not lead to sustainability.  

The notion of using less and less in order to supply more and more is preposterous.

At the very best it is just buying time.  No amount of fluorescent lights is going to solve our energy problems.  Even if it were somehow magically possible to increase the efficient use of a particular material by, say 20%, how long do you think it would take for our increasing population to reach parity?

I'm not sure.

It's not a 20% reduction because as soon as the demand has increased 20% you're back where you started, but the demand will not stop there, it will continue to increase every year.  The increased efficiency is commendable – but this is not sustainability by any stretch of the imagination.  Sustainability means equilibrium; it means not using the earth's resources faster than she can replenish them.  If the population doubles in another 80 years then whatever savings might have been accomplished will be consumed in only a few generations. The good news is that with the world's present population we can expect our efforts to prolong the availability of the earth's major resources for many years.  The bad news is that with accelerating population growth we can expect the earth's major resources to be depleted in many less years.

But surely there is plenty of room to house more people…

With the multitude of problems we now have does it make any sense to double or even triple our numbers?  Don't we already have enough dancers, enough lawyers, enough workers, enough chicken processing plants, and enough religions?  Enough of everything?  As long as the population is increasing even ever so slowly – on a fixed sized planet – we're only talking time until we exceed the sustainable carrying capacity.  Now that our land has been conquered, ravaged, and subdivided, all that is left is to subdivide it into smaller and smaller pieces to accommodate more and more people.  As stewards of the planet (which I find presumptuous) shouldn't we be thinking about the optimal, most efficient, and most sustainable number of people for a given area? 

But right  now things don't seem all that dire.

There is a classic example of exponential growth where each day pond weed doubles the amount of surface covered and will cover the entire pond in thirty days so how much of the pond do you think will be covered in twenty-nine days?  The obvious, but shocking answer is only half!  The pond weed will then double again and cover the entire pond by the next day.

So more and more people means less and less of everything to go around – this would impact the quality of food and water, the quantity and quality of the materials our possessions are made from, …

Of course.  You can see this all around you today with so much of our thinking still shaped by the momentum of Manifest Destiny.  Less people may very well suggest less economic growth.  In fact a stable population would seem to suggest a stable economy, yet most of us want to make more money, acquire more possessions, and elevate our stature in life.  Nature has allowed us our excesses and we have taken as much from her as we could carry and now we feel the burden growing heavy.  We have taken from her like unwitting accomplices to thievery, and what?  Now we are surprised to hear that there may be justice to be handed down?  Who would have thought?

This is like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.  But is it too late?  Can we find ways to overlay our values with a path to true sustainability?

We have developed lots of superficial tactics to deal with environmental problems. While many of these well intentioned folks are developing better Band-Aids for the extremities poor old mother earth is bleeding to death from within.  Our intellect has allowed us a kind of artificial control over nature's eons-old methods of population control and natural selection.  This is clearly a problem between nature and ourselves.  Now we must work with her to find ways to achieve sustainability that celebrates intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth – growth not in numbers but in quality –  sustainability that assures availability not for tomorrow, but for the day after tomorrow and the day after that.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Real Ranch

            My first visit to Don and Sharon Fraser's Alder Creek Ranch was sixteen years ago when I went to pick up a McNabb puppy Don had agreed to find for me.  I had driven through the property many times and occasionally stopped to visit, but today I was going for another reason.  I have long been enthused with the ways in which buildings add to or subtract from their setting and I thought Alder Creek Ranch might have some positive lessons in this regard.

            As I descended the driveway off Highway One I was deeply moved by what I saw.  Here was as wonderful an architectural setting as one could ask for.  But why was I experiencing this for the first time?  The eight buildings with their working hands quality reached well beyond my best architectural efforts at The Sea Ranch.  It was perfectly clear to me that these were buildings of great integrity, unpretentious beauty, and as artful as they were utilitarian.

            Individually and collectively the buildings possess a sense of belonging with the landscape, perhaps as though Mother Nature had sown some building seeds.  Alder Creek Ranch's house, garage, barn, and other outbuildings are arranged in a row angling out from a wind protecting ridge which is banded with dense coastal shrubbery along its lower half.  The house, at the point of intersection, faces south and is obviously the heart of this partnership between ranch and nature. 

            This house is the symbolic steward of the accompanying landscape.  No longer original, it now has a roof of new composition shingles and most of the painted board siding has been covered with cedar shingles.  Still, the progression from house to covered porches, to open decks, to lawns defined by picket fences and hedges, to pastures and outbuildings, to the meadows and ridges beyond creates a richness of transition (from man-built to nature-created) that is rare in today's construction efforts. 
            Fruit and other exotic trees, shrubs, roses and so forth stand shoulder to shoulder with native willows and cypress in a landscape that would now seem somehow incomplete should one group exist without the other.  The continuity of nature remains unviolated and commingling takes place much like an accent or emphasis in the organic scheme of things.  The man-made is not subservient, not solicitous – simply pragmatic and appropriate.
            My observations of this site are not just another vote of praise for indigenous buildings but rather an homage to such buildings' sometimes awesome ability to become a sympathetic and often inspiring part of the natural landscape.  These compositions are not the work of sensitive architects or land artists.  They were built by ranchers armed with intuition about the natural world, common sense, traditional know-how and straightforward, genuine needs.

            Seldom concerned with architectural fashion, these buildings are able to incorporate those ideas and systems that work best; the aesthetics seem able to take care of themselves.  The real ranch outperforms all contemporary coastal architecture in just about any comparison:  land relationship, integrity, form, economy of effort and cost, and sense of belonging.

            How can this be?  Of course a direct comparison today is not entirely fair.  The real ranch has advantages: half a century or more of weathering, large landholdings, diversity of scale and function, and no building agencies to satisfy.  Significant advantages, yes.  But not sufficient to explain the onslaught of vapid buildings we see rising mercilessly around us. 

            Our subdivision houses from Fort Bragg to Bodega Bay fall short even on their own terms.  The idea that shed roofs and weathered wood will bring harmony does not reach deeply enough.  Ignorance and even not caring have become earmarks of the construction and design industry.  Over time we have developed contemporary clichés for architecture and the rote use of shed roofs and weathered wood, for example, do not solve the problems faced by placing a building onto a site and into the setting. 

            The coast is being populated with a recent surge of immigrants from places as diverse as New York and Bloomington, Chicago and San Jose.  These newcomers bring something of these places (and fantasy of a dream house) with them, regardless of the coastal landscape and lifestyle. Consequently, their buildings do not necessarily have anything to do with their settings. 

            Also, when Alder Creek Ranch was built, there were fewer material options.  Today, we can deal with environmental and technical problems through endless systems, devices and facsimiles.  So, we are faced with a lack of a unified regional character and a lack of agreement on the intentions on how buildings relate to one another and to the landscape. 
            Following the status quo is a prudent route for developers.  If a developer takes risks and takes his time, he increases his chances of being bushwhacked.  The Sea Ranch versus the California Coastal Commission is a good example.  Architects are underpaid and have families to feed.  After trying for awhile most are worn down, then give up and perhaps lose their heartfelt instincts.  They are worn down by all the complex pressures of bureaucracy, limited funds, and business.

            It would be encouraging if all architects began a project thinking holistically – that is about site and scape.  But it takes a great deal of time and commitment to develop projects in this manner.  In the office, most end up working on what they have in front of them, trying to get the windows aligned and the façade reasonably proportioned.  To simplify the task most designs are only considered within the context of the property lines (or worse, only to the drip lines), rather than as far as the eye sees.  The result is all too often another bit of affront to the overall town or landscape.

            Design committees and other review agencies are just as shortsighted and can usually be pacified with a few facade changes to give the "box" a "look" of interest. So much for professionalism, so much for design review. And the owner seldom notices, either he or she has more pressing concerns, is not visually oriented, or has become conditioned to mediocrity.

            Too few producing architects have perceptible commitment to, or concern for, the overall landscape; more often than not the same is true of their buildings. Buildings are an inevitable expression and record of man's values, attitudes, and beliefs. The best architecture, I believe, comes from a love of architecture, which incorporates an inherent love of life and the natural world. A love of the land and what humans can do in concert with it, not in spite of it, is the starting point for buildings that are truly interesting and in tune with nature. The land then never loses its presence in sight of the buildings and the buildings take their place on the land accordingly.

            Planners, developers, architects, and owners' lack of respect for the larger community and landscape fabric has resulted in the recent proliferation of design review committees. In theory the design review process assures the individual owner that certain values and standards will be maintained community wide. Usually, these are philosophical as well as visual.  

            However, design committees find it difficult to mix the two and usually limit themselves to reviewing projects in terms of their exterior appointments, perpetuating too much concern with exteriors and not enough with intentions and physical relationships. The results are buildings that are "skin deep." Buildings that add to the pervasive, para-suburban character of most new rural developments – despite well intended design committee restrictions, philosophies, reviews, rejections and re-reviews.

             Some of these buildings superficially fit preconceived notions of building in harmony with nature and community, but because they lack commitment to nature and community, they lack a convincing sense of belonging. Despite the weathered boards and conforming roof slopes, if creators don't embrace the land, neither will their buildings. Alder Creek Ranch has a sense of belonging because there is little we could change without losing something. It's just right the way it is.

            Our country has an incomparable heritage of vigorous, nature conscious, contextual landmarks: H.H. Richardson's New England stone buildings; Louis Sullivan's Midwestern urban masterpieces; and Frank Lloyd Wright's inspired works nationwide. These were architects who loved America. They expressed the sovereignty of the individual while remaining responsible to the larger social and physical context. They found inspiration in America's natural heritage rather than the classicism of Mother Europe.

            But not since the death of Wright has there been a major American architect who has professed and upheld these values. Advances in technology and mass media have given us more choices than we know what to do with. Architectural magazines publish anything noteworthy with little or no judgment as to its value as appropriate architecture. Architects, like the members of any other profession, follow the leaders as observed in print, and the public is pulled along behind.

            So, how does one do right in a culture as diverse, as dynamic, and as fickle as ours? I believe the best architecture is site and people sensitive, often self-inspired, and the outgrowth of a long and committed effort. When land is considered merely a commodity, and buildings essentially place holders, the relationship between them approaches the inconsequential. If our goal is to live the richest, fullest lives possible, then architects should assume leadership and uphold our most meaningful values and aspirations. 

            There may be few compelling reasons other than aesthetics to visually blend buildings into the landscape, but there is every reason to love our land, respect it, and understand and nurture the human relationship to it. Architecture should not be mere surface manipulation, not the packaging of a box, but a synthesis and expression of humans' interaction with each other and the natural world.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

What About LEED?

LEED (leadership in energy and design) and USGBC statements like “certification boosts your bottom line” and goals like “to strengthen the green movement, drive jobs, grow leadership in the marketplace”, etc. do not align with my heartfelt concern for the natural world.  I began struggling with architectural destruction of the landscape in the 1960s and have a somewhat different vision of environmental awareness.
I think that another square mile of urban/suburban development is a poor exchange for a square mile of nature and that Nature’s multitude of life forms is our most precious resource.  The LEED positions that most closely align with my own are the call for higher performance and the reduction of waste, but I don’t pursue them for the reward of points. LEED’s lack of a truly sustainable vision is unfortunate in that it encourages many to think we are all somehow saving the planet.
Much of what is called sustainable is really just postponement at best.  Using less resources does not achieve sustainability it just defers the inevitable depletion.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that resource conservation can result in even greater detriment to the environment.  For example, it sounds like a good idea to conserve and use less water.  But this is typically less water for the user and not less water taken from the source…with the result that more people can then be accommodated.  And each additional person leaves a huge environmental footprint over their lifetime including thousands of pounds of plastic, thousands of pounds of aluminum, thousands of pounds of waste to landfills…and brought about in part by having an adequate water supply.
Any serious discussion about sustainability needs to start with a discussion about limiting  population growth.

Friday, February 1, 2013


I took the opportunity in the summer of 1992 to personally interview my new friend, Whitney R. Smith.  The following is a capsulation of that interview revealing the broad experience of this noted architect.

Obie: What are some of the differences between when you were a student and a student today; and what do you think is good and bad about those differences?

Whit: Well, of course, there are lots of them. When I was at SC, in '29, we still had the Beaux-Arts system, and we had it for about two years. We were working on problems and sending them to New York for judgment. That finally changed right about '30, right after the stock market crash. It was during that five years that I was at SC. Generally the spirit of the school changed from doing just classical architecture and following the   Beaux-Arts format of teaching and using teachers that were trained in the Beaux-Arts. All of us were taking two years of French because we were all supposed to go to France and study in the Beaux-Arts. The whole thing was kind of silly looking back. All of which suddenly became impossible when we hit the worst part of the depression.

So, the language got dropped and all of us got more interested in "modern" architecture. But it took quite a while. It took about five years before it happened because our teachers didn't know that Frank Lloyd Wright had just built five buildings in Los Angeles.

There were people like Shindler who had just arrived on the scene and Neutra and a fellow named Kem Webster who was the teacher I liked the best. When he left and went to Art Center, I followed him up there and that was in my fourth year. I got permission to leave SC and take my design work at Art Center and USC at the same time so I was right at the midst of change between academy architecture and the modern movement.

Obie: Did you take life drawing all the way through, I mean all the years or just one year?

Whit: Well, no. That was just one year, then water color and sculpture and things like that. But the rest of it sounds just like it does now. Materials and specifications and so called working drawings and of course, history. There were at least two years of architectural history and we used Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method. There is a beautiful satire on the subject A History of Architecture on the Disparative Method by Forrest Wilson.

And, of course, we finally kind of laughed at Fletcher because in the first place there were only about five pages on Oriental architecture. Well, in my opinion, if you're really going to have a history of world architecture about half of it should be Oriental and the other half should be European. And so we started making ground stick ink drawings, and all the different capitals and all that kind of stuff, big stretch water color paper and ground charcoal and stick ink and made all these things to start with. None of which has anything to do with anything today.

I don't know much about architectural education today, except for the few people I know, and the people who come and ask me what school they should go to. I knew when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was doing so great, they had something like thirteen hundred students. I could recommend it because I knew some of the teachers that were there. I was a visiting lecturer there and I got to know a little about it. Right now, I don't know anything  about architectural schools except I do know that every four or five years a new group of architect teachers come in and if they are post modern teachers that's what the graduates know and do when they get out of school. So it can change almost every five years, the style and approach and everything depending on who is teaching where and what.

When I went to school there were only two accredited schools in the state, Berkeley and USC. That was the only choice you had if wanted to go to an accredited school. Now of course there are more, and splinter schools have broken off and graduates from SC and others have formed their own schools. All I can judge is from the design that comes out and I don't feel that the present young architects are fired up like we were when we finally got through the apprenticeship.

Obie: I think of the Smith and Williams office building in Pasadena as a classic, maybe even the classic example of the Southern California architecture of its time. It was an outgrowth of the post and beam glass panel house. I've always thought of it as one of the best examples of the type. Do you think that's a fair appraisal?

Whit: The building was built for five different firms that were just starting up, just incubator small time, almost one person firms. We designed the building specifically for them. It was interesting, I don't know anybody else that's done that. We often worked together. Sometimes we would go in as a group. Trying to get a city hall job in Salinas, we took all five guys with us to the interview. Some had written books; we had the books there: traffic, city planning, art, landscape or whatever they had written about. We said these are the guys that are actually going to work on the job, they're in our office and here are the books they have written. So we beat out Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for instance, doing our presentation. It was a really good idea, we called it Community Facilities Planners (CFP). We did over forty jobs doing that. Wayne Williams, my architectural partner for 27 years was the one who thought of the idea of a collaborative of five small offices, each with a different discipline. Smith and Williams, architecture; Eckbo, Dean and Williams, landscape architecture; John Kariotis, structural engineering; Simon Eisner, city planning; and Selje and Bond, interiors. For a while, it was a very interesting way to develop a sales pitch that was truly good. We could beat out the guys that had sound/motion picture presentations.

Obie:  What about post World War II modern architecture?

Whit:  There were quite a group of people trying to do their darnedest to do the best they could, and I think that was about '50, '54 or '58. To start out with it wasn't a very big group. When I first got licensed in '41, if you were really into modern architecture – it meant European International style, Bauhaus and like that. There were only about six architects that you could find. But following that from '46 and '50 on there were The Case Study Houses. I was involved in two Case Study Houses in which "Arts and Architecture" magazine had a strong impact on everybody. Everybody was reading it and everybody was trying to get their stuff published there. There is no such medium today that I know of which you can depend on to have a principle and policy about arts and architecture like it did.

Because of our exposure in "Arts and Architecture" Egardo Contini, Quincy Jones, and I were selected to do a cooperative housing project in Brentwood. That was really an unbelievable challenge where five hundred housewives would be the client and we would have all these meetings and interviews and committees on whether there should be a gas stove, or an electric stove, and all this kind of stuff. It's also unbelievable to realize that the Federal government was against mixed groups, meaning minorities and whites, saying they were opposed to it. In fact to get an FHA loan you had to sign saying that you weren't going to have any minorities in the group; now it's just the opposite.

The co-op housing, Mutual Housing Association, was considered a success from the standpoint that 100 homes and a nursery school were actually built even though the balance of the 500 homes never materialized due to some insurmountable problems. Those who are talking "affordable housing" these days might take a hard look at the few co-ops that were built in the 1947-49 era. However, in today's climate, it might be considered "un-American" as it does away with the developer's profits.

Obie: Didn't you work for Harwell Harris? Why don't you tell me a little bit about that?

Whit: Harwell had a small office and about a year before had done his first house which had become nationally famous because somebody had copied the floor plan of it and won a competition with it. So, there was this big hubbub, how it wasn't fair, that Harwell should have won the competition because this guy had copied the floor plan that Harwell had used. Now it doesn't seem like it's a very unusual floor plan, they had placed a courtyard between the garage and the house. Architecturally it was all based on Frank Lloyd Wright's work.

Anyway, it was an interesting small office. I enjoyed it. My tenure there was very short. I would have to guess it was six to eight months. Harwell thought every job he had was the very last job he would do so he put everything into it. I enjoyed all that intensely. So I got to know him very well, of course, and his wife who ran the office.

Obie: Was the work primarily residential?

Whit: Mostly residential. I worked on Grandview Gardens, a restaurant in L.A. Chinatown.

Obie: Was there a lot of burn out on the part of the employees if he was pushing that kind of intensity?

Whit: I don't think that. Except he would assign you a project, and it was like working for a writer or somebody, you weren't sure every line you drew wasn't a wrong line. You worried about whether you were going to please him or not. He would come by at the end of the day and take your stuff home and he'd work on it and come back and say we ought to be doing this instead of that. But I was making a little bit of a living at home at nights by doing renderings for people. I did a lot of renderings.

Obie: What medium were your renderings, typically?

Whit: They happened to be charcoal pencil and water color combination. I got that from Kem Weber.

Obie: How do you mix those? The charcoal's going to dissolve in the water color.

Whit: That's part of the deal. These are charcoal pencils, not stick charcoal.

Obie: Are you charcoaling both before and after you put the washes of color on?

Whit: Sort of both. Well, what you do is you have different grades of pencil and then you have a board brush or some soft brush to make it look more like an etching line, maybe even slightly fuzzy or something like that. And then if you want to, you can fix it by doing water color over, and it's been pretty well set by brushing it in.

It doesn't dissolve the hard line sketches. So it turned out that a number of the guys that came from Germany and Holland like Kem Weber used that same medium.

Obie: How about Neutra?  I remember he had some drawings that had some wonderfully fuzzy lines on them.

Whit: Well some of that was charcoal.

Obie: I always thought it was pastel. Maybe it was both.

Whit: Maybe both. Because I used pastel in conjunction with the water color and I still do. It takes a very gauzy air brush to make those smooth things, but you can brush in pastels and use it too.

I enjoyed renderings and I still do. Of course where I learned perspective was in the movie studios because we had to make drawings every day. Maybe one, maybe more than one, two, three or four. The better guys were fast, I wasn't very fast but you had to make these drawings and a lot of the time you had to make them in perspective depending on what angle lens the camera was going to use. You put on the sketch what angle lens was going to be used and you learned different things which architects don't normally learn about perspective when you change that lens. In addition to that, some of the guys knew how to project back from a perspective drawing into the working drawings.

At the time we had motion picture cameras that would go through the models. We could make the models and take the motion picture cameras through the things. People think that's fairly new, but we were doing it at that time. I'm just saying I learned a lot about perspective from the studios so I could do it easier and faster than a lot of people, and I enjoyed it.

Obie: You were and are friends with John Lautner. Tell me a little bit about how you and John met and a little bit about the early days you guys had together.

Whit: Well, let's see, who was John working for? He was working as a draftsman for architect Doug Honnold. There so few architects doing modern work that we all knew each other and could meet and all that. So, we knew John from  his work and he landed in LA partly to do supervision on Frank Lloyd Wright's work. Of course, as you know, he studied with Wright in Taliesin West and East and maybe now is accepted as the most successful graduate from Wright's school. He's finally being recognized in a lot of published material. Where I got to know him best was when they assigned architects to work in San Diego on war housing, about '42 or '43. There were very few architects in San Diego, so the government was hiring and sending them to San Diego.. There was lots of war housing being built in San Diego for the aircraft workers from the Los Angeles area.  John and I roomed together. It was very dull work; we hated the fact that it was even called war housing.

We finally got to do a shopping center in San Diego. The National Housing Agency prescribed Earl Giverson of San Diego and me as the associated architects for the project. I did all the architecture and architectural drawings for the shopping center. That was one of the first shopping centers that had peripheral parking for deliveries and the rest of the parking inside for customers. It was out of scale and it was too large. It was almost all wood because at the time you couldn't use any metals due to the wartime restrictions. So that part of it was really fun, to work on the shopping center. It was built and published all over the place as being a new idea. So that's where I got to know John, and we've kept in touch all the time and been on a few forums together. He's finally now being recognized and he just took an exhibit of his work and a lecture to Vienna and Vancouver.

Obie: You've been in Sonoma for how long?

Whit: For years.

Obie: And you are doing a little bit of development right now?

Whit: Just my work remodeling houses I've purchased for investment or remodeling on buildings in South Pasadena that we own. I'm not doing it for a client. I think that would be very difficult. There are 29 architects in Sonoma and a few of those, maybe a third of those do not do anything in Sonoma. The style that's considered indigenous to Sonoma doesn't appeal to me at all. I basically don't think there are any, what I would call, good architects in Sonoma. What the newspapers publish is so poor it affects client appreciation.

About two weeks ago the Press Democrat had a thing about some designer or contractor who was following Greene and Greene's ideas of simplicity and use of materials, and doing this wonderful stuff and it had pictures of these houses.

Obie: Could you tell it wasn't a real Greene and Greene?

Whit: It didn't look like anything. I figure I may be one of only fifty or one hundred people that understood what a terrible mistake it was for the writer who wrote it and the guy who built it. What a terrible misuse of the example. So, I'd be very surprised that I could find a client that I could even talk to in Sonoma. I'm talking about the City of Sonoma.

Obie: Yes, I see that kind of thing happening a lot, at least up here. How does that happen? How can that happen? Is it that the newspaper's bottom line of accuracy and quality is so low that it allows writers to put together any kind of story that the most numb-minded individual might swallow?

Whit: Well, I guess that's about the best way. They, of course, have a connection with the LA Times and the New York Times.

Obie: Those are pretty decent newspapers.

Whit: But it's getting worse. They just reprint the stuff that appeals to the editor and the editor is already brainwashed into this format and also the advertisers. Ads that they publish about this great house that identifies with the Sonoma County area, the country house, and so forth…None of this makes any sense to me.

Obie: I think that the Press Democrat does a real disservice to the population of Sonoma County.

Whit: That's true. At a certain time, of which I have some of the copies, the Los Angeles Times had a great home magazine.

Obie: I remember that quite well.

Whit: When they had a good editor…

Obie: Dan McMasters?

Whit: Yes, and then one other person. The same way with Sunset, it depends on that person—they can just turn over things, none of this is telling me anything. And they educate, theoretically, all these people because not just the middle class, but the affluent people too, read the same thing and they believe it, because they buy the same thing.

Obie: They're probably among the most numb-minded.

Whit: Probably that's true. Well, we used to say that the poorest clients were the best clients and the richest were terrible and that was too bad because the poor guys didn't have (sic) to build anything and the rich guys didn't know how to judge it. Finally Lautner somehow caught on to that, some guys did. Certain architects did that nationally, they could get people with money. But even Wright for over ten years didn't have any work. Apparently Wright had two lives: before and after this big lapse in which he didn't do anything. I don't know what happens to the cycle. I don't know how you affect public taste, but the media has a heck of a lot to do with it.

Obie: Well, ignoring the town of Sonoma, what comments do you have about North Bay architecture, Sonoma County architecture?

Whit: Well, of course there are many good things, like some of the wineries. Most of it's done by San Francisco or outside architects.

Sea Ranch is in Sonoma County and I consider this some of the best. You can find them but you have to hunt. It reminds me of lots of people who come to Los Angeles and expect modern houses to be on every corner. Los Angeles isn't like that, you have to search and search and search.