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.