Thursday, December 1, 2016

Irene Pleszczynski

Life can be challenging and I valued having Helena’s mother, “Mama,” as a model of focus and determination – qualities dear to my heart.

Irene Pleszczynski (neé Waleria Eisinger), a native of Lwow, Poland and a resident of Santa Barbara since 1948, died on November 21, three days after her 94th birthday. Surviving the horrors of World War II, she met her husband Andrew in a DP camp in Bremen, Germany, where they married on Aug. 1, 1945. The following year they came to America, settling in St. Louis, Mo., before moving to California and discovering the town that was to be their paradise. Andrew died in 1998, and she is survived by their two children, Helena Bowman (Obie) of Cloverdale, Ca., and Wladyslaw (Joanna) of Annandale, Va., six grandchildren (Antonia, Risa (Shawn), Emmet and Tyrone; Feliks (Ljubica) and Benedykt, two great-grandchildren, Scarlet and Sterling Gregorio, and nieces Marta Glodkowska of Canoga Park and Anna Bentkowska-Kafel of London. She was wonderful—full of goodness, directness, wisdom, and spunk. She loved music, bridge, and her friends from thirty plus years of noon swimming at Los Baños. She loved her adopted country.

In her honor please remember the Santa Barbara Symphony. On November 25 she was buried next to her husband at Calvary Cemetery.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016



This is the second half of Obie’s CRAN Symposium presentation.

          Oregon Coast House is on a heavily wind swept bluff with views both up and down the  coastline.  The desire for corresponding walls of glass led to the use of cedar log buttresses – which harken back to the driftwood logs found along the beaches.
          I particularly like the way this exoskeleton reaches out and grabs ahold of the site.
          Aesthetics are very important to me – so important that I need them to have purposeful  underpinnings. 
          I’m not a fan of Buckminster Fuller’s aesthetics, but I really like his statement: “When  I’m working on a problem I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if it is not beautiful, I know I did something wrong.”
          With economics limiting so much traditional detail and embellishment I tend to expose a   lot of the structural elements.        
          Speaking of functional expressions I have been fascinated by exposed framing for some  time and in this case the studs on the interior hypotenuse wall are exposed, there becoming a wall of shelves and niches.

          Looking straight out we see a view loft above a small piece of covered porch below.
          I seldom use conventional hallways to access the various rooms of the house.  Here the     bedrooms can open entirely onto the main space via a steel framed pocket door of stained         Hardibacker panels.

          This is the Johnson House in the Dry Creek Valley.  It’s in a forest setting, and is   elongated east-west to maximize light and views for each room, and included a program    requirement for covered porches.   
          To avoid blocking light the covered porches are placed at the ends of the house and light openings are incorporated. 
          Except for a patch of grass off the dining terrace and a few other exceptions, only native landscaping is used.  This helps preserve continuity with the larger landscape.
          The cantilevered roofs are made practical because the primary structure is steel – requested by the owners to protect against widow makers – and steel easily handles the outreach.
          The exterior is primarily metal (for fireproofing) and we wanted some contrast to help  identify the entry.  It is concrete and while one might yell “foul/inconsistent” I reply  “Get over it – the contrast is good.” 
          Our world is imperfect and inconsistent (at least by human standards) and there are  shortcomings everywhere we look – it’s just the way it is.  In the search for meaning every theory, criticism, and philosophy is incomplete but I tend to like Louis  Sullivan’s “Art is doing things right.”
          The interior has an asymmetrical gable ceiling and a continuous band clerestories along  the south wall. 
          By the way, this house is on today’s house tour.
          Sonoma Coast House is a whole house makeover.  It sits on the bluff at The Sea Ranch  and had been built with a number of sloping walls with conventional windows in them.          
          They leaked profusely and although we preserved the sloping walls the new house has very little similarity to the original.
          Working with the sloping walls was in some ways counter intuitive, yet for me intuition  played a significant role in the design process.  Intuition often gets a bad rap, but I think it can be a valuable design tool.
          Integrating an entry onto the sloping wall was very challenging.  By making the entry   element appear as a free-standing trellis I seemingly avoided the difficult aesthetic  juncture.
          As in all of these projects natural landscaping helps achieve continuity with the larger  landscape. 
          Upon approach one passes beneath a huge shore pine.  From the interior one looks back out onto the old tree.  This braced frame replaces a former shear wall.
          The interior is quite complicated so a very limited material pallet was used – in this case    all surfaces are Douglas fir – a very warm hued local species.
          I think I know that you should look to yourself for answers, but do not hesitate to borrow (I don’t consider it stealing) from anyone or  anything. I certainly was aware of other architects using log columns, profile doors, exposed framing and industrial lighting…
          This is Malcolm Wells’ work on the left.  Many people and things have influenced me, but one of the first nature oriented architectural philosophies to really catch my attention  was Malcolm Wells’ comparison of the natural to the man-made in “The Absolutely Constant Incontestably Stable Architectural Value Scale.”  Quite a mouthful.  In this system performance is rated based on its positive or negative affect on things like pure air, pure water, wildlife habitat, and so forth. 
          Bill Turnbull’s Zimmerman House is on the right.  Bill had a great   architectural sense of the landscape and, I believe, is very much under appreciated.
          In the 1980s all manner of solar heating and controls were being experimented with. By the 1990s awareness of environmental issues were beginning to reach the architectural profession at large and concern with style began to include concern for the environment.
          As human densities have increased so have our impacts on the environment – the   landscape – and so have the calls for more rules, codes, and oversights regarding every   aspect of construction:  water, sewage, materials, structure, …The best part of so called “green architecture” for me is that perhaps it will raise general awareness that Mother Earth is beginning to squirm a bit – perhaps quite a bit!
          Some say environmental consciousness has arrived – at least that’s the talk.  You would  think that we can’t help but create “green architecture” – practically every product we specify is touted as green or eco-friendly or sustainable.  Everyone claims to be part of the solution, but what solution?  We follow some agency’s guidelines, perhaps feel good about ourselves, and continue business as usual. 
          The continuing problem is that reductions in impact are soon offset by increases in  population.  Further regulations just continue a cycle of ever increasing depletion of  resources. This is not sustainability – it’s postponement!
          Here is a U.S. Population graph – world population graphs are similar. With birth rates  being higher than death rates the population obviously increases continuously.  And the  greater the number the greater the increase.
          Any thought of human sustainability has to be rooted in population stabilization and I  presume this means stabilization of the economy and as such is a topic that is taboo for politicians and just about everyone else (including you and me) –  no one ever mentions  the “P” word.  It’s common sense that we can achieve population stability more easily with 5 billion than 10 billion, more easily with 10 billion than 15 billion – what sense is  there in continuing to increase our numbers?
          Other than air this is my favorite resource. Numerous governing agencies regulate and  restrict water usage in the name of “green philosophy” but the next day these or other agencies approve the increase of more housing and/or greater densities
          More people need water so we make do with less water so we can accommodate more  people.  That may not sound like good news, but you haven’t heard the really bad  news…
          We are all so involved with our own lives and society that it is difficult to have a good   sense of how the total system works and our impact on the rest of our planet.  We require     massive supply and refuse systems to keep our society functioning.  According to National Geographic in an average lifetime each person’s impact (often called the human  footprint) will:
·         Use 1.8 million gallons of water
·         Burn 31,350 gallons of gasoline
·         Use 29,700 pounds of plastic
·         Use 43,371 aluminum cans
·         Discard 64 tons of garbage to landfills
·         Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera
          I see conserving water as actually detrimental to the environment because the more we  conserve – the more we sacrifice – the more people we can accommodate to ravage the  earth in a plethora of other ways.  It’s not just water that is the culprit, it’s everything that befriends population growth – seemingly good things like clean energy, disease control, increased food production, and on and on.
          As resources diminish our options are reduced and the quality of life is inevitably reduced. Many reductions occur slowly enough that we don’t necessarily even take      notice – perhaps things like the incremental replacement of the land with development. We don’t have very compassionate ethics for developing the natural landscape – most lots are essentially placemats for houses and offer the inhabitants little exchange with their surroundings.
          Other reductions can occur catastrophically – like the paving of the LA River or the  American Plains Indians’ horrific loss of land and entire way of life through non- indigenous hunting and targeted killing to eliminate their food and resource supply, the buffalo.  It is estimated that between 1868 and 1885 the buffalo population dropped from  31 million to 500 and the Native American population in the 19th century dropped from 1 million to 237 thousand.
          This is not my idea of minimalist architecture in the future – rather it’s a poignant reminder that while we may think of pure air and water as our most valuable resources – our freedom and quality of life are also being eroded away.
          Every year there are added restrictions…
          So now we’ve some full circle – my inherent sympathies are with preserving the natural landscape.  I think of us as a species among species where the golden rule might apply to all life – “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
          I hope I’ve given you food for thought and that something from this morning’s  presentation will prove helpful to your own work and practice.  Thank you.

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).