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!


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