Thursday, November 1, 2018

My Father

 Unlike my mother, my father was someone I seldom had occasion to look up to or admire.  In his thirties he was hard working and somewhat industrious, even ambitious.  He did not seem to have a good feel for how society works or how to dedicate oneself to a task and was not particularly helpful in preparing me to interface with the world.  I know he was proud of my architectural accomplishments and my acceptance to USC.

In hindsight my father was helpful and definitely gave me some good, blue collar advice.  For this I am thankful.  And many of his negative qualities have also been helpful – in a reverse barometer kind of way:  I’ve never been much of a drinker (especially beer), I resent oversimplified categorization of people and issues, and I am a believer in not expecting things to come easily. No excuses, but my father did have a difficult start in life.  Here is his biography: 

A Biography of Obie G. Bowman by his son – June 2008

My dad was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 2, 1913.   His father was a drinker and the only thing I recall hearing about his mother was my dad’s recollection of her working scrubbing floors of tenement houses.  When his parents divorced his father took my dad and his mother took his older sister Bernice.  Dad soon left to live with his older cousin Miriam Gideon (in Cleveland, I believe).  Miriam kept in contact with Dad, Mom, and me until her death in the early 1960s.  Dad ran away from Ohio after finishing the 8th grade and bummed around the country for a few years with some hobo acquaintance.  They hopped a lot of trains and I believe spent some time in the south.  He hated his father, resented his mother for not taking him, and never spoke or wrote to either of them ever again.  Somehow, he ended up at a dance at the Santa Monica Pier where he met my mother.

They were married on May 8, 1941.  Tom Sprague got dad a job at a furniture factory where dad accidentally cut off the tip of his middle finger.  He was soon drafted and ended up in the Navy.  Mom and I visited him in Minneapolis where he was undergoing electrical training – he became an apprentice electrician on a destroyer escort in the Pacific.  I believe he met his friend Clayton in the Navy.  The closest he came to battle was near the Battle of the Coral Sea.  They were holding 20 or so miles away from the battle in reserve and dad said they could see the sky light up during the night as the shells exploded.

After the war we lived in small, military housing on a barren hillside in San Pedro.  I recall walks to a small pond and going down to the breakwater to meet Dad who would go down early to fish. At some point we moved to a little house behind June’s in West Los Angeles.  Also, at some point dad worked as a mailman with his Navy buddy, Clayton.  Soon he passed the exam to start as an apprentice with the LA Department of Water and Power and worked out of a station near the Veterans’ Home in West LA.  Dad made some efforts to better himself, reading general books of knowledge, doing little projects out of Popular Mechanics magazine, drawing cartoons, making little wire baskets... none of which ever amounted to much.

He always brought home comic books and because I was often in the tub (I’m 5 or 6 at this point) one night he came home and said he had seen some rubber comic books you could read in the tub.  I was sorely disappointed when he told me he was only kidding.  In later years he brought home the first issue of Mad magazine – he seemed fascinated with Alfred E. Newman’s face and the phrase “What, Me worry?”  Another night he brought home a gopher and I was beside myself with excitement.  We kept it a day or two and then he insisted we let it go. We built several model ships and planes.  My favorite was a wood model of a Black Widow Night Fighter. Another night he brought home a black Cocker Spaniel, “Skipper”, my first dog.  Dad built him a dog house.  He also built a big swing and a pull-up bar.  Dad was always quite skinny but did work out on the pull-up bar and with a punching bag.  He liked boxing and listening on the radio to a heavyweight championship fight was really a big deal in our house.

When we moved to Reseda in 1950 dad transferred to the Water and Power station in Canoga Park.  There was a lot of work to be done on our tract house lot and Dad installed a front yard sprinkler system and built a decorative planter that looked like a well, clothes lines, a work bench (I have it in my garage now), a dog house, and a chicken cage.  We also had a vegetable garden.  My parents had a colored concrete patio poured and were told to keep it moist with wet blankets, which they did, but when they removed the blankets the color was terribly mottled.  It was pretty gross.  Rocks for the well came from a place on the west side of “The Ridge Route” south of Gorman.  We would collect them and fill up the trunk of our 1949 Plymouth.  Dad also sheared off flagstone from this same area.  Grandma gave mom her old player piano (the one we have) and dad spent months rebuilding it – we used to play it all the time, although it has since fallen into disrepair.  Dad went to union meetings fairly regularly and I believe usually voted as the union recommended. Both he and Mom were Democrats.  Sometimes he would go see the fights (boxing) in downtown LA and sometimes I would go along. Dad set up a pair of horseshoe pits in the backyard and was an OK player.

Dad took tests to improve his position/pay at work but was unsuccessful.  He did a little local fishing and hunting, smoked cigars, and drank lots of beer.  He was fairly prejudiced (against just about anybody/anything) and was almost always critical of the church, the neighbors, etc. 

My dad was quite strict and I did not feel good about him for many of my teenage years.  On the other hand, there was truth to many of his concerns and his strictness probably did help me stay out of trouble.  In reality, I did many mischievous deeds but was smart enough to usually avoid getting caught.

In the early 1960s his sister Bernice got in touch with him, having contacted him through Navy records and she and one of her daughters, Becky, came out for a visit.  After he retired (I believe at 60) he began drinking beer a lot more and eventually was probably an unconfirmed alcoholic.  He also then watched a lot of TV.  Of course, it was difficult after Mom was hospitalized.  Dad visited her regularly, but he suffered a stroke in 1990.  We arranged live-in care for him which turned out to be a disaster (items went missing from the house and long distance bills mounted which were never repaid) and eventually he was in a convalescent home in Tarzana.  He was later moved to another place where he died on August 22, 1992.  He was buried next to my mother at Chatsworth Cemetery.  One of his friends from work (Stace or Studerman?) showed up at the burial and we shared a few memories about Dad.

Monday, October 1, 2018


In architecture school at USC I got an F in planning.  The final exam included an essay on developing the land west of the campus.  The area was a low income but quasi pleasant neighborhood of Craftsman-Style houses and Camphor street trees.  I could not support demolishing an existing decent neighborhood and replacing it with the schlock development that was all but inevitable.  Without realizing it this was the beginning of my stance against suburban development and population growth.  With an accompanying D in design, my scholarship was suspended so I transferred to Cal and soon found myself repeating planning in Denise Scott Brown’s class. The class was so nonsensical as to be incredulous. A fellow student and good friend, Oscar Palacios, and I thought that if we met with Denise and explained to her how hopelessly far apart our values and world views were, she might agree to allow us to undergo some more palatable punishment and let us out of her class. The answer was no.  Oscar dropped out of architecture school rather than continue the madness (he is now a practicing architect in New Mexico).  I persevered, went through the motions, received a B in the class, and have resented Denise and the planning profession ever since.
Planning was probably in its heyday a hundred or a thousand years ago.  It seems to me we are now pretty well planned out.  What we need now is some thoughtful de-planning. Perhaps we could solve the equation of how many people would result in the highest quality of life for man and beast alike.  The Sonoma County Planning Commission could remove rules and regulations restricting fireplaces, water usage, and zoning rules.  Public works projects could work on removing and simplifying our infrastructure. Instead of drawing plans of different zoning districts and regulating the size limits of guest houses planners could establish population limits and let the world pretty much take its natural course.  An illustrative example of what’s wrong with our typical approach to planning is not unlike The Department of Fish and Game’s management of wildlife (i.e. wildlife planning).  We foul up rivers to the point that fish can no longer maintain their natural existence, so we build fish hatcheries and artificially prolong survival. The thinking here is all wrong.  The fish don’t need our help, the river does.  If we don’t screw up the river (and ocean) and overpressure the fish they will do fine. The river doesn’t need artificial habitat it needs natural habitat – an ecosystem free of excessive population and its disregard for the river and its surroundings.
So what about planning?  Stop myopic planning year to year and devise a big plan or at least a plan that is viable for the next 10,000 years or so.  A plan that allows nature to continue her work free from the indignant pokes and inept management of man. Some planning efforts are commendable, but the planner’s list of dos and don’ts can’t help but appear arbitrary and out of date even before the ink dries.  The world is more complex than their rules can reasonably address – it’s moving too fast, and there are new and insightful proposals well beyond the capability of the average bureaucrat to grasp.  Regulatory response to the physical world has given way to looks, fads, and rules of thumb.  This is not improving the quality of lives in any meaningful way; it’s just kicking the can down the freeway.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Aren't They?

This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in the architect’s Northern California studio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in the architect’s Northern California studio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Getting Better or Getting Along

This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in the architect’s Northern California studio.


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

A.         How successful do you want to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I.          I wonder how this movie ends.

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

Landscape Without Design


This post is part of an ongoing (although intermittent) series of fictional chats between an architect and an intern in his Northern California studio.

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