Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Evening with Bruno – March 15, 2018

I’m sitting here staring helplessly at my great friend, Bruno, our family’s Labrador retriever mix.  Bruno was an interesting character.  From the day we picked him up at the rescue center six years ago he decided that Helena must have come to him from the Promised Land and he has been more devoted to her than any puppy love relationship I have ever witnessed.  Bruno was never more than thirty feet from his beloved Helena. When she went upstairs Bruno went upstairs and when she came back down he came back down.  Once, when I became concerned that I couldn’t find Bruno, but could see Helena washing her van, I told her that Bruno had disappeared...  “No,” she said, “he’s in the van.”  Of course!
Bruno’s second most favorite thing in life was riding in vans, trucks, and cars.  This boy was truly born to ride.  He didn’t look out the window much; he just curled up and enjoyed the ride.  On the return Bruno could always smell home a mile away and would begin barking excitedly.  And for good reason because at the entry gate is where we would let him out so he could run up ahead of us for the quarter mile long driveway to the house.  But wait!  Bruno ran ahead, adding a personalized twist:  every 100 feet or so he would pirouette around and bite the on-coming license plate.  We were never able to deter him from this antic and after chewing the frames into pieces he then mangled the license plates into illegible and crumpled scraps of metal.

Crazy perhaps, but full of life and faithful devotion to his lady.  Speaking of ladies, Bruno had two girlfriends, Rosie and Lily.  They walked and played together while Bruno demonstrated his masculine prowess by always peeing on every bush in sight.  And so I stare near tears at his crippled and trembling body, paralyzed and anemic from the terrible cancer that has moved from his spleen to his spine.  He stares back and feebly offers his paw in an attempt to “shake” – all he still knows to do in an attempt to communicate.  I can hardly stand losing him like this.  Mother Nature isn’t always so pretty, is she?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Inspiration and Influence

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.          It’s interesting how we find our ways in life.  I mean it’s hard for  me to think  of  myself being anything  other than  an architect…maybe an industrial  designer or  a  planner  of some  sort.  And of all the places I could be working, here I am mentoring under you and being truly exposed to the hand of Mother Nature.
A.        Life is like that.  There’s good and there’s bad coming at us, and all we can really do is choose how we’re going to respond to it.
I.          Truthfully, I often am not sure how to respond to many of the surprises life seems to constantly throw at me.  I try to be thoughtful and I think about so many of our predecessors who have set examples for us.  And somehow all of this helps to mold us into who we are today. “L’Architecture aujourd’hui” the French might say.  So what are some of the big influences that have helped shape you as an architect?
A.        Without my mother I wouldn‘t be here.
I.          Ah ha!  What about your dad? 
A.        Not so much.  My mother, while very average in many ways, exemplified persistence and tenacity.  I think I’ve used those characteristics to help push myself and my work to a higher level than it might otherwise have achieved.  Bill Clark, the American Cemetery at Verdun, the paving of the Los Angeles River, the children at Smile Train and Shriners Hospitals come to mind.  Architecturally, Jon Jerde had a significant influence on me.  In Jon I saw the possibility of working at a level way above the status quo …that was inspiring.
I.          What other architects have inspired you?
A.        Louis Kahn, Bill Turnbull, and Steve Martino come to mind immediately, but every spark of brilliance is uplifting. And a couple of artists: Rico Lebrun and Jerald Silva. There is something particularly poignant about witnessing the genius of my contemporaries first hand.
I.          And what about literature?
A.        My √Āntonia by Willa Cather, Design with Nature by Jean Paul Grillo, Hermann Hesse novels, and Bob Dylan’s songs.  As I go through life I pick up pieces here and there hundreds of them – but I’m really not a disciple of any of them.  I’ve been devoted enough to continue my own search and I’ve pretty much managed to find my own way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and experienced my share of poor judgment and low self-esteem, but now, in my later years I feel somewhat at peace with myself although I seem to have more concern for nature and the landscape than for myself.
I.          I’m not even sure exactly what I’m trying to get at.  I guess I’m trying to suck some insight, some short cut answers out of you.    
A.        You’re more than welcome.  I’m glad to help. That reminds me of Gene Mackey telling me about his father, St. Louis Architect Gene Mackey Jr., and his partner who were on their way to a design conference in Michigan and stopped in to see Eero Saarinen.  When they told Eero the reason for their trip Eero puffed on his cigar and said something like “You boys might as well just turn around and go home now.  You’re not going to find any answers at a conference here.  All the answers you are seeking are on your desks back in St. Louis.
I.          You seem to always have a story.
A.        I listen a lot. I listen for the occasional gem.  These days I try hard to listen to Mother Nature but it’s so very hard to hear her…it’s mostly a matter of noting what works well and what doesn’t work so well.  With that in mind I might add that I’ve learned a lot about the world from fishing.  Things like the difference between what you think you know, what others say, the way you would like it to be, and the way it really is.  The way it really is often evades comprehension - mostly we just catch glimpses of how it isn’t.
I.          This could get discouraging.
A.        I know, but I think that with a positive attitude and plenty of persistence you have a good chance of finding you own way…something few attempt and even fewer still ever achieve. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Less is More

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.


I.          Try this one, Maestro.  What’s the bottom line, the real bottom line?  Is love all there is?
A.        Plato said something like love is an unfortunate disorder of the heart and brain.  I’m  not sure what part it will play for our continual survival in the far distant future.  Is that all you’ve got?  How about some hardball?

I.          Okay, any sage advice on women?

A.        Now, that’s hitting below the belt…reminds me of when I ask my wife what I can do  to make up for some despicable transgression I’ve committed.  She has these demonic, underhanded responses that only a woman would make like “smile more” or  “dance more” or “drink more water.”

I.          That’s what I mean.  What’s wrong with women anyway?

A.        It’s certainly a mystery, that’s for sure.

I.          Well, I was talking to your wife the other day and I think she is a really good partner for you.

A.        Okay, and why do I think this is not just a nice compliment?

I.          She said she feels badly that with your talent you aren’t doing more prestigious projects…that your decision to move to the country has limited your professional  growth.  Does that bother you?

A.        Oh, I’m sometimes envious when I see someone doing a project with more physical  and cultural presence, a multimillion dollar sculpture museum or the like.  But I made  the choice to live closer to nature and practice architecture with less physical impact on the landscape.  I have no regrets in this regard.

I.          Remodeling a vacation house isn’t as significant as designing a church or museum where large groups of people are affected.           

A.                Perhaps.  Out here our buildings interface with the natural landscape first hand, whether it’s dealing with muddy shoes, or carpenter bees, or leaf  build-up on roofs.  The church or museum can be fantastic – they can also be (as they sometimes are) a little like Disneyland for adults.  Our work here is rubbing   shoulders with something larger, and for me, more significant than the common narcissistic view of ourselves as the gatekeepers of the planet.

            You may have noticed that through architecture, little by little, we are constantly learning about ourselves and the world around us, and that we are doing this largely because of the projects we design and build.  There is a more personal connection with their small scale and our more fully engaged involvement with their creation and the setting they are part of.

I.          It sounds like you’re talking about some kind of regionalism, right?
A.        I’ve never been comfortable with “isms.” There are many architectural talents working today and  some of them talk about siting their buildings, others about listening to the sun and wind and the land whispering to them. Perhaps this is so, but much of what is printed in most popular magazines is little more than lip service.  Too many architects who espouse this stuff are blatantly disingenuous and the same is true for many landscape architects.  And no magazine ever seems to question any of this:  they just mindlessly print whatever is the talk of the day.  It's pretty superficial.
I.          You mean they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk?
A.        Something like that… politically correct, high fashion donor dinners are a long way from personal responsibility, laws of survival, and mid-western slaughter houses.

I.          So you want them to fight a bear with nothing but a Bowie knife?

A.        No, but I would sure like to see some appreciation and treatment of the landscape as more than a cosmetic backdrop.  I would like to see buildings placed into the landscape with a smidgen of empathy for the inhabitants that pre-existed construction.

I.          Do I sense an air of bitterness?

A.        Just a sense of disappointment.  But that’s why I’m Okay with our work and our lifestyle.  Cutting firewood, picking apples, and dealing with the heat and cold of the seasons helps me remember that I’m alive, at least for now.  And I don’t feel too sorry for those not motivated to try to figure how to get out of the city.

            You know, I think of successfully partnering with the landscape as one of my optimal  goals, but really, I almost never achieve this to the degree I’d like, and  that’s a little disheartening to me.  Life is a struggle, but I don’t know that I’d want it any other way.  This weekend they will be marching and protesting in the streets of San Francisco while I’ll be building memories catching bass on Lake Sonoma.   Sometimes less really is more.



Monday, January 1, 2018

Design Review

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.

I.          Are you ready?

A.        Certainly.

I.          Okay.  Here it is:  Design Committees.  They seem to be part of the status quo and I wonder what you have to say about them.  I know we joke about them, but…

A.        They’re really not a joking matter. Another layer of filter fabric. When you mention design committees I also think of their first cousins planning departments and   CC&Rs.  The good news is that they have helped preserve some of the nostalgic qualities of our built environments – I’m thinking of places like Santa Barbara, Ferndale, and The Sea Ranch here in California.  Without governing oversight they all would be infused with McDonalds, Jiffy Lubes and  Tuscan spec houses.  Remember our chats about diversity?  Well, here is a case for unity and you may remember that one of the perils of too much unity can be an inability to adapt to change.  How do you like solar panels on those Santa Barbara moss and lichen covered Spanish roof tiles?  Perhaps a bit incongruous.
            We are trying to  make sense of things with words and numbers and limited  insight…but that’s another story.  I think the most unfortunate part of  governing design review and intervention is  that while  it may help upgrade projects near the bottom of the barrel, it invariably also downgrades the cream near the top.   Work with vision  beyond the status quo doesn’t fit neatly into approved sets of pre-established rules and regulations and are all too often castigated because  of their  lack of congruity with them.

            Where design review really fails is in its inability to grapple with the underlying  big   picture issues. We humans are primarily visually oriented and it’s no surprise that most design review focuses on evaluating facades and appeasing neighbors.  Of vastly greater significance are intentions, responding to the spirit of the place, and adapting to the physical reality of the land itself.

I.          How do you design review a project’s “Spirit of the Place”?           

A.        You want to play hardball now?  Okay. Two hundred years ago there was more similarity between places – take houses for the sake of argument – because most inhabitants, their material availability, and their construction technology had a similarity about them. That is just not the case with a culture as fast changing and diverse as ours is today. Peoples’ dreams, preferences, and ideas of home can and are spread all over the map – literally.

I.          So what do you think is an appropriate response to today’s potpourri of styles? In the same town, if not the same neighborhood?

A.        The issue is one of values.  Rather than an agreed upon visual similarity –  like wearing private school uniforms – I favor searching for ways to make buildings as thoughtfully and skillfully as we can.  Some of us may actually do that,  but there      are many  among us  who just don’t care about doing things better.  I might be  more sympathetic to design reviews that nurtured sincerity, purpose, and intent   rather   than aesthetic judgments about roof slope, window placement, and impact on pre-existing neighbors who didn’t think their  project through sufficiently to begin with.  Let’s say we have a project which genuinely tries to embrace all these things, but the building, even its visual qualities – is still awful.  I suppose we then have to live with the design review’s determination as to whether there should be more visual unity or diversity.  It’s a little like relying on one’s union to help determine whether we should vote more progressively or conservatively.

I.          You know what I’m thinking?

A.        No, what?

I.          Animal Farm. You’re saying that there were the simple straightforward houses of the past gathered  into neighborhoods that tended to have a consistency brought about by  consistency of their circumstances – similar culture, economy, material availability, and so forth.  I think of traditional Italian hillside towns.  And then today it is not uncommon to have neighborhoods with somewhat diverse cultures and economies.   And of course material availability is primarily an economic issue.

A.        Exactly.  Greater economic status combined with exposure to a plethora of stylistic possibilities leaves the door wide open. And because we are so easily satisfied with appearances, whether real or not, the integrity of making buildings has diminished accordingly. And very few of us really notice or care.  By the way, a beautifully presented mini treatise on this issue is included in The Place of Houses’ discussion on Edgartown in Massachusetts.

I.          I’ll check it out, but let’s say there is a Spanish Hacienda set well back off the street, a  Western Ranch House, a Neutra, and a handful of Tuscan knock-offs. The owners are all good, well-meaning citizens.  Is there a problem?

A.        There is only a problem when viewed through the lens of our most successful  achievements with the built environment. In your scenario the individual buildings don’t seem to be working either with the landscape or with each other to achieve a greater whole.  This falls short by most people’s standards for grouping buildings.   Because of unprecedented rate of change and progress we are experiencing for us to know. Eventually all this probably has nothing to do with us – it’s probably some unknowable sphere of energy and indiscriminant  elements.

I.          Let’s not go there. 

A.        I like to think that in the next 10 to 100 thousand years human population will have  reduced to a few billion or so with a truly stable population (although still for only an epoch or two).  Half the other species will probably be extinct, but the remaining half  might be left to live their lives free from our continuous meddling and management.

I.          Do I sense the sliding scale of diversity, unity, order and chaos coming back into play here?

A.        It’s a Catch 22.  Progressives may argue for more localized diversity of people, but    wonder how they square this with localized diversity of flora and fauna.  Are zebra  mussels in the Great Lakes, boas in the Everglades, Pampas Grass along the Pacific coast a  positive thing?  Ecologically speaking the bottom line is whatever is most  conducive for survival…and that’s a future our eyes cannot see.

I.          So what about Design Review?

A.        I suppose we have to eat crow or swallow a bitter pill for now and hope for the best in the future because the process is beautiful, destructive, confused, and contradictory.  And if that synopsis doesn’t quite make sense then we can at least take  some solace in the thought that the universe and everything in it are not under any obligation to make sense to us anyway.