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?
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 plannerof 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.
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 Ántonia 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
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.
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 thereis?
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
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 museumwhere large groups of people are
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 asthe gatekeepers of the planet.
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,
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 optimalgoals, 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.
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?
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 andCC&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.
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
interventionisthat whileit may help upgrade projects near
the bottom of the barrel, it
invariably also downgrades the cream near the top.Work
with visionbeyond 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.
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
A.You want to play hardball now?Okay. Two hundred years ago there was moresimilarity 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 anddiverse 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 thesame 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 thereare manyamong uswho 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 bemore
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?
I.Animal Farm. You’re saying that there were the
simple straightforward houses of the past
gatheredinto 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.
economic status combined with exposure to a plethora of stylisticpossibilities 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, aWestern
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 havereduced
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, butI 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.