Category Archives: Academic

Provacative and Unprofessional

While it’s useful to rely on consistency and standardization when it comes to making buildings, it doesn’t typically inspire creativity. Lately I’ve been interested in the limitations of professionalism and the repression of critical thinking, in part because I haven’t heard much discussion on the subject. I believe alternative viewpoints warrant consideration, particularly when the volume of one particular point of view is loudest. 

Unprofessional Architecture, Bolivia. 

Magazines and architecture blogs give us competition winners and glossy images of spectacular, high priced forms and precision crafted details. In my view, big budgets often lack a certain degree of challenge; it is often easier to start new than to sort out how to work with what you have in front of you. Moreover, these promoted forms and details often follow formulas that were established long ago, furthering the ease of use and circumventing imagination. Projects that don’t follow the correct formulas are passed over.

In the current cultural climate, it is difficult to find architecture that embraces the rough or raw.  Slipshod, slapdash, bricollaged, improvised, and the mashed up are not typically part of the architectural discussion. With enough promotion, it’s easy to see how a cycle of convention perpetuates itself.  The consumption of culture catalyzes its own acceptable ideology. One must follow the standards of the profession, its norms and values, to be seen as valid. The rest is potentially offensive.

Unprofessional Architecture, Vermont

However, looking to the less polished may offer new inspiration. This Jim Jarmusch quote pretty well summarizes why:

“I still consider myself to be an amateur filmmaker. And I say that because in the Latin origin of the word amateur is the word love, and it’s love of a form, whereas professional implies something you do for money or for work.”

The excerpt is from an interview where Jarmusch speaks about Gimme Danger, a new documentary he created about Iggy Pop. His interest in punk rock has to do with the embrace of the amateur. He discusses how that encouraged him to make films before he believed he was really qualified to do so. I can appreciate the perspective. I came of age during the tail end of the punk rock era, and the culture epitomized the unprofessional. I still carry the sensibility with me today. It’s why I’ve suggested that we “make it ugly”, which to me means, try to think from a different perspective.

To be unprofessional is defined by Webster as “below or contrary to the standards expected in a particular profession”. In other words not constrained or tied to a specific methodology.  Too much respect for the established process can cause one to follow the given path too closely, whereas a bit of irreverence allows for exploration out of bounds, where new ideas are formed.  Divergence from the norm provides the opportunity to consider alternatives, even if we’re searching for something very polished in the end. Jarmusche films are case in point.

Thinking or acting outside of conventions or established norms may create discomfort. Provocation can be viewed by the definition ‘to evoke, or stimulate’, as in an intellectual provocation. It asks you to think. In another sense of the word, provocation means to ‘create anger’. In fact they are the same thing in some cases.

Architectural Provocation, Oakland

Thought that occurs outside of conventionally agreed upon ideology may be upsetting to those entrenched. But this type of provocation is essential to our evolution an humans. To quash alternate points of view in favor of the majority is a step backwards in our search for freedom and independent thought.  Those that promote dissent may only be concerned about it when they are in the minority, but when that minority  becomes a majority, it shouldn’t be forgotten.

Allowing space for diversity of thought translates well into the urban environment. I may not believe it is possible to recreate a Victorian Building properly; that it speaks to a different time and is not relevant to the world we live in today. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand that others disagree. I would never suggest that all Victorians be torn down, or that another should never be built. I only ask that I be allowed to express myself in the way I see fit, unfettered by regulations defined by majority preference. I believe this to be important, as critical thinking and freedom of expression are in many ways at the core of what gives us meaning.

It should be noted that none of this is meant to deny our professional responsibility as architects. Building owners entrust us with large sums of money; the public entrusts us with their safety and well being. These are all responsibilities we should and do take very seriously. At the same time, standards should be periodically scrutinized for relevance to new technologies and ways of life. Only then can we be sure we are performing at our best.

Also posted in Construction, Design, Observations, Theory

Architecture as Product

The first time I heard architecture referred to as “product” I was thrown back. We were meeting with our client, the developer of Station House (construction photo above). Various architectural design options we produced were referred to by our client as “products”. My natural impulse toward this classification was revulsion: How could our thoughtful, carefully crafted designs be demeaned by such a marketing term?

The classic Monty Python skit where the Architect presents a rather gruesome apartment building

Of course this position, to imagine a speculative housing development as something other than product, was somewhat naive. Architects are frequently substituting the economic reality of their projects with conceptual metaphors, drawings, formal studies, obsessions with parametrically designed building skins, etc. Speaking for myself, I have frequently passed over economics as simply the nitty-gritty, the uninteresting realities of getting stuff built. Whether or not the architect recognizes the nature of her design as product internally, the outward expression of architecture as product is seldom embraced.

Consider the above site drawing for the Station House project. We came up with concepts for the various buildings on the site, and sought to differentiate the architecture based upon metaphors such as Move, The Frame, The Engine, Stitch, etc. Each of these concepts encompassed both a visual language and a performance that we desired for the building. Along Wood Street, for example, we sought to make the building “stitch” into the surrounding neighborhood with raised porches and projections and proportions which more closely resembled the existing residential fabric.

These metaphors are useful for generating architectural form, but the reality of how our developer client saw the project was far different. I imagine the developer focused much more on the above site plan, which shows the units and the green spaces more matter-of-factly, and augmented this view with a spread sheet or pro forma. Our set of concepts had a purpose, but the underlying order of the project was not based on an architectural concept or a metaphorical “engine” It was based on an actual engine, an economic engine, which churns out housing – or products. Does that not make the architecture somewhat irrelevant?

What happens when the architect begins to see the built environment through the developers eyes and align her practice around producing products? This mode of practice stands in contrast to a service-based practice, where the architect responds to client needs and designs a building as one tailors a suit, fit to the exact need and size of the patron.

Nick and Diane giving a presentation to UC Berkeley graduate students

I recently posed this question at a real estate, design, and development seminar at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. I presented Baran Studio’s work on mini lot and infill housing in Oakland within the framework of this idea that the architecture we make is about taking a generalized product such as a 3 -bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom single family home, and adapting that product to different sites around the city. We looked at our earlier single unit developments and scaled up to look at our medium density housing infill projects.

Louise Street, 6 new units in West Oakland

One project we spent some time looking at is the Louise Street mini-lot development, six units set to come on the market this spring. The product adapts to the varying site conditions of front, middle, and back, as well as north vs. south exposure, open space, and privacy.

We moved on to a larger product, Gallot Lofts, which is under construction in the Jingletown neighborhood of Oakland. In this case, the standard double-loaded corridor is split to create a courtyard between the units. The product faces Chapman Avenue with large viewing and ventilation openings, and then turns a more reserved face toward the courtyard.

Gallot Lofts, a new 41-unit project under construction in Oakland

Gallot Lofts courtyard

Let there be no mistake: we are still architects providing a design service, and the traditional role of architect in relation to client and contractor is not changed. However, we do work with the builder closely, and the builder and developer are more of a single entity though they are separate companies. Developer, contractor, and architect are all working to produce the best product, one which will create a community that thrives and contributes to its surroundings. The product also has to make money for the developer and their investors, or else there wouldn’t be this sort of density happening to begin with.

The next step is to start proposing products which differ from the 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom model. Markets will get saturated, and a successful product-based practice must continue to evolve and adapt to the changing market. Moving beyond housing, we have recently finished an innovative retail and office building near MacArthur Bart in Oakland called the MacArthur Annex. The container itself stands out as a “product” but the unique thing here is not so much the container as it is the size of the space: approximately 7 feet by 20 feet. These boxes contain any number of uses, from a florist to a graphic design studio to a record shop.

Mac Arthur Annex – office and retail space constrained to a container’s dimensions

A product-based architecture pracitce is about putting a unique product out on the market, then seeing what bites. The more risk the architect is willing to take, the greater our ability is to innovate. We do not design in a vacuum, but rather the opposite. Thinking of buildings as products forces us to listen to everything out there, looking critically at what is being offered for people to buy, where people are able to live, what projects are better at building community, and how the value of what we design is actually experienced. Product makers must be excellent listeners.

Special thanks to Chris Calott for inviting us to give the talk at UC Berkeley.

Also posted in Construction, Design, Observations, Uncategorized

Creative and Commercial?

Mike Wallace interview is sampled in a Flight Facilities track I happen to be listening to this morning, and I decided to look It up and watch it in its entirety. It is a 20 minute talk with Rod Serling, and has some salient points about the creative process that I find relevant, even after the decades since Serling spoke with Wallace.

In the case of architecture, the potential influence of commercialism certainly generates questions. But this is not the only potential compromise architecture faces. it is certainly the case because architect are usually commissioned, but because our works are often massive undertakings that require large numbers of collaborators, we must always consider multiple points of view. Even when we find the opportunity to take more complete control of the process, as a developer or singular artist, the matter of self censorship also arises. And the question of what we hope to achieve, outside of pure self expression, becomes central. Critical thinking is an essential ingredient; conformity is rarely useful. The interview is also instructive in demonstrating the fleeting nature of controversy. I believe it demonstrates that ‘progress’ is only linear from the point of view of the moment, and the pressures exerted in any given state of our society’s existence, further complicating the potential of  ‘truth’ in art.

In the end, Serlings work (on the Twilight Zone) reveals itself to be exceptionally provocative without being overt. This for me is where great art lies. It allows an audience to think and draw their own conclusions, which will vary with each passing era. Such a position may engender timelessness, as opposed to anachronism.

Also posted in Observations

Architectural Glitches

The process of making is not typically linear. Direction can be reversed and lateral moves made as various directions fail to prove satisfactory and new paths are discovered. But each revision, and sometimes a drawing or modeling accident, are the layers of process that provide substance to an idea.

A glitch is defined as:


1. a sudden, usually temporary malfunction or irregularity of equipment.

1. suffer a sudden malfunction or irregularity.

Allowing for the inevitable glitch – embracing it rather than attempting to prevent it or repair it, provides for a richer and more diverse architecture than a pure and uncontaminated one.

There is a detail that I still remember from my early education (and that was a long time ago so it’s a fuzzy one). As I recall, it was attributed to Frank Gehry, and pre-dated his highly precise, Catia generated forms. The detail had an angle called out, and it was labeled to be built at somewhere between 30 and 35 degrees. It was a degree of imprecision and design flexibility that still stands out in my mind today. It provided the opportunity to account for a certain amount of construction ‘tolerance’ and allowed an openness to possibilities.


Air and Space Museum by Frank

This manner of thinking also brings to mind Duchamp’s Large Glass, or ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’. The work is sandwiched between two panels of glass, and was at one point dropped and broken. Duchamp embraced the cracks and kept them as part of the work. It appears that chance finished the project for him. His commitment to the process of art as part of the art is further evidenced in The Green Box, which consists of various documentation of the Large Glass.


Large Glass by Marcel

To many architects, the idea of a design being completed outside of total control would amount to a terrible transgression. To me, allowing for variation and even accident, is exciting. In this space, discovery occurs and design emerges. It happens when a line goes astray, or a vertex is pulled in the wrong direction. It also happens when a contractor doesn’t look carefully at a drawing, and something unintended gets built. You can demand it be redone, but this is not always possible (time and other constrains intervene). Then there is an Exquisite Corpse to deal with. How can you build on what you now have in front of you. What you end up with may be surprising, and is often more complex and contains a richness that may not be present in the original.


Shifts in direction, accidental or not, provide feedback to the designer(s). They produce information on what works and what doesn’t. The relationship between parts are explored in this manner; how the site relates to larger context, the concept to the form, the form to the space. New ideas occur as the hand moves and the eye witnesses the results. Design results from an iterive process, not from conceiving a single vision and smashing it into reality.

Tracings by Ella

Of course the process doesn’t end when the drawings are complete. Once the design is finalized, we develop drawings that are instructions to the contractor. There is little room for error at this stage, and we work to be sure costly mistakes are avoided. And we handle the inevitable surprises we encounter during construction with the same eye toward creative problem solving.

Architecture continues to evolve after the last brick is laid. Time takes hold and transforms buildings in unexpected ways. This is what makes stories so fascinating; their twists and turns. Likewise, what makes much architecture great is it’s history and the tales it can tell. Not all architects insist that they write every page of the story, and that is wise. The ultimate fate of most buildings is in the end, dust.


I was looking at a new structure in our neighborhood that was recently completed. My thought, as I passed by, was that it was just going to sit there now. Likely for a long time. Part of me wants to see movement. To see it transform itself on a daily basis. But the transformation will happen slowly. Still, time is relative. I suppose what draws me to reflect on time and transformation is the beauty that exists in the messy process. It forms a complex and multi-layered story, rich with complication and contradiction. It is this richness that draws us in.

In this sense, the ‘design’ process never stops. And it never has a singular voice. And some of the voices, like that of time, are silent.

Also posted in Observations, Theory

Architecture and Obedience

We generally think and do as we are told by authority, or by mass momentum (which comes first, or if they’re interchangeable, I’m not sure.) This is particularly true for architecture. This occurred to me when, coincidentally, I was watching the film ‘Experimenter’ and I was forwarded a manifesto by the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia (thanks Travis). I may never have considered the relationship of these ideas prior, but the timing was good. The Experimenter is about Stanley Milgram and his psychological theories on obedience. The Agentic State summarizes our tendency to obey authority, even when confronted with a moral dilemma. We pass responsibility on to the authority figure. More on the Milgram experiments here. The truth in this may not be so extreme as to explain how the Nazis were able to perpetrate the Holocaust, as suggested by Milgram, but it clearly pervades our psychology. It persists in our need to angrily cling to historic architectural styles, and Sant’Elia’s writing describes why we shouldn’t look to history, or authority, when creating architecture. 

Angry Mob

To begin, a summary of Stanley Milgram’s theory:
The essence is that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument that is simply carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. This can, I might suggest, lead us not just past notions of right and wrong, but beautiful and ugly.  The Milgram experiments allowed the ‘teacher’ to be influenced by authority on what they ‘must’ do.  The ‘learner’ had to be taught, even if it meant inflicting pain, possibly death.  It is much easier to imagine something less consequential, such as aesthetics, to be controlled by authority. Notions of ugly are simply a matter of assumed authority, as demonstrated so well in this passage from the futurist Antonio Sant’Elia:

The house of concrete, glass and steel, stripped of paintings and sculpture, rich only in the innate beauty of its lines and relief, extraordinarily “ugly” in its mechanical simplicity, higher and wider according to need rather than the specifications of municipal laws.

Fascist Neoclassicism

Notable is his separation of need and law. He is suggesting that ‘ugly’ is being deemed so by governmental authority, and denies the truth of that notion. He presents the concept that there is more to beauty than simply what we are told. In further contradiction to authority, he denied the notion that nature and machines are in opposition. He derives need, and perhaps being, from another notion of who we are as humans and our connections to the machines we’ve created (see our posts on ‘Making with Machines’ and ‘Living is a Machine for Architecture’).  Simply put, all that is ‘artificial’ has come from us:

That, just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, we—who are materially and spiritually artificial—must find that inspiration in the elements of the utterly new mechanical world we have created, and of which architecture must be the most beautiful expression, the most complete synthesis, the most efficacious integration;
And in concluding on this point:
That architecture as the art of arranging forms according to pre-established criteria is finished.

Drawing by Sant’Elia

Which in many ways brings us to our current situation. As often as architects are asked to do it, arranging forms according to pre-established criteria is in many ways finished.  It is impossible to replicate the past, but moreover, there is no need to do so.  We can be free, creating without restraint.  But so often, we don’t take, or even see this opportunity.  We have come to understand that everyone is an artist. Given the expanse of new creative freedoms, why cling to the past?  I would suggest fear is the barrier.  Sant’Elia recognized the possibilities if we could break free of the past: 

That by the term architecture is meant the endeavor to harmonize the environment with Man with freedom and great audacity, that is to transform the world of things into a direct projection of the world of the spirit;
 From an architecture conceived in this way no formal or linear habit can grow, since the fundamental characteristics of Futurist architecture will be its impermanence and transience. Things will endure less than us. Every generation must build its own city. This constant renewal of the architectonic environment will contribute to the victory of Futurism which has already been affirmed by words-in-freedom, plastic dynamism, music without quadrature and the art of noises, and for which we fight without respite against traditionalist cowardice.

Temporary Architecture

Incredibly this suggests, through the words ‘impermanence’ and ‘transience’, that even what we think of today will erode in time, and embraces it.  Perhaps the fear we experience is tied to the fear of mortality, or irrelevance, or that there is no real truth.  In any case, we won’t last forever.  Why cling to the past, to the idea that we ought to be immortal?  We can be in the now, and appreciate that which we have been given. This means we embrace the present, and look to the future. We do not need to ask our children to owe us (or blame us) for our legacy but allow them to create their own. We are not responsible to them, we are responsible to ourselves.  Ultimately, it may be a matter of self-respect.

It has been noted that Sant’Elia’s work was used as the underpinnings for fascist architectural forms around the time of World War II. (Sant’Elia was killed in the fighting during World War I; ironically the technological future about which he was so optimistic produced the killing machine that ended his life.) But this clearly was not his message. He did not want an architecture of control, or of permanence. It is plain to me that he believed architecture should be a response to its time, and to a hope for the future. He believed that architecture is not beholden to the past, and should not be, no matter what the authorities tell you. 

Also posted in Design, Observations, Theory

Not a Manifesto

In light of my recent ‘Design Manifesto’ interview with Modelo, I’ve returned to the manifestos I studied as a college student, and I remember the excitement it generated in me as a young architect. The writings were brimming with possibility, and the future that lie ahead only need be forged. I recall the certainty I felt about how I would change the world; it’s easy to feel this way as an academic, particularly as a young student. When the realities of entering the workforce hit, attitudes change quickly. Barriers to ideals surround you, from an employer, to a client, to neighbors, planners, contractors, engineers and consultants, as well as matters of constructability, budgets and schedules. Each seems to exist to sap your hope.

Further complicating matters is an ever shifting landscape of culture and technology. Social beliefs and norms can make it difficult to trust your own path, as so many around you choose to stick to the current. It is as easy to fall out of touch as it is to intellectually stagnate when not following the ever shifting crowd. But simply adopting the latest trends can result in a lack of comprehensive exploration. A varied path lacks conviction and a singular path lacks creativity. 

A manifesto is suggestive of a singular ideology, which is coveted in architectural circles. It is frequently represented in a unified expression, a signature. This is the penultimate goal of many architects; the step that precedes imposition of their expressive will upon the world, without input. And yet to forgo a manifesto suggests an architect adrift. Unmoored and adopting whatever may come. 

However, there is an alternative: to be intentionally open to influence. To allow the design problem to inform the process. And in this, each solution must be as unique as each problem. In the spirit of such an effort, and at the risk of exposing a complete contradiction, I’ve dusted off this anti-manifesto that I wrote some time ago:

Not a Manifesto:

The time for manifestos has passed. 
Fixed methodologies are no longer viable. 

Technology is changing at a pace that requires constant reinvention. 

A manifesto calls for rejecting history for the “completely new”. In the past this meant that the completely new would in turn become obsolete over a period of years, even decades. Today obsolescence occurs in months, or even days. 

We embrace the future but do we do not reject the past. 

A manifesto judges, and determines ‘correct’ procedures and methods for the present, and attempts to set a course the future. 

We have made no such determinations.

The future comes to us, and we embrace it as it unfolds.  
We have no temporal bias. 

We grow.

We seek methods from all avenues. 

We seek opportunities in the usual, and make them more than usual. 

We will try anything. 

We will find interest.

We will wander. 

We will improvise. 

We will adapt. 

Also posted in Design, Observations, Theory Tagged , , |

Don’t be afraid of Modernism. It’s dead. 

When I’m told “this modernism thing isn’t going to last” I feel like I just emerged from a time machine in 1905. Modernism was not a passing trend; it was a movement. I would distinguish a movement as being something that contains an ideology, rather than a passing fancy based on an aesthetic preference. While part of the ideology of modernism is expressed in aesthetics, it contains a strategy for making buildings that values an honesty of material, and a preference for simplicity. It embraces technology as being a defining element, and celebrates the notion that it brings us all closer together. But for all of the hope that is embodied, it failed to consider the benefits of diversity. After modernism failed, the aesthetic propagation continued, at which point modernism became ‘style’. Style is more akin to fashion; something more surface, and formal, which rapidly changes with passing collective taste. It is strange that modernism is not yet considered a historic style. Because it is.
 The Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright was built in 1909

We were discussing this during design review in the office yesterday, and I realized something that I’ve been considering for some time – even though we are often accused of being modernists, the work we do is not in fact ‘modern’. Modern is a style, and like any style of architecture (Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish) it has a set of rules. One of the critical tenants of at least one form of high modernism, namely the ‘International Style’, was that it break with context and any forms from the past, as we had arrived in a unifying moment in time. We were all going to be connected through technology. Mechanized travel and flight, telephone, radio would all serve to bring down the barriers between us. A single ‘style’ could apply to everyone, in everyplace.


 Richard Neutra. Lovell Health House. High modernism in the U.S.A. 1929

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Also posted in Design, Harmon, Observations, Theory

The Perfection of Imperfection

Decay and disintegration are simply factors of time.  Nothing lasts, change is constant.  The natural process of dematerialization is everywhere.  If we ourselves aren’t tearing it down, the forces that surround us are. So architecture must blaze, not to make way for the avant garde, but because it has no choice.  As much as we covet the new (out of our own fear of impermanence) and seek perfection in unworn ‘beauty’, it never lasts. It may be time to look outside of our expectations.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese term that loosely translates into “embracing the imperfect” and “celebrating he worn”. It involves a ‘natural’ transformation, and might be viewed as nature reclaiming what was always hers to begin with. It is the evidence of the inevitable return to dust, or at least a transformation to a different life. We don’t have a great deal of appreciation for it here in the west, but it finds us none the less.

It is nearly impossible to ‘make’ something ‘imperfect’.  It is more of a process, something that happens.  We can capture its qualties in the act of designing, and it helps to have a condition to grow out of.  In reality there always is one, we simply need to 1.) be able to see it, and 2.) accept it for what it is, in all its roughness and rawness, and 3.) be willing to accept what emerges.

It is a rusting spoon, an aging sheet of plywood, warped and rusting metal peeling off the side of a warehouse. It is plaster that wasn’t made smooth, broken bits of lattice, the knots in a board, the warp in a ceramic cup, the wrinkles on an old mans face. These things don’t meet our usual standard of beauty because it is based on the endless parade of ageless models, new cars, freshly painted McMansions we are bombarded with. Instead, try ‘making it ugly’. Reconsider what you’ve been told, what you are being fed.

The potential for architecture in embracing the imperfect is that in accepting natual processes we may start to see more of the beauty of the world.  By challenging the conventions of beauty, we open our minds to a broader place, and gain the potential to appreciate more of the world around us.  This is important because we are so often dissatisfied with our world and situation because we are basing our ideas of happiness and success on a narrow definition that is ingrained through cultural beliefs.  There is undoubtable beauty in those beliefs as well, but they are in the end limiting.  And in this sense, architecture can be appreciated through an alternative lens.  It can also be designed through that lens.

I should conclude by pointing out that the notion of imperfect does not define our work (it is more important to remain adaptable), but we like to consider it from time to time. We often look to elements in a site, or in a problem that might be considered disadvantages, and view them as opportunities, ultimately attempting to turn those opportunities into assets.  But at the same time we enjoy the new. After all, there’s nothing like the roar of the engine in a new Corvette Stingray, and the glint of sunlight across the shining hood as it races down the highway.

Also posted in Design, Observations, Theory

Architecture is Dead. Long Live Architecture.

In the beginning of 2015, there was a great deal of talk about architecture in ‘crisis’, and I found it simultaneously fascinating and ridiculous. Fascinating because it was interesting that mainstream media was talking about it, but ridiculous because the idea that architecture is ‘dead’ or at least dying has been around for a long time, and yet we’re still here making architecture.

The material I’m referring to has been circulating around the web through outlets like Forbes, the New York Times, and by Aaron Betsky at Architecture Magazine. This thinking, coupled with some of the discussions I’ve heard at numerous zoning and community meetings from planners and neighbors help me to draw a more cohesive picture of what I see going on with cities and in architecture, and what the future might be. For me, there is potential trouble, but also hope. I’m encouraged by the recent Sunset Magazine article in which our Bordertown project appears, not because our project appears in it (although that’s nice too) but because it is interesting that mainstream media is taking notice of an alternate urbanism and architecture.

Slow Space: this project was an urban strategy that filled in vacant space around infrastructure with program designed to slow traffic and reduce pollution.  

I’ve been hearing about the end of architecture for most of my career, so the statement that architecture is in a crisis today may not be as accurate as the idea that it is inherently in crisis. From the time of Boullee, architecture has perpetually thrown itself into crisis because that is its nature.  Often our goals are simply to challenge the status quo, with status quo simply being a matter of perspective. One end of the spectrum says architecture is not radical enough and the other says it is too radical, and not accessible enough. This is basically a liberal / conservative argument, and deals primarily with form, whether it is urban form or the form of a particular building. It is also true that the profession has given up ground in construction and engineering, but this is little surprise as most professions have become more specialized over time.  It may limit scope on the one hand, but on the other it allows for more focus on specific issues. With concepts like those that exist behind landscape urbanism for instance, architecture is one of the few fields that, at least academically, presses for continued engagement with other disciplines.


Slow Space: Arial view of the project growing out of a freeway interchange

With regard to the argument of what direction we should take, I certainly tend to think radical is far more interesting and necessary than it is for architecture to be more accessible, which to me translates as more ordinary. Moving backwards never seemed like a great strategy and to me that mode of thought is born of fear. I thought the case was closed once we were finished with Postmodernism. In addition to the calls for conservatism from the media, I’ve heard the arguments from planners that they “cannot allow the exceptional” in their city (yes, those actual words). And I’ve seen neighbors attempt to limit any new development on their block. But I tend to believe that the art that makes us uncomfortable is the work that best serves its purpose of expanding limits on thinking. My hope as a pesky human living in a narrow window on this planet is to learn and grow as much as possible, and I think to do that one needs to be challenged. So as much as technology and money will allow me to build (not just sketch it out or construct it as an ‘exhibit’) then I’ll do it. However, I wouldn’t suggest any extreme in the end, and as I’ve discussed in the past, I agree with Lebius Woods that no single architecture should be made dominant. In this sense, I hope that others disagree with my ideas about architecture, and that our differing approaches will create a rich environment. We can learn a lot from diversity as well.


A new urbanist town plan, including very accessible architectural forms and a layout that is completely expected. 

With regard to architecture losing ground to construction, engineering, and other fields, I’m less concerned about those specific issues being in my skill set as a means to make more money. That is to say, if I want to earn a living figuring out how much all the sheet rock in my project will cost, I’ll go be a cost estimator. But if I can ask someone to help me, then they can plug into my work and I can focus on the aspects that are most important to me. As long as I have some general idea of how much things cost and how they stand up, this model will work. With that said, our studio has a great deal of knowledge of how development and construction applies to architecture, and we have been builders and developers ourselves, so this informs and sharpens our architecture. But at a certain point, we leave it to the experts. And this ties into the cross disciplinary emphasis, I can collaborate with other experts who know their subject very well because they have followed their passion.


Everyday tract architecture. Note the distinct lack of ‘any exceptional’ form. 

What then would be the result of all of this? What happens if we press for more innovative forms, and allow ourselves to be more focused on what those forms are (and this is what I see as the realm of architecture – the creation of form and space). What happens when architects are allowed to do what they know best? I would hope that the result is better architecture. It might even be argued that by inviting architects to be so broad in their scope, it has invited other disciplines to co-opt architecture, resulting in the dilution of core strengths. There are many architects focusing on sustainability, evidenced based design, value engineering, structural engineering, and anything but architecture, so that the built environment becomes, well, completely boring. And I understand that if everyone was creating spectacle, that would become ordinary, but the problem is really the push to prohibit anything unique. So then, what does architecture look like when we are allowed to create it?


A recently completed project and all the messy difference it entails. 

I believe the case studies in Sunset are some examples of where things could head, but only one piece of it. It isn’t an end, but a scratch at a beginning and one of multiple directions. It suggests an openness of minds from the city planners, to the developers, to the occupants. It suggests that there are alternatives to rewarding the ultra expensive shining jewel on the hillside with awards and publications. (Bordertown has received an AIA award, been publish in a major Bay Area paper, and now a magazine that serves the Western half of the country). And while much of our work tries to follow this new model, we are busy in our attempts at new innovations, not just for residential typology, but for all of the architecture we develop, and for some architecture that doesn’t yet have a type. In the long run, it is always our hope to continually innovate.

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Improvised Architecture: Who We Are Is What We Do

Our personalities are often reflected in the work we choose and how we choose to do it, and in architecture, personal characteristics also tend to appear in what we create. Flexibility and adaptability have long been a part of my personal life, and perhaps because of my experiences, it also persists in my business ideology and ultimately the architecture of Baran Studio. To me this means being able to improvise in many aspects of the work, and I thought it might be interesting to explore elements of life experiences that have have led to a sort of improvisational architecture, and how that operates on various levels as a means to better understanding the way the studio works.

The foundation of adaptable characteristics are present in most people at a young age. For a child it is difficult to understand that it is possible to simultaneously care for the self and for others. Because a child is dependent on others for survival, the needs of others may be made primary in order to receive sustenance from them. The boundary between self and other is then blurred, trapping the child into perpetually attempting to become the person or people they are dependent upon. This was very much the case in my childhood, and it certainly made me effective at adapting to needs of others. On the other hand, as an adult, it is possible to understand the needs of others as separate from the self, and to develop a solution that solves the problem for both. And in time, I tried to learn to listen to my own desire, and to learn how to balance these competing interests both in my life and in my work. Improvisation was an effective tool to adapt to others’ desires, but it is also useful in balancing competing interests.

(null) Renovation is often an improvisation due to the large number of unexpected conditions. In the case of this project, meeting the competing requirements from the City of San Francisco, neighbors, and the owner led to a solution that fit into the prescribed envelope, while turning the main space of the home toward the view.

There are two meanings that can be applied to the concept of improvisation that are of import here. The dictionary definition doesn’t really define these senses independently, but I believe it’s an important distinction to make. Improvise, in the sense that a weapon can be improvised – pieced together from available parts – and improvise in the sense of inventing something new as it comes to you. They are similar but I believe require very different thought processes.

The first sense is something we practice by taking all the material we have available, and seeing what we might do with it. By material I don’t just mean the physical stuff we make buildings out of, but the thoughts and ideas we make buildings out of as well. This can include the notions or requirements of a government official, an end user, or a developer. It could be our own preconceptions or hopes. And then of course physical site constraints, programs, budgets, time, and available building materials.

The second sense actually seems to require a lack of thought. Instead of discovering ways of assembling given materials, a very active process, it seems that it requires that certain types of thought should cease. In studies that were performed in improvisational artists such as jazz musicians, brain activity in certain areas shut down. Creativity actually required that we stop accessing certain parts of the brain that might impede our openness to free form thought. For me the interesting thing about this last is that it not only allows a fluid stream of thinking, but it also clears a space for accidents. Sketching ideas is an improvisational act, and on occasion, when there is a misplaced line or an ambiguous scribble, it opens a window to a new idea. Often unconsciously.

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