Category Archives: Design

Posts dealing with design

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 Academic, Construction, 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 Academic, Construction, Observations, Uncategorized

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 Academic, 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 Academic, Observations, Theory Tagged , , |

Robot 5

Do you remember the scene in the movie Big when they create a toy that transforms from a building into a robot, and Tom Hanks proclaims “what’s fun about that?” I might’ve been the one kid that thought it was fun.

Here’s an animation from the first Baran Studio robot in some time. I will do my best to post updates on it’s development.

Also posted in Animation, News, Robots

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 Academic, Harmon, Observations, Theory

New Completed Projects: Shifted House

Another of our recently built homes. Since we seem to have a series going on Harmon Street in Berkeley, we’ve come up with ‘Shifted House’ to describe this project.  We skewed the main volume to connect two smaller volumes, and to respond to light, air, and open space concerns of the neighbors.

Also posted in Construction, Projects

Baran Studio Architecture in the SF Business Times

We were recently mentioned in this San Francisco Business Times article about Madison Park Financial and John Protopapus:

Our project is the Gallot Lofts, a 40 unit apartment building in Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood. We are currently working to obtain permits, and hope to start construction early next year.

Also posted in Gallot Lofts, News, Projects

Baran Studio Wins Citation for Architecture

Last night we had the honor of receiving another Citation for Architecture in the AIA East Bay Chapter’s 2015 Design Awards for our W.16 project in Oakland.  This awards program does not have categories, but simply considers the best design solution to any given problem.  Projects of all sizes and types are considered together.

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Congratulations to the project team!


REO Homes, LLC


Baran Studio Architecture

Matt Baran, Principal
Nick Sowers, Lead Architect
Steven Nguyen, Designer


Seri Ngernwattana


CS Construction


Peter Lyons




Also posted in 16th and Willow, News

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 Academic, Observations, Theory