27
Apr
13

Finding a Home for a Dream House

I was paddling my kayak on the Sacramento River last weekend, enjoying the river life, and remembered that I needed to get the word out that this lovely little house, also on the river, designed by Brent Smith here in Sacramento is looking for a new loving owner.  Here are a few images and an article written by Hilary Abramson.

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They call it The Wisteria House.

Near the edge of the Sacramento River, vines the size of an elephant’s leg twist around even thicker poles from berm to trellis.   Bare-root in the winter, they create a lattice against skylights through which the sun warms aggregate floors.  Spring’s purple blooms reserve their show for the flat roof, since most of the energy goes into the green canopy that cools everything down come summer.

It has taken more than three decades to create this sustainable umbrella. Now that it is done, it is time for me to leave.  The dream is fulfilled. It is the right time to pass it on to someone who will likewise love, respect and care for it.

This is the house that Brent Smith designed.  An artist at heart (and former Sacramento high school art teacher), Brent might be the only California home designer to have a bronze plaque in a park across from City Hall: “Brent Smith, humanitarian,” it reads. “He truly believed that we were here to transform matter into spirit and touch the soul.”

When he was killed by a city bus in 2002, Brent was 61 years of age and perhaps best known for designing the downtown Quinn Cottages homeless village to which he donated his time and money. He also created the Rumsey Wintun Tribe Village as a multigenerational development and other homes in northern California.

But it is Sacramento County’s first passive-solar, Wisteria House – built in 1978 — that is probably his most widely published design.

Brent and I had met two years earlier in his University of California, Davis, extension course on building and designing your own, small energy-efficient house.  A Jersey girl to whom “do-it-yourself’ meant doing your hair without help from a professional, I enrolled on an impulse. Once in the sway of Brent’s intensity and philosophy of living, his obsession became mine.

Those were the days of “small is beautiful,” and Brent walked the talk. He believed homes should be “sacred” and reflect “vocabulary” of their surroundings without imitating other designs.  He preached designing homes with expansion in mind.  Design what you need, he’d say, in a way that offers multiple use of space and provides with integrity of design for adding square footage for children and/or elders.  Why build huge spaces and waste precious energy heating and cooling them for one or two people?  How many American dining rooms sit empty while a couple eats in the kitchen or den?

The Wisteria House, for instance, is 1,065 square feet of open space with insulated, moveable shojis, several of which lift out to create space for the dining area to seat up to eight people. In place, those moveable doors offer privacy for a second bedroom/study off the dining room.  The foundation of 36 poles deep in cement was separately engineered for earthquake and flood and remains level today.  Brent’s vision for more than two, pared-down dwellers was to add another story.

Those were the days when farmers and only a few urban individualists willing to deal with wells, septic tanks and floods lived off the Garden Highway, a two-lane road separating the Sacramento River from riparian and farmed fields. I bought three-quarters of an acre two miles north of the Elkhorn Boat Dock, and when Brent’s course was over, I asked if he would design a small, pole house that would put us “above the flood.”

On retreat at California’s first commune—Ananda in Nevada City—Brent met the head of its construction company.  These builders meditated after their lunch breaks and you could eat off the planks they cleaned at the end of each day.  They named the house “Haridasi” (daughter of God) and to this day, “J’ai Guru” (long live the Guru) remains carved in the cement holding the country mailbox.

Despite this backstory – and a redwood hot tub in the master bedroom/bath area under a dome-shaped skylight—the house is timeless. Many visitors have remarked that it feels like combination of a New York City penthouse and a coastal Sea Ranch house.

My favorite touches:  Water running down Japanese chains inside plexi-glass downspouts; the plexiglass overhang keeping the front doorway dry and allowing full view of the wisteria-protected entrance; the ability to close the house “like a box” against too hot or too cold weather via counterbalanced, vertically drawn window shutters and hanging, insulated doors; standing in the hottub watching flames in the fire stove – and the sun going down over the river.

The Wisteria House has had many admirers.  In 1982, Architects David Wright and Dennis A. Andrejko featured it in a six-page spread in Passive Solar Architecture, logic & beauty (35 Outstanding Houses Across the United States).  That same year, Sunset magazine showed it off in two pages.  In 1983, Fine Homebuilding magazine took six pages to describe the house and how it “works.”

It is my hope that the next occupant keeps the spirit of The Wisteria House in tact. There are enough McMansions on the river.

As Brent wrote in 1996 in Dialogues with the Living Earth (New Ideas on the Spirit of Place from Designers, Architects & Innovators), “We just can’t afford to continue building unlovable buildings, towns and cities.”

19
Feb
12

Standing On The Shoulders Of Past Architects; Imitation Or Inspiration?

Every architect must confront the precedent of the Greeks and their legacy of design somewhere along in his or her career.  We first come into contact with their wonderful buildings much sooner than most of us know because, you see, the elements of design that they used are imitated throughout our daily environment in all the cities of western civilization.  From the U.S. Capitol to a little school house I saw out of the corner of my eye in Port Costa, California, to the styrofoam “columns” available on aisle 14 in your local Home Depot, (sorry about the indignity of it all Ictinus), Grecian architectural vocabulary is all around us.  We get a formal introduction to their work during history classes in architecture school and from then on we confront them in our own work.  Most of us try not to imitate and some of us go deeper into the roots, beyond the decoration of a Corinthian column, to understand and utilize the meaning in the precedents they established.  The Erectheion above, is a favorite of mine for the richness and variety of the design.  It was built around 400 B.C. It features prominently in the linked article  I wrote three years ago addressing this imitation, inspiration question.More Than A Pediment And Six Columns

29
Jan
12

Heavy Breathing In The City

My wife has learned not to call for emergency medical attention when she sees me hyperventilating during one of our urban warrior walks through a wonderful city.  The heavy breathing ramped up quickly some time ago as I rounded this corner and ambled into the Place d’Youville in Montreal, Quebec.  I am a huge fan of humane urban spaces, scaled for just a few people.  I am not so much enamored with the spaces seen in some architect’s renderings requiring about 276 people (including at least 3 small children happily kicking big red balls) to enliven an otherwise feature-less composition.

Note that this space has only three people in it and it works super, plenty of green areas; good restraint by the landscape architect not letting one of the junior staff people go bonkers with paving patterns.

From my measured diagram, note the linear nature of the space.  I like the concept of this geometry being able to more seamlessly fit into a gridded street pattern as opposed to a square.  This form gives more frontage on the open space for the buildings running down the street.  In case you are wondering, the smaller number, like the one with the “p” next to it is my paced count which I multiply by 3 to get the measurement in feet.  During this trip, I was preparing to teach a high school course on architecture and liked the idea of this space as a precedent for the urban/architecture project I was planning on assigning.

The long, linear view can be seen here.  I think it is fine that the designer of this 2002 renovation did not need to block the view in some way but rather just let it flow to the obelisk barely visible at the end.  Behind me as I took this picture was a small building that encloses the space at the south end.

This early map shows where the Place was eventually placed in relation to the older part of the fortified city and the water front.  It came into existence in the 1600s as a market place

Here is an aerial view before the vegetation grew up to maturity.  Note the building blocking the end of the right hand drive lane.  A bit unfortunate in my opinion.

This is the front or north view of the building that stomped into the urban space.  It is an archaeological museum.  I am not too keen on the street-scape it created in terms of pedestrian friendliness.  Do you barely see the two people in this spare architectural scene?  They look pretty lost without the rest of the 274 people from the rendering and worst of all no cute kids kicking red balls.

The architecture of the Place is, how shall we say,  rather vintage!  I do admire and respect the geriatric buildings of the world and this one gets around using at least two canes!  The pilasters with capitols of an unknown order, the delicate arcuated windows and those little pairs of doors flanking the front door.  Major character expression in this facade!  This is a classic zero-setback (meaning it sits right on the edge of the sidewalk), party-wall building (meaning its wall touches and occasionally frolics with the one next to it).  This form is very efficient and creates a generally well-formed city fabric.

Here, my friends, is a youth who knows how to treat its elders.  A totally modern addition that respects the form of the place to the extent that it delicately goes up and across the top of an older, doddering fella who needs some love and is not ready for the rubble pile.  I am breathing heavy again as I write this.  It is OK if you too, fog up your computer screen a little.  The architectural and urban excitement just keeps on coming around so many corners in wonderful cities.

19
Jan
12

Family of Four Houses

Bright sun, stiff tailwind and smooth pavement are bicycling delights. The last piece of the pleasure for me last April was a little architectural delicacy to savor. More than a few candidates stepped into my twenty mile per hour view as I traveled south on California’s Highway One, south of Mendocino. Downtown Manchester, all five buildings worth, presented a modest little group of houses that seemed to have been friends since their early years on this lonely stretch of coast. Vacation moments like this are ripe for a little dreaming. I imagined their beginning.

The drawings were spare, comprised of two sheets, 18 x 24, a plan, four elevations and two structural plans; foundation and roof framing. Drawn with an F lead on vellum, the lettering and line work were sharp and clean. The instructions to the designer had been to keep the cost down yet still he managed to articulate the form and place the windows with a taut control that added up to a tough and lively little group of buildings.

The day they dug the footings in 1952 was a sweet moment of promise for the crew, knowing that once they got through the foundation stage, the reward of framing awaited. With sill plates bolted and rim joists nailed down, soon the floor joists were being placed and nailed. It was three men on this project, working one building at a time and taking turns with cutting and nailing. Normally the sawing is set up close to the building so that measurements can easily be called out and it is a simple fluid motion to pass the cut material over to the ones who place and nail. A sixteen penny nail is pulled from the leather pouch with the left hand as the hammer in the right readies for a quick tap to set the nail and then three firm strokes to send it home. Douglas fir, no doubt milled nearby, smells great when freshly sawn. The electric circular saw was relatively new to construction and these carpenters reveled in the ease as they remembered the days of hand sawing.

There is a fussy part when they frame the walls with that little pooch-up at the front of the house. The angle of the sloping parapet return has to be measured just right and the studs are angle cut to hit the top plate flush. The designer is not there to take the ribbing from these journeymen as they wonder about the flat roof in this waterlogged climate. Once one house is framed, its brother or sister is next in line. With each successive sibling, the process smooths out and the pride of a craftsman knowing just the right move to cut or place or nail is sublime.

Once the framing is complete much of the stucco and plaster is complete on the first house and the carpenters switch to smaller hammers for the finish work. By the time eight months rolls by, the family of four is pretty much complete and ready for people to fill them up. A nice day for the crew when they see people settling in.

How I would love to know the whole story of these buildings. They seem to have held up to the elements fairly well and doubtless hold a lot of memories both real and imagined.

13
Jan
12

3 x 5 Architecture

This is a little architectural frolic I started a while back.  Digital postcards of nifty travel discoveries.  I have been providing content to the Central Valley American Institute of Architects newsletter for some years and I wondered if this might be a way to get others to contribute.  My hope has been to make the “assignment” rather petite in ambition and size so that newbie writer/thinkers could tip toe in.  At this moment I have not pushed it and am waiting to see how energetic I feel about leading the effort.

13
Jan
12

nuts and bolts architecture

One of the really simple statements I can make with delight is that as an architect, I provide service to people.  This family in the photo above is smiling and full of hope for a new restaurant I designed for them some years back.  I love these photos because they are tactile reminders of what I do and inspire me throughout the process of getting to this photo opp moment.

I love the craft of architecture and want to take a moment to expand on what that means to me by using this project as an example.

If you are a sole practitioner architect like me, the project types you take on can be quite small or pretty good sized. When we come out of architecture school, most of us have visions of changing some part of the world at the scale of designing the next Notre Dame Cathedral or the next Guggenheim Museum.  Some of us do that and some of us eventually shape a career around a life view that balances the daily work environment with project types and all the nice parts of non work life.  For me the independence and freedom of working alone is a powerful force.

Small projects are a great pleasure for me.  I embrace the idea of the total architect, having the skill and vision to step along a path that includes

marketing

client engagement

measuring and drawing the existing conditions (bare ground site, building, or empty spaces in a building)

studying and visioning the new design

working with client on the new design

creating the construction drawings to be built from

permit review with the government agency

working with contractor and client to build the project

seeing the client in their new building; a dream fulfilled.

Architecture is about the art of making places.  What many outside the profession do not realize is that once the vision is shaped and focused during the design phase, the work has only just begun.  There is a tremendously technical process that must be embraced to achieve the smiling faces of your client in a memorable photo.

This is the presentation (pretty) version of the floor plan intended to show where things are but not a document to construct from.

Here is part of that same floor plan as a construction drawing showing the contractor some of the information needed to build the restaurant.

Here is that same partial plan with all the “digital layers” of information turned on.  I will go into the layers topic in another post, but the short explanation  is that these layers are turned on and off as we create a series of 3-6 floor plans that convey different types of information such as finishes, wall locations and ceiling design.  Yousa!  This is hard to look at right?  Too much info in one place.  We architects, artists that we are, love digging into the fine grained detail of this information and are constantly sharpening our professional (and digital) chops towards making drawings and specifications that get our clients and their projects something to smile about.  It took about thirty one sheets of drawings to get this job done including all the engineering work too.

Here is a photo of the interior on opening day when the chefs were cooking up a storm and I got to sit down to a tasty meal.

There is, with any project, a fair amount of work and even a little bit of struggle to pull it off.  That effort applied over time drills down into a person in a good way and comes back out as a pretty deep feeling of making a difference when I walk into a project and see a lovely finished product like this.

This then is a little sample of the nuts and bolts of architecture.

01
Jan
12

Buildings At The Edge Of The Sky

I talked about this subject a little bit in my Seattle seeking post.  How buildings meet the sky is a pretty big deal as it is where our eye is naturally drawn to and architects have wanted to take advantage of that situation.  The top edge of the building has historically been called the cornice and before modernism’s stripping away of ornament, it was an intensively detailed and decorated part of the building.  Note the Berkeley Building above in Boston and the railing with the fussy balusters (vertical posts supporting the top rail) and then the spiky mini obelisks every so often.  Folks, we are talking major animated articulation here.  I was totally captivated by this building when I saw it and I would venture to say that most architects today would say they like this.  But ask them if they would design like this and they would adopt a  somewhat condescending expression and tone in their voice as they digress on the virtues of modern design.

From a historically bent website here is some detail on the building.

The Berkeley at 420 Boylston Street, designed by the firm of Codman and Despradelle,  is a lyrically beautiful building that was completed in 1905.  Désiré Despradelle was a professor of architecture at MIT who had been educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris–an architectural school that was highly influential on early 20th century U.S. architecture.   Boston lagged behind Chicago and New York in construction of the new steel-framed buildings (especially skyscrapers), and this building doesn’t compete on height, but its exterior is stunning–its steel frame ornamented with glazed terra-cotta, copper, and glass.

Now we get to a modern interpretation of the cornice.  This is the Harkness Graduate Center at Harvard designed by Walter Gropius around 1950.  Note that this building has very little of what we would call ornament.  There is almost nothing extra here; it has just enough to do the job.  Consequently the overall form of the building is accentuated and the details of construction become very important as visual elements since we have so little else to look at.  Look up where the building meets the sky and you see the human equivalent of a tail bone.  No tail just a remnant of one with that 3″ top piece of stone hanging over just 1.75″ (measured with my super accurate micrometer eyes).  I actually loved this building and even though it might look a bit foreboding in this image, it is nicely scaled outside creating an excellent courtyard beyond this front entry.  Inside is a total delight with lovely dining and study areas.

Now for the tough guy of early modernism.  Le Corbusier (aka Edouard Jenneret) was a hero to me in architecture school (1984) whose luster has tarnished a tad since then.  This is the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (art studios and gallery) at Harvard, completed in 1963.  This is an all concrete building, inside and out.  He was super clever.  Look at this tower element here in the foreground and see how the horizontal construction joints, those narrow 6″ bands are spaced so that, “oh wow, the last one just forms the hint of a cornice at the top”!  What a coincidence!  He was for sure not a cornice guy either but nifty how this worked out.  There is lots more to say on this building later on.  A future post is needed to see some of the form making that modernists have done up there at the edge of the sky