Author Archive for Saxon Sigerson


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.


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


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.


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


Pyramids Across The Eons

From a ways back in time, like about three thousand five hundred years ago, comes one of the really profound and wonderfully simple ideas of architecture and urbanism.  The precedent is an idea that is used throughout the human experience and it works especially well in designing buildings and cities.  In short we take ideas from the past and transform them into projects for the modern era.

Above, the astounding pyramids at Giza in Egypt are simple platonic solids constructed with great effort as tombs.  I don’t know how the idea of this form was arrived at but it definitely was a good choice which the pharaohs would mostly be pleased with.  Even though their resting places down inside were messed with, we universally regard these structures as great achievements in human history.

Some facts from Wikipedia;

The Great Pyramid was built as a tomb for the Pharaoh khufu over an approximately 20 year period concluding around 2560 BC. Initially at 480.6 ft, the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.

In 1984 the architect I.M. Pei took the idea of a pyramidal form as a precedent and solved one of the challenging problems in the  architecture of Paris. How to create a front door to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France?

For years people had to line up on the narrow sidewalk along the street next to the River Seine.  Not grand by any means.  Pei took this ancient shape, modernized it with glass and steel, set it gently down in the middle of the courtyard, created a beautiful spiral stair down below grade and made the entrance to the museum a totally memorable experience.  He was also making a statement about how to build in cities with deep, rich architectural histories.  Be respectful but do not imitate the past.  We are living here today!

At the Palace of Legion of Honor art museum in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, there is another courtyard that serves as the entry forecourt to the building.  I walked in one day and wow! Here was another pyramid.

This time the museum had a perfectly fine front door at the end of the court but they needed some natural light in the floor below where the public access galleries so as to minimize the feeling of being in a basement, (which it is).  This design by Edward Larrabee Barnes and John M.Y. Lee was completed in 1992.  Not quite the statement that Pei got to make but still a lovely solution and a wonderfully detailed piece of work it is with those steel rods and connectors custom made for this application.

There in a nutshell is the idea of the precedent and it is used all the time at the full range of scales in design.


The Grit of Graphite

My High School student, Sho Kawano took my breath away with these gritty drawings.   The first few days in the classroom with Sacramento Waldorf Seniors focus some of our time on the concept of drawing for information during their note taking as we combine a ton of architectural concepts into this very compressed 4o hour/one month class.

Sho was able to capture the essence of the Pantheon in Rome (circa 117 A.D.) and also a good feel for details such as the coffering in the ceiling as he drew his cross-section.  Notice also that he got a sense of the site by showing that fountain in the foreground.  He was a bit rough in the detail at the columns (40′ tall solid Egyptian marble) by not showing the bases or capitals but that is just fine since he got so much in.  Below is a drawing that I showed the students in class of the same building.

This Drawing of Stuyvesent Town in New York is so passionate and totally captures the feel of the place.  Note the strong vertical strokes and the way his pencil was searching for the shapes and then firming up when he found them.  So cool that he got the Empire State Building in the background, once again placing the subject in context.  Contrast is so vital to a lively drawing in architecture, it can convey its own hierarchical message in the image.

The Architectural Adventures Of Saxon Sigerson

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