Monthly Archives: December 2009

Architecture Books

Reading About Houses

With the many boxes of architecture books in our basement you could say that they’re helping to support our house, and with all the architecture books on our shelves you could also say that they’re helping to weigh it down. But at least it’s balanced — though some folks in my family could say we have reached a tipping point, literally. In any case, the obsession must be fed, so here’s a quick round-up of design books that have recently caught my eye — good for last minute gifts or your first reading list of the new year.

In the decades following World War II, a number of small communities across the country built modern, architect-designed houses, such as Snake Hill in Belmont, Massachusetts, and Six Moon Hill at Lexington in the same state. Living Modern, by Waverly Lowell (William Stout, publisher), chronicles the planning and building of such an enclave, called Greenwood Common, in the Berkeley Hills above the University of California campus in 1952.

It was developed by architect William Wurster, dean of Berkeley’s architecture school and later founder of the College of Environmental Design. His idea was to create a modern but regionally responsive, outdoor- and community-oriented neighborhood of houses by a diverse array of contemporary architects. (Full disclosure:  Wurster bought the land from my grandmother, who was very interested in modern architecture. My father used to tell us children about playing softball on what his family called “The Front Lot,” where eight houses now stand.) Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the setting

including the common green facing a view of the Bay, and several of the individual gardens many years before he became famous for his city parks and water gardens around the country. The book vividly describes how clients and architects worked together to create very progressive living environments and includes conceptual sketches like this series by architect Donald Olsen,

which shows his interest in International Style geometries.

Casa Del Herrero, by Robert Sweeney (Rizzoli, publisher) is the story of a meticulously preserved Spanish Colonial Revival style house in Santa Barbara from the 1920s.

The name means house of the blacksmith and the edifice was built as the winter home for the family of St. Louis industrialist George Steedman, who enjoyed such hobbies as metal working (hence the name), wood working, and wine making.  For Steedman, according to Sweeney, “the shop was the holy land.” And his shop is indeed a marvel: the large room is densely packed and highly organized, with a vast array of tools occupying every surface.

He must have been a challenging client because he was constantly tinkering with every detail, from handrails to glassware. Spanish tile and wrought iron embellish every room.  You can visit the house by contacting the Casa Del Herrero Foundation.

Energy Free Homes for a Small Planet by Ann Edminster (Green Building Press) is an essential reference for anyone planning to build a home that uses as little energy as possible.

The author is an architect who helped develop our national green standards. She  explains what a net zero energy home is and shows how to develop your own plan for building such a house. The chapters address her concept of integrated design and how to minimize the energy your house needs, how to minimize the energy the house’s occupants need, and explain the options for appliances and fixtures. It’s a comprehensive guide to the greenest green.

What do architects read? I am always interested in this question because I want to know where architects get their design ideas. Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books by Jo Steffens (Yale University Press) looks at the book collections of ten contemporary New York-area architects.

Interviews with each architect explains what they read, and what their top ten books are. Robert Venturi’s seminal Complexity & Contradiction in Modern Architecture — a book published in 1966 that championed the role of ambiguity in architectural form — is on several lists. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to the photos of sample shelves from each library…I confess I’m always looking for a copy of my book Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House! (must be the egg nog from our holiday party just now finished: it’s a truth serum). Billie Tsien and Tod Williams talk about their love of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica both for its lucid writing and for its tactile leather binding. Most of these libraries are organized by subject or architect so the juxtapositions aren’t unusual. But it’s an intriguing idea for a book and just makes me want to know more about the sources of architectural imagination.

These volumes can be found at the usual Internet sources but bookstores that specialize in design are especially rewarding places to browse, including Mrs. Dalloways Literary & Garden Arts, Builders Booksource, and William Stout Architectural Books. Happy reading and Happy holidays.

Case Study House #3

FOR SALE: Bay Region Modern Case Study House Plans

Our newest exclusive modern plan is historic: we now offer copies of Case Study House #3 designed by William Wurster and Theodore Bernardi. The avant-garde Los Angeles magazine Arts & Architecture and its editor John Entenza addressed the need for new housing after World War II by launching the Case Study House Program in 1945. The plans for CSH #3 were published in the June 1945 issue (cover shown below).

The program promoted low cost, experimental, contemporary home designs using donated materials from industry and manufacturers and showcased the work of mostly Southern California modernists like Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, and Pierre Koenig. Wurster was the most famous Northern California architect to be included in the program. At the time, Wurster was Dean of Architecture at MIT while Bernardi ran the office in San Francisco. Here’s the central living porch, in an image by Julius Shulman, courtesy Getty Research Institute.

Case Study garden room

Wurster’s work embodied the Bay Region Style in his use of simple understated forms, natural materials, strong indoor-outdoor connections, and straightforward construction methods. He once said: “I like to work on direct, honest solutions, avoiding exotic materials, using indigenous things so that there is no affectation and the best is obtained for the money.”

(Photo courtesy Environmental Design Archives.) He was what I would call a “Back Door Modernist” in that he made plainness and simplicity artful and current. One of his earliest houses, from 1928,

shows the emphasis on light, proportion, and natural textures (Roger Sturtevant photo above courtesy EDA). He was fond of using ordinary but modern materials like plywood and concrete block. He returned to California in the late 1940s and helped found the College of Environmental Design at U. C. Berkeley.

Case Study House #3 (originally called CSH #2, as shown on the drawing) is our Plan 529-1 and is an H-shaped design that celebrates nature with a tall covered outdoor room called “the porch” between the kitchen/dining/living area and the bedroom wing.

It’s basically a modern version of the “dogtrot” — two rooms separated by a breezeway — a classic early American vernacular plan. The carport is cranked away from the main rectangle to meet the driveway. A drawing by delineator Arne Kartwold (who worked in Wurster’s office for a few years) captures the expressive energy of the design

complete with a big-fender automobile idling by the front door. Kartwold’s rear perspective

shows how the central porch and master suite open to the backyard, combining indoor and outdoor space in a unified design. Another distinctive feature is the “work room” adjacent to the kitchen. It was conceived as a hobby room but could become a mudroom/laundry. The plans would need to be brought up to code and a few details updated — for example, the master bathroom is small by today’s standards (we can modify and udate it for you) — but the graceful flow between rooms, the elegant windows and doors,  and the generous use of sheltered outdoor space make this design compelling. The house was built in the Mandeville Canyon area of Los Angeles. Arts & Architecture covered the completed house in its March 1949 issue.

A percentage of the plan price supports the Environmental Design Archives at U. C. Berkeley, which preserves the drawings and papers of significant California architects and landscape architects. For more on the Case Study House program see the Arts & Architecture website above and Case Study Houses: 1945-1962 by Esther McCoy (Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977), and Case Study Houses: The Complete CSH Program by Elizabeth A. T. Smith (Taschen, 2009).  For more on Wurster see An Everyday Modernism: The Houses of William Wurster, edited by Marc Treib (SF Museum of Modern Art, 1995) and Bay Area Houses, edited by Sally Woodbridge (Gibbs Smith, 1988).

How To Think Like A Designer

Opposites Attract — at IDEO and Beyond

Contradictions make us concentrate. Look at this image from Heyri, Korea, a new planned city outside Seoul.

Heyri, Korea from

Is it a leafy wall or a concrete tree, and how did they build it, anyway? The photo is from Discovering Korea. Folks at IDEO, global design consultants based in Palo Alto, California, are fans of the building and (included an image of it in one of their blogs). I think it begins to illustrate what IDEO calls “design thinking,” which is a way to derive new ideas from opposing extremes.

This approach was explained at a fascinating all-day retreat for builders, developers, architects, designers and others that I attended. The gathering was sponsored by The Vine: A Conversation on the Nature of Community, which is an offshoot of the Pacific Coast Builders Conference. (Full disclosure: I have been on the advisory board of The Vine.) As Ideo session leader Chris Waugh [now with One Medical] pointed out, design thinking is about being comfortable with ambiguity and, in fact, finding new potential in it. The discussion made me realize that design thinking isn’t new; it’s what the best architecture has always been about.

One of IDEO’s current projects is helping the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rethink airport security checkpoints. (What a great idea — up to now these areas appear to have been made up on the fly — so to speak). IDEO looked beyond the detection of objects to the environment of the checkpoint, and they studied human behavior.

Their prototype design, called TSA Checkpoint Evolution, uses informational screens, “Prep Stops,” and soothing lighting as crowd-calming devices in order to make potential  “hostile threats” more visible. In other words IDEO looked beyond the narrow security function and concentrated on how to relieve the stress as a way to make the most serious potential stress stand out. They may also be creating an instant community out of a collection of strangers. So out of ambiguous and even contradictory circumstances and needs  — stress vs. relaxation — comes a possible solution for increased security.

The home is a similar interactive environment, only more intimate, and one hopes less in need of security checkpoints  — The White House notwithstanding. Each room or space has the potential for different kinds of behavior: from gathering to seclusion. A well designed home encompasses these potential contradictions. New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s  insightful new book Why Architecture Matters — I highly recommend it — deftly illustrates this zoning principle in his description of architect Sir John Soane’s breakfast room in London: “with a round table set under a low dome that is not a real dome but a canopy, supported by narrow columns at four corners. Where the canopy meets the corners, Soane placed small round mirrors, so the occupants of the breakfast table can see one another without looking directly at each other.”

(Photo courtesy Paul continues: “Soane liked to create rooms within rooms and spaces that connect in unusual ways with other spaces, and in the breakfast room you can see that he is doing it not just as the early nineteenth-century’s version of razzle-dazzle but to provide a kind of psychic comfort. The dome is protecting but it is not quite enclosing, a reminder that while we may feel uncommunicative and vulnerable early in the morning, we need to move out of that stage into the world. The breakfast room functions as a kind of halfway house…it introduces us to the day…a room of great beauty and serenity, perfectly balanced between openness and enclosure, between public and private.”

So how does design thinking inform our house plans? Gregory La Vardera’s latest scheme, Plan 431-12, demonstrates. I asked Greg to explain what he did.

Compact at 1,800 square feet —  for three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths — “there is no room for hallways or circulation space in the tight footprint,” says Greg.  “So for that reason we arrived at the unusual configuration of placing service spaces – bathrooms+laundry & coat closet –  on the stair landing levels of the house.”

Greg continues: “After wrestling with the floor plan it became apparent that any other location of the bathroom would require more hallway, or require the stair to be located elsewhere in the house. By using the stair itself as the “hallway” to reach the bathroom we gained back considerable space, enough to make the master bedroom suite quite generous for such a small house, as well as the open living area.”

“So the laundry area and bathroom serving bedrooms 2 & 3, and the powder and coat room on the main level are off-set from the floor they serve by 1/4-1/3 level. That uneven division itself may also seem a bit peculiar but it serves two purposes. It gives these functions bias towards the levels they serve – for instance the laundry + bathroom is much closer to the bedrooms than it is to the downstairs – it’s clearly part of the upstairs realm, there is no ambiguity about which floor it belongs to. This is because it’s just a couple of steps down from the bedrooms. On the living level the powder room has a similar but different relationship. Its definitely part of the first floor – you would never have the sense that the powder room is in the basement. Yet because it is a few steps down from the living areas it gives it a distance, both physical and experiential, that serves the design of the house well. You don’t want a powder room right on top of your living spaces. Yet with a small footprint house it is hard to avoid. The house in fact lives much larger than it is because the use of vertical as well as horizontal separation of these service spaces.”

Here an architect, like the designers at IDEO, willingly embraces — but is not bound by — the constraints of his problem.  IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown reminds us in his book Change By Design, that this is an approach most famously articulated by the great mid-century modern designer Charles Eames.

As you explore you can practice design thinking as well by seeing how a particular plan is or is not able  to turn limitations into advantages.