Monthly Archives: December 2013

Toys for Building

Block Party

To paraphrase Wallis Simpson (no relation to Homer) the Duchess of Windsor, you can never be too rich in toy blocks or too thin in excuses for wanting more. So here are a few last minute suggestions for the obsessive-compulsive builder on your list.

toy block colosseum

I don’t know about you, but under our living room couch — ready for immediate action — is a collection of toy wooden building blocks. My children and I like to make cityscapes on the rug — perfect for a way to work off holiday meals! My current favorite set of blocks is the Haba Colosseum (available on — given to me by my older daughter (I guess all that early play time paid off!).

You can build the Colosseum (remember the old adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” — well this approach is a lot quicker), as well as many other architectural landmarks of your own invention, like amphitheaters or grand staircases. The set has 110 pieces  in 7 different shapes. The blocks are natural untreated beech wood and smooth to the touch. The age recommendation is 3 years and up — well I am definitely “up.” And now I want to turn my Colosseum into a station for the Brio train set that’s also under that couch…Other Haba block sets  include Egyptian and Mayan, so you can travel the world without leaving the rug.


Speaking of movement, adding a few marbles (I could use a few extra!) is a simple way to animate toy blocks, and some sets like the Quadrilla Roundabout Building Block and Marble Run (shown above and available from HearthSong) incorporate this idea. The marble drops through towers, crosses bridges, and spins around the spiral in the Rube Goldbergian contraption you build — showing just how mesmerizing gravity can be — at least to me.


Some structures get more interesting with water. The Deluxe Hydrodynamic Building Set (from Home Science Tools) allows your child, or the child within you, to build a pumping station, refinery, or other gurgling factory. It comes with electric pump, tanks, water wheel, and various valves along with the plastic interlocking girders for supporting everything. Once you get a scaffold up and one tank filling another through the clear plastic tubes it’s hard to take your eyes away — is it a water treatment plant or a distillery? Only your engineer knows for sure.


New Building Books by Rowan Moore, Witold Rybczynski, Martin Filler

For Thinkers, Doers, and Folks Who Ride the Bus

Architecture — its meaning, social significance, personality, practice, and historical import — is the subject of three important new books published this fall. I read them all on my bus to and from work and commend them to you.


Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture (Harper Design) by Rowan Moore, is a penetrating and wonderfully lucid study of how emotions like hope or the drive for power shape our buildings and thus our understanding of the world. Moore is the architecture critic for the London Observer and he ranges widely across the globe, from explaining the desires that shape the extravagance of Dubai to the hopes that remain in attempting to rebuild parts of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

I found his explanation of what makes a good building especially compelling: “A good building is decisive but not rigid, which is one of the reasons why architecture is difficult. The instability of architecture is also its grace: it is the reason why places shaped with the help of corruption, tyranny, greed, fear, megalomania, or repression — which includes many of the most admired spaces in Europe — can be beautiful and liberating. It is the reason why clients and architects can create something richer than their narrow ambitions would suggest.” Moore makes you realize that architecture is as contradictory, infuriating, and wonderful as the people and mechanisms that have a hand in shaping it.


How Architecture Works — A Humanist’s Toolkit, by Witold Rybczynski (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Trained as an architect himself, Rybczynski, who teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania,  is the justly celebrated author of many exceptional architecture books, from his delightful The Perfect House — about living in a Palladian villa — to an insightful biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. In How Architecture Works he offers a fascinating seminar on what an architect is taught and how those ideas — which have evolved over time — get translated into built form. He uses both historical and contemporary examples to describe the architect’s toolkit — in effect deconstructing how architects from Louis Kahn to my own good friend Marc Appleton — go about their work, from site to plan to structure to building skin. And he explains how that most elusive element — taste — plays a role.

What I like about Rybczynski’s approach is his interest in helping us understand the extraordinary variety of architecture. He says: “architectural innovation, whether it is willful and questions established conventions, or considered and embraces old rules, never occurs in a vacuum…Yet architectural diversity is a good thing. An architect must hold strong convictions in order to create, but as users of architecture we should open our minds — and our eyes– to the richness of our surroundings. And allow the buildings to speak to us.”  He shows us how to do just that.


Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II, by Martin Filler (New York Review Books). New York-based Filler is one of our very best architecture critics, and here he discusses the careers, personalities, and impacts of key figures in 20th and 21st century design, from Le Corbusier to Michael Arad — designer of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. Filler gives us important social history with elegant and often acerbic turns of phrase, as when he says: “Although Le Corbusier was determined to be well known, he was also determined not to be known well.” Or, in speaking of Corbu’s “intense mother fixation” — a factor discovered by the biographer Fox Weber, Filler says this about the architect’s famous chapel at Ronchamp: “the cavernous biomorphic interiors of this miraculous structure…do indeed echo the sensuous contours of the female anatomy…Even so, it would be a mistake to see Le Corbusier’s transcendant hilltop sanctuary solely, or even primarily, as a womb with a view.” Marvelous!

There are many similarly elegant, trenchant throw-away lines  — such as when describing Frank Lloyd Wright’s praise for Edward Durell Stone’s US Embassy of 1958 in New Delhi,  he says Wright “went so far as to claim it was more beautiful than the Taj Majal, proof that he had never laid eyes on either.” Filler does what an architecture critic should: he fluidly explains the social context for design and why he thinks a particular building is good or bad. I would not want to be the target of his erudite wit, but I admire the precision of his prose and the way he brings the vibrant personality of modern architecture to life.


Holiday Booklist: The Sea Ranch, Revised Edition

In Praise of the Coastal Imagination

It’s a season of abundance for architecture books. I’ll be posting several reviews — here’s the first.

The Sea Ranch: Fifty Years of Architecture, Landscape, Place, and Community on the Northern California Coast. Revised and expanded edition, by Donlyn Lyndon, photography by Jim Alinder (Princeton Architectural Press). It’s a surprise to realize that this remarkable exemplar of modern architecture set within an iconic, rugged natural landscape is now half


a century old. This completely revised and reorganized book — with new projects and photography — is a must read for anyone interested in residential design. First, the author knows the community intimately. He was one of the architects — with Charles Moore, WilliamTurnbull, and Richard Whitaker (all of MLTW) who designed the famous Condominium One shown on the cover, above, and many of the original and subsequent houses, including his own vacation home. Second, he and Alinder provide eloquent portraits of more than sixty houses and other structures. It is a comprehensive record and includes floor plans.

Lyndon reveals that at the beginning, MLTW and the San Francisco firm of Joseph Esherick & Associates (Esherick, Moore, Lyndon, and Whitaker were all teaching at UC Berkeley’s Department of Architecture at the time) received quite different assignments: “Joseph Esherick & Associates were to show how a group of individual houses could be sited next to a wind-breaking hedgerow and

Esherick hedgerow house.psd photo by Jim Alinder

to indicate how building forms might work together to become part of the larger environment. Our task at MLTW on the other hand was to demonstrate how larger buildings could be built on a prominent point of open land, exposed completely to the winds and with stunning views in all directions.” The Esherick houses dig into the ground and adapt the wind blown form of the hedgerow, while MLTW’s Condominium One forms a sort of abstract stockade protecting an inner sloping courtyard.

These two firms were responding to landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s original site plan and environmental guidelines. Weathered barns from the

Sea ranch Barn on trail below lodge photo by Jim Alinder

original sheep ranch on the site as well as the crisp timber geometries of Fort Ross, the early nineteenth century fur trader outpost just a few miles away, provided additional inspiration. These buildings became influential as a way to show how contemporary architecture could be both modern and regional, and in fact could vividly dramatize and enhance the wonders of nature.

After sections on the early history, chapters are organized around the different responses that each of the selected houses takes to the landscape: from houses as compounds and clusters, to houses that connect to views and earth forms, to houses that enfold. Together the designs create a kind of pattern book for designing within a natural landscape. There is even a memoir by Lawrence Halprin (now deceased) about his forty year relationship to the site and his own house there. One chapter describes the Employee Housing by William Turnbull — context for our very own copies of those plans. To see them click here.

The photographs show the buildings and the landscape to great effect and make me realize once again what a special environment it was in the first place, and — thanks to imaginative planning and design and despite periods of inattention to the original guidelines — so it remains.