Category Archives: Uncategorized

The New Frank Gehry Biography

Paul Goldberger’s magisterial new 513 page book, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry (Knopf), is a superb achievement and a compelling read for anyone interested in modern architecture. Gehry, at 86 — after the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Disney Hall in LA, a 76-story residential skyscraper in Manhattan, and countless other signature works around the world — is now arguably the “other Frank” — meaning he is comparable in stature to Frank

Goldberger Gehry book Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 2.05.57 PM (2)Lloyd Wright. So it is high time there was an authoritative Gehry chronicle. As a biography it is as important and insightful about an architect’s motivations and evolving frame of mind as Le Corbusier: A Life, by Nicholas Fox Weber.

The book takes us from Gehry’s difficult childhood in Toronto in the 1930s, through the move to Los Angeles in 1947, architecture school at USC, a stint in the army, city planning at Harvard, work for shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, time in Paris and then back to LA where he launched his practice in 1962. There he found friendship with, and inspiration from, a circle of up-and-coming modern painters who incorporated ordinary found objects in their work. Subsequent chapters cover the building of his and second wife Berta’s famous cyclone fence house in Santa Monica, his fish sculptures and cardboard furniture, the commissions for Bilbao and Disney, the range of New York work, the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D. C., and the Louis Vuitton Museum in Paris, which opened last year.

I only met Gehry once, many years ago when he was on an AIA-Sunset Western Home Awards jury, but I remember that his comments on the various house designs were terse, not to say monosyllabic, and he struck me as an artist more comfortable with doing than talking. Paul is adept at drawing him out and getting at the thinking, and the contexts and stories, behind the designs. In a way Paul acts as kind of architectural therapist, helping Gehry unravel and make sense of a lifetime of anxiety about his own work and, in effect, complementing the actual psychotherapy Gehry received from his friend the psychologist Milton Wexler. So I guess you could say that this book is the architect’s ultimate “psychiatry couch session.” 

One theme that’s especially strong throughout Building Art is the sense of contradiction, both within Gehry’s nature and his art. For example, Paul writes: “Frank’s work represented emotion as much as intellect and emerged out of intuition far more than theory; like all of his architecture, Bilbao was at once pragmatic and idealistic.” He makes the point that Gehry was heavily influenced, in a push-pull sort of way, by the mid-century California modernism of his early milieu. Describing the billowing shapes of Disney Hall, Paul writes: “The great sails were a symbol of the new, but they were also a way of creating decoration, or giving the building an element that existed solely for visual pleasure. Frank was consciously going against the puritanical strain that had always run through modernist architecture, the belief that a building needed to be ‘honest,’ ‘pure,’ and ‘rational’ — that ornamentation was not just a self-indulgent frill and a useless return to historical copying, but an ethical transgression, a violation of modernist principles.” 

A related theme is Gehry’s desire to express movement in architecture,  leading to his manipulation of fish shapes and compound curves, which drew inspiration from Japanese carp and Greek sculpture. Expressive movement would become his way of providing the third ingredient in the classical Vitruvian definition of architecture as “commodity, firmness, and delight.” Paul explains: “The architecture of Bilbao would articulate his larger goals more clearly than ever before: he wanted less to shock than to find a fresh and different way of using architecture to produce the sensations of satisfaction, comfort, and pleasure that more traditional buildings did.”

I have experienced Disney Hall and there Frank Gehry made not only a new symbol for LA on the outside, but also a space that lifts the audience, reshapes and recombines it with the orchestra, and transports both into a sensual new reality. It’s a room that does more than reverberate — it resonates. So does this book. Bravo Paul!

Apple’s Spaceship Campus as the New iPentagon

Or is it a late Renaissance fortress, or another Swiss Collider…

The building of Apple’s vast new circular Campus 2 in Cupertino, CA — an architectural riff on their original 1 Infinite Loop address, as my colleague Jin Woo Shin observed — is generating online excitement as various drone’s eye

apple-campus-2-march-11-15views show how a construction project can sometimes be as sleekly elegant and mesmerizing as an iMac or an iPhone (photo courtesy Indeed, the building is shaping up to be the latest, largest, and most lapidary Apple


product: 2.8 million sq. ft. for 12,000 employees. Also perhaps the most expensive, with a cost that has reputedly risen from an estimated $500 million to nearly $5 billion. The work of eminent British modernist Sir Norman Foster (of Foster + Partners), who designed the “Gherkin” highrise in London and the Hearst Tower in New York, the new Apple Campus, which is called “the Spaceship” will be completed in 2016. I originally thought this project was a missed opportunity in that a new Apple campus could have revitalized a whole neighborhood of downtown San Jose, for example. But now, understanding a little more about the nature of the Apple culture of control after reading the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, I can see that such an approach would never have been possible. This new building seems a perfect expression of Apple’s design ethos: a brave new world of possibility hermetically sealed within an elegant container — the iHQ.

The design makes the historian in me look for precedents and it turns out there are many. Sir Norman explained the genesis of the design himself in an interview with Architectural Record: “First of all, there was a smaller site. Then, as the project developed, and the Hewlett-Packard site became available, the scale of the project changed. Meanwhile, the reference point for Steve [Jobs] was always the large space on the Stanford campus—the Main Quad—which Steve knew intimately. Also, he would reminisce about the time when he was young, and California was still the fruit bowl of the United States. It was still orchards. We did a continuous series of base planning studies. One idea which came out of it is that you can get high density by building around the perimeter of a site, as in the squares of London. And in the case of a London square, you create a mini-park in the center.”

With those helpful hints, I started looking around. As it happens, the Stanford Quad, built between 1887 and 1906 and designed by Shepley Rutan & Coolidge, the Boston firm founded by H. H. Richardson, surrounds a plaza with eight

Stanford_University_Main_Quad_-_7_June_2009circular plant islands running down the middle: circles in the square! (photo courtesy Wikipedia) And here’s one of the most famous examples of London squares: the plan of Regent’s Park by architect John Nash, from around 1833.

Regent's Park 1024px-Regent's_Park_London_from_1833_Schmollinger_mapAnd wouldn’t you know — there is a circle in the center (identified as “Jenkins Nursery”), just waiting to steal the show! So, if we want to analyze the DNA of the Apple design it’s part Stanford Quad, part London square, part Apple i-pod, er pad. But there are other possible antecedents. The most obvious comparable geometric self-enclosed environment is The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, designed by Bergstrom and Witmer and completed in 1943 (photo 

The_Pentagon_January_2008courtesy Wikipedia). Planned as an irregular pentagon following the shape of its original site, it was regularized when the project moved to the final more open plot of land. According to Wikipedia: “The building retained its pentagonal layout because a major redesign at that stage would have been costly, and Roosevelt liked the design. Freed of the constraints of the asymmetric Arlington Farms site, it was modified into a regular pentagon which resembled the star forts of the gunpowder age.” What better metaphor for the Defense Department

castle island via time out bostonthan a fortress — like this example, built between 1834 and 1851 at Castle Island in Boston Harbor (photo courtesy

It turns out that the great French modern architect le Corbusier was a huge fan of The Pentagon after touring it in 1946, as Mardges Bacon explains in the March 2015 issue of the  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Bacon quotes Corbu saying it embodied “all that I could design in my projects so implacably rejected until now: silence, efficiency, brilliantly lit interior streets, enlivened with shops expanding into restaurants, cafes; sparkling clean; ramps, hallways, etc.” Wow. That also captures the spirit of the Apple building! [I love Corbu’s use of “implacably rejected.” You can tell he was irritated and yearning to build big. He was soon to design his famous Unite d’Habitation apartment block in Marseilles and was evidently influenced by the Pentagon and various TVA dam projects he saw on his American tour.] But I digress. The point is two wealthy entities working on complex and often secret development programs were drawn to a simple, almost scaleless abstract shape.

So-called star forts have a long history not only as fortifications, but also as

Palmanova1600 via wikipedia

towns, like this Italian Renaissance plan for Palmanova, an idealized city

Cinta_muraria_di_Palmanovathat was actually built by the Venetians around 1593 (both images courtesy Wikipedia). The Apple design is simply a little more abstract and minimalist, and will almost function as a kind of town since workers will be eating most of their meals there, presumably. The company intends to plant a lot of apricot trees to echo the region’s earlier history as a major fruit-growing region, as Sir Norman mentioned.

Perhaps a more telling prototype for the Apple Spaceship is the Large Hadron

large hadron collider via Lawrence Livermore LabCollider near Geneva, Switzerland, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator (photo courtesy CERN). Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research and completed in 2008, it’s a circular underground tunnel with a circumference of 27 kilometers. Lead ions known as hadrons are accelerated so physicists can study the origin of mass and why some particles are very heavy while others have no mass at all. That sounds increasingly like the once and future Apple product. The new Apple campus is a remarkable and lavish use of land (albeit park-like) and material — there will be roughly six kilometers of ultra clear glass alone — so I guess you could call the it the world’s largest product accelerator: a futuristic place to invent the future.

Architect-Designed Home Products

Design for Living

Architects have been designing fabrics, furnishings, and fixtures for the home since the pharaohs (some of whom could well have been architects in their own right — or at least major developers). I am thinking of England’s Sir John Soane, whose wonderful London house from the early 1800s functioned as a kind of architectural laboratory as well as a showplace and storage locker for his many collections. He invented a clever swing-out panel system for storing and showing

Soane painting gallery via Time360_tga_museum_0117

multiple paintings in a small space, as shown above (courtesy Time: Gill Allen/Bloomberg News/Getty Images). In 1965 Philip Johnson updated that system on a grander scale at the underground art bunker on his estate in New Canaan, Connecticut where the shulmanpaintinggallerypaintings are stored on huge panels that pivot around a circle (courtesy You rolled out the Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly so you could contemplate it for a while from your stool, and then pushed it along so you could see the next one on the carousel. Frank Lloyd Wright was perhaps the most famous American designer of home products, with his

wright_artscraftsroomcompelling but notoriously uncomfortable furniture — like the dining room set for the Husser house of 1899, shown here, and now in the collection of the Huntington Museum in San Marino, CA (courtesy the Huntington). Wright’s chairs were really small buildings for your bottom and back — not necessarily a place to sit. If he could, Wright would design everything in your house, from furniture to lighting to tableware so it’s no wonder Wrightiana is a thriving business. You can see examples of this omnivorous design appetite in the shop of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.

All the great modern architects designed objects for the home, from Aalto’s bent wood tea cart and swoopy glass vases to Mies’ uber-luxe Barcelona chair to Frank Gehry’s cardboard furniture to practically everything listed in the Design Within Reach catalog. In the last few years Seattle architect Tom Kundig — of Olson Kundig — has launched a robust line of steel hardware to complement his door_hardware-tknocker-02-lg_large

firm’s inventive machine esthetic — like this distinctive door knocker. The line is available from Avenue Iron. Most recently, well-known New York architect

RAMSA Willow

Robert A. M. Stern has thrown his hat (or is it upholstery) into the ring. His firm has developed textiles in multiple arresting patterns, like this circular design, based on leaded bottle glass windows of the 16th century. And at the home builder show in Las Vegas last month I saw examples of his latest line of classically-inspired wall tiles for tile and stone manufacturer Walker Zanger. IMG_7034The Ionic pilaster example makes me wonder if you could just order the capital pieces to make your own version of a cornice — a heretical view, I know. The Robert A. M. Stern tile collection was actually announced in 2014 but won’t be available until later this year.

The home continues to be a rich mother lode for architects thinking inside the box. To read more posts on home furnishings click here.

More Barn-Inspired House Plans

Three-Part Invention

One good barn deserves another! I have written about this house type as a rich source of design ideas before, and here is the latest Farmhouse Modern variation designed by architect Nicholas Lee, AIA. It has the

888-15classic three-part organization of a vintage barn: tall central gable flanked by lower side shed-roofed wings, but here those wings are deep porches running the length of the house. The additional twist is the tall window wall at the fireplace end of the vaulted great room, as you can see above. The expanse of glass adds a modern element to the traditional sheltering porches and rustic board and

888-15 main floor

batten siding. The simple but very contemporary layout includes a vaulted great room containing an island kitchen at one end under a loft office. The master suite forms the opposite end of the house. The stairway occupies the center

888-15 upper

of the house and additional bedrooms and baths are behind the office on the second floor. The great room, kitchen, and master bedroom all open to both

888-15 side viewporches for graceful indoor-outdoor flow. The design suits rural sites and temperate climates. If insects are a problem one or both porches could be

888-15 other sidescreened. Depending on orientation, views, wind, and other site conditions, one porch could be for use in the morning and the other for midday or evening.

888-15 great roomThe light-filled, open rooms — with minimalist modern touches as shown in the glass railing in the loft over the kitchen — contrast with the dark woodsy quality of many vintage barns. It’s the kind of design that allows easy adaptation. Bravo Nick!

To see other discussions of barn houses, click here. To browse more variations on the barn idea click here.

Coming of Age in SOMA (South of Market)

Aging in Place

Holidays and the end of the year make me think about ritual and renewal and continuity and change — I am beginning to sound like an alumni magazine!

My office recently moved to San Francisco’s South of Market (SOMA) tech zone, where I met the future — for a while we were in a glass cubicle on the fourth floor of an “incubator building” full of ambitious web developers near Second and Mission. The five-story 1910-era structure has a cool modern vibe with exposed brick walls, bamboo-topped steel desks, a basement Fussball lounge and the odd Saarinen potato chip chair. It’s Google-lite in miniature.

It and the surrounding streets are teeming with young men and women, occasionally on skateboards or pulling suitcases, or waiting at the entrance to the venerable Palace Hotel as black SUVs, Mercedes, and Town Cars come and go. An urban planner friend tells me that the Nob Hill hotels are now scrambling to compete with SOMA hostelries like the Palace, which are closer to tech hubs like Pinterest, Salesforce, and Twitter, “where everyone wants to be,” as the VISA ad says. At noon the buffets at local Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese eateries are full, while lines for taco trucks parked at the curb start forming by 11:30 with nobody apparently minding the wait because it’s a chance to talk with colleagues and check emails or play Candy Crush Saga.

And suddenly I have realized that I’m a lot older than my neighbors. Indeed, one day the 30-something maintenance worker who restocks the kitchens and bathrooms  on every floor turned to me  – not having spoken to me before – and said with all earnestness: “It’s so inspiring to see a man of your age still working.” Receding gray hair. Still vigorous; not yet stooped. Well, I can see how I stand out – Rip Van Winkle in the middle of freshman rush.

I had never given my age much thought until that moment, except for the time I thought I was a year older than I actually was and my wife kindly corrected me — which was a delightful gift! But now it occurs to me that of course your environment is a powerful determinant for shaping your world view. Duh! And I can remember thinking the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead — who wrote the influential Coming of Age in Samoa — did look awfully old as she walked up the aisle of the Yale Law School Auditorium leaning heavily on her crook-shaped walking stick to lecture our introductory anthropology class. Which reminds me, when our younger daughter was two years old we visited a small state park. In the visitor center the ranger turned to a child near us and asked: “And how old are you, little boy?” The boy replied: “I’m two.” Whereupon our daughter rushed over to him and said: “You’re not two. I’m two.” I guess part of growing up is realizing that there can be two twos, or put another way – that there can be more than one monoculture. Exposure is definitely broadening.

My 94 year-old mother recently settled into a retirement home after more than sixty years living at the end of a long and winding country road. She said: “The really interesting people here are the ones over 100.” (I can only hope…) That was before she started complaining about the food and had one of her sons find her old copy of Mastering The Art of French Cooking to give to the chef. “Here,” she said, “This is how you make creamed spinach.”

So what’s next? I’m not ready to leave home yet! But someday, if necessary, it ought to be a place that’s well designed, feels genuine, and is easy to move around in for young and old alike. With good design and decent planning there ought to be a way for younger families and retirees to occupy the same complex. Good light, a stimulating outlook, places to be comfortably together and easily apart — with practical sound-proofing where needed — are among the basics. Such a place certainly doesn’t need a hotel ambience, gurgling fountains, or white marble statues of Hebe, the goddess of youth. There must be a better way. So, as the tryptophan kicks in after your feasting maybe you will dream it up! Meanwhile,

holidayphotoWe’re in the caves at Kenzo Estate, the elegant new Napa Valley winery by Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects. Hey, now that I think of it, a winery is actually a form of “assisted living”! We toast you and the future!



Architecture To Buy Or Eat

Holiday Houses

Time to think about the architecture enthusiasts on your gift list. Luckily I have some suggestions! In 2011 British brothers Robert and Gavin Paisley founded a business called Chisel and Mouse to make a few plaster models of significant buildings. Fast forward to today and the business has burgeoned so that now their offerings include a wonderfully wide range of designs, from Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki train station to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House. My kind of company! Their architectural sculptures are made of  plaster with fine details like window frames etched in metal. According to their website: “We combine traditional sculpting with CAD and 3D printing to produce our collection.” (Aha! This is the clue to the name of the company!) Models are priced around $215

Winslow Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 2.23.59 PM (2)

apiece. And they can even model your own home! Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow house from 1893 caught my eye — an early example of his Prairie Style with hipped roof and recessed band around the eaves. The model is 4 inches high, 10 inches wide, 4 inches deep and weighs roughly 5 lbs. Something for your desk as

Buckingham 2 Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 2.55.25 PM (2)

you plan your dream house! Or why not dream big — in a diminutive sort of way — and acquire a part of Buckingham Palace, at 10 inches high, 7 inches wide, and 4.5 lbs. I myself am rather partial to the house that modernist architect WilliamLescazeScreen Shot 2014-12-05 at 2.59.03 PM (2)

Lescaze — designer of the famous PSFS skyscraper in Philadelphia — built for himself in Manhattan in 1934. It’s probably a little too minimalist for me to live in but would be fun to live with!

If you’re not house-hunting but still a little hungry for something seasonal, how about building a gingerbread house. CEO Jamie Roche and his two children found inspiration in our Plan 896-2 by Jay Shafer and his


Four Lights Tiny Houses, one of which is shown above, and made this version.

Gingerbread tiny house

The gum for the roof is a good idea — otherwise known as a neoprene sealer — and the candy wheels make me hungry. The truck is extra and not edible. To follow the templates for building it click here.

Check out Jamie’s previous design based on a Sea Ranch cabin from last year. Or if you


are even more ambitious you can build the Beach House Plan 479-1 designed by Peter Brachvogel, AIA and Stella Carosso. Architectural designer and Gingerbread_2 photo

Houseplans staffer Monika Strunk made this version. Delightful and delicious! Why not take yours to the Planning Department — maybe it will help expedite things!…You can follow her Templates and Directions on Time To Build. She also offers a few tips: The gingerbread house is drawn at 1/4″= 1’0″ scale, which in real life-scale will yield a 0.25-inch gingerbread wall. (Keeping the gingerbread thickness consistent while rolling out the dough was the biggest challenge). She used pre-made frosting that came with two different decorating nibs (star-shaped and basic); and 1.5 batches of gingerbread dough from a Martha Stewart recipe. It took approximately 2.5 hours to assemble and decorate — most of the time was spent baking and cutting.

So are you ready to fire up the workshop?! Maybe have a little rum-infused eggnog while waiting for the oven to pre-heat…that’s the spirit!

Selling Sunset Headquarters: A Landmark of Environmental Design

Time Inc., the owner of Sunset Magazine, has just announced it is exploring the sale of Sunset‘s historic seven acre campus in Menlo Park, California. I can understand why — the land, which is in the very heart of Silicon Valley, not far

47 Sunset Joe Fletcher patio view

from Stanford University and just a mile or two down Willow Road from Facebook — is undoubtedly worth surpassing Silicon sums (photo by Joe Fletcher). But, speaking as Sunset‘s former senior home editor who wrote a book

24 Sunset cover

about ranch house popularizer Cliff May, the designer of the building (here’s an early Cliff May ranch house on the magazine’s cover), I very much hope that whoever purchases the property understands its significance as an early and influential example of environmental design. Here’s the back story.

43 Sunset buliding garden plan

The original building, from 1951, is at the corner of Willow and Middlefield Roads. Owner Larry Lane told Cliff May: “The building itself must be definitely WESTERN in its general structure and in the material used and in the feeling and atmosphere which it creates. It must give the feeling of belonging to the site. In short , the kind of building that an easterner having read Sunset for a long time and making his first trip to California would expect to see.” At the same time Lane hired San Francisco’s most famous landscape architect, Thomas Church, to design the gardens and specified he wanted an emphasis on native planting and informality “so that the whole area has the appearance of having naturally grown that way.” The result was a remarkable early example ofIMG_6650environmental design — the corporate campus precursor to Apple, Google, and Facebook. (And at Sunset we had in-house kitchens and even a wine cellar decades before Pixar’s “Cereal Bar” or Twitter’s “Micro Health Kitchen.”) The building is an over-scaled, roughly 30,000 square foot ranch house that wraps around a huge lawn extending toward San Francisquito Creek, which is the border between Menlo Park and Palo Alto. The gardens loop around the lawn (like a well thrown lariat, naturally!) following the creek, creating a metaphoric Pacific Coast with plantings representing each of the magazine’s editorial regions


from the Northwest to the Southwest. The front door is in a closed facade — open it and you “are almost outside again” with a view that runs through the glass 44 Sunset lobby

walled lobby to the very edge of the garden by the creek: a seven acre living room that’s mostly outdoors. Test gardens, test kitchens, and an entertainment wing 45 Sunset patio with table

(shown here) were all added over the years — each element extending the ranch house esthetic and Sunset‘s mission to be both “the magazine and laboratory of western living.” A similarly detailed courtyard building for the books division of Lane Publishing was added across the road at 85 Willow in the 1960s (photos above by Joe Fletcher).

Frank Lloyd Wright toured 80 Willow in 1954 on his way to lecturing at Stanford. Here he is in his signature pork pie hat on the doorstep being

48 Sunset with FLWright

welcomed by Larry Lane’s sons Mel, at far left and Bill at far right, with editor Proctor Mellquist in the striped tie. Later at Stanford, after dismissing the building’s uneven terra-cotta tile floors and the use of adobe for some walls as sentimental, Wright remarked: “It’s well planned, and the ideas are good, and the proportions are simple and I would say it’s one of the best efforts I’ve seen in modern times.” Needless to say the Lanes — and Cliff May — were very pleased.

So, with all that land seemingly almost empty in a time of rapid change and superheated real estate value, how can such a place survive? Even if it became the headquarters for a major foundation, an enclave of Stanford University, or a satellite extension of a high-tech company, pressure to maximize the acreage would be intense. But thoughtful, even extensive, additions and updates that respect its history are certainly possible. An imaginative owner and city administration working with a talented design team should be up to the task. The alternative would be dismaying and a terrible loss. One solution might be to make a deal somehow to sacrifice the north building at 85 Willow in order to save key elements of the main building and grounds at 80 Willow. And then there is the realization that the magazine itself will probably need to move! Lots to think about. I hope you can visit this California landmark before it’s too late. Sunset’s garden is open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p. m. Monday through Friday.