Monthly Archives: October 2011

Barn House, Backsplash, and a Cool Thermostat

 A Rustic Space-Time Continuum

For many homeowners – with apologies to Star Trekkers – it’s really interior space that’s the final frontier. The potential for improvement is infinite. Take this new house by innovative and edgy interior designer Erin Martin working with an adventurous Napa Valley client. It’s both rustic — as a barn-inspired ranch house — and highly refined.

The big timber structure, which supports a sleeping loft over the kitchen, is exposed and becomes a foil for a sophisticated black and white furniture palette. The loft itself is simple but eye-catching, and not a little galactic,

thanks to an art piece suspended on a rope and resembling a dusty comet — or a hay bale on a bad hair day. It’s wonderful, like a tiny hint of Halloween. The table on the dining porch reads as a vertical extension of the floor, thanks to

the continuity of material — the same kind of boards are used for both. It’s a clever idea and makes you wonder just for a moment which is which — porch or table — rather like an Escher print. Martin’s design of the galley kitchen is particularly effective at enlivening our perception of space through the use of contrast. Her backsplash, for example, does more than protect the wall above the sink from water damage — not to mention the occasional “wormhole.”  She used antiqued mirror to cover the wall behind the range.

The soft indistinct reflection adds surprise while visually expanding the space into a sort of parallel universe. In this view straight down the galley


see how the backsplash almost blends with the windows, adding a little reflective mystery to contrasts with the bunkhouse-like floorboards. The peninsula dividing the kitchen from the dining/living area


includes an integral sink that simplifies the line of the counter, further blurring boundaries.

The barn has always been a good starting point for home design: a typical barn layout — which is similar to that of the Roman basilica — includes a high central portion and lower side aisles. One of our newest exclusive designs, Plan 530-2 below,

by Classic Colonial Homes, makes use of this arrangement for the garage; the living space is in the loft. Architect David Wright’s Plan 452-1

glazes part of the roof to brighten the rear porch and the adjacent living room. Architect Francois Levy took took inspiration from gambrel-roof barns for his Plan 450-2.

Here the garage door is deceiving — it’s used not for a garage but as a way to open up an entire wall of the living space. Barns are always worth a look, if not a double take.

Heat Seeker

Finally, just in time for colder weather, a thermostat that turns up the heat through modern functional design: it’s the new Learning Thermostat from Nest, a company founded by Tony Fadell, formerly of Apple — so naturally it’s a sleekly appealing object in its own right. It’s also intuitive — just turn the dial the way you did with units of old but now there’s a new twist, not to mention a learning curve.

According to Tony: “Turns out you change the temperature in your house 1500 times a year. 1500! Our thermostat learns what temperatures you like so it can program itself. It senses when you’re out and turns itself down. And we started from scratch with design, so it’s beautiful.” I concur, though it reminds me a little of the lyric from Santa Claus is Coming to Town:  “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…” It has fully integrated software,  provides energy-saving tips, can be controlled from your smartphone, and installation is over most existing circuitry. If you’re good maybe you’ll get one!


Home Ideas from Apple’s Architect

Slide To Unlock! A Linear Approach

I just saw a wonderful rustic-contemporary house by eminent architect Peter Bohlin, whose firm – Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson – is responsible for the design of the Apple stores including the marvelous glass cube on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well as the headquarters for Pixar, in Emeryville, California (which I profiled in a previous post). The tour was sponsored by the California Council of the AIA, hence the populated spaces.

The house rides a gentle live oak-studded ridge and offers layout lessons as well as some innovative design details. You follow the long stone wall

to the entry, pass through the wall, and arrive on the deck between the pool and the house. Turn right and you enter the great room.

The stone-paved circulation spine (where everyone is standing) follows the inside of the wall you just paralleled, past the kitchen to the bedrooms at the rear. Turn the other way and you face the pool and the dramatic mountain view.

That familiar stone wall is now leading the eye into the distance even as its

increasingly irregular profile deftly echoes the line of the hills. Now this is architecture that resonates with its setting!

In one sense, and with the Apple connection in mind, it’s a sort of “I-house” (thank you Houseplans.com colleague Ting Lee for this observation!) so here are what I’d call the relevant “architectural apps.”

The cutting board/drain board that’s part of the kitchen island does double duty: it slides on tracks across the sink to form a handy cover for dirty dishes or when you need more

surface area for food preparation or a buffet.

This is a clever idea that I wish I had in my kitchen — the cutting board always needs to be washed off anyway so why not make it part of the sink in the first place. Another “take-away” idea is the way the fireplace forms part of a separate alcove while still warming the room at large, as shown in the overall photo of the great room, above. The generous hearth allows for sitting, wood storage, and display while acting as a focal point for the rest of the space.

It’s a short-hand version of an inglenook, which was popular in Shingle Style and Craftsman homes at the turn of the 20th century. Bohlin’s multi-functional approach continues in the design of the niche for the flat screen television.

It’s hidden behind this sliding steel panel, which is shared with the adjacent deep-sill window — note the barn door track at the top. When you want to watch television you slide the panel to the left and it covers the window, thereby blocking the light. Then — to just slightly adjust  the phrase on every I-Phone — just slide to unblockA clever alternative to hiding the flat screen behind a painting.

The bathrooms in this house are also very cool and include a double vanity that’s one long concrete trough sink

and a bench that extends through the glass wall of the shower

to maximize the feeling of spaciousness.

The broader lesson of this house is in the simple linearity of its plan: really just one big room connected to bedrooms and bathrooms by a corridor like compartments on a train. And here the deck and pool continue the line, but as rooms that are open to the sky. This “single file arrangement” is a good conceptual starting point for anyone thinking about building a new house and will fit a variety of site conditions. For example, compare Greg La Vardera’s Plan 431-2

where every major room opens to the deck that runs the length of the house, with Plan 491-10 by Werner Field,

with the great room similarly bracketed by bedrooms, decks like running boards, and a breezeway near the center. This sort of linear plan is almost an archetype — Peter Bohlin simply put the great room at one end. So if hiring Apple’s architect is not an option, use these plans to start visualizing what you need for your situation, I mean your “I-Building-Pad.”


Monterey Design Conference 2011, Part Deux

Begin With A Body Wall

The architectural conversation sponsored by the California Council of the AIA at Asilomar last weekend was very rich and has taken me a while to process, hence the continuation from the previous post. Take, for example, the very corporeal “P_Wall” commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from architect/computer artist Andrew Kudless and shown in his talk. Andrew is on the faculty at California College of Art and founded the Matsys design firm.

When Andrew projected the image above and talked about his interest in how certain structures form in nature, my first reaction was — what is it for? Is it architecture or art? According to Andrew it’s an “exploration of the self-organization of material under force.”

The  wall is made of one hundred fifty cast plaster tiles. According to Andrew “using nylon fabric and wooden dowels as form-work, the weight of the liquid plaster slurry causes the fabric to sag, expand, and wrinkle.” The idea, as I now understand it, is to show how an architectural element — the gallery wall — and one’s skin might overlap (dewlap?!) in form and function. I first thought of Gertrude Stein’s poem “A Long Dress” which asks: “What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is the wind, what is it.” Now I begin to see that this folding, bulging line could be the current Gertrude describes. SFMOMA design curator Henry Urbach saw in this wall connections to the organic work of Antonio Gaudi, and now I can see that — a wall that’s both architecture and art, with a nature all its own. I get it now, and I like it, but I wouldn’t want to live with it.

Iconic Homes

The house was another topic of exploration at Asilomar, and we were treated to a talk by Duluth, Minnesota architect David Salmela, whose award-winning work is both modern and regional, like this abstract approach to the sauna

(photo by David Getty, courtesy Minnesota Monthly) or his Jackson Meadow project,

a neighborhood development that manipulates a vocabulary of traditional wood gables and porches in strong contemporary ways (photo courtesy Jackson Meadow). David talked about “looking for the ingredient that defines a place” and designing “to solve the problem and not necessarily to please people.” But I think his work has pleased many because it has an iconic simplicity that always involves a strong connection to nature. A new book on his work has just appeared:

by Thomas Fisher from the University of Minnesota Press. I like the fact that each of David’s projects is very different while at the same time sharing similarities in the use of geometric forms and  natural materials. In his talk he spoke of “emulating, not imitating” other architecture — and I can see visual connections to the work of architects as diverse as Alvar Aalto, Adolph Loos, and Ray Kappe.

Soaring Farms  and Falling Fountains

Two talks seemed to galvanize the architectural audience. The first, by Dr. Dickson Despommier, an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Columbia University, described the Vertical Farm Project, explained in detail in his book.

The aim is to counteract world food shortages that are projected to occur  by 2050, when the world’s population will have increased by 3 billion. He writes “At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?” His ingenious solution is to find ways to farm in buildings situated inside the city limits — a way of rehabilitating derelict structures as well as developing new architectural prototypes, like the example shown below: “Urban Farm, Urban Epicenter”  

by Jung Ming Nam. I liked Dr. Despommier’s statement that we tend to treat the city as a parasite (a consumer of resources) when we ought to be looking for ways to make the city’s relationship to the planet symbiotic (more of a partner in the cultivation of resources). He ended his talk by showing a recently completed building in Suwon, South Korea, shown below,

 designed for this very purpose. (A fine article by Lloyd Alter on Treehugger describes how it works; photo courtesy Spiegel Online.) The Vertical Farm is on the rise!

Eminent landscape architect Peter Walker drew rapt attention for his story of working on the World Trade Center Memorial in Manhattan with architect Michael Arad. It turns out that when Arad was selected as one of the 8 finalists, he called Walker and asked him to join his team. Arad’s concept of the two vast voids (each 200 feet square, outlining where the towers had been) endlessly filling with water yet draining into a smaller central void, had already been established but he needed help with the landscape.

Walker, a devotee of modern art, immediately responded to the abstraction of the Arad design, recalling minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd and Carl Andre. He understood that the final design needed to be “strong enough for memory,” and designed the grid of mature trees for the park to act as buffer/transition from the city — planted in a complex architectural infrastructure that he devised — and by working with experts to invent the weir that allowed a large volume of water to fall as efficiently as possible in a continuous curtain — no small feat.

 (These two images courtesy Auhana.) As he said, the fountains were to be about “filling and emptying done at the same time.” The names of those who died form a parapet at the top. As Peter Walker talked I began to understand the extraordinary metaphor for grieving that Michael Arad and he had created:  the fluid welling up in memory as a way to salve, but not wash away, the sorrow. Peter received a standing ovation. Suddenly this little conference center in the sand dunes seemed part of a much larger world.

Monterey Design Conference 2011, Part One

Nature, Machines, and Robotics, Oh My!

The 20th Monterey Design Conference, sponsored by the California Council of the American Institute of Architects, took place last weekend. The two days of lectures and seminars by architects and landscape architects from across the country, Canada, and Spain offered up a superb architectural feast. There was the usual architectural jargon — overuse of words like “aperture,” meaning window or opening, and “iteration,” meaning version — and sometimes you just want a clear declarative sentence explaining the purpose of a  particular design — but all in all this was a wonderfully stimulating experience.

Of course the setting at the Asilomar Conference Grounds – a California state park on the ocean at Pacific Grove near Carmel — sets a high design standard. The marvelous serpentine boardwalks that wind through the dunes (to protect them) aren’t just useful as a kind of palette cleanser between the high intensity talks,

but  also act as a powerful metaphor for the journey of discovery that a good conference makes possible.

In addition the original Asilomar buildings designed by California’s most famous woman architect, Julia Morgan (who also designed Hearst Castle), like “The Lodge” shown above from 1917, set a high architectural standard by deftly using natural materials to make buildings that seem indigenous.

And inside, the cinnamon-hued, redwood board and batten walls and stairway have a visual and tactile power that is unforgettable.

All the large lectures took place in another Julia Morgan building, called Merrill Hall (above), a rustic-elegant barn on a hill. In other words, at a place like this, any design talk better be good!

This conference succeeded because it offered  a strong cross section of contemporary work. Here are first impressions —  more reporting on the conference will follow in a subsequent post.

Newly anointed MacArthur Genius Grantee Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang — whose most famous building is the Aqua skyscraper in Chicago, shown below and described in an earlier Eye On Design post –

spoke about how nature, context, and materials research inform her work in the US and India. How appropriate for a lecture in a sand dune by ocean waves!

Tom Kundig, of Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle, designs seductive modern buildings with vividly expressed mechanical systems and hot rod elements like super scaled cranks and rollers, as in his famous Chicken Point Cabin (photo by Benjamin Benschneider, courtesy Olson Kundig Architects)

or his Rolling Huts — guest cabins on giant steel wheels (photograph by Tim Bies, courtesy Olson Kundig Architects).

Tom has been influenced by the painter and kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, whose most famous work, titled “Homage To New York” and shown below,

(image courtesy New York Times) was a machine that was designed to self destruct. It was easy to see how Tom’s fascination/obsession with machines has lead to an architecture that becomes kinetic sculpture.

Part of the conference was devoted to “Emerging Talents” and one of these talks showed how architects are embracing new tools and techniques, like Andreas Froech of Machineous, who is adapting industrial automotive robotic systems to fabricate not buildings, but polymorphic structures that might be used in buildings, like this screen

or this extraordinary table (both images courtesy Machineous).

I wondered about the practical application of some of this work but now thinking back on the talk I see how “natural” it is — though a nature that has been rethought through the computer. The table is a table unless it is a tree — sounds like Gertrude Stein! More about MDC in my next post.

Drawing from Frank 

The latest book from the vast and ever expanding publishing engine that runs on a fuel known as the imagination of Frank Lloyd Wright is a splendid collection of his conceptual sketches and presentation drawings, just published by Rizzoli. They are selected and explained – with some fascinating anecdotes — by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, longtime director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  For anyone interested in Wright it is a must-have because it lets you follow his mind at work.  The cover image

is for an unbuilt project in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood – it’s the house as sculpted cliff and monumental exclamation point. The book shows just how lucky Wright was to have such super-natural sites to work with but also how brilliantly he rose to each topographic occasion. It would have been fun to see what he could do next to Julia Morgan at Asilomar — then again maybe that wouldn’t have worked…