Category Archives: Design Ideas and Inspiration

Ranch House Rides Again

From the Archives

We’re excited to present our new FLEXAHOUSE plan, commissioned from San Francisco architect Nick Noyes and inspired by his recent AIA-Sunset Western Home Award-winning ranch house in Healdsburg, California, shown below, photographed by Cesar Rubio.

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Below is a view of our  FLEXAHOUSE Great Room looking in the same direction, from the kitchen to the  living room.

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Note how Nick kept the vaulted ceiling, window wall, French doors, and general feeling of airiness, while adding  a brand new feature we call the “Flexawall,” which provides storage and display along one side of the Great Room. It’s a flexible feature because it can open toward the Great Room and to the entry hall behind it.

FLEXAHOUSE is  a “kit-of-parts plan”  because the key elements — Great Room, Master Suite, Bedroom and Bath Unit, Guest Suite, Garage, Flexawall, Entry, and Trellis — combine to form three different layouts (I-shape, L-shape, and T-shape) to suit various lot configurations.

Start with the core of  the plan, which is the Great Room,

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Then add the Master Suite,

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Bedroom-Bath Unit,

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and Garage

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and you have the basic house. Here’s the T-shape example in elevation (for a wider lot),

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and plan.

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FLEXAHOUSE comes in 3- and 4-bedroom variations for a total of 6 different plans, ranging from 2,254 sq. ft. to 2,580 sq. ft. You can change the orientation of the garage to enter from either side, instead of the front. Exterior siding options include stucco, shingle, and board-and-batten.

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Roof options are standing seam metal and composition shingle. The plan starts at $2,500. It has been engineered for seismic, snow, and hurricane zones.

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“The idea,” says architect Nick Noyes, shown above, “is to create a design that’s almost a custom home plan because of the many options you can select. All sites are different and require different design responses. The opportunity with FLEXAHOUSE was to create a design that was flexible enough — with three different arrangements of the basic elements — to conform to varying site conditions such as local solar orientation, views, and other particularities. By adding more bedrooms, changing the orientation of the garage, or choosing siding and roofing options you can create still more variations.” It’s also an eco-friendly house: Nick designed it on a 16-inch grid for maximum construction efficiency and minimum construction waste.

I think it’s an ingenious contemporary reinvention of the ranch house, bringing easy indoor-outdoor living ideas from the past into the 21st century. The design is informal and elegant at the same time, like Nick’s Healdsburg house,

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with it’s warmly inviting kitchen at one end of the Great Room (Cesar Rubio photo), which was our muse.  Let’s wrap a FLEXAHOUSE up for you!

Staying Cool in the Garden

Splashdown

There are myriad ways to beat — or at least distract yourself — from the heat of a mid-summer day. Some take planning and building, like this wonderful “water rail” for a terrace in Arizona, by Phoenix landscape architect Greg Trutza. The

railing-spillway-mescaleraAgua-generalife-1 from alhambradegranad.orgstream of recirculating water follows the curve of the deck and spills into a small spa at one end (photo courtesy Sunset Magazine). It’s inspired by Continue reading

Porches and the Primitive Hut

Dream Time

The idea of escape to a simpler more relaxing way of living is especially appealing right now. In my case that would mean lounging on a porch — like this

elegant screened version by In Situ Studio — my head buried in a good spy novel

(photos courtesy In Situ Studio). The Roman architect Vitruvius believed that all architecture began with the primitive hut, which I think you could say is in the DNA of most great porches. Later philosophers, like the former Jesuit priest Abbe Laugier in his Essay On Architecture of 1753, adopted this idea and visualized the first buildings as simple — but classical — lean-tos made from tree trunks. You can see the

roots — literally! — of the classical pediment in that triangle of twigs at the top. The big idea was that architecture evolved as a refinement of elemental nature, meaning that the tree is simply a column in its primitive state. Or, put another way — in the beginning there was a gazebo! (Remember that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is talking about man’s natural state at this time as well.) This elemental and romantic nature-based concept remains powerful — think of Henry David Thoreau’s back-to-nature shack on Walden Pond or the evolution of the camping tent  — especially among architects and designers and almost

anyone looking for rest or relaxation, as this wonderful recent example designed and built by Alan Brown on the Big Island of Hawaii — out of mostly recycled materials — shows. Note to Thoreau: Why build in the cold-climate east when you can enjoy balmy evenings with scents of  plumeria and ginger on the slopes of Mauna Kea?! (Photo courtesy Alan Brown)

Moscow architects Kerimov Prishin designed their Arbor 15 project as a

performance platform containing a dining area, fireplace, and sink. Panels in the slatted front unfold to reveal that everything is on stage. Curtains at the sides

reinforce the idea that the act of dining is itself a theatrical event — which seems

very logical when you think that conversation in the dining room is the subject of so many plays and film scripts (photos courtesy the architects via designboom). It’s the outdoor dining room as dacha…Chekov, anyone?

Perhaps the most extreme form of the porch as primitive hut is a unit at the famous Swedish Treehotel (another room was mentioned in an earlier post) in

the shape of a giant nest, as shown here — or is it a condorminium…(image courtesy Treehotel).

Though most porches are attached to houses, it’s also true that many rooms can grow up to become porches; it just takes a little education and the addition of a

folding window wall or two. Which is what happens in the kitchen of Plan 48-46,

shown here. The breakfast area opens up to turn the entire space into a dining porch. Trees and triangles have come a long way since Vitruvius.

Clever Getaway Cabins and the New Photo Circle App

Dream Machines

It’s hot. The workload is unending. Time to escape! A bathtub-on-wheels might

be just the ticket. Who needs soap when your soul can be cleansed by the view across New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula into azure sea and sky. But the

rolling fixture is only part of the story (here it is back in place by the shower:  “Hey Honey, where did you park the tub this time?!”) It’s in a very seductive modern vacation cabin designed by innovative Auckland/Queenstown architects Crosson Clarke Carnachan (photos by Patrick Reynolds via Trendir) for the

Crosson family. Hinged wall sections drop to the ground like portcullises to form

spacious decks beside the central breezeway, which functions as an indoor-

outdoor living room facing the sea view; bunk rooms, bathroom at the side. The

decks fold back up (and shutters cover windows) to secure the house when the owners are away.

Another clever design for a seaside location by the same firm takes escape to a delightful extreme: holiday house as kinetic sculpture and vacation transport. It’s

called The Sled and, according to the architects, was designed as a “response to the ever-changing landscape that lines the beachfront in this coastal erosion zone.” It’s built on big wooden skids so a tractor can tow it to a new section of the

dune as needed. When closed up it resembles a contraption for a Star Wars film (Jabba the Hutt’s cabana, er, hut??). Then when the family arrives, the big

shutter winches open to form an awning over the two-story glass and steel doors

in the living/dining/cooking space. The sleeping loft is accessible by a ladder up the

side wall. Every inch of space is utilized for storage, seating, or other functions (photos of this house by Jackie Meiring, courtesy Crosson Clarke Carnachan).

More ideas for cabins and retreats can be found in our Micro Cottages and Tiny Houses Collection, such as Studio Tower Plan 479-6 by Peter Brachvogel

and Stella Carosso, which could be incorporated into a larger design, as shown above, when time and resources allow.

Sharing Photos in a New Way

Because this is prime camera season I thought it appropriate to mention a useful new free photo app for smartphones called Photo Circle (full disclosure: it was developed by a young cousin). It creates a private shared album for friends and

family — you simply put your phones together to create a Photo Circle and start taking pictures. The technical description is “proximity pairing of smartphones with ultra-high frequency sound waves.” You can share comments on the pictures, bring new people into your circle via email, and create as many circles as you want. My pictures are mostly of houses, needless to say…

PCBC, Kinship, Bucky, and Sir Ken

Connections and Creativity

At this year’s Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) in San Francisco, which ended yesterday, the home building industry seemed poised for change: still smarting from the downturn but trying new ways to innovate. Some observations:

Selectivity is gaining ground. For as Adrian Foley, president of Brookfield Homes Southland and Chair of PCBC 2012 said in his opening remarks: The conference “has evolved from a trade show to a curated business exchange” — or maybe this is a form of natural selection, given the economy. One “curated” area

was the Sustainable Living Showcase, which gathered a variety of eco-friendly products around a central garden patio lined with bubbling urn fountains. Most striking to me were the designs from the architectural metal systems fabricator

Bok Modern (rhymes with spoke; samples shown above), which are 100% recyclable, and laser-cut so there are no emissions from gas welding. Their

railings and screens definitely rise above the ordinary, with patterns derived from geometry and nature, as shown on the residence above.

Consolidation. Reclaimed fir was on display from Barnwood Industries,

whose recycled beams, flooring, siding, and cabinetry derive from deconstructed buildings across the Northwest. But now these products are being distributed by Weyerhauser, a major international forest products company. It seems about time that a company making new lumber would want to remake the old! Could be a trend.

American-made — a new idea! Some products are being manufactured in the US again. For example, GE is now making the GE GeoSpring 50-gallon water

heater at their headquarters plant in Louisville, Kentucky rather than in China. The hybrid appliance combines electricity with a heat pump to use 62% less energy than a standard 50 gallon water heater (image courtesy GE).

The Human Connection. Consumer research guru J. Walker Smith, president of The Futures Company, gave a compelling presentation on how today’s consumers are less interested in product brands than in relationships that are built with or connected to a product. Think of all the “Like” buttons, “friending,” and one-line Twitter reviews flooding the ether. He calls this “The Kinship Economy — “not the Big Net but the Tight Knit.” A powerful way of cutting through all the clutter is to knit together reactions and resources. If you’re building a new home you naturally want to learn from other people’s experiences so in effect, you’re looking for kinship. I suppose this could be a form of speed dating: “Enough about me and my door hardware. Let’s talk about you and your backsplash…”

The Kitchen Triangle Redefined. According to Carina Hathaway of Brookfield Homes, the kitchen triangle has evolved: now the three points aren’t just the sink, range, and refrigerator but the kitchen island, the flat screen TV beyond the island in the great room, and the outdoors beyond that. In other words, the house and the lot should be extensions of each other (something I have always believed). She calls this “the new lifestyle triangle.”

Creativity is where you find it. The keynote speaker at PCBC was British-born author and educator Sir Ken Robinson. Knighted by the Queen — he revealed that when you are speaking with her and she moves her handbag from one arm to the other it’s a sign that your time is up! — he advises governments on how to improve creativity. His TED talks have gone viral and his books Out of Our Minds and The Element are best sellers. An extremely engaging and funny as well as thoughtful speaker, Robinson said “life is not linear, it’s organic. We make sense of it retroactively…Most people settle for so little…most people never discover their natural aptitudes…you can be creative in absolutely anything…human life is inherently creative.” In other words, you never know what will spark creativity so you need to be open to possibility. Mistakes will happen. And you can’t really test for it. A good message for everyone, especially anyone interested in home design because even within the limits of a tight site there are an infinite number of ways to shape an effective house plan.

I found an echo to Sir Ken’s message nearby at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in a current exhibit on the futurist Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller, who influenced design with inventions like the geodesic dome and the

Dymaxion prefab bathroom of 1937 (shown above; image courtesy UCLA.edu). Like Bucky Fuller, Sir Ken sees connections between art, science, and life; is not afraid of making mistakes; and gets people thinking outside the convention center.

Pitching Perfection in Baseball, Homes, and Gardens

Matt Cain, the Villa Rotunda, and a Perfect Barbecue Garden

I learned a new definition of perfection the other night when I witnessed the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Cain pitch a “perfect game” against the Houston Astros: 27 batters up; 27 batters down — the first such milestone in the 129-year

history of the Giants franchise. The sell-out crowd — and the water cannons (at right in photo) — erupted. And naturally this made me think about the nature of perfection in other fields of dreams. In his wonderful book The Perfect House, architectural historian Witold Rybczynski explores the concept as it applies to the Italian villas by Renaissance luminary Andrea Palladio. Take the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, for example, with its four identical temple fronts,

central cross-axis, and dome (photo courtesy The Culture Concept). It’s an exemplar of perfection, at least according to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, quoted by Rybczynski: “…in perfect buildings the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme.” The simple

geometric clarity of the plan (image courtesy Wikipedia) — as well as the way each temple front frames a different vista across the landscape — creates an impression of wholeness within the hilltop setting. It’s hard to see how anything can be added or subtracted; i. e. the equivalent of 27 up and 27 down!

Geometric order often contributes to an idea of perfection, as in “perfect circle,”

illustrated here by Plan 64-165 (though it’s actually a hexadecagon), or

“perfect rectangle” as illustrated by Plan 491-10.

Perfection also depends on context — does it fit the site, the culture, the needs, the dreams? And though I subscribe to the Vitruvian principles of function, strength, and beauty (aka commodity, firmness, and delight), perfection for me often combines usefulness and practicality with artfulness and surprise. An example is this small rear garden by landscape architect Robert Sabbatini, FASLA. It’s multifunctional, with a dining patio, built-in barbecue, espaliered

pears and rows of lettuce, peas, and herbs. The deck, steps, and tapered path into the vegetable garden all revolve around a marvelous central stone cairn — a cone-shaped barbecue. It’s a well-head that cleverly functions as its opposite:

a fire pit. Robert bought the crank-up grill from an ironmonger and designed the fire pit around it.  I admire this garden’s multiple roles, elegant lines, and innovative practicality. And I like that it’s also a little rough around the edges because, as the late landscape architect Thomas Church once said: “Don’t fret if your garden is never quite perfect. Absolute perfection, like complete consistency, can be dull.” I think almost perfect is true perfection because you can actually live with it. So what’s your idea of the perfect home? Maybe it’s somewhere between the Villa Rotunda and Giardino Sabbatini. It turns out there are many ways to pitch perfection — and by the way, grilled prosciutto-wrapped shrimp is delicious!

Ideas of Home at UCSD and MOMA

Foreclosing on the Familiar

“Fallen Star,”  by the Korean born artist Do Ho Suh, is the newest sculpture installation at the Stuart Collection on the campus of the University of California at San Diego and debuted this week with more than a thousand visitors on opening day. It’s a small gabled cottage that has somehow crashed into the

roof of a seven story engineering building and now teeters over the edge… perhaps the Wizard of Oz was aiming for an advanced degree. It’s definitely a mortarboard mash-up. According to Mary Beebe, the collection director, “It was his idea and we produced it.” From the rooftop the house appears only a little off

kilter, but then as you peer over the railing you see that only engineering — i. e. the cantilever — is holding it up. It may be an art piece but it’s also a strong advertisement for structural daring. (“Go forth ye graduates, and engineer!”) The work explores Suh’s “on-going exploration of themes around the idea of home, cultural displacement, the perception of our surroundings, and how one constructs a memory of a space.” When he arrived in the U.S. from Seoul, Korea in 1991 to study, Suh understandably felt un-moored, which “led him to measure spaces in order to establish relationships with his new surroundings. He had to physically and mentally readjust.” The permanent installation is clever in the way it literally and figuratively readjusts — indeed, upends — the romantic notion of home, acknowledging that in today’s reality it remains both fixed and floating — or fleeting — for many.

In my mind this work is really a last minute West Coast entry in the current exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which I saw last month. The purpose of the show, organized by MOMA architecture curator Barry Bergdoll and which runs through August 13, is to explore new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis. Five teams of architects, planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers were asked to produce proposals for housing in five different suburban communities, from Temple Terrace, Florida to Rialto, California. The result is a series of essentially utopian schemes. I was most drawn to the solution called Nature City, for Keizer, Oregon by WORKac, a design firm in Manhattan. Inspired by the Garden City concept

espoused by influential late 19th century British urbanist Ebenezer Howard, (detail of part of a garden city plan shown above, courtesy Our Letchworth), they proposed developing a 225 acre parcel (already slated for big box stores and the like) in a way that is  “five times denser than the adjacent suburban blocks but

has three times the amount of public open space, including a 158-acre nature preserve.” The idea is to create a symbiotic relationship between structure and site with a wide variety of housing types, from attached town homes to towers to

courtyard houses and long blocks like this “Cavern Building” with huge park-like pass-throughs and lake-like pools; the latter, glass-walled and three stories deep, is especially ambitious! (Model image courtesy MOMA). The most arresting

feature is a series of parks and pools that spiral around a great dome (shown above) that collects methane from a mound of solid waste and produces compost, while waste heat warms public pools at the rooftop. It’s an architectural circle of life — a rose is a rose is a Compost Hill. The show’s other four schemes offered equally suggestive architectural solutions for new construction (one, by Studio Gang, even inserted new housing into the shell of a derelict factory) but none addressed how to deal with existing neighborhoods where foreclosures are rampant — the house on the brink, as it were, to steal Suh’s metaphor. In the end that is the harder question.

Sarah Susanka, Hip Roofs, and Prairie Style DNA

Aloha Sarah — and Mahalo Frank

Let’s take a DNA strand out of Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating Finding Your Roots show currently running on PBS, and apply it to residential architecture and our latest design by architect Sarah Susanka, Plan 454-11. It was  originally

conceived for a dramatic view-oriented meadow on the Big Island of Hawaii, as shown here. The plan is a new addition to our Exclusive Studio and one of the descendants, if you will, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School houses (remember the recent film of the same name about a Hawaiian family, starring George Clooney — genealogy is everywhere at the moment!). I’m thinking of the

Ward Willits house in Highland Park,Illinois, of 1901, shown above (photo and plan, courtesy delmars.com). See how the hipped roofs and horizontal lines of the Willits house dominate, appearing to float over the deeply recessed eaves. Susanka’s roofs also float; her design resembles a series of interlocking pavilions shaped to capture views in every direction. In the Willits plan, below, the

rooms radiate from the hearth at the center of a pinwheel, further accentuating the horizontality of the design and thereby expressing the lines of the Prairie

itself, hence the style name. Sarah Susanka’s plan, above, does something similar but within the overall constraint of the rectangle. A generous central hearth also anchors her design while the island kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom wings reach toward terraces and the landscape beyond. A classic

Susanka touch is to craft a room-within-a room for a sense of intimacy in a larger space, as she does here in the breakfast alcove with its built in seating and

window walls. She uses dropped soffits — like abstract cornices — to support concealed lighting and vary ceiling heights, which is also something Wright did. Susanka’s use of wood to articulate structure also recalls Japanesque design and this resonates with Wright and his lifelong interest in Japanese prints, not to mention his design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo from the early 1920s. It turns out he traveled to Japan for the first time in 1905, with guess who — Mr. and Mrs. Willits.

But you may ask, how does Prairie style relate to Hawaii? Well actually, there’s a logical connection, and it has to do with the hipped roof. The Hawaiian architect Charles Dickey is credited with developing a regional Hawaiian style of architecture through his use of the broadly sheltering hip roof — as shown

on his own house of 1926 at Waikiki (photo courtesy Wikipedia). Bertram

Goodhue’s more elongated hip roof for the Honolulu Academy of Art of 1927 developed the form on a monumental scale (photo by Burl Burlingame courtesy Honolulu Star Bulletin). Though the Wrightian and Susankan roofs read more as separate geometric units that seem to levitate over their structures than the Hawaiian hips, I think you can see the visual DNA connection. I’d just call them calabash cousins — i.e. extended family — no saliva test required.

Architectural Recycling, Then and Now

Flights of the Phoenix

Earth Day is April 22, so let’s talk recycling. It’s not a new idea: remember the Romans! In 10 B. C. Emperor Augustus removed the obelisk from the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis in Egypt and placed it in the Circus Maximus; then in 1589 Pope Sixtus V had it erected in the Piazza del Popolo topped with a cross. More recent power players have adapted this collect-and-conquer approach to a residential scale and architecturally re-purposed everything from antique ceilings to airplanes and automobiles. Take this new residence by architect

David Hertz, which is a 2012 Record House (drawing in an earlier post; photo courtesy David Hertz). It shows how to recycle a Boeing 747. Hertz turned the

wings into roofs on two levels (in this house wings are really wings; photo by Sara Jane Boyers). And by the way, a jet engine cowling makes a great reflecting pool. Part of the exterior fuselage forms the kitchen backsplash,

conveying the delightful impression that a plane has just landed beside the sink — or maybe this is simply another form of Mileage Plus. One little caveat about  re-purposing a 747 — if it’s visible from the air you need to notify the FAA so they don’t think it’s a crash site (photo by Sara Jane Boyers).

Leger Wanaselja Architects is known for their eco-friendly approach to design, 

most recently for their infill house with roofs “sawed out of grey cars left for parts in local junk yards,” and glass awnings “fabricated from junked Dodge

Caravan side windows.”  They used salvaged automobile roofs for upper walls, and poplar bark (waste product from the furniture industry of North Carolina)

for the lower walls. Inside, all the finish wood for cabinetry and trim is salvage, lending the main living and dining areas a warmly inviting glow (photos courtesy Leger Wanaselja).

Recycling isn’t just about one-off custom design — it’s built into many

contemporary materials, including solid surface counters like Vetrazzo, which is recycled glass in a base of concrete and comes in a wide variety of colors,

or wall tiles made from recycled glass like this example from Bedrock Industries, also produced in a broad spectrum of styles and hues.

Which Reminds Me

Ready-made plans are all about recycling, too! Sea Ranch Cottage Plan 447-2 

by William Turnbull is a good example — use it as the base with which to shape

a weekend getaway. Just adapt it to your site, add whatever upgrades are

required, and you’re done…and no need to contact the FAA.

Spring Color Palettes

The Art in Artichoke

There’s just something about April: Chaucer talked about the showers, T. S. Eliot said it was the cruelest month, and travel agents call it a “shoulder season.” Though to me April means doing a lot of weeding, I think it’s also a great time to develop a nature-oriented paint scheme for freshening up your interior.  My friend the architectural colorist Tina Beebe once told me to look no further than the artichoke for one of nature’s most elegant color palettes so, since artichokes are now in season, let’s start here. Cut one open, as this photo (courtesy The Delicious Life) shows and you’ll find a surprising range of spring hues to choose from. Now thanks to color matching websites you can develop a palette from

almost any image. Here’s the palette that deGraeve’s Color Palette Generator produced from the photo I uploaded. It’s appealing, with bright and dull versions, though it didn’t get the subtle violet at the center. Or how about this

image of a granite dock on the Maine coast. I like the greens and grays. Here’s how deGraves’s other color match website called Color Hunter isolated the hues.

You don’t get to see the original image alongside the isolated hues as you do with deGraeve, but Color Hunter’s black background makes the tones stand out. Though you should always allow for color variation on the computer as well as in print, this is a great way to develop a set of colors you like before confronting the dauntingly vast array of color chips at the hardware or paint store. Another way is just to print out an image of a space that appeals, like the living room of

Plan 496-1 by Australian architect Leon Meyer, then identify the color palette yourself. Here the white walls, black hearth, moss green fireplace front, and natural wood furniture work well together: it’s essentially a white background with major and minor accents. The living room in a Sea Ranch, California house designed by Tina Beebe and her husband architect Buzz Yudell offers

similar lessons. Here again, background colors, this time in wall plaster and concrete floor, are neutrals; accents are mostly primary with greens toned to echo the meadow grasses outside; the wood is unpainted. In short, paint palettes don’t need a lot of colors; simpler is usually better; materials like wood and concrete are part of a palette just like paint and fabric; and nature is often a very good place to start.

For a fine introduction to the subject see Design With Color, by Karen

Templer, who is the newest member of the Houseplans family. It includes a wide range of color schemes to help you articulate your own taste. And for an intriguing view of color history I recommend browsing Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker, which

cleverly shows color palettes derived from popular culture, decade-by-decade. The authors isolate key colors from each period — for example, the Arts & Crafts Movement is represented by various artifacts, like a chandelier designed by

Greene & Greene and is paired with eight Pantone swatches. It’s fun to see how the authors derive the dominant colors for each era. It all shows how color taste changes and makes me wonder what a representative palette for the 21st century — so far — would be.