Category Archives: architecture

Architecture in the Palouse

In this week’s edition of our normal finding-the-architecture-in-the-landscape, we turn to the architecture in the Palouse.  As I mentioned, the farms are so big that the buildings are few and far between.  Tom showed us a photographer’s map of the Palouse, which actually mapped all the picturesque barns, grain elevators (and even lone trees) for the region, as potential focal points for landscape photographs.  However, whatever the architecture may lack in number, it makes up for in size.  As in other agricultural areas we’ve visited before (such as southern Idaho, or southern Utah), grain elevators are the dominant type.

The town of St. John has a grain elevator that looks not so much like a building as it does a whole city of grain elevators.  In fact, the parallel holds true even at a deeper, structural level:  the elevators were built at different times and by different companies.  Just as in a city, the form is a reflection of the historical process of growth and change over time.

The metal siding develops an interesting character over time.

In Oakesdale, we came across JC Barron’s flour mill, which is apparently being slowly restored. 

Outside the town of Palouse:

In Ewan, on the way to Rock Lake:

In Endicott, where a concrete and a framed elevator coexist.

There are a few built edifices that are not elevators.  Near Pine City, we came across this corral for hay bales.  Our friend Jug tried to explain its function to us, but I’m still not sure I buy it.  It may have to do with moving and storing hay bales, but it seems entirely too elaborate for that.  I think they just wanted to do something that had that machine-in-the-garden look. 

We meandered down to Pullman, and got to see the WSU campus.  This is the only picture I could grab.  As Greta and I discovered three years ago, it is almost impossible to park anywhere within miles of big university campuses.  All parking lots are designated for those with stickers, and the traffic is usually so heavy that you can’t even stop.  So we did a driving tour of the campus (not too bad), and then drove downtown, where visitors could be accommodated.

The architectural highlight of the trip was the Round Barn in Ewan.  It was just superb, and clearly is being well-maintained, with a recently replaced shake roof. 

The owner graciously allowed us to go inside, and we climbed a rickety ladder to the hayloft, where we found this:

It should be known as the Pantheon of the Palouse. 

As always, the strongest impressions came from seeing the contrast between the landscape and the built environment, whether from the top of Steptoe Butte,

or one of those picturesque barns that had been mapped (this one on the road between Endicott and St. John). 

Wind turbines are starting to edge out the elevators as the big things in the landscape. 

And sometimes the effect comes from rhythm rather than form. 

Once in a while, it is not even a building, but the simplest manifestation of human intention that leaves a strong trace upon the land. 

Glacial architecture

As Greta has repeatedly learned to her dismay, we can always find architecture to look at, even out in the wilderness.  This was true at the Grand Canyon, where Mary Coulter’s superb buildings for the Santa Fe Railroad took up most of my attention, or at the sublime Old Faithful Inn, which resembles Piranesi in logs.  Linda and I even got married at Timberline Lodge, as we considered it the best building in Oregon.  So it came as no surprise that we found many buildings to appreciate at Glacier, while Greta often sat in the car (unless there was a meal  involved.)

As at the Grand Canyon, all the lodges and hotels at Glacier were built by the railroad, used to house the tourists who travelled there by rail.  They are all quite similar in style, with a more definite mimicking of a regional style – Swiss chalet alpine – than most other National Park lodges.East Glacier

Many Glacier

The exteriors are rather straightforward – large wooden boxes housing many guest rooms – and they don’t reveal anything of the large atrium spaces within.  Most of the interest from the exterior comes from their setting – such as here at Many Glacier – where the large lodges act as tiny scale buildings, almost follies, in the landscape.Many Glacier

Many Glacier

As demand increased, new wings of rooms were added, in the same boxy, solid style.  No modern architecture allowed.

The East Glacier Hotel (which is technically outside the park), was where most guests were housed after getting off the train.  This still holds true, and we heard bellhops discussing how 28 parties were expected momentarily when the train pulled in.  The main hall is spectacular, and must have made it clear to the new arrivals that they were now Out West.

All of the effort was put into the central atrium lobbies for the buildings, which are variants on log peristyle halls, in the classic Ionic style with log volutes. East Glacier

East Glacier

While the halls were internally focussed, there are always side aislesLake McDonald

or sunrooms which are oriented out towards the views.Many Glacier

I had visited the Many Glacier Hotel 22 years ago, when it had been in a depressing state of neglect, worn out, and with insensitive interventions.  So it was gratifying to see that it had recently been completely renovated. 

The most spectacular detail is this fireplace, which is hung from the roof structure, and open all around. 

There is a mechanism which allows the telescoping flue to be lowered.  My guess is that since it is notoriously difficult to control the draft even with even two-sided fireplaces, this adjustment makes it possible to fine-tune the airflow, or even act as a snuffer when the wind kicks up. 

The Lake McDonald Lodge is the smallest and most intimate of them all.  The atrium is only two stories, and feels on the scale of a large living room. 

Linda observed how attention had been paid to the lighting in all of them, with eclectic, Japanese-influenced lanterns that were typical for the time. 

Even with the large, south-facing clerestory window above the fireplace, this atrium was dark compared to the others;  we wondered whether the large skylights at many Glacier and East Glacier had been added during renovation, and whether this degree of darkness was more in line with the original design.

The dining rooms were elegant, serving variants on the same high-end menu.  (Since our modus operandi when trailer camping involves going out for good meals, then living off the leftovers for another day, we ate dinner at a couple of them).  The Lake McDonald Lodge has a view of the Lake.

At Many Glacier, the renovated dining room is tall and beautiful, with light streaming in from west-facing clerestories.  However, this direct light must have been too much for the diners, and a pergola-like shading device runs along the western side of the room.  We couldn’t tell if this was original or not – the timbers were huge, but it seems like an unusual solution for 100 years ago. 

The roof trusses are exquisite, with the tension members articulated as thin steel rods, while the compression members are logs. 

This question about the pergola highlights one problem we had – the lack of available information on the architecture.  Even when we found a book that was purportedly about the lodges, it was really a social history, and had very little documentation of the buildings themselves.

The lodges were not the only original buildings at Glacier.  The Granite Park and Sperry Chalets were built of stone and wood at high elevations, providing comfortable lodging for hikers.  Sadly, they have both been burned in recent forest fires, and the Park Service is considering what to  do with them.

The adherence to a historicist, rustic style in National Parks came to an end in the 1960s, and modern architecture was introduced.  This may not be as visible at other parks, as they have often been built-out in the earlier style, but at Glacier there are a few fine examples.  The Logan Pass visitors’ center has substantial framing members that provide much of the expression,

and big rooves to shed the snow,

while extensive glazing allows for views out to the landscape. 

The St. Mary visitors’ center is even newer, with asymmetrical shapes, driven by roof forms which deal with the wind and sun. 

So while the natural environment at Glacier was sometimes overwhelming, the lodge architecture provided a way to touch base with civilization and its emanations.  Especially important to three people trying to live together in 85 square feet.

Transitory Barricades article

DSCF1819I’ve been taking photographs of temporary barricades all during this trip, continuing my fascination with them from the past 30 years.  I haven’t put any of these photos up on this blog, as many of them have already made it onto my photo blog at transitory

And an article I wrote about this project has recently been published at Place Journal, a well-known landscape, architecture and urbanism publication that is now solely online.  So if you’d like to see a somewhat different view of all the places we’ve visited, this is the place to start.

The East Bay

On most trips to northern California we spend our urban-wandering time in San Francisco itself, which always offers a combination of seeing cool new things and visiting old favorite neighborhoods and places. But in the last weeks of our trip, we realized that we had no real ambition to tackle the big city in our usual manner. As Jonathan Franzen had just written in an article in the New Yorker, about a trip to Antarctica: “As in the Magic Mountain, the early days of the expedition were long and memorable, the later ones more of an accelerating blur.”

Just as we did in a few other places on this trip (such as New York), we shortchanged familiar places to which we could return fairly easily, and focussed on less accessible places to which we’d probably not return for a while. So we spent a few days in the city for specific reasons – seeing friends and a couple of museums, but no wandering up Russian Hill or cable car rides. But as we planned our last days before returning to Eugene, we decided we should stockpile a few more urban experiences. Incredibly, I realized that I probably hadn’t been to Oakland or Berkeley in 20 years, and so we headed off to the East Bay with Dan as our guide one Sunday morning.

Oakland was a shock. I remember heading to meetings at the DOE offices in downtown Oakland in the mid-80s, and all of us wondering why they had been stuck in the backwater of Oakland. In the mid-90s I spent time looking at housing and neighborhoods there, but the downtown still seemed deserted and bereft. Now, it is bustling, even on a weekend. Like many other good cities which had a late 20th century period of disinvestment and decline, there wasn’t much economic impetus to destroy the older buildings (once the mania of urban renewal had passed), and so the great old stock remains, ready for renovation and reuse in the urban revival of the 21st century.dscf1578


We saw evidence that at least part of this renaissance came from people and hipsters getting pushed out of San Francisco by the expense:dscf1568

I recognize my complete ignorance of the forces at play here – in a city where issues of gentrification and displacement are especially acute – and I apologize to my many friends in the area who could say more insightful things about what is going on. (One of the joys of blogging about a place like Biloxi is that no one else I know has ever been there, and so no one argues with me.) But just from the perspective of the built fabric, it was a pleasure to see a fine old city on the rebound, and a city which feels more like a normal mid-sized American city, in contrast to the sometimes precious and overly-touristed parts of San Francisco.

We moved on to Berkeley, which doesn’t seem to have physically changed much at all. I had forgotten that it too is a real city, not just a big college town, with a thriving commercial center as well as beautiful residential areas,dscf1586

and some strange remnants of bygone eras.dscf1611


Greta’s favorite part of the city (besides the beignets at Angeline’s) was the Daiso store, a Japanese discount store (which Dan couldn’t believe we were wasting time on) where she acquired a pile of good notebooks (at $1.50 per), and lots of excellent and cheap plastic trinkets. We have since learned that these stores also exist in Seattle, so we’re planning our next trip there.

On the edge of the campus is the new home of BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, a renovation/addition to the 1930s printing plant, by Diller Scofidio Renfro. It is tres hip, but after seeing their art building at Stamford, we were fatigued with swoopy, gestural, probably dysfunctional buildings, so we skipped it.dscf1591

We wandered around the campus for a while, which I found less engaging than I had in the past. Probably because it was overcast and a Sunday, it all seemed rather drab and dead. In some ways the buildings reminded us of UT Austin – there was less uniformity in building style, but not much change in scale or materials – at some point they must have mandated that all new buildings should be of light masonry or concrete.dscf1595

The campus planning was too much to comprehend in a short visit – the original plans, by Olmsted and John Galen Howard, were later compromised by the typical slew of terrible 60s buildings, but recent campus planning has been sensitively done. But I was dragging a tired kid around, and I sensed she was nearing her limit on architecture for the year.  dscf1597

We had a true Berkeley moment in the student union, where a Filipino student association event was going on. The bathrooms around the corner had these temporary signs posted, which confused the hell out of everyone who read them. People hesitated, then picked a door, in a post-heteronormative version of The Lady or the Tiger. Men who walked into one room mainly full of women immediately backed out and went into the next room. Women who walked into a room to find men standing at urinals exited quickly, and many of them were so nonplussed that they gave up on going to the bathroom altogether.dscf1600

We went by Maybeck’s great Christian Science Church, but didn’t time it right to go inside.114-east-bay-002dscf1621


However, we made it into Julia Morgan’s Berkeley Women’s City Club, a not very big building which still manages to be grand.dscf1653


We took advantage of having Dan as our guide, and drove up the winding streets into the hills, seeing both intimate lanes and panoramic views.114-east-bay-004dscf1664

We wound past the fabulous Claremont Hotel,114-east-bay-005dscf1678

and drove through the area rebuilt after the 1991 firestorm, which destroyed almost 3000 houses and killed 25 people. It has not been rebuilt with any great architectural style, and beyond the human suffering, it’s sad that everything is now so uniform.dscf1687

On a different day we had driven with Dan to one of his favorite places, the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton, built in the 1880s east of San Jose. There are a few giant telescopes here from different eras,113-san-jose003dscf1390

and we were able to see the original refracting telescope, the largest in the world when it was erected.113-san-jose002dscf1381

The drive itself was spectacular, with a narrow road crossing many ridges and ascending on switchbacks.113-san-jose004dscf1410

This knocking around in East Bay focussed us on the character of the region, rather than just on San Francisco. The interface between suburbia and open space in the Bay Area has always seemed extraordinary to me. You can be in a quite dense city or suburb, and within minutes you’re out in the landscape; this applies equally on the Peninsula, East Bay, and Marin County. I remember looking down on the region flying out one night – a huge, dark empty space in the middle (the Bay), surrounded on all sides by brightly lit cities, which abruptly come to end, surrounded by another dark zone (the hills and mountains).img_6321

The physical geography is interesting enough, but when you add in that there are four really different, big cities on the Bay, plus many diverse smaller ones, you realize that there isn’t another metropolitan area remotely like it anywhere else in the country; there’s a density of different and interesting places here that is unmatched.

Most American cities and regions feel finite to me – with a little time, you can pretty much get to see all there is. While there are many metro regions which are so big that you probably will never literally get to see all of them, you just don’t want to – they’re big, but there’s not much variety (Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, etc.) Then there are the smaller, interesting places that are comprehensible (Portland, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, etc.). New York always felt infinite to me – I knew that no matter how long I lived there, I could never truly say that I knew all of it. The Bay Area is another one of those. The diversity of the landscape, the cities, the people, the food – it’s complex and beautiful, and it’s obvious why everyone wants to live here, despite its obvious shortcomings of insane traffic and high cost. Samuel Johnson’s quote about London applies to the Bay Area too.

Silicon Valley

A few months ago I paraphrased Tolstoy, saying that all sprawl is alike, but every good city is good in its own way. I now think that idea needs qualification: there are two types of sprawl – new and old. New sprawl is seen in places like Phoenix and Houston, where very little existed before WWII. There were small to medium core cities, and perhaps some very small outlying towns, but the postwar boom led to a pattern of undifferentiated sprawl that is the overall fabric of the place. Old sprawl occurs where there were real cities before WWII, and often reasonably-sized towns or cities in the region. Suburban development filled in the spaces between these centers, but the historic centers and districts still retain their character, and are still a considerable percentage of the region’s area. A standard distinction that is often made about the underlying organization of an area is whether there was settlement before survey (e.g., most pre-modern places), or survey before settlement (egg., most of the US). Perhaps another useful distinction, applicable to 20th century growth, is city before sprawl, or sprawl before city.

There may not be much of a functional difference between new and old sprawl now – both are heavily car-dependent and oriented, the overall densities may not be that different – but I think they can offer very different experiences for the residents.

I grew up in old sprawl, 10 miles from New York City, so that east coast pattern of city before sprawl always felt normal to me. Once again, JB Jackson was essential to understanding this landscape, as he had clearly delineated the various types of car-oriented development that occurred in the different periods of the 20th century. I remember then visiting the east side of the Seattle area in the early 80s and being shocked – it was the first place I’d seen where essentially every road and building was younger than me. There wasn’t a recognizable pattern in place from the era of pre-automobile development – the patterns of postwar sprawl were the underlying system.

The Bay Area and Silicon Valley combine both types of sprawl. Around the Bay, and down the peninsula, there is old sprawl – with both big, older, gridded cities (Oakland, Berkeley, etc.) and smaller suburban cities (Palo Alto, Menlo Park, etc.). The new sprawl spreads south from San Jose into the Santa Clara valley.

We were staying with Dan in Palo Alto, and as we were a little burned out from navigating the whole country for the prior eight months, and as Dan’s knowledge of the Bay Area is encyclopedic and his interests highly refined, we were only too happy to let him do all the destination-selection, navigation, and driving for us. So our impressions of the area are more of the passive-passenger variety, rather than the how-is-this-place-organized-wayfinding variety. Mainly, we focussed on good restaurant destinations, and saw the region on our way to them.

Palo Alto has a few major commercial centers, which are excellent. Predominantly low-rise, but not uniformly so, with many buildings remaining from the 1920s. The streets are incredibly active, especially at night, when the sidewalks are filled with young people and families heading to restaurants and street cafes. It is a very mature place, where the environment has been refined over decades.DSCF1102


Those cities which were not as densely built-up in the postwar era have been consciously developing their downtowns in the era of the tech booms. Mountain View very consciously built a civic center, with a city hall, performing arts center etc., designed by William Turnbull (formerly the T in MLTW). Some of it is a little strange in its flatness, the color is disconcerting, and it is an illustration of why having one large complex designed by one architect, rather than a series of differentiated buildings, is not a very good idea, but a couple of decades later it is clear that it has had a positive effect on the area, and private sector development has transformed the downtown.DSCF1470


Cities that were even less dense, such as Sunnyvale, now have rapidly developing centers. This area has a major shopping mall, but it is not the suburban type surrounded by acres of parking. With land values and rents as high as they are in the area, the mall is surrounded by parking garages and new mixed-use buildings, with yuppie condos for tech industry workers above hip ethnic restaurants.DSCF0970

San Jose itself has been redeveloping in the past decades, with a combination of commercial projects and institutions. The city hall complex (by Richard Meier) is about ten years old, a classic duck, with the separate realms of bureaucracy, elected officials, and gathering space represented in separate buildings. There is a huge civic plaza, which was oppressively unshaded and hot, even in May.113. San Jose006DSCF1454

The detailing, especially of the domed meeting space, is spectacular, with Meier’s classic spatial and compositional moves overlaid with shading devices that look like Renzo Piano in a futurist-Steanmpunk phase.DSCF1423

113. San Jose005DSCF1446

The Shiny Object quality of the San Jose City Hall underlines one other way that the sprawl of Silicon Valley differs from most other sprawl in the country: it is very wealthy sprawl. Compared to places like Phoenix or Texas, the sprawl is largely “nice”, upper-middle class-sprawl. There is serious landscaping, and the obvious influence of design standards and planning commissions. This relates back to the earliest critiques of postwar suburban growth, which often focussed on just how tacky and ugly the new development was, and not on the fundamental issues of settlement pattern, car-orientation and environmental impact. The ugliness issue had been mitigated in places like the Peninsula with enough money to accomplish that, but it didn’t change the fundamental, structural issues; those are now being addressed through this newer, more urban development.

Despite this widespread evidence of new urban development, there is a paradox at the heart of the growth in Silicon Valley. The money comes from the high tech industry, with growing, high-income employment, and lots of capital floating around. This infusion of money drives up land prices, leading to the kind of high-density, urban redevelopment seen above, where cars are not completely dominant, and the sprawl-before-city pattern is now producing cities. This is the market (and zoning) response to these economic forces. But the big tech companies are so powerful and rich that they can just ignore these market forces. You don’t see them building in mixed-use neighborhoods, or trying to establish pedestrian-friendly environments – they still procure vast, expensive sites, and build campus-type buildings, surrounded by parking.

Here is the old Google campus, renovated buildings from Silicon Graphics:IMG_2258

And Yahoo (on a city street, not a giant campus, but certainly not in a very walkable place).DSCF0971

A drive-by of the new Apple headquarters (by Foster) under construction, a self-contained and isolated Hakka village, which looks like it might lift off to become a space station.DSCF0975

And the new Facebook building (by Gehry), again, self-contained and not near a walkable center.DSCF1559

And rounding out this model for development, we did glimpse our first Google car:DSCF1469

Smaller tech firms and start-ups now often locate in denser cities and mixed-use areas, echoing the historic pattern of central business districts where there is access to a wide range of workers, skills and services. Perhaps these large campuses are an assertion of pre-eminence by these corporations – they are so powerful that they don’t need access to these markets, everyone must come to them. Interestingly, Amazon is the one corporate giant bucking this trend, with their huge new complex opening in South Lake Union in Seattle, based partially on their employees’ preference for urban life, versus being stuck in the wilds of exurbia beyond Redmond.

While the experience of being in a car all the time moving around the Peninsula and Silicon Valley wasn’t comparable to being in a great city like San Francisco or Oakland, the good part was that when we got out of the car, we were in dense, urbane places. The southern part of the Bay Area is showing signs of being an evolving Edge City, a model arising in several parts of the country, with an overall pattern of car-based development, punctuated by a network of dense, walkable, and hopefully increasingly interconnected, urban centers.  Old sprawl continues to mature, becoming an increasingly good place to live, and perhaps providing a model for new sprawl to follow.


DSCF1331As San Francisco had already used its Renzo Piano coupon on the California Academy of Sciences, and the Herzog & de Meuron retainer on the deYoung, they turned to Snøhetta for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), perhaps another indication of which firms will be seen as filling in the next generation of high-profile firms as the older generation of starchitects disappears. Snøhetta is an international firm based in Norway, best known for their Oslo Opera House. Tine Hegli, one of their lead architects in Oslo, was the visiting Belluschi Professor at the UO in 2015, where she taught a studio designing net zero houses. She also gave a lecture on their recent work, so I had some idea what the SFMOMA project was about. Perhaps the greatest change is that while the next generation is still obviously concerned with formal and spatial ideas, attitudes about environmental design and sustainability are fundamental to their work – in the DNA of the firm from the beginning – and dictate basic design moves, rather than being a secondary concerns.

Luckily, our timing on this trip was such that we arrived in the Bay Area the week it opened, and we spent a long afternoon exploring it, which turned out to be nowhere near enough time. I have read that SFMOMA is now the largest museum in the country (which in this age of Trumpian hyperbole I will double-check), but it is undoubtedly gigantic. However, given the clarity of the design, it doesn’t feel overwhelming, the way the Met or MOMA often do. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the pieces, and hence the galleries: as a modern art museum, there are many very big pieces, hung with lots of space around them in very big galleries. So although the square footage of the museum may be huge, the number of pieces may not be that large, and that may cut down on the cognitive overload. The other factor which may make it seem smaller is that it is very vertical museum, with seven stories of public space. The Met is basically two stories with some mezzanines, so it sprawls into Central Park, and getting to distant wings is a hike. SFMOMA has a very compact vertical circulation core, so you never have to traverse whole districts full of 18th century decorative arts to get to where you want to be.

The circumstances driving the new addition were remarkably similar to those which drove the addition to the Seattle Art Museum, designed by Allied Works. Previously, both Seattle and San Francisco were cities not noted for the size of their museums or the quality of their collections – I was shocked in 1978 to see how dinky and unimpressive the museums in San Francisco were – I had thought it was a big, culturally-important city. After travelling around the country more in the 1980s, I realized that the quality of a city’s museums was pretty much determined by how early the fortunes of the city had reached a threshold – the great museums were in cities that had acquired serious concentrations of wealth early enough in the 19th century to still buy great European works. I regarded the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City as the most western great museum (disregarding the anomalies of Los Angeles). As economic power shifted to the West Coast, it seemed likely that the cultural capital and philanthropical urges of the wealthy would someday reach that threshold where they would endow new or expanded museums. This then happened in two stages. Both Seattle and San Francisco built new museums in the early 90s, designed by architects who were at the top of their reputations in the 1980s – Venturi Scott Brown, and Mario Botta. Both firms designed museums that were formally a bit precious, and clearly demonstrated their roots in historical architecture and Postmodernism, while reflecting their designers’ particular takes on that tradition. They were also both pretty small; I even taught a design studio looking at an expansion of the SAM the year it opened, as a second phase had certainly been anticipated.

What changed before the next round of expansion was that the wealth and aspirations of the elites in these two cities grew far beyond anyone’s expectations, with the concentration of the computer software industry in these two locations. (I remember driving across the 520 bridge when Greta was small, pointing out a cluster of trees on the shore of Lake Washington, and saying to her, Do you know how lives there? The Richest Man in the World!) West Coasters grew their collections of art, but focussed more upon modern and contemporary works – probably a combination of most of the greatest works from earlier eras already being in museums (or still not affordable with even large fortunes), and the character of the new money – which was much more attuned to the trajectory of the modern world, and not caring to validate their status through the acquisition of Old World trophies.

So as the inadequacies of both museums were addressed, the sizes of he planned additions were able to expand exponentially. The Seattle Art Museum was able to secure the first few floors of most of the block on which it was located (with a commercial tower rising above), rather than just the 60-foot wide slot next door. SFMOMA was a bit more hemmed in – the vacant lot to its southeast had been filled with a new tower – so the expansion had to be deeper into the block. This led to some interesting opportunities for engaging with the neighborhood fabric, but it also dictated the footprint of the expansion – a tall slab perpendicular to the axis of the original museum.

While the cultural circumstances of SFMOMA resemble those of SAM, the site conditions resemble those of the Guggenheim. Both original museums were small, iconic, and with a central cylindrical piece. In both cases, the addition had to be a wall rising behind the original museum; with the Guggenheim, this was famously likened to the tank behind the toilet bowl. At SFMOMA, the front is on a major axis from Yerba Buena Gardens across the street by the convention center, originally forming a composition with the terra cotta (now Pacific Bell) tower behind. The contrast between the red brick and the white towerSFMOMA17

is maintained by the wall of the new addition. This façade is mostly flat panels, with a slice at the top left corner which gives a hint of the swoopy rear façade.DSCF1137

There was a great little exhibition of 50 conceptual models which were part of the design process. I photographed all of them, as they show how many different ways a a fairly set parti can be conceived. What I find interesting here, in contrast with the DSR building at Stanford is that the parti models move the design process along, but they don’t have t be explicitly present in the final building.

DSCF1195  DSCF1200 DSCF1206  DSCF1214 DSCF1224  DSCF1229DSCF1232  DSCF1233DSCF1239  DSCF1244 DSCF1246  DSCF1249

The biggest change is in the entry hall / atrium. Botta’s compact design had this space at the center, with a massive granite staircase rising into the light from the oculus. It was the most Bottavian feature of the building, taking the strict geometries and symmetries of his house designs to a grand scale. It provided an imageable center to the scheme, to which you always returned after circulating around the galleries, and it encouraged people to take the stairs instead of the elevators.SFMOMA002

That stair has now been removed, replaced by an asymmetrical wooden stair which leads you deeper into the building, rather than spiralling you around this point. I have read an interview where they allude to (but never specify) many reasons why the stair had to be removed. I’m sure there was not really a technical reason why it had to be removed, but it seems clear that its retention would have conceptually and experientially divided the museum into two distinct parts, the tiny original and the big addition, with an awkward circulation zone between. The center of gravity of the building has shifted much further back into the block, and this new cascading stair is used to move you back and up into what is now the heart of the museum.DSCF1142

I also like it formally. While we old architects may still appreciate the formality of 1980s Postmodernism, this stair always felt a little bombastic and overwhelming to me. It filled the space, although the tension between the cylindrical space and the square stair was not really resolved. You felt quite compressed being on the stair, with the next run right above you, and the pressure of the crowds around you keeping you from stopping or enjoying the space. It was a powerful move for a tight footprint, but I like the oculus now more as a moment on a processional, rather than the culmination. And from a practical perspective, I bet that the old stair would have been completely inadequate to handle the large crowds coming to the new museum. If you’re going to build the biggest museum in the country, you need a grand stair like the Met’s. This new stair is the first visible move of the addition, putting a finger out into the original space, and drawing you in to the more free-form geometries of the 21st century.112. San Francisco003DSCF1253

Once you get above the ground level, the atrium now becomes a light-filled space, opening to a new café, and still at the center of the original galleries. The Snøhetta remodel has been incredibly respectful of the original building – the spatial relationships have been preserved, and there is still an integrity to the piece – you can still understand Botta’s building as a whole, not just as some remaining rooms stuck off in a strange corner. The contrast here is with MOMA in New York. I’m old enough to remember when that was just the original Edward Durrell Stone building and the Philip Johnson remodel/addition. Both of the major remodels since (and certainly the one underway now, which has expanded MOMA’s zone of devastation down the street to the Folk Art Museum), have almost obliterated any sign of what came before. I remember coming upon a little stair from the Stone building that remained after the Pelli remodel, but that must be gone now too. MOMA seems to need to rebrand itself with every remodel; it’s nice to see SFMOMA engaging with its past.DSCF1256

The little tight courtyard still exists on the front façade at the fourth level,DSCF1304

as well as the stairs shifting to the perimeter of the oculus, leading to the famous and (seemingly) perilous bridge across the top. This was the iconic, memorable part of the circulation system for most people, and its preservation shows the care that has been taken with the remodel.DSCF1295

Greta spotted two inconspicuous windows in a wall, and came across this – a view inside thewall, showing where the original rear façade of the museum now faces the partition wall of a new gallery. This is not a building which has much tectonic expression, and this little view perfectly illustrates something Bob Stern once said. We were all enamored of the clarity of the exposed systems in Kahn buildings, and Bob asked, do you have any idea how much round stainless steel ductwork costs? His proposal was that the rational way to make a building was to design the spaces you want, enclose them with steel studs and gypsum board, and then leave lots of poche space where the engineers can insert anything they want. So in a building where that is basically the model, it is instructive for Snøhetta to give us a glimpse behind the curtain.DSCF1292

At the top of the kinked stair, you arrive at the big lobby, with ticketing, a main stair up through to the next floor, and lots of room for crowd circulation. To the southeast you can see toward another entry off Howard St.,DSCF1150

which when you approach it becomes an amphitheater filled with a complexly-spiralling Richard Serra piece. It’s a wonderful space, outside the ticketed area, and you can just wander in and sit here any time.DSCF1153


It also begins to establish the dynamic of the museum interacting with the city. Whereas the Botta museum is a centralized, internally focussed building, the new addition brings San Francisco into the mix, in a way similar to other new museums we’ve seen, such as the new Whitney in New York, the Perez in Miami, or the Perot in Dallas. It’s a movement I appreciate – while there are good reasons to make galleries completely-controlled boxes that focus on the artwork, using the non-gallery spaces of a museum to engage with the city outside provides a change in scale, a way to refocus your eyes and attention, and an opportunity to reorient yourself in space and time. Museums are not shopping malls or casinos, there is no need to confuse and trick the patrons into staying. In these new museums I’ve found the opposite to be true – taking a break from the artwork after a couple of hours refreshes you, and allows you to dive back in.

Taking the big stair to the third level, the museum expands out even more. There is a sculpture terrace with a living wall across the rear of the building,DSCF1178

and among other small galleries, a large space devoted to Calders, with sculpture terraces on two sides. It’s a fantastic sequence of spaces, and the collection is extraordinary, with many atypical early pieces. Later in the afternoon, when I was spending too much time looking at architecture, Greta just came back and sat here.DSCF1188

At any point one could just decide to take an elevator, but I prefer to walk everywhere. Going from the third to the fourth floor is the one point where the intuitive circulation/spatial system of the addition gets muddy. In from the street and up the two distinct stairs to the third level feels like a natural progression, with glimpses of spaces and light ahead moving you forward. And the system that links the fourth to seventh level is beautiful. But the third/fourth transition is this hard-to-find stair tucked between walls. It may be due to the need to separate the vertical space of the building into two distinct three-story atriums (1-3 and 4-6) for fire code reasons, but I wish there had been a way to accomplish this that didn’t leave you leave you at a wayfinding dead end. The transition from the original to the addition is so seamless that it makes the bifurcation of the addition feel very abrupt.DSCF1258

But once you get past that, you get to the stair / corridor / double-height system that runs along the rear façade. It reminded me of the stairs at the Alte Pinakotek in Munich, where the central axis take you to a large cross-axis hall at the back, with symmetrically diverging stairs. This linear system is certainly not symmetrical, nor could I probably draw its spatial permutations accurately, but it feels completely intuitive and engaging. There are tall stairs which draw you up to the light.112. San Francisco006DSCF1326

There are layers with the large corridors that provide glimpses of other zones.DSCF1323

There are views out to the cityDSCF1265

and places to sit and rest (or pose for photos).DSCF1361

This whole system is tucked up against the free-form façade, which provides gaps and openings for light and movement.

The galleries themselves are ordered yet flexible. They are two rooms deep off the rear corridor, so you have a choice of an irregular enfilade system or the corridor for circulation. While the walls are on a grid, the way the galleries open to each other is highly varied,112. San Francisco004DSCF1271

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such as here where four galleries open to each other at a corner.DSCF1270

The lighting is a combination of coffered indirect lighting in the galleries, with windows poking through the rear façade into the corridors.DSCF1284


On the seventh floor there is a small balcony where you step outside into a fold in the thick space of the exterior wall. This is where the white wall loses the restraint imposed by backing up Botta’s building, and becomes a blob, floating in the city.DSCF1340

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I’ve read that this form is a reference to the rolling topography of San Francisco, or even a fog bank rolling in between the hills. It is white and reflective, so I can imagine that the view of it glowing on a foggy day must be extraordinary. 112. San Francisco002DSCF1170

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We were there shortly after the opening reception, and were able to spot the remains of the confetti, collecting in drifts on the rooves.DSCF1275

At the fifth level there is a glass bridge out the blob, which leads across to a restaurant pavilion and much larger sculpture terrace.DSCF1321p

This is the one place where you can sense the whole of the addition, which looks like an iceberg that descended into the city. (These Norwegian architects just can’t stop themselves.)DSCF1312

The restaurant is a straightforward glass and steel box, the only problem being you have to walk through the end of the restaurant to get to the terrace.DSCF1318

On the terrace the city forms a backdrop for the art. It’s a secluded little cavern in the middle of the block, and you feel enclosed by the buildings all around you.DSCF1310

We did find some strange moments. A highly ambiguous sign, which I posted on Facebook and immediately received about 25 different likely interpretations. Maybe this is a standard sign in Norway,referring to some common social arrangement which has not yet made it to our shores?DSCF1296

More evidence that European architects and American building code officials do not play well together. Here, where the curving façade slopes in above the top of the stairs to the seventh floor, someone noticed (probably very late in the game) that if you stood right up against the handrail, you could bump your head. So the solution is a lower guardrail which keeps you in the zone where there is legal headroom, perhaps the clumsiest solution to an ADA problem I’ve seen since the Seattle Public Library. If the EU would pass a Europeans with Disabilities Act, we wouldn’t have these problems.DSCF1335

And walking down from the seventh floor, where the most recent conceptual contemporary art is displayed, we came across this assemblage. The relationship between the basalt column and the push-broom, where the similarity in coloration contrasts with the dichotomies of vertical/horizontal and hard/soft, along with the ambiguous negative space between the angles of the handle and the wall, caught our attention, as it provided a subtle critique of the compositional laxity of the conceptual work on the seventh floor. We photographed while the people behind us looked for the label. And this was a few weeks before the high school student from San Jose put his eyeglasses down on the seventh floor and watched visitors photograph the installation.DSCF1352

This has turned into a long post, as it is a very big museum, with many different parts and experiences, some central, some peripheral. I think it is remarkably successful overall – a huge museum which doesn’t intimidate you, an addition which shows great respect for the original building and draws it into a coherent whole, a strong parti which facilitates rather than destroys good spaces, a connection to the surrounding city, a circulation system which is a pleasure to occupy, and a series of galleries which show the collection well. The only serious problem for the visitor is that it would take about a week to do justice to all that is exhibited.

Stanford art buildings

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Perhaps the buildings in the center of the Stanford campus are so uniformly mediocre partly because they’re largely science and engineering buildings, built for two groups on campus for whom objective, quantifiable performance measurements are critical; the fuzzier objective of architectural quality probably doesn’t make the top ten list of their criteria. So we moved to the smaller arts-oriented district to see what might be there.

The university museum has recently been remodelled, expanded and renamed after the new primary donors, but it has maintained its older, neoclassical core. The entry hall is the most notable spatial feature, a compact, crisp Renaissance revival court, which resembles the atrium at the Fogg before that was remodelled by Piano. It is a small jewel, but due to its location, it really is just an entry hall, and doesn’t do anything to organize the larger museum, which sprawls away from it.111. Stanford006DSCF1131

Beyond the formal entry, there are various wings and rambling later additions, including some of those wonderfully didactic wall decorations.DSCF0978

and a large court full of Rodins, much more than I can take in one visit. Why is it that so many places don’t have a Rodin or two, but seem to be trying to complete the set? Is it because they are multiples, and so a collector focuses on them, and then donates the whole collection to a museum? I feel the opposite way here than I did in Marfa, where seeing a lot of Judds together fostered an understanding of the body of work. Too many Rodins just makes me numb, there’s too much drama in one place; couldn’t he have done a few simple, geometric things?IMG_3244

But the general spaces of the museum are fine, and the collection is very good. We didn’t have a lot of time here, but we saw a fantastic show on Diebenkorn’s notebooks (which are in Stanford’s collection), alongside a great small display of artists who influenced him, such as Hopper and The Eight.DSCF1132

Next door is the new McMurtry Building, by Diller Scofidio Renfro, which comprises spaces for the art and art history departments. From the street, it is fairly innocuous, with a regular, repetitive façade, even using wall panels in the same mustard color which permeates the rest of the campus.DSCF1066

But as you move into or around the building, the regularity breaks down, and the building volumes become differentiated, expressing some distinctions within the program.DSCF0980

These large sloping elements appear on either side, and you can enter beneath them into a central courtyard.DSCF0985

The courtyard is incredibly active, with sloping, crashing, angled pieces, which either contain parts of the program, or have program elements wedged in between them. It is a visually exciting place, and they seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with the Stanford building standards which make the campus so dull – an exterior aspect which is straightforward and respectful, while making an interior court which is a metaphor for the (relative) craziness of the artists at Stanford.DSCF1052

Since so much space is eaten up by the court and the areas beneath the slopes, there is not that much useful space on the ground level. The most visible functions are a large shop/maker space, which opens to the court so you can see Art in Action, and a gallery space for student work. All of this is an obvious homage to Corbu’s Carpenter Center at Harvard, where the exterior ramp through the center of the building is supposed to make visible the work taking place within. There were folding tables scattered around the courtyard while we were there, left over from some event, and it looks like this courtyard would work well for that – with big interior spaces opening to the court, and crowds of people being able to move freely among them – much better than at the Carpenter Center, where the entries are obscure little doors scattered around, and there is no large public space (which would have been an alien idea for an academic building way back then).DSCF1061

In this building the ramps aren’t through the building, but the building itself becomes a couple of ramps. A mustard volume and a brown volume spiral around each other in a double helix geometry (probably a metaphor for something like the duality inherent in the foundations for art or something else profound which I couldn’t discern). Each of these volumes contains an exterior stair which takes you past the second level library, and up to the third level, where the classrooms and studios in the volumes surround a central terrace and garden.DSCF1060

The terrace was quite nice, with plenty of casual places to sit and views across the campus, though pretty hot and bright in May (this may get better if the plants grow and provide some shade).  DSCF1017

The strength of the building is the clarity of this parti / metaphor. The duality of inside and outside addresses the campus planning issues pretty brilliantly, and the intertwined double helix that determines the building shape is probably articulating differences in the programmatic elements. All of this is then expressed though material selection and detailing, very elegantly:DSCF1004

There is a precision to this expression, though there are places where it starts to look pretty fussy to me. You get yourself into a logic where there is a one-to-one correspondence between a concept and its expression (this material means this), and then points occur where all these conceptually differentiated pieces collide together. If you are going to stay true to your parti, you articulate each of these clearly, but it does all get to be a bit too much. It reminded me of the contrast between the detailing of the Kahn building and the Piano building at the Kimbell, where Piano’s obsessive expression and detailing of every tectonic element in the building (whether structure or enclosure) created an almost baroque building when compared to Kahn’s classical, geometric simplicity. But here there is not even any tectonic expression to give some order to this level of development – there are Big Formal Moves that embody the parti, and the technological systems and expression of the building are subservient to the fanatically pure expression of the Big Formal Moves.  It is clear that this articulation is only skin-deep; these formal differentiations have nothing to do with the underlying tectonics of the building.  DSCF1008

Kahn starts with space and light, and uses building systems to support this intention. Piano seems to start with the logic of the building systems, and manipulates them to shape space and light. Diller Scofidio Renfro start with a diagrammatic idea and uses the building technology to express the parti.

But here is the big problem with this approach – it leaves out space and light. I didn’t see one good room in this building. I saw some terrible rooms and spaces, and I saw some conventional rooms and spaces, but I never walked into a room and said, wow, this is a great space. The courtyard is obviously the big spatial move, but it matters mainly in a conceptual way – you can stand there and see all the elements of the parti diagram. It is an intellectually satisfying space (Ah, I get it!), but not a sensually satisfying one. It’s deep and dark, in shade all the time. The second floor library pokes in and constricts the space above you, and you get a glimpse of sky above, beyond a glimpse of the handrails on the third level.

But it gets much worse once you ascend the stairs. The stairways are dark and constricted – you expect the payoff of a big expansion into a great open space. And you get some of that if you go to the third floor terrace.   But if you’re only heading to the library, which occupies the whole second floor, it is a big disappointment. The entries to the library are nasty little alcoves to the sides of the stairs. The doors have 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper taped to the doors by the librarians, the classic sign telling you what you need to know about the library because the building itself is so ambiguous. They really look like the fire exits.DSCF1044

The library space itself doesn’t get better. Conceptually, it is the leftover space in the middle of the helix, and it feels that way. It just happened – no one designed anything. A big low space, with a lot of glare from the central court and the glazed edges of the building. An amorphous floor plan with random furniture scattered around, with a low, 2×4 grid hung ceiling. It really felt like one of those cheap municipal branch libraries that’s been retrofitted into a failed strip mall building.DSCF1038

The sloping spiral elements make their presence felt, to the detriment of the space. I may begin a new photo series, on all the terrible ways architects deal with the space beneath a ramp or stairway, when they want to leave it open for expressive reasons, but can’t because it is a hazard for head-bonking reasons under the ADA. I get tired of lay people who always talk about “wasted space”, which usually means any space which is not purely functional, but this is truly wasted space – not useful, not inhabitable, and not even beautiful. It is a space which happens accidentally, without thought.DSCF1035

The other strategy for these oddly-shaped spaces is to figure out what uses can be shoehorned into them, and that may be even worse. Art history libraries need study carrels for grad students, and here they have been given a location which represents their status in the university’s hierarchy. The entry is a narrow slot cut into the spiral volume, which feels like entering a tomb in a pyramid; I assume the grad students will get the metaphor here.DSCF1028

Then the room itself is stepped, with a couple of carrels at each level. When you sit at your desk, you look at the underside of sloped ceiling directly in front of you. It is truly one of the nastiest spaces in which I’ve ever seen students stashed.DSCF1027

Given the dysfunctional geometry, and the big hole in the middle, this building does not have a lot of usable floor area. So where are all the computer labs, printer rooms, classrooms, and galleries? They’re in the basement. The big stairs of the spiral continue down below grade, where they end with a whimper. (Perhaps it is a reference to the gigantic book stack spiral in Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library, which ends in a garbage can and some Xeroxed signs which tell you how to backtrack to the exit.)DSCF1056

The basement is disorienting, conventional and banal. All the special effects have been exhausted above grade, and the basement spaces were clearly left to the space planner, who had to figure out how to efficiently house all the necessary functions for which the big concept had no room.DSCF1059

Like all architects, initially I was intrigued with the Big Shiny Object quality of this building – the cool diagrammatic parti expressed so clearly in the building form. I always tell my students that they have to start with an idea for a building – they can’t just start solving the functional problems and then try to insert an idea later. But this is what happens when you start with an idea, stay true to that pure idea, but forget to turn it into a building. An idea is important, but it must at least partially derive from addressing fundamental, inherent issues in the project. I’ve been very disappointed in the few DSR buildings I’ve seen (including the contemporary art museum in Boston). They have this very clear diagrammatic quality, but they don’t have any concern for the quality of spaces.   They may not be as obviously terrible as Zaha Hadid buildings, as they are quieter and less jagged, with simpler spaces which seem modern and spare, until you realize that they are just not interesting or pleasant. I’m sure that if I saw the 1/64″ scale parti model of this building I would be very enthusiastic. I just don’t think they understood what had to be added when they blew it up to full size.

Fortunately there is another art building nearby which is the antithesis of the McMurtry Building in every way. The Anderson Museum houses the contemporary art collection of the Anderson family, and it was designed by Ennead, the successor firm to James Stewart Polshek. The parti is simple, almost boring: a two-story box, with a grand stair in the middle, between which and the perimeter there are galleries (and some support spaces on the first floor). The exterior is a simple, well-proportioned modernist composition, which is so unassuming that I forgot to photograph it, until we returned two years later. With the DSR building, I spent a lot of time wandering around the outside of it, getting different perspectives on the form, trying to figure out what it signified. The Ennead building clearly says that it is a typologically straightforward building, here’s the front door, come on in.

The collection is great, reflecting a family’s continuing relationship with many of the most important postwar American artists, particularly those based in California (Diebenkorn, Thiebaud, Irwin, Guston, etc.) There is a nicely-proportioned lobby, with temporary exhibit galleries behind it, and a small library/lounge, where you can view an introductory video. It is an actual room, where scale and furniture placement were considered, and not a vague space littered with objects.DSCF1114

You move to the center of the plan, where the grand stair leads to the second floor of galleries. It is simple, it is clear, and you can see a large painting on axis at the top and light coming in from the sides.DSCF1116

It is more like Kahn than like Piano (and certainly DSR), with simple abstract surfaces defining spaces and light flooding in. The roof is gentle curve which floats above partition walls, lifted up at the perimeter to let light in from the strip clerestory windows. There is a clear structural order and hierarchy among elements, with transverse bearing walls separating galleries, while longitudinal screen walls filter the light and allow space for hanging paintings.  There is no expression of the tectonics (no exposed structure, no highly articulated skin) but the building doesn’t pretend to be made up of these highly-differentiated parts.  They have designed an abstract space, then used technology to support this vision.  DSCF1124

This wall works perfectly for displaying a Robert Irwin piece – it is obvious that the architects worked closely with the curators to create the setting for such a difficult piece, one where the light and surroundings determine whether it can really be experienced at all.DSCF1117

There is much discussion about contemporary museums, whether they should function primarily as ends in themselves, attracting crowds through their special effects and histrionics, and incidentally showing some art (Bilbao as the apotheosis of this). Then there are the museums that are about exhibiting the art, where the building stays in the background. This museum is obviously of the latter type, but it also illustrates an important point: just because a building is modest and defers to the art displayed doesn’t mean that it can’t be an excellent building. If you removed all the artwork from this museum I would still enjoy being there – the light, the clarity and hierarchy of the space, the experience of moving through a succession of different rooms, the complexity of views from room to room – all of them lead to a rich experience, and a series of spaces where you’re just glad to be.DSCF1126

I think we’ve gotten to a point in our culture where the beauty of simplicity can’t be seen by many, and the hyperactive work of the last generation of starchitects has supposedly reflected the zeitgeist of our age, where we expect diverting new images and vistas to satisfy our fifteen-second attention spans. I’m hoping that there may be a reaction to this growing. This work by Ennead (and other buildings we’ve seen on this trip, such as those by Thomas Phifer) show a real affinity with and development of the underlying ideas modernism, and not just a reference to it as a style. We’ve had fifty years of Less is a Bore, and I hope the pendulum is swinging back.111. Stanford005DSCF1121


The Stanford campus


The Stanford campus is an outlier, seen by many to more resemble an Ivy League university than one on the West Coast. Part of it is institutional – Stanford is one of the few big, rich, elite, private, research universities that is not in the east, and part of it is the design – with a campus design by FL Olmsted, and the original quadrangle and buildings by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (the permutation in which their name existed then), the successor firm to HH Richardson’s practice.

Olmsted’s plan is truly wonderful – a clear hierarchical system of axes, malls, quads, and open spaces, which organizes the placement of buildings. It is a very big and spread-out campus, and the effect of the initial vision as the university grew from a relatively small core out to its current extent is evident. Although there are places where this system was not rigorously followed in the postwar boom era, and places where the preponderance of cars undermines the character of the campus, it is easy to imagine how much worse the campus would be if there had not been this underlying order, and instead the campus plan was typical of postwar, car-oriented, curving, formless planning (cf. Solomon’s analysis of Magic Marker bubbles).

Despite this brilliant planning, in prior visits I’ve always found the Stanford campus to be a pretty uninteresting place. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t impress me more (Olmsted! Shepley Bullfinch Romanesque!), and now I think I’ve arrived at an answer – almost all of the buildings on campus are deeply mediocre. The campus plan put them in the right places, and they form these fairly consistent building walls which enclose the open spaces, but the buildings themselves vary from banal to embarrassing. It’s hard to understand how they acquired such consistently bad buildings, given the obvious amounts of money and effort put into each.

There is an underlying similarity to the mediocrity, which certainly came from building development standards, which limited building height, and specified common vocabulary elements and strategies which had to be used, such as symmetry, hipped tile roofs, and punched windows in masonry walls (or solid walls which appeared to be masonry), that derived from the original core complex of the campus. But then each new building manages to be bad in its own, special way. There is the tame Brutalist building, which valiantly tries to hide its tile roof with a glazed, hipped porch at the perimeter.DSCF1068

There is the one by Bob Stern that plays the game of the smooth skin emerging from the rusticated base (which mimics the original buildings); but it makes too big a deal out of the arched entry, and tacks on an unnecessary apse on the end, looking a lot like a bank building along a highway in Tampa.DSCF1070

There is the modernist cliché pastiche building, by Pei’s office, where they have given up on making a coherent design, and have opted for a series of aedicular elements, breaking the façade into distinctly articulated pieces resembling a streetscape (but tied together by a feeble cornice element). Each piece is ill-proportioned, boring, flat and static, but then they attempt to punctuate the whole by inserting an overblown glass shard staircase, which appears to never be used.DSCF1075

There is the hyper structurally-expressive Brutalist example, with its massive concrete frames superintending a hierarchy of secondary elements and curtain wall sections bounded by bays, a massive heavy building floating above a dematerialized base, in imitation of a Japanese temple on steroids (if Japanese temples had parking garages beneath them).DSCF1080

At the end of the axis is a fairly restrained building, a rather flat evocation of a precast Renaissance palazzo, but with a badly-proportioned and under-detailed central archway that looks like a remodel carried out under the auspices of il Duce.DSCF1082

I thought this was the best of the lot – a strong, taut skin with a thoughtful rhythm of big punched openings, with the vestigial roof form articulated in steel and floating above the mass. (Note that this façade faces onto a depressed service road.)DSCF1081

But when you come around to the front side facing the pedestrian axis, they couldn’t restrain themselves, and just crapped it up with a clip-on arcade topped by a pergola, with the now-visible tiled roof looking silly floating above, vainly trying to disguise the daylighting monitors poking up behind.   It reminded me of a five-year-old who doesn’t know when to finish a drawing and keeps adding more and more until it is ruined.DSCF1087

It gets even worse with the addition of a squat octagonal pavilion (I bet they were thinking of the Florentine baptistery), tenuously connected to the rest of the building, with flat arches on the verandahs at the top, trying to make them look “special”.DSCF1076

The clip-on arcade is a just-the facts space, that looks like no one ever got around to designing it. It reminded me of similarly-scaled corridors in high-end shopping malls, and I expected a Nordstrom at the end of the axis.DSCF1085

Compare it to the arcade from the original complex, in which all the four surfaces have a simple yet contrasting character – the smooth floor, the rusticated wall, the dark beamed ceiling, and the arcade with its degree of texture varying from rusticated arches of smooth columns, all of this held together by the pattern of light and shadow.DSCF1092

The new arcade has none of this richness, and a closer look at the materials and detailing highlights their lame reference to the original. They did notice that the original had wooden beams holding up the ceiling, so they imitate this with a dark, linear metal snap-in ceiling. Rather than closely spaced joists which give a rhythm to the space, there is a very wide and shallow (probably fake) beam cover made of the same metal, occurring only at the columns, never establishing any kind of rhythm. The arcade wall itself is dreadful, with the arches jammed up against the ceiling, so that the top of the already-flat arch is just lopped off. It is obvious that the stonework is less than an inch thick, and the overly-elaborate joints articulation shows that it was considered only in elevation, as a two-dimensional surface pattern, rather than with any consideration of it as a three-dimensional, sculptural element, as seen in the original. I was taught that when you’re designing an arch (yes, they used to teach those things back in the 80s), always look at the proportions of the spandrels (the wall spaces between the arches), not just at the arches – advice which might have helped here.DSCF1086


When I looked at this central mall as a whole, it reminded me of Washington DC, another place where brilliant site planning is undermined by mediocre buildings designed to comply with an overly rigid and simplistic set of guidelines and standards. When the demands of the program probably require building out to the maximum volume allowed by the standards, you end up with buildings that are almost identical in height and footprint, and the architects must jump through hoops to differentiate their work within this restrictive shape and limited vocabulary. I think that in any large ensemble there should be a balance between the common order and the individuality of pieces, but at Stanford the parameters have killed any meaningful differentiation among the parts.

Away from the center of campus, things apparently can loosen up a bit, and there are some okay buildings. I really like the stark geometry of this building by Antoine Predock, which does treat the arches and punched openings as elemental slices through a seemingly thick wall. There is a strong, asymmetrical balance to the whole, with some pieces (such as the side elevation of the “arcade”) creating a local rhythm. It reminded me of how when classical architecture gets too fussy, eventually someone such as Ledoux comes along and reasserts the underlying geometric basis of the system. And the playing with the expression of the vault is very subtle, showing a complexity of spatial imagination that is just not apparent in the other buildings.IMG_3246

Some of the more recent buildings seem to acknowledge the new role Stanford plays in our culture, as the incubator for the tech geniuses who will move a few miles down the peninsula after graduation and join the Silicon Valley elite. This building by Forster and Partners looks like it might have been a rejected design option for the new Apple headquarters, so they just put it here to get the students acclimated to their anticipated milieu.IMG_3252

I’ve spoken with some people who are shocked by my opinion of the Stanford campus, as they see it as such a beautiful place, but after some discussion, they sometimes concede that the quality of the later buildings doesn’t match that of the original complex. I’d like to now compound my heresy by saying that I don’t think the original buildings are all that good either.   The places where the building forms reinforce the big axial moves of the campus plan are superb, creating dramatic vistas and long perspectives that emphasize the immensity and simplicity of the vision. The big arch framing this view is powerful, and the two pavilions enclosing the space while framing the further view are perfectly scaled and proportioned. It is scenography, done very well.IMG_3180

The gate pavilions on the cross axis assert their identity as objects beyond their functions of framing views. (Although the palm trees do give it a bit of a cheesy Hollywood studio / Mar-a-Lago ambience.)DSCF1089

But the main court itself is a bore. Walking in the arcade is extremely pleasing, yet viewed from the court, the arcade is just too relentless, an unvarying wall enclosing a very big space which has some random planting beds scattered around to relieve the monotony. Even where special events occur, such as the big church on axis, the arcade is barely inflected to acknowledge them, and the essential flatness of the enclosure wall continues. The space is really overscaled, and the architecture is too minimal and uniform to stand up to it.DSCF1095

Even the individual elements in the system do not help. This may be mainly my irrational taste, but after decades of considering these buildings, I’ve concluded that this is about the ugliest color of stone I’ve ever seen, a sort of sick-dog mustardy khaki. After months in the Southwest, where the variety of stone textures and colors was an endless source of surprise and delight, I can’t understand how you could find such an ugly stone, and then use so much of it.IMG_3185

The rustication is also overdone and boring. It looks like many bad 19th-century armories and other military facilities, which wanted to project that sense of martial strength. It gives a three-dimensionality of about one inch in depth to the material, which stands in contrast to the overwhelming flatness, planarity and lack of three-dimensional spatial exploration at the larger scale.

The comparison to Richardson to inevitable, and I can’t help wondering what this might have been like if he hadn’t died so young. These were clearly his followers, and they had learned the elements of the Richardsonian Romanesque, but they were only able to apply that vocabulary in a rote and perfunctory manner. There is one uniform system of parts and vocabulary, but that limited vocabulary is not being used to say anything very interesting. Compare this arcade corner, with its weak rounding-off and embarrassingly conventionally stylized decorative panel of wreaths and cartouche signs,IMG_3170

with Richardson’s mind-boggling stair at the New York State Capitol. The light and shadow are astounding, but more relevant here is the sense of three-dimensional play, the plasticity of the stone work, the recognition of stone as a material to be understood and shaped almost sculpturally, rather than a material that happens to be used to build an automatic and endlessly extruded space-enclosing system.24b. Richardson05636. Richardson14337. Richardson023DSCF2329

The argument might be that the arcade exists mainly as a system to enclose that court, and it should be a simpler, background element, as befits its role as just a wall. But look at the jail at the Allegheny County Courthouse, which has a literal wall running around it, and where Richardson somehow was able to play the continuity of the wall off the legibility of the individual pieces that interact with it.

The basic problem is that Shepley et al were not Richardson, which is not really their fault. (Were they the employees who were responsible for contact documents and administration? This may be one of the first cases where an architecture firm had enough institutional solidity to continue on as an enterprise, after its founding genius has died.)

Strangely, there is a big difference between their take on this Richardsonian approach, and what all the other Richardson imitators did. I once thought of writing a book called Not by Richardson, which was to be a catalogue of all the Romanesque buildings around the country which the locals always tell you are by Richardson, but aren’t. What most of those faux-Richardson buildings have in common is that they’re overly exuberant, with too many colors, textures, forms and details all jammed together, without the incredible restraint and balance that Richardson had. But at Stanford, we see the opposite – the elements of the Richardsonian vocabulary, used in a timid and limited manner. It’s robotic Richardson, with a primitive algorithm.

By far the best part of it are the smaller-scale elements. The pattern of simple openings making a sort of stone screen wall is beautiful. It’s a detail Richardson used often, and it is used here very well.DSCF1093

Or where the arcade becomes a pergola between two courts, and the landscape can be glimpsed though the arches. It reminds me of the little enclosed court at the rear of Trinity Church.IMG_3202

Or the narrow courts and passages formed by the elements of this system. They seem in scale with this intimate space, whereas the same architectural elements are overwhelmed by the scale of the main court. And just as the big moves in the architecture are best when they reinforce the big moves in the landscape, so the smaller scale architectural moves are best when they work with the small moves in the landscape. The architecture is just too boring to stand on its own. If the core of the campus had a clearer, systematic hierarchy of open spaces that drove the architectural design, it might have been more satisfying than what was built, where the landscape comes in two scales (very big and pretty small), while the architecture is always just at one scale.DSCF1091

It strikes me that the seed of the mediocrity of Stanford’s buildings was planted here, in the original core of the campus. The reliance upon architectural rules and uniformity was established, along with the subservience of individual pieces to the whole, and a distrust of any individual design expression or a big vision. We’ve learned that cities work better when there is contrast and juxtaposition among many buildings of different eras and styles. It is on a campus such as Stanford’s where we can see the effect of too much control and regularity, with the excessive integration leading to repetition and boredom.

California coastal towns

107. Monterey002DSCF0671California is so big and diverse – in its landscapes, populations, economy – that even on an extended trip, you only get to see a narrow slice. When it became clear that the Sierras route wasn’t going to work for us, we switched over to the coast, as the landscape provides the most amazing contrast with the desert, and after two months on our own in the Southwest, we were looking forward to seeing a large concentration of friends in the area.

For a northeasterner, who is used to the coastline being uniformly densely built-up for hundreds of miles, the California coast is remarkably unpopulated. There are the big stretches of preserved land, such as Big Sur, but even the cities and towns are amazingly small. Compared to the East Coast, the West has very few good natural harbors, and those few became the nuclei for major metropolitan areas. In between, the cities seem to have developed as the service centers for a relatively low-density rural population, and so they are pretty far apart and small. Their growth in the late 20th century was based upon tourism, retirees, universities and other institutions, so basically an affluent population who has chosen to be there. They don’t have the problems of older, larger cities, and the general level of prosperity is noticeable.

San Luis Obispo is a beautiful small city (which I pretty much didn’t photograph, as we were in the downtown area mainly at night). The downtown core is well-preserved, with a blend of old and new commercial buildings, all around three stories tall.DSCF0614

The streetscape is dominated by spectacular canopy of uniform, mature street trees that roof the space of the sidewalks. On a weekday evening the streets were full of people – both Cal Poly students and older folks – going to the many bars and restaurants. There are bungalow neighborhoods within walking distance, and not much noticeable sprawl in any direction, I’d assume partially because the city is hemmed in by hills and farmland. It’s a pretty nice scale for a city – big enough to have urban amenities and atmosphere, but small enough that you can escape out to the coast or countryside quickly.  SLO is about 1/3 the size of Eugene, but it feels a lot more urbane.

Monterey has different roots, as a fishing port and concentration of canneries. As that industry has died off, it has transitioned to being a tourist center. Cannery Row has been transformed into a normal tourist district of souvenir shops and places to eat. It was good to see the repurposing of all the old buildings, but there wasn’t much activity here to interest us.DSCF0666

Except of course, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which anchors one end of the tourist drag (and which Greta has already blogged, about the fish parts.)  There’s not much I can add to what has already been written about this building – designed by EHDD, it recently won a 25th anniversary award from the AIA, which are given to those buildings which were notable when they were built, but have also stood the test of time. The Baltimore Aquarium changed the whole conception of aquaria, and Monterey Bay took the type to its highest level. The emphasis on the local coastal environment (rather than showcasing species from exotic locations) contributed to a fundamental change in the model for natural history exhibits nationwide (as we saw in many other places). It also worked with the local built environment, re-using a waterfront cannery building (rather than new black-box construction as with most aquaria), and kept many pieces of the cannery infrastructure as well as the shell.107. Monterey003DSCF0691

The gigantic kelp forest was a first, flushed constantly with seawater from Monterey Bay.DSCF0689

Whereas most aquarium exhibits have to be kept in relative darkness, the circulation areas of the aquarium are flooded with light, and open out to views of the bay. The new construction within is kept minimal, simple and industrial, in keeping with the nature of the existing building.DSCF0692

The programs are informative and fun, such as this one at the penguin tank.DSCF0686

As we had known from our trip there six years earlier, the aquarium was exactly the best kind of building for us to visit on this trip – wildlife for Greta (including the adorable sea otters), and fantastic architecture for me.

We wandered into the adjoining town of Pacific Grove, another one of those interesting seaside towns which had their origins as centers for religious revival camps, (or in this case, a Chautauqua type gathering), similar to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The waterfront is lined with large Queen Anne houses,DSCF0712

and a nice example of the Bay Area shingle style/craftsman,DSCF0717

which also had a very sympathetic addition.DSCF0720

The old pavilion on the point has been restored.DSCF0723

The streetscapes are full of big trees, little houses and great porches.DSCF0734


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I especially liked the formality of this façade,DSCF0757

compared to the head-and-tail quality of the additions.DSCF0759

A very pleasant and quaint town, but it was also nice to be reminded that you are not back in the 19th century, this is very much 21st century California:DSCF0761


Carmel (which I guess is technically Carmel-by-the-Sea, but I just can’t bring myself to say that), looks like a stage set Norman village dropped on a seaside hill. The beach, which runs all along the bay from Pebble Beach golf course on the north to Point Lobos on the south, is breathtaking – sand, sun, surf, big rocks, and the relative shelter of the small bay. We were flabbergasted that we could just drive along Scenic Road, park our truck and go hang out on the beach – another sign that we weren’t on the East Coast anymore.DSCF0777

The downtown is quite a ways up the hillside from the water, and comprises a few streets of inns, restaurants and stores, which seem to be ratcheted up to an even higher economic level than Santa Fe. The overall affect of the town is that of an overgrown, Old World village, with a casual quality which belies the obvious wealth floating around.DSCF0792

The buildings are handsome and competent,DSCF0784

but they are achingly, self-consciously picturesque. I am usually pretty okay with places which have strict design guidelines which seek to maintain the historical continuity of the local vernacular (such as Santa Fe), but when the local vernacular seems to be a complete fabrication, it gets on my nerves. We certainly got used to this in the late 20th century, with all of our gated and covenanted “communities” in anachronistic styles, but Carmel seems to have been a pioneer in this movement.DSCF0789

Away from the center of town, many of the houses are in what can only be described as Hansel and Gretel Style. It is life in a Thomas Kincaid painting, and I just wanted to see something seriously transgressive, like a Frank Gehry building, or more extreme.DSCF0793

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Most of the houses in Carmel are relatively modest, but then there are the houses that remind you of just how much wealth is really here. This house, which looks like a whole village by itself, is on the beach, right next to the Pebble Beach golf club. We wondered who might live there, and finally decided that it must be someone with so much money that we’d probably recognize their name.DSCF0775

In this town of not especially creative anachronisms, the architectural highlight was this Frank Lloyd Wright house, right on the water.108. Carmel005DSCF0810

Beyond the general weirdness of the architecture, what struck us as strange about Carmel was the how it didn’t seem very walkable, even for such a small town. The residential streets don’t have sidewalks, probably trying to maintain that small-village atmosphere. All the commercial services are concentrated in the middle of town, the hillside is pretty steep, and it looks like people drive around – we didn’t see anyone out walking in the neighborhoods. We’ve visited many wealthy seaside towns on this trip, and Carmel is the first where we couldn’t figure out why you’d really want to live there. You could live in a beautiful yet chilly and foggy coastal microclimate, have a small, very expensive house, tightly packed with similar houses, but still have to drive everywhere. Greta and I preferred Carmel Valley, inland from Carmel. There is no real town, and you still have to drive everywhere, but the landscape is spectacular and the climate is warmer and drier. And it’s still a pretty short drive to the beach.


Santa Cruz is an unusual city – it isn’t that big, but for a small city, it seems to have a lot of very distinct districts, with really different characters. (I think there are also a similar number of subcultures, including the aging hippie-surfer demo). The university is obviously an important presence, but it so far out of town up in the hills that it’s hard to notice its impact on the physical environment. The downtown is not very memorable, and it doesn’t dominate, or even provide a very strong center for the city. However, here are some great older neighborhoods, each of which seems to have its own commercial core.IMG_3113

When we visited there six years ago, our favorite place was the seaside amusement park.IMG_3088

It was deserted when we walked through, and we thought we’d been dropped into a Fellini movie.IMG_3102

There is a big public wharf downtown, and this amazing arcade building:IMG_3131

I remember being confused by the city at first – it was unlike any other single place I could think of, and then I figured it out – it’s Eugene meets Asbury Park, with the hippie nostalgia of the West Coast meeting the cheesy seaside attractions more typical of the East.

On this trip we knocked around the neighborhoods some more, coming across this gem, whose history we couldn’t even guess at:DSCF0935

An older industrial neighborhood is the location of current hipster gentrification, with the buildings turning into shops and (some quite good) restaurants.DSCF0936

We walked all along the shore to the west, where we were staying with the Finrows. It is a fantastic promenade – people walking, biking and driving along the top of the bluff, which undulates in and out around little coves, at the bottom of which there are surfers and sunbathers (sometime practicing naked yoga).DSCF0932

But mainly we decided to chill out. The Born boys (the Finrows’ grandsons) invited Greta to come along when they went surfing, so I hung out on the beach,DSCF0948

while Greta borrowed a wetsuit for some boogie-boarding.109. Santa Cruz006DSCF0946

Travelling in central California was an unusual part of our trip. Whereas most of the trip had been to far-away places to which we may never return, we had been to these places before, and we’ll probably get back to them relatively soon. We didn’t feel the need to be completely thorough, trying to see everything on the checklist for every place. And compared to many more challenging places we’d visited, these cities encouraged such sloth – they were completely relaxing and comfortable. You get pulled into that inimitable California lifestyle, strolling around and enjoying the weather, in between wonderful meals. The Promised Land experience continued.

Kresge College / UC Santa Cruz


How does one design a major university from scratch? The University of California system dealt with this question in the 1960s, as it expanded its number of campuses. The Santa Cruz campus is an interesting example, as it shows the influence of a few different strains of American campus design. The first American colleges were located in cities and towns, roughly following the urban European approach, but in America the campuses and towns usually grew simultaneously. In the 19th century, the model changed, partly reflecting the agrarian American distrust of the city, and benefitting from the land-grant system which provided support for state universities. The huge growth in universities after WWII reinforced this isolated campus approach, and most campuses reflected the same development pattern that was seen in suburbia – isolated buildings set in an open landscape, with much room set aside for cars. (This campus model was then adopted in the design of office, and even industrial “parks”.)  One aspect they all had in common was seeing the landscape as a fairly neutral, “natural” background for the buildings, and seldom designing the outdoor space as a bounded space; even the earlier campus planning strategies of quadrangles and malls were largely abandoned as being too formal.

The Santa Cruz campus reflects this trend – the site was a vast undeveloped area of forest and ranchland, up in the hills above Santa Cruz, but miles from the city center. The master plan reflects what was considered best practice planning then – separate clusters of development, linked by ring roads, with some accommodation for pedestrian movement among the clusters in the center. It was an overwhelmingly decentralized (or maybe multi-centralized) approach, one which responded to the anti-urban “environmentalism” of the day, and one which supposedly reflected the state government’s concerns about student revolts: student demonstrations would never be able to achieve a critical mass, as gatherings could be isolated in the different clusters by security forces. Dan Solomon has written about this development pattern (which he somewhat facetiously blames on Magic Markers) – he says that planners stopped drawing blocks and streets and just drew bubbles.

As we drove around the campus, this was indeed the feeling. We followed road signs and directions to the various clusters – it was impossible to intuitively grasp any spatial order, more like driving in the rural countryside than in a settled area. It reminded me of Columbia, Maryland, the new town built in the 1960s by the Rouse corporation, where you drive through the woods on curving roads, directed to the named residential clusters by signage, which are otherwise invisible in the woods as you pass. However, some of the pedestrian connections through the center of campus are quite amazing – you are often in a redwood forest, and ravines are bridged so that you are walking up in the tree canopy.DSCF0898

The campus does show the best side of cluster development, in its intention to preserve special natural open space by focussing higher densities in specific locations, rather than spreading density uniformly across the whole site.DSCF0899

Some of the buildings from the period are quite fine. This is the main library, designed by John Carl Warnecke and later remodeled by BOORA. A classic Brutalist institution set in the landscape, but with the simplicity and clarity that typified the best work of the era.DSCF0911


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Jolie and Albert explained how as ideas on campus design have changed, recent projects have adapted. There is more of an academic center emerging, countering the initial scattering of buildings in the woods. It is also literally beginning to emerge, out of the woods and onto the meadow which has views over Santa Cruz out to Monterey Bay. This ecotone is magnificent, a spot in the landscape which captures what is unique in the spectacular California coastal landscape.DSCF0913

So I was perplexed by one of the more recent signature projects, a music complex by Antoine Predock. We had spent much of a day looking at some wonderful Predock buildings in Albuquerque, and he strikes me as one of the best regionalist modernist architects (similar to Erickson in the Northwest), able to integrate the universal imperatives of the modern movement with the peculiar qualities and demands of strong local context. The Predock buildings work beautifully in the desert, and I just couldn’t figure out how one had gotten to Santa Cruz. The open spaces were rather stark, preserving grand vistas, but not doing much for the humans huddled in the shade.DSCF0920

Rather than making a building in the landscape, Predock did one of his normal moves of making a building that is landscape, and you walk over and across and around the pieces. I glanced down into this oasis canyon. Was this his reference to Tsegi? Where were the horses?DSCF0918

Then looming ahead of us was the mesa. I know that concert halls want to be blank boxes, but I just couldn’t see how this had anything to do with this site. I think this points out the problem as the campus tries to move away from the models of the 60s – they recognize the need for a center, an actual build-up of density at the core of the campus, but they’re still stuck in the 60s paradigm of the building as object, not creating the important public spaces between buildings. This is especially surprising, as right on their own campus they have one of the best precedents around which could show them how to proceed.DSCF0921

While the Santa Cruz campus took the mid-century, decentralized-in-nature, American campus approach to a new extreme, it then also circled back to the older, English university system of residential colleges, which had been adapted in the early 20th century by some American universities, such as Harvard and Yale. The college broke down the overall scale of the large university to a smaller unit, which would have its own identity, reinforced by its own physical location. A student supposedly isn’t just an individual floating around in a huge, impersonal institution, but has an affiliation with an intermediate-sized entity, which allows them to become part of a identifiable community. Each of the residential pods at Santa Cruz becomes its own village, in this case set out in the wilderness, versus the dense urban locations of its predecessors.

Charles Moore was at the peak of his renown in 1970, having designed many brilliant buildings in California as part of MLTW, and having taught at most of the distinguished design schools in the country, including his stint as dean at Yale. The design for Kresge college works within the campus concepts of open landscape and residential colleges, but then he brought in yet another precedent from the past – treating the college as a small piece of dense urban fabric, rather than as a collection of individual buildings in the landscape. The other residential colleges, designed by other architects, do often try to establish a spatial identity to reinforce the institutional one, using a hierarchy of courtyards, irregular quadrangles and common open spaces, as well as a consistent formal vocabulary for the buildings. But overall, they do look much like other college dorm districts from the era.DSCF0834

Kresge College is totally different. From the exterior, it presents as a walled village – the buildings form an assemblage for the enclosure of the residents within. To enter, you must walk along the perimeter to one of the gates. Architecturally it also reinforces this idea of being a village or town, rather than one large building – the various forms are juxtaposed, and even collide – it intentionally avoids the uniformity that you expect when seeing one large complex deigned by a single architect, even though the vocabulary is consistent.DSCF0841

The boundaries and gates are emphasized, simply but powerfully. The wall plane is interrupted by a few large openings, through which you can glimpse the dense interior. Color plays an important role – on the exterior, there are often darker hues which allow the complex to recede into the forest. On the inside, white walls prevail, almost as in a Greek village. Though large trees have been preserved within the new townscape, it is clear that by crossing the threshold you have entered the domain of human settlement, protected from the dangers of the wild.DSCF0844

Your view is shaped by the frame of the gate and the tree, and you are presented with a forced perspective up the pedestrian street. As you proceed,DSCF0843

the view opens up, and you are greeted by an entry plaza. These two views set up the pattern for the rest of the complex – there are streets, and there are plazas – spaces through which you move bounded by linear buildings, and places where you are encouraged to gather. The architecture around the plazas is more imageable, with certain forms reading as iconic buildings, even as they maintain their role as part of the streetwall defining the plaza.DSCF0846

The architecture along the streets is more uniform, mainly rows of housing. Here again, there is a harkening back to older types – rather than the typical dorm type of rooms along corridors, there are suites and maisonette (rowhouse) units which are entered either off a porch zone, or from gallery circulation. The street becomes the hallway for the housing, and the buildings open to it, rather than being internally oriented. This also provides a pattern for the housing which is now sometimes seen in higher-density exurban housing – one side of the unit is oriented to the shared, public entry side, while the other faces out into the larger world. In this case, that larger world is the forest, which paradoxically, is quieter, darker and more private than the street side.DSCF0863

We were lucky to come across a large gathering on a Saturday afternoon, in this case, a university-wide gay pride event being held in one of the plazas. The containment within the space certainly contributed to the vitality of the festival, making it feel more intense than if it had been held in a large field somewhere else on campus. Jolie was interested to see this, as one of the current issues with the college is that the public spaces are not generally very lively (which I would guess is due to the students spending all their time indoors with the blinds drawn, surfing the internet).DSCF0859

The architecture is straightforward, yet expressive of its nature. The construction is simple and cheap – lightweight wood frame, covered with stucco, and accented with color. The repetitive, modular housing doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t (such as trying to manufacture a picturesque cuteness, or agglomerating the pieces into some grandiose statement), and the simple rhythm of the units established a sense of order along the streets.DSCF0888

At the end of the linear buildings, the section becomes the façade, and a little bit of playing with planes and colors makes a vivid elevation, where the inside- and outside-the-village vocabularies are integrated.109. Santa Cruz003DSCF0869

These regular types set the stage for the special effects, the iconic buildings where their special function is emphasized by non-typical designs. This is the view up the street, where the vista is terminated by the library. The forms are simple, the symmetry is not rigid, yet by the location, perspective, hierarchy of tumbling forms, use of color, solid and void, light and shadow, the library is established as an important, unique building, one which stands out from the background buildings. Moore has clearly been paying attention to the Rationalists such as Rossi and Krier, whose analysis of historical urban fabric emphasized this distinction between the private and the public in constituting the city. He also catches a certain moment in architectural history, where the forms of modernism are being inflected towards what became known as postmodernism. Without the self-conscious copying of historical forms, which postmodernism quickly devolved to, the lessons of history are being incorporated here, with the design of individual buildings supporting the overall urban design intent.109. Santa Cruz002DSCF0867

Inside, the building is defined by walls as relatively scale-less, abstract planes, crashing into each other to define spaces between, with relatively little structural expressiveness, but again with reference to iconic building elements, such as windows being cut into planes.DSCF0883

This building also emphasizes one of my favorite aspects of Moore’s design approach at this point. Lightweight wood frame is a remarkably flexible system. We tend to build in straight lines and repetitive dimensions with it, because that is simpler and cheaper, but we don’t have to. Here we can see Moore having fun within the parameters (not going to great lengths and expense to flout them) of the system, creating unexpected spaces and elements in an abstract spatial composition, which doesn’t mimic any historical or even conventional precedents. He is limited only by his spatial imagination, and the wood frame system gives him a wide degree of freedom.

Fifty years later, we find ourselves in a period where many architects feel the need for unrestricted and nontraditional spatial expression, but they achieve by very different means. Here is Gehry’s museum in Biloxi, which I think is achieving not dissimilar effects to Moore’s library (although on a grander scale):DSCF1285

Gehry’s building is made up of colliding brick and steel forms on the exterior, and seems to have an independently-framed interior of studs and gypsum board within that shell. This building probably cost ten times as much as Moore’s on a per square foot basis, and I’m not sure that the difference in cost is that noticeable in the final result. Many of today’s starchitects demand huge budgets to accomplish their visions (the late Zaha Hadid springs to mind), and much of that budget goes into cutting-edge technologires that let materials be twisted into forms that don’t come naturally to them. It is just very satisfying to see Charles Moore achieving his vision with some 2x6s and plywood sheathing.

Kresge College is almost fifty years old, and Jolie Kerns has the job of managing its renovation. It’s an interesting, yet daunting proposition, from many perspectives. An old woodframe building with stucco sheathing is definitely going to have issues with water and rot. The building was built under energy codes that are nothing like our current ones, and how could the envelope, including the windows, be brought up to code while maintaining any of the architectural character? College students now are pretty different form those in the 60s, much more used to more personal privacy, space and amenities, and more focussed on their online lives, rather than a collective existence in the analogue world. What are features of this college that can be preserved, and which will have to be adapted to modern life. The library also presents what might be the most difficult challenge: accessibility.DSCF0881

Here is a building whose whole premise is a series of levels and platforms and quirky little spaces. Can any of this character be preserved while making it accessible? If it can’t, it’s hard to see how in a strapped university system, spending the money to renovate it would be justifiable, or even legal. The university has hired Jeanne Gang’s office to come up with a master plan for the renovation of the college; Jolie was going off the next day to show her around the campus. I think that their approach will be a good fit; I recently saw her office’s proposal for a major remodel of the Baltimore aquarium, and it appeared to be a very good blending of new ideas and approaches (architectural, functional and environmental) with a recognition of the quality and importance of the existing buildings. I hope the same approach can work here. Kresge College is a really important and beautiful complex, and it illustrates a critical moment in our recent architectural history. It also has many lessons for our current world, as we still confront the problem of making humane places which draw from our traditions, within a largely placeless and soulless modern context.