Tag Archives: #vanlife

Cajun in California

After actually spending some time in New Orleans, it was interesting to go to Angeline’s in Berkeley, CA, a New Orleans restaurant. When the beignets were delivered, it felt just like being back at Morning Call Coffee. Fluffy, fried dough drenched in enough powdered sugar to make it seem like it snowed in California for the first time.

The hushpuppies, though more of a southern than a New Orleans thing, were served with herbed butter like at Leon’s, but, although good, lacked that spice that made them over the top fantastic.

I may be biased by having tried some of the best gumbo in human/Cajun history, but I think Angeline’s has fallen a bit short. It was kind of bland, a little thin, and there was no potato salad on the menu to pour it over.

While we were in New Orleans, I never ended up getting Jambalaya (too full of beignets, king cake, and gumbo), so I have nothing to compare this to. It seemed a little heavy on the rice, with little sausage or vegetables mixed in. However, it did make great breakfast the next day.

All in all, Angeline’s probably has the best and most authentic Cajun/Creole food in California, and if they stepped up their gumbo game, she could probably even hold her own in the Big Easy.

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.

Palo Altoan Vietnamese

P1090931 The last time we were in Palo Alto, about six years ago, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant called Xahn. I was too young to appreciate good food, but my parents were very impressed. They said it was the best Vietnamese they had ever had.When we returned there, sadly, I was still underwhelmed. That isn’t to say it wasn’t good, but, well, it was no Fish Sauce. The beef noodle salad was fresh, but lacked the distinct flavors of the lemongrass beef at our favorite Portland restaurant, and the duck we had was downright boring, although it was presented nicely.P1090934
We had better luck at the second Vietnamese restaurant we tried. Tamarin, just a few blocks away from Xahn, had five-spice braised beef that literally fell apart when I tried to pick it up with chopsticks. The spices did nothing to mask the beef flavor itself, only enhanced it.


On this trip, I’ve started developing, or rather, rediscovering a taste in fashion. It may have started at the Inaugural Ballgowns of First Ladies in the American History museum in D.C., or earlier, with the spectacularly fashionable and practical tourist in Yellowstone who had to be French. Either way, by the time I got back home, my practice of pulling a random shirt and pair of pants from the drawer had been all but abolished.
I was kind of surprised by which of the ball gowns in Washington I liked. I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who had strong opinions on fashion beyond, “That is totally impractical.” DSCF6190I thought Michele Obama’s was quite overdone, and much too sparkly where I liked the simple elegance of Nancy Reagan’s.DSCF6192 I wonder if next  year, the President’s Inaugural outfit will be added to the collection.
At the Folk Art museum in Santa Fe, NM, I found myself strangely drawn to the flamenco dresses. The trains (trails, tails? I may be more interested in fashion, but not enough to learn the terminology) were beautiful, although they seem like a pain in the neck to to drag around. The best part of the exhibit was the dress-up area. Yet more proof that I am still a little kid at heart was how delighted I was to try on a big ruffly dress. DSCF9700
P1090995By the time we reached California, I was beginning to acknowledge my newfound interest in fashion, so when the Oscar de la Renta Exhibit at the DeYoung in San Francisco was recommended to us, I was raring to go. It was especially praised for its exhibit design, which was truly exquisite. In the entry hall, wooden skyscrapers lent backdrops to what was considered everyday wear, though the plainest among the outfits would be sure to turn heads. DSCF1478
A screen showing footage of gardens played behind some of the most outlandish dresses I’ve ever seen. I don’t care how elegant you think you look, there is no purpose for a train that long. It will never naturally splay itself out like that, and no matter how clean your garden paths are, it will be full of grit by the end of a five minute walk. Cut off, another dress could be made of its fabric.P1100011
The room beyond that was perhaps even odder. Mannequins with Mohawks in ball gowns, and the sign explaining it seemed to be talking about Vietnamese women’s empowerment. I think I may be missing something, and if anyone has any idea what it’s saying, please tell me!P1100015DSCF1487
Mirrors and sequins made the next room glitter like a disco ball. These were the dresses worn by people like Taylor Swift and Rihanna, and they were every bit as glamorous as you’d expect, although some of them made me wonder how Oscar and the woman wearing them had ever come to be regarded as fashion experts. My tomboy tendencies as well as the modernist views transferred to me by architect parents led to a distinct feeling that less is more where bows and sparkles are concerned. A simple red dress by the exit was not one of these atrocities.P1100028 The fabric layers were reminiscent of the scales on a butterfly’s wing, and part of me wondered whether I would rather have spent the hour in the science museum next door. Fashion may be a new passion, but it won’t outweigh my old interests.

San Francisco undergrads

After they graduate, most of our students head off to the big West Coast cities to start their careers – Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are their most common destinations. About 20 years ago, I remember a student telling me how excited she was to graduate and move to San Francisco, and I thought, I’ve been in Eugene longer than her – why don’t I get to graduate and move to San Francisco? It is such a great town to live in as a young adult that I was jealous of them, having never lived there myself. But even though I’ve stayed in Eugene, I have about a 20-year backlog of former students living in the Bay Area, so we at least got to experience life there vicariously by seeing some of them.


Katharine Dwyer and Chris Gebhardt both graduated from the UO three years ago. Katharine came from Oakland, and has now returned to her hometown, while Chris came from Colorado, and used his stint at the UO in the way that many of those from landlocked states do, to jump-start a more coastal lifestyle. I got to know both of them when they were in my Housing the 99% studio in 2012, where Katharine’s project focussed on how unit sizes could be shrunk back down to reasonable levels for all household types (an excellent exercise for someone about to move back to the Bay Area), and Chris focussed on how the income streams and cash flows could work within a block of housing that mirrored our national economic and demographic mix. They both exemplified the type of smart, engaged, and wide-ranging undergraduates we sometimes take for granted around here. Chris was also one of my main informants on interesting things out there in the culture – he was the one who first exposed me to XKCD, and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. (I think I paid him back with Babymetal.)

Katharine and Chris both seem gainfully and happily employed – Katharine as a job captain at the Huntsman Architectural Group (she regaled us with a story about her exposure to urban rooftop beekeeping earlier in the day), and Chris as a designer at Ankron Moisan’s new San Francisco office (with which his preceding firm just merged), continuing his interest in housing. It is always an adjustment for me to realize that people I still think of as college students now actually have a substantial amount of professional experience, and I was struck by how much they’ve done and how clearly they understand the world of practice.

Staying in touch with former students through Facebook has turned out to be a good thing for an old guy trying to vicariously live in San Francisco. I get to see signs that Katharine is doing all those fun young professional lifestyle things around the region, and that Chris spends a lot of time racing on sailboats out in the Bay. It is also clear is how nice it is that they arrived in the city with a pre-existing cohort of friends that all moved down from the UO, and that those really strong architecture school friendships can continue into the next phase of their lives.


Javier Ruiz is another San Francisco native who returned to the city after graduating from the UO in 2009. Javier was in my housing thesis studio that year, where he proposed a block of high-density rowhouse types in downtown Eugene, a project of remarkable complexity and context-specific adaptation. Javier was another one of those students with whom it was often difficult to stay on topic – he just knew about too many other interesting things beyond architecture, and always had something very amusing to say about them. He was restrained and quiet on the surface, but there was always a lot going on under that surface.

After years working on institutional projects, Javier has recently begun work with Gunkel Architecture, where he is getting back into residential work, illustrating the timeless irony of young architects in major cities doing residential projects that they could never afford to live in. (When I was l working in New York, and a client complained that the master bedroom in a unit was too small, I drew a rectangle in one corner of it. He asked, what’s that, and I answered, my apartment.) Javier has recently suffered the fate of many native San Franciscans, forced out of their hometown by rising real estate prices. His reaction on Facebook was classic Javier:

Okay, I surrender, moving to Berkeley. But when I return across the narrow bay it will be with dragons and a goddamned army, and no quantity of gadgetry, web design, crossfit, crowdsourcing, VC, tasting menus, queues, maker spaces, or general purpose artisanal bullshit will save you. Peace! (For a limited time only.)

A new job and residence were not enough disruption for Javier last year – he also got married – hitting the trifecta of fundamental life changes. Photos of their wedding at the San Francisco City Hall just appeared on Facebook one day, the first time I’ve seen pictures of a straight couple getting married there in years.


Greta and I instigated a Facebook-based get-together with these former students, and ended up at an Indian restaurant south of Market that Javier knew about. We dragged Dan along with us, which amplified one of my favorite aspects of these crowd-sourced gatherings – strange juxtapositions of friends from very different stages of my life. It’s always fun to mix up different cohorts of our graduates – I assume that they know each other within a geographic region, but they usually don’t. Dan added another level of complexity to the relationship mix, and I enjoyed seeing other connections emerge; whereas Dan may be the primary amusing Facebook commenter of his generation, I have found Javier to be the rising star of his. His posts offer wry insights into life in the Bay Area, politics, design, and broader currents in our culture. I think he should give up architecture and get his own YouTube channel.

We tried to schedule another Facebook gathering in the East Bay, but the logistics just got too complicated for getting together with Lisa Leal, Matt Cunha-Rigby and Olivia Asuncion, among others; there are entirely too many people to see in the Bay Area, and we would need a few weeks to cover them all. But having touched base with students from three and seven years earlier, we were later able to see what an older generation of former students have been doing with their lives for the past 20 years.


Randy Wiederhold and Christine Lehto both graduated from the UO in 1995. Randy was from Palo Alto and Christine was from a small town on the Columbia River. They were members of a great undergraduate class which included Roberto Cipriano, among many offbeat and accomplished others. Randy was in my second year studio, and even at that early stage it was obvious that his brain worked at lightning speed, and with remarkable rigor. While most young undergraduates focus on making a big formal gesture, Randy saw that the logic of the building fabric and systems could help determine the order of the architecture, and not simply be used to implement a driving metaphor.

After college Christine and Randy worked in Portland for a while, then moved to the Bay Area so Randy could get an engineering degree at Stanford. They both continued their careers, with Randy working at a number of notable firms before starting his own practice; Christine has now been working at Gensler for nine years. We had some interesting discussions about the state of the profession – they’ve worked in a broad range of practices, from sole practitioner to a large, multi-city corporate giant, and once again I learned a lot from thoughtful former students, who really understand more about where things are going than I do.

Over the years on Facebook I’ve seen pictures of their two kids growing up, and we were looking forward to meeting them in person. Anni immediately got added to Greta’s ever-growing list of cool nerdy girls she’s met on this trip, whereas Eli and Greta had a harder time comprehending each other, and it took Eli a while to realize that Greta was a girl. We met up with them all at the DeYoung Museum, where a friend of theirs was the artist in residence producing amazing giant paper flowers,


and at one point the kids devolved into parallel play in what seemed to be some of their dominant activities – Greta writing, Anni drawing, and Eli zoning out.dscf1506

We wandered over to their house in the Richmond, and got to see the richness of how they live, both at the private and neighborhood scales. Christine and Randy bought a small multi-family building (back when doing such a thing was a stretch but not unimaginable), and have figured out how to make a go of urban family living through smarts, sweat equity and adaptability. The building has four units over a ground floor of service and garage. That’s their famous VW van parked in front, used for family camping excursions.


Christine and Randy lived in one unit as they renovated the building, making a fantastic home for themselves at the rear of the main floor, and expanding that unit down to the ground floor, with access to the rear garden. As their family and needs grew, the building gave them the flexibility to expand, even as the rental units provided income, and they’ve recently taken over the garage space as a room for all the kids’ activities.


Their main space is open and light, with the kitchen, dining and living areas all connected. The design is elegant and simple, and works as the armature for all the things that matter in their lives – the space was full of art, music, books, and food. As they explained their history of buying, renovating, maintaining and changing the building over time, I was really impressed. I often tell my students that as architects don’t make a lot of money, if they want to live in a certain way or place, they’ll have to achieve that by being smarter and thinking unconventionally. If you just accept what the market has to offer, you’ll end up in a conventional apartment that has none of the qualities that matter to you. In one of the toughest housing markets I the country, Christine and Randy came up with a strategy that worked physically and financially, a place for their family to thrive.

We walked around the neighborhood, and saw how embedded they were in the community. They kept stopping to chat with friends. We passed many great-looking little restaurants, and ended up at a Korean barbecue place. After dinner we spent some time at the amazing independent bookstore near their house. Greta was in awe as she saw that this kind of living was possible in a big city, where a kid could walk to restaurants, museums, parks and especially, a bookstore.

A major goal of this trip has been to expose Greta to a wide range of ways people live in this country, so meeting up with these friends in San Francisco was an eye-opener. Greta’s not sure where she wants to live in the future, but she’s now clear about one criterion – it has to be a place where a car isn’t needed to conduct her day-to-day life. As for me, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to live in San Francisco, but thanks to our former students who stay in touch, I have been getting a good sense of what that life could be like, as I watch them proceed through all the stages of grown-up architect life.

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.

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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.

Eight months in


We’re closing in on the end of our trip.  As of yesterday, we had wracked up eight months, 20,029 miles and 36 states.  We’re finishing up in California now, and at some point we will run out of clean laundry, hard drive space, and Quaker Oat Squares, and just bolt for home.