Sense of Place

It is the end of summer in San Francisco, which usually means grab a sweater and hold on to your hat, but this year it has been downright balmy – and occasionally even hot. Earlier in the summer, we spent a week in Oahu, and over Labor Day, spent the long weekend in the Russian River Valley. I have been taking credit for bringing a little Hawaii back home with me . . . especially the warm surf-friendly waters.

My first trip to Hawaii was in 2009, at the tail end of a year of breast cancer treatment. Our clients, Martha and Ed, contacted us as we had designed a remodel of their daughter’s house in Noe Valley, and insisted we come to Kailua and help them. After a futile attempt to turn down the work (there are plenty of great architects and designers in Hawaii), they convinced us to trek over and take a look.

The first design concepts were generated before I had been to the site (or any Hawaiian islands). They were not only naïve, but completely disconnected to the sense of place. Politely, Martha and Ed let me know that the initial ideas were “interesting” . . . but lacked a fundamental understanding of what it means to live in Hawaii. At their insistence, I travelled to their house and spent a week on site (solo – what a luxury!) designing the project. A dream job if there ever was one. There is nothing like living in a place 24 hours a day for seven days to create an understanding of place.

I have always been a site specific designer and committed practitioner of the humanistic phenomenology mode of design – philosophically anchored by the 15th century poet and architect Leon Batista Alberti, modernly interpreted by Kenneth Frampton, and excellently practiced by the likes of those well known in the humanistic-centric world of design such as Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor. A few more of my faves that are not quite as obvious or well known: Patkau Architects (in particular their houses), Shim-Sutcliffe, and Line and Space.

As our work gets broader recognition, we are being asked to design places far and wide; recent locations include Seoul, South Korea; Vancouver, BC; and closer to home, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Designing in these locations has been exhilarating (discovering a new place), challenging (understanding the soul of the people and the place before – or while – designing), and curious (we are fortunate to practice in a place where the mundane is as valued as the wow). But in the end, we are not sure if this is an avenue that fits with our ethos.

In some, the work process has lacked the connectivity we have come to rely on, not just with our clients, but with the multitude of makers that do the hard work of building our designs, and the joy that comes from spontaneous laughter at the end of a two hour design meeting (not replicated in teleconference and too risky with new people in a new place).

As such, we are reflecting on the opportunities coming our way to design places outside of the Bay Area. We have recently been talking with some folks about a restaurant in a valley – which seems to have more in common with Tuscany than San Francisco. Despite our eager and competitive yearning for the work (it’s definitely an aspirational project for us), there is some deep and fundamental question about whether one can create authentic design when you are not from or spend your time being in a place. As architects, we are trained to understand place through climate, location, weather, local styles, landscapes, and are as skilled as the best travel writers to absorb and re-imagine this world.  So, until or unless we are no longer embodied humans on this planet earth, I will continue to anchor my design work in the humanistic experience of place.


Elegance and Uglyful

This month, our whole office went as a team to the Monterey Design Conference. There were beautiful things galore: Doris Kim Sung’s heat changing metal shades, Came Pino’s incredible façade explorations, a new concept to me: kintsugi , the Japanese art of repairing and celebrating broken ceramics, an idea which excited our entire staff. There were so many avenues and attitudes about being a designer and even a thinker.

At the end of the weekend during Junya Ishigami’s presentation, a word came to mind that you don’t often hear out loud in architecture — elegance.

Architects throw these labels around like crazy: modern, spare, sustainable, clean lines, parametric, honest, design!, clever, unique, client specific, symmetric, connecting inside and outside, different, green, activated, critical, oriented, simple, juxtaposed, and on and on. Many of them are just buzz words like any other profession or industry has. These words can be benchmarks of success, but they themselves are not definitions of success. Each designer must choose their own adventure.

Elegance is a word I value more than I had ever really considered. It implies cleverness and uniqueness as well as simplicity and boldness. Honorableness is overlaid there also – a formidable word to work towards, and one no deserving designer would ever use to label their own work. Actually, elegance is a word that works better all by itself.


In fact, all that fluff I just used to try to explain elegance probably amounts the most inelegant definition of elegant. Can irony be a goal in architecture?

“Uglyful” can be. Ask Merrill Elam. Uniqueness and wackiness that breaches crazy into a new place that has more value than the expected, safe definitions everyone else uses for success. Boring and bad are at the other end of her spectrum.

But each designer must find the way their own mind chases design success, and I can only speak for myself. It’s puzzling to equally value Elegance and Uglyful as directions. Does this mean something? Nothing? Maybe there is some other word in there that resonates with me specifically.

“Sublime” is Merrill’s ultimate. That’s a pretty good one. She says that after 47 years, she hasn’t gotten there yet. I have a long way to go, but I am looking forward to the attempt.


Second Grade Symmetry

I recently got a chance to be a guest teacher at my friend’s second grade class in South Central Los Angeles. Without making too many assumptions, I can confidently say that school is the best part of most of these kids’ days… which made being Mr. Sheth even more important, and rewarding.

Her class is in the midst of a year-long lesson involving structures (at the end of the year they are going to design and assemble a shade structure in their play area!), so I discussed architecture and an architect’s role for as long as they could sit still, and we dove into an art project introducing the kids to the concept of symmetry.

We gave the kids half of a drawing of a house and asked them to draw the other half. The drawing was relatively ornate for the task, which made most of the kids hesitant, claiming that they would never be able to draw the other half. Some of them tried to give up right away. We encouraged them to take the project one step at a time; start with the ground, then the stairs. And, eventually, the kids drew the houses perfectly! Just kidding. But the important part is that they tackled the task, did their best, and they earned their 1:30pm Maroon 5 dance break.

And, to bring it back to me, the stuff we do also takes time. Sure, I might be juggling multiple projects while getting a 30,000 SF office TI completed in less than 6 months. But in order to offer quality work, like the kids, I still take it one step at a time.

Cue upbeat after school special music!


Down in D.F.

A friend who is a native Angeleno once described LA to me as not one place, but a thousand villages tenuously linked.  Perhaps it’s just a more poetic way of defining urban sprawl, but while visiting Mexico City for the first time last month, I felt the comparison flood back into my mind. While I had a list of must-see destinations that overlapped neatly with most other US tourists (Casa Azul – absolutely worth the line), I felt the drive to hunker down in a local village or two.

A high priority was to spend some time in several of D.F.’s legendary mercados, markets where you can buy literally anything, be it a side of beef, spices, balloons, crafts, rich Micheladas that taste more like bouillabaisse than beer, delicious tacos filled with squash blossoms and barbacoa. I don’t know if somewhere can simultaneously be sprawling and dense, but there was fierce competition for the eyes. My favorite was the Mercado de Sonora, the witches’ market, where you could purchase a hex for your enemy or gaze upon Catholic shrines with equal ubiquity. Every potential need is served by an individual merchant; long-standing relationships play out across the narrow walkways.

My desire to visit Mexico was kick-started by an excellent professor. In college, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Eulogio Guzman, a historian of the art and architecture of pre-Colombian and colonial Mexico. Eulogio’s classes were gripping; he insisted that we gringo art students learn to correctly pronounce and spell the names of the places, tribes, and deities as a matter of respect (no matter how many ‘X’s and ‘Z’s). It was my first immersion in learning about an ancient culture and I couldn’t wait to visit Teotihuacán, which we learned so much about. Making the pilgrimage was an incredible experience. The mystery that still surrounds the collapse of what was a highly sophisticated society imbues the location with a heavy weight – as does the knowledge that you’re basically standing in the middle of a gorgeous graveyard. Climbing to the top of a pyramid as high as a skyscraper, built and painted over 1,000 years ago, certainly helped to clock my existence as an insignificant blip in the universe. But it also provided a rush of adrenalin to have finally seen a place that had always seemed like a dream.

Our last evening was spent in Xochimilco, which upholds the city’s history from when canals connected neighborhoods. We took a pleasure cruise in a colorful boat down the canals, luxuriating in the greenery of the lagoons that form local backyards. On the streets, sequins and saints’ names decorated awnings to protect the community.

Decorative elements, ancient and contemporary, flourished everywhere I went in Mexico City. Far from frivolous, the colors and accents marked each location as a place – to be enjoyed, revered, witnessed. Each layer of the city’s history peeked out from behind its current iteration, sometimes joyously and sometimes heartbreakingly. The small pieces of the city I was able to visit filled me with inspiration. I am all for more decoration of and attention to the places we inhabit.

2015-06 Contract Magazine - TT

Contract Magazine


Wordsmithing – Edition 2

I like to define words and terms – as if by naming something I can wholly understand its purpose and value.  I have been attempting to define the label “home” for a couple years now.  Just months ago, I started to wonder, “How do other people define home?”  After a few quick clicks and a couple minutes of perusal on AirBNB, I decided to make a retired and bohemian-remodeled school bus my home for an entire weekend.  But really.

Over the coming months, I would fully utilize the power of Google search and crowd-sourced review sites – always seeking out zany accommodations.  I would ultimately camp on the concrete slab of a tipi, get snowed-in at an A-frame (with only a couple kerosene lamps and a small stove for warmth), watch a beam of sunlight mark the hours as it swung through the oculus of a yurt, jam out in a land yacht, climb 40+ nearly vertical stairs up and down from a fire lookout tower to resupply, and contemplate sleeping inside the tent-like fire scar of a sequoia tree should the trail continue to elude me.

The myriad places challenged me physically, but mostly they challenged my idea of “home.”  Listening to the proud owners/stewards beam about these curious abodes, I realized that home is nearly impossible to define; it’s more than bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, electricity, plumbing, etc.  Home is not a place.  Home is a feeling.  So now I keep an eye out for idiosyncratic homes, and I have a strict “stay yes” policy.  Because I have found that living someone else’s version of home only seems to solidify my own.

In true wordsmithing style, I present some loose definitions I’ve worked out over the years:

home |hōm|
1 the place where one lives permanently, esp. as a member of a family or household:

but more closely, psychologically:

  1. A space of one’s own.
  2. A familiar and friendly place to lie one’s head.
  3. A place one dreams about every other night one is gone.
  4. A place that resonates within even if one does not dream about it every other night,
    1. But that which no longer holds the mystical staying power for him anymore.
  5.  A mental state of content.

What is home to you?

For me, home has always been where I luxuriate in bed with a book until the sun has resolutely come and gone, where I spy brightly colored birds with my grandfather, and where I gather around the fire with friends and family.  Home lately is the water I boil for tea, the ragtag collection of pine needles I sleep upon after a ten mile hike, the grainy Polaroids hoarded in my wallet, the second helping of gumbo that no one demanded I eat, and the creative solution to the design problem that just came to me lickety-split.  I hope home will continue to be meeting new people that define home in a totally new way, because I can’t wait to see how and where I call home in ten years.


Yoga on the Roof

We recently started doing yoga as an office on our roof. Yes, the roof.

I have been doing yoga for years. But as I was lying there in child’s pose with the warmth of the sun on the bottoms of my feet, I suddenly realized I had never done yoga outside before. It is a whole new experience. Mountain Pose has a much more fitting name with your arms outstretched to the sky, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and the clouds inching past overhead. The city around us is of course full of distractions: car horns, the cookie smell wafting from the bakery downstairs, and wondering do little windows equal little eyeballs? But these interruptions are nothing compared to the connection we are feeling, we are here present and in the world in a new way. I am reminded that I am a human being first, and a hard worker second – I am more loose, more sound, more calm, more energized, and more connected than on any other slow-moving Friday afternoon.

I’m sure we seem like hippie Californians or like tech perk copycats, (admittedly, our instructor was a referral from one of our office clients), but I don’t care. And sure, we had to peel our co-workers and ourselves up from our desks, but the brain and body reset makes the work we come back to even better.


The ‘Mo’!

Back in undergrad, my best friend tried to convince me to be his assistant coach for a local high school girls’ tennis team. I hesitated for a couple of reasons: first, he was a very talented tennis player while I was… not. Second, it felt too soon to trudge back to a high school campus. It took a lot more persuasion, but somehow, I relented. And it turned out to be one of the most surprisingly rewarding experiences I’d have throughout my years in college.

My favorite relic is a team shirt that I still wear from time to time while lounging around the house. It’s one of those delightfully corny puffy paint numbers – handwritten neon block lettering on a bright yellow Hanes t-shirt. The girls ambushed me with it one day and it read: “LHS Ladies’ Tennis / Coach Becky” on the back and “You’ve Got the Mo!” proudly lettered on the front. That last bit was a shout of encouragement that the quirky team captain used to holler at her teammates during tennis matches. It had evolved from, “You’ve got the momentum!” to “you’ve got the mo!” and it soon caught on as our unofficial team cheer. The shirt was perfect.

Now, how does this relate to design? I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of momentum. It’s a basic concept, but one that complicates the design process. So far, 2015 has been packed with new endeavors, ongoing jobs, and a handful of start-and-stop projects. And as usual, the latter seems to dominate my roster. While there are many reasons why projects fall into on-again/off-again tendencies, the struggle they all face is the loss of momentum.

A lack of momentum is troublesome for obvious reasons – starting and stopping has a big impact on cost and schedule – but the less apparent impact is how it muddles the design process. Creative thinking relies on momentum because once it comes to a halt; it takes a considerable amount of energy to get moving again. And after a few start-and-stop cycles, the entire process feels disarrayed, inefficient, and mentally draining.

It would be ideal if all of our projects ran smoothly and at a consistent speed, but that simply never happens. Ever. So how do we manage? What I’ve recently noticed is that creative momentum might not be singular. In an office where every designer works on multiple projects in tandem, we can spread our creative energy throughout several outlets rather than obsessing over one, which has its advantages. For instance, when I lose steam on one project, I might kick over some creative momentum to a different project by reintroducing a relevant design exploration that fell off the wagon in another project, or by picking up on a similar design problem that was left unresolved in a previous iteration. This type of piggybacking off the creative momentum of other projects happens quite frequently, presenting alternative paths to continue design thinking. It’s the unpredictability of each project that keeps me on my toes to seek out unexpected opportunities, and I find myself keenly aware of “the Mo” with bizarre ideas of incorporating puffy paint into the next project.

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SF Chronicle

Paige Porter Fischer, “Boor Bridges Architecture influencing Bay Area design
Interview with Seth Boor and Bonnie Bridges.