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.

resized for blog

SF Chronicle

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

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Relay Race

Seth and I just wrapped up a wildly fast café for the co-working space Galvanize. Instead of a traditional lobby/waiting room setup, Galvanize brought us in to design a full-service public coffee shop. And we only had a few months to pull it off.

I really liked the idea, but knew that the schedule would be our biggest challenge. The café is designed to be super-efficient while providing a little something special to the well-kept industrial building. When you look around, you’ll see a lot of existing exposed metal hardware, some dating back to when it was a bustling grocery warehouse, some that was recently added by the architecture firm that used to be there, but all pretty cool-looking. That combination of hardware provided an aesthetic point we happily chose to follow. So we decided to make a big deal out of the metal hardware we were adding to the space, and got the chance to work closely with the local fabricator, Sol Design Lab.

I took part in a similar exercise during the build-out for Sightglass on 20th. In a way, we created a product line of metal hardware – each piece subtly refers to the others, but has its own function and can totally hold its own. The dramatic pendant light fixtures talk to the quieter sconce fixtures, which relate to (and can be incorporated into) the shelf brackets, and that motif can even be traced down to the hooks that display the sleeve of the record on deck. It was an inspiring process, and when it came time to design the focus for the Galvanize Café, Seth and I took our eyes off of the finish line and put our eyes behind some welding masks in our shop.

I wanted to start imagining the smallest component, and let it grow and adapt to accommodate other applications. I started sketching the bracket that holds the wood bar over the stone counter, and Seth and I both liked one that sort of resembled the letter “Y”. And then we just ran with it. Our schedule made constructability critical. We knew that if it was too hard for us to put it together in a day, it would take too much time for the fabricators to put 40 of these together in a few weeks. Admittedly Seth did most of the dirty work, but I drilled some artfully off-center holes through steel, and stood by to strategize as issues came up. We built one bracket, and I have to say it felt pretty awesome. We brought that to our next site meeting, handed it off to the fabricator, and they took it from there. Recalling the experience of putting one together, I came up with details for similar metal pieces for the rest of the space – table legs, wall shelf brackets and the like. It was exciting to see what the fabricators changed – they bent some angles instead of cutting and welding them, they chose to plug weld to save time, and they were able to turn around an INCREDIBLE amount of work in a very short period. It was a bit of a relay race, and that heavy metal bracket was our baton.

Putting that mock up together allowed me to be on the same level as our fabricator. Their decision-making processes were much clearer; I was working with experts, but I was also collaborating with teammates. Those little brackets hold a story. They’re unique, efficient and special. They talk to the older hardware in the space, but don’t imitate any of them. And, for me, they represent the effectiveness of our teamwork. Which is totally sappy, but also pretty great.


Recognizing Craft

Change requires a perceptive account of the existing. My recent explorations have narrowed with an emphasis on craft and where we find it. In the effort of maintaining an identity forged by the small and intimate, how can we mediate between the old and new? For me, it began with recognizing the timeless processes found in the everyday. Here are a few shots of an Inner Sunset favorite.