This annual series, taking place at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, has been an important showcase for emerging design talent in Los Angeles over the last ten years. This year’s lineup included artists and designers who collaborate with architects, and architects who experiment with alternative modes of practice. The Forum presents an account of the events by author Barbara Lamprecht.
John Enright + Margaret Griffen / Mark McVay
Margaret Griffin + John Enright: Griffin Enright Architects, formed in 1996 by Margaret Griffin and joined by John Enright in 1999, is a full service architectural office. The firm pursues innovative solutions to contemporary architectural problems through the study and examination of new spatial and organizational types. Margaret is currently a professor of architecture at USC and has taught at Syracuse University, UCLA, and Cal Poly Pomona. John has taught and lectured at SCI-Arc, University of Houston, Syracuse University, and the University of Oregon.
Mark McVay: Mark McVay received his Masters of Architecture from Harvard and his Bachelors of Architecture from Syracuse University. He has worked as a principal project architect with Morphosis from 1988 to 1994, with Richard Meier & Partners from 1994-1996, and Office for Metropolitan Architecture/Rem Koolhass from 1997-1998. He formed his own office, M2Studio Architecture in 1997 focusing on projects addressing urban design, landscape architecture and issues surrounding culture and technology in Los Angeles.
Joe Addo / Jay Vanos
Joe Addo: Trained at the AA in London, Joe Addo, worked for firms in Finland, the United Kingdom and the US before setting up his architectural practice in 1991. His work has been influenced by investigations of ‘genus-loci’, and how architecture can respond by the creation of Pieces which are both site specific and meet the needs of people who will inhabit or interact with it. Through his interest in public interventions, he is working to establish a discourse between what is important to communities and how site, climate, materials and their weathering, with design intent, should shape these interventions.
Jay Vanos: Since 1984 Jay Vanos worked as senior project architect with the office of Eric Owen Moss Architects until opening his own office in 1999. His current work includes the continuation of master planning and the implementation of the General Plan for “Kayenta”, a 2000 acre planned community in southern Utah; private custom residences, several speculative housing projects and a 10 unit Live-Work compound in Hollywood. He has been a faculty member at SCI-Arc since 1985 and also teaches at Art Center College of Design.
Todd Erlandson & Sherry Hoffman – (M)Arch. strategic architectures
Todd Erlandson earned his MArch from SCI Arc in 1994. Sherry Hoffman earned an MBA from NYU and has worked in advertising and film marketing. They established (M)Arch. in 1998 as a collaboration of architecture and marketing to create environments and experiences that communicate their clients’ vision. They are teaching at Otis, SCI-Arc and Woodbury.
Clive Wilkinson / Russell Shubin + Robin Donaldson
Clive Wilkinson: Clive Wilkinson Architects is an architecture and interior design practice with a strong interest in radical functionalism. Their work revolves around the idea of the workplace as a living, changing organism; the body corporate for global clients in media, entertainment and internet technology services.
Shubin + Donaldson: Partners Russell Shubin and Robin Donaldson Architects design Identity Spaces for creative digital technology companies whose future and vision catalyze the work environments they produce. Based in Culver City, Russell and Robin have practiced together for eight years. Their presentation will feature built projects and their digital portfolio of unbuilt proposals.
Eric Rosen / Tim Durfee
Eric Rosen: Eric Rosen earned a BA from Brown University in 1987 and subsequently received a Masters of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. Since establishing his LA studio in 1992, his work has expressed an interest in the tensions between sculptural forms, the articulation of residual space, the consideration of light and shadow, and the use of simple materials. Specifically, his work has been influenced by the inversion of perception and the spatial tensions evident in in the work of Edward Hopper, John Cage and Richard Serra.
Tim Durfee: Tim Durfee is co-founder with Iris Regn of R/D. His work has included architecture, experimental prototypes for computer interfaces, the development for a broadcast “digital city” and currently, in partnership with Louise Sandhaus and Iris Regn, design of the upcoming Made in California exhibition at LACMA and The World from Here, opening in 2001 at the Armond Hammer Museum. Tim received a Master of Architecture from Yale University and is currently on the design studio faculty at SCI-Arc.
Steve Johnson + Jim Favaro / Mia Lehrer + Associates
Johnson, Favaro: Johnson, Favaro was established in 1988. Their interest and work cover things large and small from furniture to museums and from homes to a new downtown. The ideas are imbedded in the conviction that good design is the complex interaction of the unpredictable with the manageable, as well as the coordination of how things look with how things work.
Mia Lehrer + Associates: Mia Lehrer + Associates is an international landscape architecture practice located in Los Angeles. The firm has been responsible for a diverse range of public and private projects. They are currently working on the vision plan for Baldwin Hills Park a 1200 acre area in LA; the master plan for Playa Vista’s entertainment, media and technology district located in LA: the sustainability concepts for elementary and high schools in LA Unified School District through the Cool Schools program; as well as the master plan for Silver Lake and Ivanhoe Reservoirs.
Forum Board member and author Barbara Lamprecht provides us with reportage:
Barns at the Forum by Barbara Lamprecht
Board members were asked to take turns doing “reportage” on the Out There Doing It presentations this summer, perhaps akin to summer reports after school started in the fall. These meandering reports were ephemeral and ungraded, just a way of easing one back into the harness of the classroom by talking about the glorious adventures of camp, travels etc.. This is the spirit in which I took on my assignment, responding informally to one thing that captured my attention. That was the image of the barn that appeared in the talks by Eric Rosen and (M)Arch. (Todd Erlandson and Sherry Hoffman). Clive Wilkinson spoke of the agriculture of the work place, alluding to “fields” of inactivity and activity: fields lying fallow and resting vs. fields of intense activity, planting, harvest.) But it was the photographs of both extant and collapsed barns in connection with a new house by Rosen which bothered me, an unease heightened by the use of Shaker imagery in (M)Arch.’s work, so much so that when the board and the guest speakers reconvened at a local watering hole after their talk, I descended on an unsuspecting Todd Erlandson to tell him so. Then a lively and satisfying dialogue ensued. I learned a lot, and ironically, it is (M)Arch.’s design for “The Growing Center” (now under construction) I visited recently because our firm is assigned to design a child care center. Todd’s comments on the special need to think in section in regard to children resonated with some of the same observations Richard Neutra made about designing school rooms. The opportunity for that kind of conversation in itself – apart from the ten dollar martinis served (despite a certain Staarkian plush intimacy, in a very loud bar, or maybe the loudness made it extra-Staarkian) – is a pretty good reason alone for being on the board.
Now, if someone shows me an image of a barn (remember our context, a hot summer night, we L.A. urbanites in our usual nuanced colors and carefully tended textures, cold beer in hand amidst the avant garde embrace of the King’s Road House, a stone’s wall, metaphorically speaking, from the Sports Connection, helicopters occasionally breaking into Powerpoint fades) and implies by association or outright says that their architecture is inspired with the design of a barn, what can I expect? Well, it depends on what I know about barns and farming.
While a barn is being built, at least in Alberta, where I am from, the family lives in what later becomes known as “the first house.” Nobody pays too much attention to the first house. It does not indicate the family’s later social standing in the community. It was meant to be serviceable, and that was all. Manure (not dung or faeces, the linguistic forks in the road between manure and shit) was often used to seal cracks between the ground floor and the earth for the first house as insulation; this was not done in the second house, with its conventional concrete footings. Meanwhile, all the family’s resources, sweat and money was poured into the barn, the heart of the family industry.
Above all, it was to be functional. And although we may all run around with images of Harrison Ford somehow being more facile than his erstwhile Amish brethren in “Witness”, most farmers hired carpenters expert in bending huge pieces of timber that would be laminated with nails to form the primary girders for the big two-storey building. The farmers themselves were too busy working the fields, though it was taken for granted that they would provide rough knowledge and body strength to keep the stakes in the ground so the timbers could be bent. The structure, the girders, were repetitive and identical – barns had to go up fairly quickly, because Canadian summers were short – and exposed. Insulation for the ground floor, where the cattle were kept, came from the hay hoisted by a pulley and swung from the wagon that was backed up to the big doors of the barn. The hay was spread around the floor of the second storey where it was stored for the winter, and chutes above each stall allowed gravity to aid the farmer in getting feed down to the cows. Those little square windows we see on the sides of barns, that we love for their sharp staccato punctuation and layers of peeling paint, often line up with the stalls. The cows get to see their food but more importantly the farmer can see what is happening at each stall and can see to milk the cows and to check the condition of the udder. So even without standard insulation, in winter, after the cows were let in around dawn, restless, uncomfortable, swollen, after a half hour of work and all that big-body heat the barn was warm. If you are eight years old, you race your cousins down the barn’s length in front of the stalls on an icy cold Alberta morning. As you run, you feel the rat-a-tat-tat percussion of alternating brilliant white light and shadow from the square little windows, ignoring the cows ignoring you.
Manure was gathered and heaped in a big pile about 50 or 60 away from the barn, where the truck would back up and haul it off to the fields now as fertilizer. (Farmers can tell whether by the smell of the manure if its feed is chemically based: it all is now, but sometimes a farmer will recall for you the pungent, earthy, good odor of manure, how now they can’t tolerate the its smell, so altered in tenor because of the chemicals in their feed (cows are now fed, for example, chemical blends including pork mixed in with everything else. Manure now is scheiss, a substance that has lost its currency as a wholesome part of the natural cycle and must only be disposed of, not spread over the ground as a nurturing blanket.)
In other words, barns have to do with efficiency, exposed structure, repetitive members, whether wood girders or the vertical metal stanchions restraining the heads of the cows, or come to think, the cows themselves, typically Holsteins, with their hard-lined black and white, occasionally contrasting against the finer-featured, blurry mocha of the few Jerseys favored for the farmer’s personal use for the high butter content in their milk.
The farmer or his would walk down the same path you had run, though now with adult work in mind, throwing the stanchions shut with a clang. Their movements are quick and efficient but loose-limbed, a swagger pared down to essential kinetics. My aunt, however, was no fluffball: she was as swift and as strong, if not stronger, than her men. She, too, wore tall rubber boots; she, too, moved with as much ease and grace and economy as her men, she has outlasted and outlived her husband and the one son who would have taken the farm over, the one who did not become a teacher or psychologist or minister. She smiled often and when she wasn’t striding down to the barn, kept the house, both the nice, quiet, bright white-and-blue kitchen upstairs and the downstairs working kitchen with its pantry filled with jars filled with jam and jellies to be spread on huge, mighty pieces of butter on thick white bread toasted on the huge black cast-iron stove. The smell of the barn was here, along with the jam, on this basement level where the boots and coal were stored.
The farmer’s day, and his and her life span, is equally ordered, repetitive, predictable as the structure of the barn. There are the same faces every day, mostly family faces, except for trips into town or to church. You work with the same people you live with. There is no ceaseless reinvention of a life, no new clients, no but a deep continuity. The wavelength of their deadlines have a larger profile, rolling, deeper, with rounded spikes in fall and spring.
There is a different concept about nature, too. Barns were not built to fit in with the landscape, other than in a very literal sense, when they were located to exploit a natural rise to better exploit gravity for the upper floor. Quite the opposite. They were bumps in the landscape, equally as aggressive as nature in their stubborn determination to prevail, but in this case it was a selective determination to protect livestock, equipment, feed – grain and hay – from the elements. Nature was not romanticized but understood and respected. Indoor-outdoor ambiguity, our religion, is a quality quite lost on barns. Wood barns in western Canada (I am not talking about European stone barns) were painted red, or sometimes light bright yellow, for heaven’s sake, to stand out. No sage green, gray-green, “weathered” patina or any other kind of neutral color so favored by us in the architectural tribe.
So, if barns are the inspiration for a design, I expect to see structure celebrated through repetition of exposed, raw structure. In one presentation I saw a wonderful house, a beautiful house, in which timbers sometimes managed to shake a moment in freedom as they emerged from what looked to be a stucco wall before plunging back into who knows where to perform who knows what structural task. That design decision, if what I saw was accurate, seemed to be in direct opposition to what I see in old barns (not the ones built in the 60s, with flat ceilings, but the ones from the 1930s and 1940s; my grandfather built his barn in 1939, the year my uncle, the farmer-now-custom builder, was born), that is, structure which is structure and is directly visually available to me.
And if I see an image of a collapsed barn, which I saw in a presentation, a terrible confusion reigns in me. What that means is that a farmer died, or that his sons didn’t take over but rather they moved to the city. The industry of the extended family did not survive. It signifies catastrophe, because a barn was built to outlive the farmer, his sons, and with good maintenance, perhaps even his son’s sons. Yes of course, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, whatever: the ground plane will out. As Eric Rosen said, the house for his parents was to “carve the ground plane gently – to recover the site through inhabiting the ground cover.” It was Sir John Vanbrugh, one of the masters of the English Baroque, anticipating the Picturesque and the Sublime of almost a century later, who said that buildings of the distant past should be conserved because they inspire “more lively and pleasing Reflections on the Persons who have inhabited them, on the remarkable things which have been transacted in them, or the extraordinary occasions of erecting them.” (He was probably not referring to farmers and farm buildings, no Bruegel peasant lover he.) He was one of the our early Consumers, a primitive, of course, compared to our well-honed, slyly muted appetites in consuming images of all kinds.
I admit there is a terrible romance in that image of the old barn having sighed, let the air out, and collapsed, I am no different than you, but harnessed to what end as a design imperative for a big house built for the aging remnants of a solitary nuclear family (which is perfectly normal, an attribute describing much of America, caught up in ever increasing building footprints in our free-standing houses.)
And about those Shakers: (the image of the window against the white clapboard showed that the image taker preferred asymmetry in composition, a Modernist sensibility.) Shaker images come up all the time, they are a dime a dozen. Of course, they preceded John Pawson and neo-Minimalism by a couple of hundred years, which makes them authentic, cool, and within the public domain, should copyright be an issue.
Shaker villages are inspiring because they show how collective values can be transformed into radicalizing their architecture and urban design, done by people with real courage and not a lot of money. They had that bold courage that comes with real humility, which is no wimpy, soft-spoken quality. No luxuries, because they take away from the real pursuit of life. (We’re lucky to shoot for personal (individual) integrity, which we do, most of us, however imperfectly.)
Meetinghouses were supposed to look alike. For example, the meetinghouse at Canterbury, New Hampshire, built in 1792, “was to correspond, in every particular, size, shape and color, as well as in all the details of finishing, with the one recently built at New Lebanon , or, as the Brethren would say, Like the pattern at the Mount.” They were not built to proclaim yet another nuance of the individual, which is becoming a construct fit only for those with a mind bent on nostalgia. In many of the presentations, the individual had to be mitigated at every turn, entertained, coaxed, given a hyper-hot Pavlovian environment for the raising of creativity, cows chomping away on their color-coordinated M&Ms and trail mix and flavored coffees – to what end? In contrast, the Modernists created neutral canvases in which the individual could stand out in sharper relief, not be drowned in the noise of the local environment. Of course this is a much larger question in our culture, whose raison d’Ítre appears to be the raising of good consumers.
Images are our stock-in-trade as architects. We need them to inspire us. We use them to show our clients and the CRAs and commissions a vision of what we propose to do. I just think we need to be responsible for them, to be precise even as we employ them as tools of seduction.