Tuesday, November 5, 2019


Mausoleum of Big four railroad magnate
Charles Crocker, Mountain View
Cemetery, Oakland, California (c 1888)
Suppose I told you about a marvelous outdoor museum of architecture with full-scale examples of every major building style of the past hundred years? And suppose I told you it’s in a beautiful park-like setting that’s great for picnicking, and that there’s no admission fee, and that thousands of people can be found there every day of the year?

Would it matter to you if just about all of those people were dead? If so, proceed to the Wall Street Journal. Otherwise, read on.

Cemeteries contain some of the most splendid—and overlooked—collections of architecture to be found anywhere. And heaven knows, there are plenty of them around. Every metropolitan area has some venerable and important cemeteries nearby. Near my own home outside San Francisco, for example, is Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, laid out—as it were—by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. Here, a series of hillside mausoleums known as Millionaire’s Row boast the last architectural efforts made on behalf of Charles Crocker of transcontinental railroad fame, F. M. “Borax” Smith, chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli, and numerous other 19th-century high rollers.  Just down the street is a 1926-vintage columbarium designed by architect Julia Morgan, of Hearst Castle fame.  
Ionic columns grace the miniature Greek temple mausoleum
of the Corby family, Pine Grove Cemetery, Manchester, N.H.
(Image: nutfieldgeneology.com)

The caliber of  structures in this relatively obscure cemetery should give you some inkling of the architectural jewels you’re likely to come across in your own town.  The crypts, monuments, mausoleums, and other structures found in large cemeteries nationwide represent a microcosm of American architectural fashions, including not only the expected Gothic Revival, but also Egyptian and Greek Revival, Romanesque (Richardsonian and otherwise), Victorian, Craftsman, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modern. Here, cheek by jowl, you’ll find pyramids, obelisks, temples, domes, and cathedrals, as well as a more than a few architectural creations that defy description.  Since the main purpose of all these designs is simply to look impressive, they’re about as close to pure architecture as anything you’re likely to encounter.  
Egyptian Revival—an especially popular style for funerary
architecture—taken to the limit at the West Point Cemetery
mausoleum of civil engineer Egbert Viele, West Point, N.Y.
(c. 1902) (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Should you decide to take a Sunday drive to your local cemetery/architecture museum, here’s some basic terminology: 

A crypt is a chamber for storing bodies, while a mausoleum is a large tomb containing crypts and entered through a doorway. A vault is an underground tomb, or a tomb tunneled into the side of a hill, though it can also refer to a mausoleum whose decoration is limited to the facade only.  A columbarium is a building containing niches for the display of cremated remains. The last is a fairly recent development in funerary architecture, since the practice of cremation did not gain acceptance in America until the late 19th century.     
Even renowned modernist architect Louis Sullivan
is represented in funerary architecture—here by the
Wainwright tomb in St. Lous's Bellefontaine Cemetery.
(c. 1892)

One highly unusual thing about cemetery structures is that, since their occupants aren’t too concerned about planning for the future, they’re practically never remodeled or modernized. Standing row upon row, sheathed in slabs of marble and granite, they stand essentially as they did on the day they were built.  

And despite the thousands of people who occupy these miniature cities of stone, crowds are not a problem. If you love old buildings but can’t stand the hustle and bustle of the usual tourist traps, this is the place for you. Temporarily, I mean.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


The Camp fire, Paradise, California, November 2018.
A PG&E equipment failure was likely the ignition source.
(Image: Josh Edelson, Getty Images)
Suppose the electronic device you’re reading this on developed a problem that made it to burst into flames when the temperature rose above 80. Now further suppose that rather than correcting the problem with the device, the manufacturer proposed the following remedy:

“We know that our device may start a fire if the weather gets too hot. So from now on, whenever the temperature in your area goes above 80 degrees, we’re going to remotely disable your device until the temperature drops. This is for your safety.”

How long would you be using this company’s device? For that matter, how long would you patronize any business that addressed problems by shunting them onto the customer? Well, if that business were a utility monopoly like California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, you wouldn’t have any choice in the matter.

The technology of California's
electrical grid (and for that matter
the whole nation's) has hardly changed
in the past 120 years. See bottom image.
Many Californians have found this out the hard way during the last few weeks, because shunting the problem onto the customer is exactly how PG&E is dealing with the shortcomings in its aging and poorly maintained grid. Over the past few years, failures in PG&E equipment has been responsible for a number of devastating California wildfires, including the catastrophic Camp fire that wiped out the entire town of Paradise, among others. The utility is currently in bankruptcy due to the blizzard of lawsuits arising from this fire and others.

There’s no doubt that California’s wildfire problem has been exacerbated by the tinder-dry state of much of the state’s wildland—a clear effect of climate change. Yet the fundamental issue not one of warming climate, but rather in equipment failure due to PG&Es generations-long lack of investment.

Downtown Stockholm, Sweden: Unlike
the United States, the Swedes began
relocating much of their electrical
grid underground during the 1940s
and 1950s.
Nevertheless, PG&E has unilaterally decided that, in order to mitigate future fires, it will simply turn off the electricity to literally hundreds of thousands of Californians for days at a time—never mind that these shutdowns impose incalculably vast losses to California residents and businesses alike.

Most galling of all: when asked how long this so-called policy might continue, the utility has stated that it would take at least ten years for it to “harden” its grid infrastructure.

The fact is that PG&E and its precursors have already had better than a century to modernize California’s power grid, yet it remains an essentially nineteenth-century construct. Despite serving a region hosting the most advanced computing technology in the world, much of the company’s electric grid remains solidly planted in the Victorian era. This lack of investment is the inevitable result of entrusting a public utility to a private monopoly, albeit one ostensibly “regulated” via a cozy relationship with its purported overseer, the California Public Utilities Commission.

The 24th Infantry mustering for the Spanish-American
war; the place is Salt Lake City, Utah; the date
is April 24, 1898. Does anything look familiar?
There’s been no such stinginess on PG&E’s part viz-a-viz its shareholders, however, and that is the basic problem. A utility serving millions should not be a private, for-profit business. It probably shouldn’t be a business at all. The same can be said for countless other utilities across the nation who continue to use nineteenth century infrastructure to supply twenty-first century needs.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Wright's roofs: "They don't call it Fallingwater for nothing."
(Bear Run, Pennsylvania,  completed 1939)
The root purpose of every dwelling—one that dates back millennia—is to provide shelter from the elements. Hence, an architect’s most fundamental charge is to design a weathertight building. Unhappily, it doesn’t always work out that way. One of the most common complaints I hear is, “Why can’t architects design homes that don’t leak?”  

The embarrassing fact is that leaky roofs are endemic to architecture, whether modern or traditional, and the caliber of the architect makes little difference. The occupants of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated houses have been obliged to drag out buckets, bowls, and soup cans in many a rainstorm. Or as a colleague of mine once put it:  “They don’t call it ‘Fallingwater’ for nothing”.    

For their part, architects are notoriously adept at brushing off the leak problem. Wright once received a call from an irate client who complained that the roof was leaking all over her dinner guest.

The architect Le Corbusier bears much of the responsibility
for stoking the flat roof craze of the Modernist era.
(Villa Savoye, Poissy, France,  completed 1933)
“Tell him to move his chair,” he responded.  To the complaint of another waterlogged client, he calmly declared:  “If it didn’t leak, it wouldn’t be a roof.”

At least Wright fessed up to these shortcomings, however nonchalantly;  the same can’t be said for the famed International Style architect Le Corbusier.  Early in his career, he designed a building with a conventional pitched roof. At the first snowfall, it leaked like a sieve—due, it seems, to his own inexperience.  In a classic piece of Modernist logic, however, Corbu concluded that the whole concept of pitched roofs must be flawed, and thereafter espoused flat roofs instead.

Ah, poor posterity!

If you're looking for countless leaks, this is the roof for you.
Otherwise, heed the famous acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid
Given that architects have such a hard time designing watertight roofs, what chance does a lay person have? You’d be surprised.  Here are a few simple, common-sense suggestions that can help minimize the likelihood of leaks:

•  Keep the roof design as simple as possible. Leaks seldom occur out in the middle of a roof’s flat surfaces—or “field”, in roofing parlance. Rather, they tend to develop in the many nooks and crannies formed where roof planes intersect, or where roofs abut walls. Hence, the simpler the design, the fewer the intersections, and the less the likelihood of leaks. Be especially wary of those craggy alpine roofscape favored by current architectural fashion. All those cute little peaks and dormers can become a major leakage headache a few years down the road. 

Frank Lloyd Wright: "If it didn't leak,
it wouldn't be a roof."
•  Minimize “penetrations”. In roofspeak, this term refers to pipes, vents, chimneys, skylights, and any other openings that interrupt the roof’s membrane. Like intersections, they’re far more likely to develop leaks than the field of the roof.  Minimize the number of vents and flues penetrating the roof surface, and use a few large skylights rather than a lot of little ones. And don’t locate skylights in roof valleys, where it’s difficult to seal or “flash” them properly.   

•  Avoid built-up (“flat”) roofs whenever possible. Granted, built-up roofs are cheap, easy to construct, and great for covering oddly-shaped floor plans. However, without conscientious maintenance—which they seldom get—built-up roofs simply won’t stay watertight.  A half-century of painful experience has borne this fact out, suggesting that our pitch-roof loving forebears were probably right after all. 

Sorry, Le Corbusier.

Monday, October 14, 2019


Ayn Rand's Howard Roark character, here
portrayed by Gary Cooper in the Warner Bros.
film of 1949:
The poster boy for architectural ego.
“We had an architect draw an addition for us, and the bids came in at twice the budget!”  

That’s a complaint I hear all the time. When you look at how architects are trained, and how they go about seeking a reputation, it’s no surprise that we’re so lousy at pinching pennies.  The truth is that the very meaning of life for most architects is rooted in self-expression: we want our work to stand out from everyone else’s. Alas, since a unique design costs more than a generic one, that self-expression usually comes at the client’s expense. 

Why are architects so motivated to be different? One reason is intrinsic to humankind, not just to architects. For many of us, shaping a building in the intellect and then placing it in the physical world is our way of saying, “I was here.  This building is part of my legacy. It’s one reason my life mattered.” And obviously, we’d like our legacies to be memorable, not mundane.

Sydney Opera House, architect Jorn Utzon's undeniable
tour de force, was budgeted at $7 million in 1957. By the time
it opened in 1973, the cost had ballooned to $102 million,
an increase of more than 1400 percent. 
But there are some less spiritual reasons that architects feel compelled to be different. One of them has to do with the way we’re educated. Many architecture schools simply amplify the student’s egocentric motivations, rather than balancing them with an equal sense of responsibility to the client.  

From their first day in school, students are praised for coming up with the unique, the extraordinary, even the bizarre. Minimal emphasis is placed on budgets and other real-life encumbrances, on the theory that they might impinge on the student’s budding creativity.

A copy of Progressive Architecture magazine
dating from around the time I was a student
at UC Berkeley College of Environmental
Design. Getting onto this cover was the holy
grail of architectural practice,  and for many,
it still is.
“You’ll have enough worries about budget when you get into practice,” one professor told me.  “This is the time to let go of all that.” Imagine a medical school operating on the same principle:  “Never mind the diagnosis—this is college. Go in there and have some fun with that scalpel!”  

In the face of this relentless urging to be creative, most architecture students naturally come away with a sneaking guilt that any design that’s less than stunningly original isn’t worthy of the name architecture. The result is that, for the rest of their careers, many architects aren’t satisfied with a simple solution when a complex one will do. In other words, schooling teaches architects how to make buildings expensive, not how to make them affordable.    

A sure way to be forgotten: "Nice Little House
Comes In On Budget".
Architectural education isn’t the only culprit, however. We architects are also dupes to popular and trade publications that award extravagant architecture with the holy grail of publication, while work that’s more responsible to budget and function frequently goes unnoticed. Since few architects are anxious to labor in obscurity, extravagant design becomes the norm even when it’s uncalled for.  

Hence, a simple addition or even a garage is trumped up into the architect’s personal manifesto, driving up the client’s cost to no practical gain. 

It’s not hard to understand why architects overbuild, when publication provides the only real way to achieve a measure of notoriety. After all, it’s a rare architect who gets acclaim for designing something simple and inexpensive.

Picture the screaming headline:  “Nice Little House Comes In On Budget.”

Monday, October 7, 2019


What's this got to do with architecture?
Read on.
One of the simplest yet least understood concepts in architecture is that of positive versus negative space. However esoteric it may sound, its applications to home and landscape design are immediate and tangible.

The basic idea is simple. Imagine a rolled-out sheet of cookie dough. Think of positive space as being the cookies cut out from the dough, and negative space as the pointy scraps left behind.  

In planning, just as in cookie-cutting, the name of the game is to minimize the sharp-angled or unusable scraps of negative space that are left over. Alas, unlike baking, you can’t just gather them up and knead them into more dough--you have to figure out what to do with them ahead of time.  

The famed razor-sharp corner of architect
I.M. Pei's National Gallery of Art in
Washington, D.C.—it's cheap drama,
but that's about all.
The desirability of positive space is rooted in the fact that nature’s fundamental closed shape is the circle, or at least some approximation thereof. And regardless of how far man removes himself from his primitive beginnings, circular shapes remain the most psychologically comforting for human habitation. This is a fact borne out by the widespread persistence of circular dwellings—from mud huts to yurts to igloos to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House—despite the fact that they are not necessarily the simplest shapes to construct.   

We in the industrialized nations, however, live in a rectilinear world that’s chock full of negative space. Outdoors, common examples would include those useless slivers of side yard that zoning ordinances insist on having between houses--the house, in this case, being the “cookie”, and the setback land the scraps.  Inside, negative space could include that dust-catching wedge of space under a stair, or that inaccessible corner of the living room that always seems to gather dust bunnies.  

There are a few simple ways to avoid negative space in architecture:

Notice how the simple device of cutting the back corner
of this room intensifies its sense of comfortable enclosure.
•  Avoid shapes having acute angles, both in plan and elevation.  Modern architects were smitten with acute angles precisely because they’re rare in traditional architecture (and let's face it, many still are). But while razor-sharp angles make for cheap drama, they don’t make for comfortable living--a fact vernacular builders have recognized for centuries. Psychologically, converging surfaces are disconcerting, whether they’re in a sharp cornered room or a single-slope vaulted ceiling. Physically, they’re just plain impractical. Take a lesson from the past, and keep interior angles at ninety degrees or more.

•  Strive for areas with a circular sense of enclosure.  The closer a room arrangement approaches a circular shape, the more comfortable it’ll be.  This doesn’t mean the room itself should be rounded--just that the arrangement of the objects within it should be reasonably equidistant from a central focal point.  In a long, narrow living room, for example, a couple of more-or-less circular furniture arrangements would prove more comfortable for conversation than one long, stretched-out grouping.

Positive space in a garden is generated by the planting
that fills the corners, leaving the "cookie" for the occupants.
•  Apply these concepts to exterior design as well.  Take a typical rectangular plot of land with an ell-shaped house in the middle:  the structure’s presence necessarily subdivides the outdoor area into smaller rectangular pieces, many of them awkwardly proportioned.  What to do with these negative leftovers?  

The best solution is to break down awkward negative spaces into a series of organically-shaped positive spaces--as many as are useful--and fill the leftover negative space with planting.   Note that size doesn’t determine whether the space is positive or negative;  even a triangular scrap of land a few yards on a side could be transformed into positive space by adding, say, a garden bench comfortably surrounded by a cloak of plants. 

Monday, September 30, 2019


CCTV headquarters building in Beijing. Architect:
Rem Koolhaas. Many landmark Chinese buildings, such as the
"bird's nest" Olympic stadium and the 128-story Shanghai Tower,
are still designed by western architects—but maybe not for long.
China is a nation that’s never less than fascinating. I first visited in 1994, and have spent my summers here more or less yearly since 2000, when my wife and I bought a house in Suzhou, the region where she grew up.
In the ensuing nineteen years, I’ve written many, many thousands of words about China, whether for newspapers, for my syndicated column, or for my blog. Yet each time I return to the People’s Republic, I find a whole new China to talk about.
If there’s one thing that’s stood out in my last few visits—since America’s Great Recession, perhaps not coincidentally—is that the Chinese no longer view the West as its smarter big brother. After a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, after enduring Second World War atrocities by the Japanese, China closed its doors and turned turned its back on the world. Communism salvaged the nation’s sense of sovereignty, but ironically, it also further afflicted China by unnaturally suppressing the nation’s ancient mercantile instincts for thirty years.
One of the less nauseating images of Japan's
atrocities again the Chinese during the Nanjing Massacre,
which began December 13, 1937. During the next two months,
between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese died at the hands of
Japanese soldiers, including uncounted women and children.
Only after the Opening in 1978 was the genie once again released from the bottle. In the scant thirty-eight years since—a mere heartbeat in the long history of this culture—China has regained its confidence, and perhaps, its sense of innate cultural superiority.
This wouldn’t trouble me in the least if China was not such a profoundly homogeneous nation, and also one that has not lost its equally ancient xenophobia, nor its incredible tenacity in holding a grudge. I’m speaking, of course, about China’s relationship with Japan—a nation that has undeniably inflicted unspeakable suffering on the Chinese people. Yet China had no monopoly on suffering during the Second World War. The United States was not occupied by Imperial Japan as China was, but given the course of the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans certainly had reason to hold a grudge. Yet within five years of the war’s end, Japan was under reconstruction, and within ten the antagonism of the war years was largely left behind.
Propaganda poster from the time of the Cultural Revolution,
which turned China's most learned citizens into political enemies
to be persecuted.
Not so China. Every Chinese grade school history book from the immediate postwar era to this very moment makes certain to instill in young Chinese students a hatred of the Japanese. This, not surprisingly, explains the instant indignation of young Chinese in the long running skirmish over some seemingly worthless islands in the South China Sea and any number of other conflicts we in the West may find trivial. 
As a frequent visitor to the People’s Republic, one thing that’s always in the back of my mind is the speed at which things can change there. In all the time I’ve spent there, I’ve seldom met a Chinese person who has been less than generous and hospitable—it’s an innate cultural trait. Yet it’s also true that it would only take a single edict from Beijing to change this benevolent attitude toward foreigners, much as Mao’s bizarre initiation of the Cultural Revolution sparked mayhem against China’s own most learned people.
Xi Jinping: One Belt, One Road, One Leader for the
foreseeable future. Which path will China choose?
In view of the near-certainty that China will draw abreast of the United States as a world superpower in the near future, one can only hope that the Buddhist cultural traits of kindness and generosity will continue to outweigh the periodic fevers of nationalism that wreak such destruction there,  just as they do everywhere else on earth.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Mission style table by Gustav Stickley, c 1910.
(Image copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When I was a kid, the height of furniture fashion was a style called “Danish Modern”.  It wasn’t very comfortable—nor, it turns out, was it even all that Danish.  The chairs were linear, with big slab-like cushions that did a lousy job of conforming to your gluteus maximus. The tables had a lot of nasty, smack-your-knee-and-see-stars kinds of corners.  But we gladly put up with such discomforts because the stuff was “modern”, and in the 1960s, modern was the only way to be.

Today, of course, we’re much more discriminating. We admire furniture of the 60s as an appealingly naive emblem of the Jet Age, but by and large we’ve concluded that an older, more storied style is the way to go. So what do we do?  We adopt a style that’s linear, uncomfortable, and not all that good-looking, and which, even though it’s called Mission, has nothing whatever to do with missions. But it’s got  a hundred-odd years of history behind it, and that's no doubt comforting in these mad times. 

An original Mission style lamp by Tiffany?
No—it's a copy offered by Home Depot.
Mission furniture has more to do with the late-19th century English Arts and Crafts movement and such proponents as Gustav Stickley and William Morris than it does with the California Missions or Mission Revival architecture.  Early mass marketers of the style, however, preferred to present it as a rough-and-tumble American phenomenon rather than a snooty British one.  

Regardless of Mission’s murky heritage, one thing is crystal clear:  With its sharp corners and church-pew surfaces, it’s certainly among the most uncomfortable furniture styles of the last ten centuries.  It gives Danish Modern and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s chairs a run for the money.  

Arts & Crafts fans even have their very own font.
(Image courtesy myfonts.com) 
I know that at this point a lot of designer types will start sputtering in their lattes about what a pioneering concept the Mission style was, what geniuses the Arts and Crafts folks were, and how dare I, a lowly architect and even lowlier writer, criticize such brilliance? Actually, I agree—the Arts and Crafts folks were indeed geniuses, and if you’ve ever seen the refined artistry of an original Morris or Stickley piece, you’re no doubt as certain as I am.  

Trouble is, the vast majority of Arts and Crafts, er, rather, Mission furniture was not made by Morris, Stickley, or any of the other craft studios whose work is rightly coveted these days. Adhering to the highest standards of craftsmanship naturally made for miniscule production, which in turn ensured that only the wealthy could afford their work.  

Latter-day Mission style cabinet, also available at
Home Depot. You may well find one of these
in your next motel room.
At any rate, by the time Mission furniture caught on with the masses, the craft studios had already moved on to other things, leaving the ordinary Joes and Josephines of the early century to settle for knockoffs from Sears and Roebuck. Now, while using mass production to make products more affordable is a great American tradition, it also brings about an inevitable dilution of quality that eventually saps the artistry from any design. That’s why a Model T is not a Rolls-Royce. For the same reason, most of the Mission furniture that’s come down to us is clunky, pedestrian, and literally run-of-the-mill.  

Which brings me back to the current encore of Mission mania. The style has already become ubiquitous in the media, appearing not only in print but in movies, commercials and sitcoms.  Mission knockoffs are now standard fare in those giant discount furniture stores.  

You may wonder how long this can last. For me, the sure sign that a style is on its last legs is when it starts appearing in chain motels. Well, guess what? Have a seat in the lobby, folks. Just mind those sharp corners.