Monday, September 19, 2016


Cologne Cathedral. The twin 511-foot
spires are visible at left.
Cologne, Germany: The great Gothic cathedral begun in 1248. You’re inside the base of the north tower, in a cramped spiral stairway of stone.  It is very dark.  You begin to climb the steep flight of steps to the spire more than five hundred feet overhead. At intervals, tiny window slits cast a dusty shaft of light into the blackness.  After a seemingly interminable climb, you step into an even darker passageway, barely able to glimpse the plank door straight ahead. You pull the heavy door open.

Inside the tower, a seemingly
endless climb up a stone staircase
finally takes you from darkness...
Suddenly you find yourself in brilliant sunlight. You’re standing beneath the towering fretwork of the spire, five hundred feet above Cologne. The sun streams through the openings in the spire’s Gothic tracery, casting fantastic patterns of light all around you. After the long, climb dark climb, the effect is other-worldly. You have made the transition from darkness to light.

These impressions of Cologne Cathedral relate one of the most ethereal yet powerful attributes of great architecture: light. The Gothic cathedral, with its superb interplay of  light, dark, pattern,
and color, probably represents the ultimate use of light in architecture.  But the same basic principles can add interest to residential design as well. Because light effects don’t rely on scale for impact, they can be applied to any building, however humble. light. Looking upward into the soaring spire
of Gothic stone tracery.
•  First, there must be contrast in light levels to achieve drama.  A uniformly bright series of spaces will be cheerful, but they’ll also be bland because there is no gradation of light level. On the other hand, passing through a darker space before entering a light one will redouble the impact of a bright room. This can be done by intentionally limiting the size of windows in anterooms such as foyers and halls. It’s also a good opportunity to use special window shapes such as circles or octagons.

The drama of dark and light
needn't be limited to
•  Introducing pattern is a subtle and evocative way to use light.  In Gothic architecture, stone tracery casts intricate patterns of light and shadow. In a residential setting, window muntins (the pieces that divide the glass), leaded or patterned glass, or a pierced screen shading a window can provide interesting shadow patterns in interior spaces.  These patterns will change as the sun moves across the sky, casting an ever-varying arabesque of light and dark on interior surfaces.

•  Finally, introducing color can add richness to the quality of light within a space. Just as the dark, somber interior of a Gothic cathedral contrasts with the brilliantly colored light entering through its stained glass windows, small panes of colored glass will cast jewel-like rainbow effects on interior surfaces that will vary with the time of day.  Or,  for a bolder effect, stained-glass pieces can be suspended over the full area of windows. Likewise, a small beveled glass panel suspended in a bright window will shower a room in an ever-changing pattern of prismatic reflections.
If your windows have muntins dividing the glass, a less expensive alternative to beveled or stained glass is to use colored glass in certain panes — for example, across the top row.  In either case, for the most dramatic effects, choose windows that receive bright sun.

Monday, September 12, 2016


Julie Harris peers over the edge of an extremely cool
spiral staircase in the Robert Wise-directed film
The Haunting. It's worth seeing even if you're
not in the market for stairs.
Spiral stairs have gained a melodramatic reputation through their appearance in films such as the 1946 film noir thriller The Spiral Staircase and the chilling psychological ghost tale The Haunting (1963).  That alone justifies their use for some purposes—in order to add edgy atmosphere, for example. The intriguing form of a spiral staircase can lend a great deal of sculptural interest to an otherwise humdrum area. But spiral stairs have a practical side as well, especially where space is at a premium.  
First, a few definitions for terms that are easily confused:  A true spiral stair has treads radiating from a center post.  A circular stair, on the other hand, has an opening in the middle: it’s basically just a regular stair that curves. A winding stair is a conventional stairway with angled treads where the corner landings would normally be. The last two are not spiral stairs.

Your basic metal spiral stair that's available in kit form.
Treads are typically available in various wood species
or plain or nonskid (checkerplate) steel.
True spiral stairs are ideal for access to lofts or basement areas where a straight staircase would consume too much floor space. While a conventional stair might require around 42 square feet—not counting landings—a spiral can make the same trip in about 25 square feet. This difference could get you out of a planning tight spot, as it has many an architect over the years. However, think twice before using these stairs if there are children or elderly people around—their high riser height and sharp edges can make them hazardous to negotiate. 

Generally, the minimum nominal spiral stair diameter allowed by building codes is 5’.  The maximum riser height can be 9 1/2”—considerably steeper than the 8-inch rise allowed for conventional stairs. However, because spiral stairs are steeper and more dangerous than conventional stairs, buildings codes restrict their use in certain situations—check with your local building department for specifics. The distance between balusters—the vertical pieces in the railing—can be no more than 4”. Floor openings can be either round or square, or the staircase can be entirely freestanding adjacent to an upper floor gallery.

Wood spiral stairs are generally better suited
to traditional home styles. The wood species
and finish can be matched to existing trim.
Metal stairs are available with a variety of tread surface materials including smooth or industrial checker plate steel, hardwood, or a backing material suitable for carpeting. A few manufacturers offer cast-iron stairs, which have a more ornate appearance suitable for Victorian-era homes. Although 5’ is the minimum diameter for egress stairs, diameters as small as 3’-6” are available for use as plant shelves and the like.  

Wood spiral stairs have an even wider range of designs, making them appropriate for both traditional and contemporary home styles. They’re available with ornamental turned balusters or simple dowel-like ones, and a large range of finishes are possible.  

Although top-of-the-line spiral stairs are usually custom-fabricated, many manufacturers offer more economical spiral stair kits in both metal and wood, some starting at less than $1000.  These kits are assembled on site. Some of them require the total rise to be specified before ordering; others can be adjusted to suit varying field conditions.  

Monday, September 5, 2016

THE GAZEBO: Pure Architecture

Webster defines gazebo with this one brisk phrase:  “A freestanding roofed structure usually open on the sides.”  And that’s just what makes creative types swoon at the chance to design one—a gazebo doesn’t have to do much of anything except hold itself up.  It’s as pure as architecture gets.

This gazebo/pagoda/bandstand (which was referred to as a "pagoda"
back in the day) used to grace St. Louis's Forest Park.
Built in 1876—apparently before earthquake codes—
it survived until its collapse in 1911.
Perhaps the most flamboyant gazebo of all time was built in St. Louis’ Forest Park in 1876, a huge, top-heavy confection of turrets and onion domes, all improbably supported on eighty reed-thin iron columns. This tottering extravaganza was declared unsafe in 1911, and just in time, too.  The following year it collapsed.

The late nineteenth century was the golden age of the gazebo. That’s when every self-respecting estate had one, and when every town square boasted its big brother, the bandstand. Some gazebos were built of natural tree branches, some of cast iron. Still others were supported on tall columns of river stone.

You've probably seen a thousand of those garden variety eight-sided gazebos you can order in from the back of magazines, but don't let yourself be limited by that preconception. Pretty much anything goes, and that’s what makes building a gazebo so much fun. It’s a great way to indulge your artistic and/or craftsmanly urges. You may not wish to get quite as fancy as St. Louis did. But it's one of the few projects you can really go a little nuts on.

A round gazebo: Unique, but not a DIY project for the faint-hearted.
Naturally, you need a building permit—and hence plans—to build your gazebo.  Before you put pencil to paper, though, scout out a nice location.  Consider the view from inside the gazebo, as well as how it will appear in the garden. It should harmonize with the surrounding landscape so it won’t look like it dropped out of the sky.

While most people go for octagonal gazebos, there’s no law against other shapes (not yet, anyway).  So let your imagination soar. Round, square, cruciform, polygonal, and asymmetrical gazebos have all been built to good effect. But remember:  the more sides, the more labor. This should tell you something about building a round gazebo.

Once you’ve decided on a shape, choose a design for the supporting posts. 4x4s are usually too flimsy looking.  6x6s are better, but you may want to fatten them up even more by applying 1x batts to the centers or  corners.  Or, you can build up hollow columns out of 2x stock, or use round peeler cores, or even real logs. Make sure there's a railing or some other design element to brace the posts or you may end up with the same result St. Louis did. If you can't figure out how, talk to an architect or engineer.

Rustic gazebo built of branches.
Since a gazebo is mostly roof, think that part out carefully. Usually it’s best to use some variation of a plain hipped roof, since the small scale of the building will make a complicated roof look too fussy.  Choose a roof pitch appropriate to the building’s siting. If the gazebo is on a slope and will usually be seen from below, you’ll need to use a steeper pitch or the roof will disappear. If it’ll be seen from above, pay special attention to the material and detailing of the roof surfaces—they’ll be the most visible part.

Since a gazebo’s walls are open, it doesn’t much matter if the roof leaks; this is another reason architects love these buildings.  For roofing, you can use prefabricated lattice, self-spaced lath, or 2x2s to admit light while affording a bit of shade. Or, if you prefer, you can build a conventional solid roof and cover it with roll roofing, wood or composition shingle, or even sheet metal.

Monday, August 29, 2016

FENG SHUI: Design Lessons For The West

Author's Note: In the People's Republic of China, the practice of feng shui is officially scorned by the socialist government. Yet privately, few Chinese would think of ignoring this ancient set of design principles—some of which are outlined herewith.

I once designed a very expensive home for a Chinese client in a swanky suburb of San Francisco.  In the finest Western tradition, I included a grand staircase that cascaded straight down into the entrance foyer. But when my client saw this feature, he was horrified.  
"No, no! Very bad feng shui!" The Chinese believe that
beneficial chi escapes straight out the front door
in this layout, which is of course
very common in Western architecture.
“No, no!” he protested.  “Very bad feng shui!”

Thus was my introduction to the ancient Chinese design philosophy of feng shui—literally, “wind and water”.  Dating back to at least 900 AD, it’s an intricate blend of pragmatism, aesthetics, and superstition meant to ensure that all things are in harmony with their surroundings.  

So-called modern thinking has been unable to shake the Chinese faith in feng shui.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution in mainland China and strong Western influence in Hong Kong have both attempted to quash belief in its philosophies.  Despite it all, feng shui has endured, and is very much alive today.  

It’s not uncommon for traditional Chinese—and today, even a few Westerners — to hire a feng shui diviner or “geomancer” to evaluate their homes, whether old or new.  The geomancer suggests changes in floor plan or furniture arrangement that will enhance the beneficial flow of the ch’i or positive influences, while blocking the malevolent sha or negative forces. 
After two thousand years of feng shui,
 runaway carts still crash into houses
located at the end of a street.

Despite its aura of symbolism and spirituality, much of the feng shui is rooted in common-sense ideas that we seem to have forgotten in the West. For centuries it has warned against building a home at the base of a sloping street where a runaway cart might crash into it. Westerners chuckle at the simplicity of such rules, yet time and again I read news stories about cars —today’s runaway carts—crashing into homes built at the foot of long grades.  

Other arrangements the feng shui warns against:  Locating a bed or work area beneath a heavy beam (China is plagued by earthquakes); having a window overlook a chimney (an ancient precaution against the mystery of carbon monoxide poisoning); sleeping with your feet toward the bedroom door (the traditional Chinese way of laying out the dead); and having stairs face the entrance door (which lets the beneficial ch’i escape to the outdoors).  Oh yeah—that one put the kibosh on my grand staircase.  

The feng shui also deals with solar orientation. Southern orientation is considered the most auspicious, and though the reason has become cloaked in symbolism over the centuries, it’s basically because south-facing homes are warmest, brightest, and hence most livable.  This obvious consideration seems to have escaped many Western architects until just a few decades ago.
In  China, this is not the view you want
from your bedroom window.
(Cough, cough).

Today, the decline of Modern architecture and increased interest in the traditional design of other cultures has spurred interest in feng shui. In my own practice, I've followed basic feng shui principles for many years, though I seldom mention them explicitly to clients for fear of sounding too touchy-feely. Lately, however, I've been pleased to hear clients themselves observe, "I see you got rid of that sharp corner—bad feng shui, eh?".  

Among my favorite feng shui anecdotes comes from the Hong Kong-based architect H.Y. Wong, for whom I interned many years ago. Wong, an avowed Modernist, told me that he—like many of his generation—had once scoffed at feng shui. Then he related the incident that changed his mind:    

His client, a powerful Hong Kong bank had fallen on hard times. Its president hired a geomancer to evaluate the feng shui of its highrise headquarters.  The geomancer detected the harmful sha to be emanating from the bank president’s office and recommended that he move his desk several feet.  This the bank president did, and sure enough the bank’s fortunes quickly improved.

The real surprise came several years later, when the bank president remodeled his office. When the false ceiling was removed, he discovered a massive beam—a real feng shui no-no—directly over the spot where his desk had originally stood.  How had the geomancer detected what he could not see?

File under “F” for feng shui. . .in the Twilight Zone.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Dear Readers: Thanks to the Chinese government's feud with Google, I was unable to post my  Architext blogs during my two-month stay in China (Google is blocked there, and therefore so is Thank you all for your patience in awaiting my return. I'll be including a few observations on China, my second home, in the blog over the course of the next few weeks.

China is a nation that’s never less than fascinating. I first came here 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.

The view from my office window in Suzhou, China. The
city is crisscrossed with canals, which long ago
earned it the nickname "Venice of the East".
In the ensuing fourteen 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 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.

At 2073 feet tall, Shanghai Tower by Gensler Associates
is Asia's tallest building. It dwarfs SOM's Jin Mao Tower,
 formerly the world's tallest building, as well as
Kohn Pederson Fox's Shanghai World Financial Center
(a.k.a. "the bottle opener".)

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 undeniably inflicted grievous and unjust 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 behind us.

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 ongoing skirmish over a number of seemingly worthless islands in the South China Sea. As of this writing, that conflict has once again flared up, as a recent arbitration by the International Tribunal of The Hague has dealt China a humiliating repudiation of its sweeping claims to that area. 

Wang Shi Yuan ("Master of the Nets Garden"),
a World Heritage Site a few miles from my home.
This is the other China—the one we hardly
hear about anymore. The garden was
constructed in 1140, and restored in 1785.
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 here. While I’ve seldom met a Chinese person who has been less than generous and hospitable—it’s an innate cultural trait—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.

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 fevers of nationalism that periodically wreak such destruction here, as they have everywhere else on earth.

Monday, June 20, 2016

SOLID LUMBER: What Are The Alternatives?

Coming from a nation of once seemingly limitless resources, we Americans have always taken our lumber for granted. In Victorian-era California for example, many homes—such as the fantastical mansion of the famed lumber baron William Carson in Eureka—were framed entirely of redwood.  It never occurred to builders that the lumber from this once-ubiquitous tree would one day be priced out of reach. Even in recent years, few people really expected that ordinary construction lumber species such as pine and Douglas fir would become an expensive commodity.

he Carson Mansion in Eureka, California, was the home of lumber baron
William Carson. Built in 1886, it was constructed entirely of
California redwood—which would cost a pretty penny these days.
(Architects, Newsom & Newsom)
 The continual rise in solid lumber prices is due both to the inevitable depletion of timberland, and to the lumber industry’s reaction against increasingly stringent environmental laws. To the consumer this means only one thing:  Homes built of conventional solid-sawn lumber will be getting a lot more expensive.  

I-joists are stronger and straighter then solid wood
floor joists, but can still be installed using
regular wood framing methods.
Alternatives to solid lumber have been around for a long time—the relatively low cost of solid lumber just hasn’t made them attractive until now. However, in light of the staggering increase in lumber prices over recent years, many people are taking a good look at alternative construction materials. Here are a few: 

•  Engineered lumber, which includes glued-laminated members, composite I-joists, and reconstituted wood members made of shredded wood fibers bonded by special glues. Unlike solid lumber, which inevitably has natural flaws such as knots and splits, engineered lumber has a consistent composition and hence a higher strength. This consistency also minimizes warping, which in solid lumber is caused by the tree’s natural growth rings

Disadvantages of engineered lumber include a higher cost than solid lumber, heavier weight in some cases, and slightly more complex installation methods. However, many framers agree that the straightness and consistency of these member generally outweigh such problems.

Metal stud framing is also stronger and straighter
than solid lumber framing, but working with it
takes some getting used to.
•  Steel framing has been used in commercial construction for decades. It uses lightweight steel studs attached to metal runners with self-tapping sheet metal screws. Steel framing has several advantages over wood.  Steel studs are very strong and don’t warp or twist.  They come pre-punched with holes for running wires and plumbing.  And they’re also fireproof and resistant to termites  and resistant to termites and rot.

The drawbacks of steel framing have been its cost, which in past years was substantially higher than wood, as well as the need to re-train framers accustomed to working with wood. As steel framing becomes more prevalent, however, framers will become more comfortable working with it.  

Concrete block can do most anything that
wood studs can do, and will last longer.
If you're used to building with wood,
however, it's a whole new universe
 to work in. 
•  Concrete block, widely used in Florida and parts of the Southwest, has been used infrequently in other parts of the country. Its advantages—high strength, resistance to decay, and good thermal properties—have historically not been able to overcome a widespread bias against the material’s appearance.  

Today, however, concrete block is available in a range of styles and colors, and many interesting designs are possible.  It’s the ideal material for passive-solar homes requiring thermal mass for heat storage.  And when properly reinforced, concrete block is also seismically sound. 

With old-growth solid lumber fast disappearing and managed forests producing lumber of generally inferior quality, the price of solid lumber will only increase in the future. If you’re thinking of building a home, alternatives to solid lumber are worth looking into.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

PAVING THE WAY TO SUCCESS: My Inevitable Title With A Meaningless Subtitle

Author's note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for most of the summer, and depending on how reliable my internet service proves to be, I'll continue my weekly blogs. However, please forgive me if the infrastructure/political events cause me to miss a date here or there. In any event, I wish you all, dear readers, a lovely summer.

If you’ve ever walked down a mossy brick path winding its way through a garden, you know how evocative outdoor paving can be. A well-chosen paving material can enhance both your home’s architecture and your garden’s ambience.

Scored and colored concrete—simple,
but beautiful.
A good paving material should acquire a patina as it ages.  Also, since soil is constantly swelling and shrinking due to rain and frost, it should also be able to take a little ground movement and still look good.  Here are just a few of the more popular paving materials, and how they can be used:

•  Concrete has been the standard for patios and paths for many years. Yet the great creative opportunities inherent in concrete are seldom exploited.  Because it’s a plastic material, patterns and textures are limited only by your imagination.

One neat trick is simply to score a pattern into the wet concrete, a technique widely used prior to World War II but seldom seen today.  When combined with coloring, scoring can produce a very elegant effect at relatively low cost.

Impressed concrete systems, such as
Bomanite, can be a dead ringer
for actual stone paving.
• More costly is the patented Bomanite system, in which patterns such as cobblestone, brick, or tile are imprinted into suitably colored concrete.  In many cases, the effect is indistinguishable from the real material.  You’ve probably been fooled by Bomanite “cobblestones” in many roadway median strips.    

• Exposed aggregate, in which the fine cement on the surface of the concrete is stripped off to reveal the aggregate beneath, has overcome its shopping-center reputation of the Sixties and is quite popular again. You needn’t use sparkly white rocks for this effect, either; any color or size of aggregate will do.

• For a subtler textured effect, coarse rock salt can be embedded into fresh concrete before troweling. The salt dissolves after a few weeks, leaving a very interesting rye-cracker sort of texture.

Classic brick paving can roll with
the punches. This is a herringbone
pattern with soldier course borders. 
All concrete work should be provided with control joints (strips of redwood or hardboard) at intervals of about twelve feet to allow the sections of paving to move relative to each other.  This reduces cracking in the middle of the surfaces.

•  Brick paving provides almost limitless design possibilities, weathers beautifully, and is reasonably affordable if you provide your own labor. Borders and curbs are easily accomplished in brick. And of course,  varying shades of brick can be laid in patterns to create highly artistic installations.

It’s not necessary to set bricks in mortar, either.  They can simply be laid dry on a sand bed, which allows the paving to accommodate soil settlement and encourages the growth of mosses and lichen between the bricks. Running bond, herringbone and basketweave are just a few of the most common brick paving patterns.

Interlocking pavers have a sharper, more precise look,
and are less likely to settle. 
•  Interlocking concrete pavers, which have long been popular throughout Europe, are now widely available in the U.S.  Although more expensive than poured concrete, they provide an attractive surface which easily accommodates soil movement.  Like bricks, they can be laid dry in a sand bed, making do-it-yourself installation simple. They’re available in many interlocking shapes, and in a range of colors.  A special type, called a grid paver, has openings which grass can grow through, softening the look of the paved surface.